Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Ultimate X-Men, vol. 6: Return of the King

X-men2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Mark Millar. Pencils by David Finch, Adam Kubert and Ben & Ray Lai. Inks by Andy Thibert, Danny Miki, Ben Lai, Ray Lai.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: Ultimate X-Men #26-33

192 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $16.99 USA

Marvel Comics' "Ultimate" line (which includes an Ultimate Spider-Man and more) is basically a separate reality. The X-Men in Ultimate X-Men are very similar to the X-Men in regular Marvel Comics comic books -- Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, etc., working for the wheelchair-bound Professor X -- but it's not quite the same reality. The Ultimate lines basically re-boot popular Marvel characters from Day One, allowing new readers who might be intimidated by the fortysome years of continuity fueling the regular comics to feel that they're getting in on the ground floor.

Another impetus was undoubtedly the recent success of Marvel Comics-based motion pictures, and the desire to fashion a comic for readers who might have come to the comics from the movies (the characters wear black body suits rather than colourful costumes and the back cover of this TPB even advertises it as featuring "all the characters you met in the movie").

Those familiar with the regular X-Men will have little trouble settling in to this alternate interpretation, as long as you're prepared for some minor divergences from regular Marvel continuity (superspy Nick Fury is black, for instance). But, theoretically, a novice reader will find it an even easier fit.

Set within the familiar terrain of mutant-superheroes-as-persecuted-minority, the story here -- the sixth consecutive Ultimate X-Men TPB collection -- has arch villain Magneto planning to destroy the human race to make the world better for mutantkind. The X-Men, of course, want to stop him, even as they're being hunted by the very human authorities they're trying to protect...and with Professor X a prisoner of the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Already we can see some clear parallels to current world issues. The X-Men, long used as a metaphor for ethnic minorities, here seem to be treading into even more controversial territory, with the story having hints of the current War on Terrorism (Guantanamo Bay is where the U.S. government has been hording accused terrorists). And with the government -- in the comic that is - - making little distinction between hardcore terrorists like Magneto and his followers, and good guy mutants like the X-Men.

The collection begins with a handy recap of some of what's gone before. Then the first chapter details the early days of Professor Xavier and Magneto's friendship, and their becoming enemies. When the main story begins, the first thing you notice is that writer Mark Millar almost seems to be approaching it less as a comic book action series, and more like a political thriller, with emphasis on cutting between the various characters and groups plotting their machinations. It's talky...but quite effective, with good dialogue and brisk pacing that means it feels just as exciting as any five page dust-up. Part of the fun, for old time readers, is trying to adjust to this new continuity, orienting yourself as to the character nuances. Married with David Finch's beautiful, brooding, meticulously cross-hatched art, the story generates a certain aspect of sophistication...rather than just being a four colour free-for-all.

The story climaxes in the middle of this collection and here some weaknesses in Millar's style become evident. The early stuff was intriguing precisely because he seemed to be laying the groundwork for a complex adventure-thriller. But that never quite happens. The X-Men basically sit around for a few issues, wondering how they're going to stop Magneto...then, out of the blue, they learn where his secret base is and the fight is on -- an extended fight that puts us smack dab back in superhero/action territory. It's not even that interestingly staged a fight scene.

Granted, there's a bit more to the action than just a big fight. Magneto also succeeds in detonating a nuclear reactor, requiring some of the X-Men to intervene there.

It's not that there's anything wrong here. It's perfectly okay and entertaining. But it's hardly that original, sophisticated, complex, or any of the other adjectives that the early issues seemed to promise.

The final two chapters -- two whole issues -- amount to an extended epilogue. No fighting, no heroics, just a lot of talking and interacting. Mildly diverting stuff, sometimes amusing, but maybe longer than it needs to be.

Finch also only draws three of the eight issues collected here. Ben and Ray Lai do competent work on the opening chapter, and Adam Kubert brings a nice, kinetic style to his issues, but his style is of a more cartoony nature. One begins to realize that a big part of the appeal here, the edge of grown-up sophistication the series seemed to have, derived from Finch's brooding, realist style.

The Ultimate line is, I think, also meant to appear more sophisticated than regular comics. Not only is it a new take on the characters, but it wants to be an edgier take. Although the characters are still basically good guys, there are aspects of self-interest motivating their actions too. It's a grittier, slightly more sullied view of the X-Men and the Marvel Universe. But much of that air of "sophistication" is more surface than substance. I don't mean that in an especially critical way, but for all that I mentioned a lot of the story entails people sitting around and talking...the character development isn't always that detailed. There are some nice character scenes...but for an eight issue run of issues, there's not as much as you might expect even from, say, a regular run of X-Men comics.

Of course, part of the nature of the "new" take is that the characters are reinvented as younger, brasher, with results that can actually rob the characters of their individuality. A lot of them talk the same tough talk, using the same idioms, and are drawn in an achingly "hip" way with Johnny Depp-like van dykes or five o'clock stubble (how the naturally hirsute Beast can also sport stubble is unexplained). Ironically, in a comic whose underlining metaphor is all about accepting differences, the Ultimate X-Men are a surprisingly homogenous, exclusive bunch.

The impetus here was to allow new readers to jump on board. But three years into their run, already the Ultimate X-Men are getting mired in continuity references and on-going plot threads. Even this story isn't as self-contained as it should be. Although titled Return of the King, the story begins with Magneto already back on the scene, wreaking havoc, as if the story had begun, if only as a sub-plot, an issue or two earlier. At one point, Magneto refers to having issued a deadline...but nowhere in these pages do I recall him doing such a thing. If Marvel, or any comics company, really wants to create a series that is accessible to new readers, they need to think more in terms of crafting stand-alone stories, or story arcs. Sure, there can be on-going relationship plot threads, and villains like Magneto can recur, but people need to read an issue -- or at least a TPB collection -- and feel that that's all they need to read.

I can't help thinking that the main audience for Ultimate X-Men isn't some "new" readership, but the same old X-Men fans who pick it up as a novelty along with their regular X-Men comics. I found the book reasonably comprehensible, but that may have had something to do with my passing familiarity with mainstream X-Men mythos since The Ultimate X-Men has clearly paralleled events from the regular title (the Cyclops-Marvel Girl-Wolverine triangle; the Marvel Girl as Phoenix story, etc.).

So what's the verdict on this TPB collection? It's briskly paced, with good dialogue. But it does tread familiar ground for an X-Men saga, without an especially complex or clever plot -- all the talk and large ensemble cast notwithstanding. Finch's art is especially striking...but he draws less than half the issues. In the end, it's enjoyable...without being special.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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