I would like to begin by welcoming you to my new weekly column “The History of the Ultimate Universe” where arc by arc, issue by issue I will break down each comic set in Marvel’s Earth-1610. The Ultimate Universe was created by Marvel president Bill Jemas and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada in 2000 to bring Marvel’s greatest superheroes to life in a way that would be more accessible to new fans, including teens and young adults. Basically, Jemas and Quesada allowed their creators to build the Marvel Universe from scratch and attempt make it more relevant to the early 21st century.
The first and flagship title of the Ultimate Universe was Ultimate Spider-Man, which began by retelling Spider-Man’s classic origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 in greater detail using seven issues to flesh out Uncle Ben, Aunt May, Mary-Jane and create a twisted paternal relationship between him and Norman Osborn. It was written by indie crime writer Brian Michael Bendis (Sam and Twitch), who immediately revealed his interest in this genre in the second arc featuring the Kingpin with art from long time Amazing Spider-Man penciler Mark Bagley. I have already written about the first 13 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man elsewhere so I will lead off this first column with the first half of Ultimate X-Men‘s premiere arc “The Tomorrow People”.
At the time Ultimate X-Men #1 was released in December 2000, the world of X-Men comics was confusing beyond measure after the effects of multiple crossovers and retcons. Not even the return of the X-Men godfather Chris Claremont could attract new readers to the title. This was unfortunate because the Bryan Singer directed X-Men film was the first Marvel box office hit, and the Fox Kids X-Men Evolution cartoon was capturing the imagination of kids around the world. (Including yours truly, who was always forced to be Wolverine in X-Men playground games.) This all changed when Jemas and Quesada recruited a pair of Scotsmen, Mark Millar and later Grant Morrison, and gave them full rein on the franchise.
Both creators had done the lion’s share of their work for DC/Vertigo with Millar coming off lengthy runs on the Swamp Thing and Superman Adventures titles. While Morrison’s New X-Men comic was set in the main Marvel Universe, Millar got the tabula rasa of the Ultimate Universe to work with. He was joined by penciler Adam Kubert, who had experience working on the Weapon X tie-in of the famous “Age of Apocalypse” crossover along with a stint on Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, and other Marvel books. Kubert used a pencils to color approach for his art with the help of Ultimate Spider-Man inker Art Thibert and his X-Men collaborator and French painter Richard Isanove. Kubert and company immediately put their imprint on the series with a gorgeous, aerial splash page of the Sentinels swooping down on bleak, crowded New York City.
The plot of Ultimate X-Men #1-3 is one part “Night of the Sentinels” from X-Men: The Animated Series“, another part the X-Men film with the twist of Wolverine being on a mission from Magneto to kill Professor X. Each of the first three issues is centered around an extended action set-piece with Magneto revealing more of his evil plan, except in issue 3 when Beast is presumed dead. In Ultimate X-Men #1, Jean Grey recruits Storm, Iceman, Beast, and Colossus to join the X-Men with her, Cyclops, and Professor X. They are on the run from the Sentinels, which have been commissioned after mutant terrorist Magneto bombed the Capitol. Ultimate X-Men #2 involves the X-Men rescuing Wolverine from the Weapon X program, which was secretly tipped off by Magneto so that Wolverine joining the X-Men seemed more believable. And Ultimate X-Men #3 is about the X-Men’s rescue of the president’s daughter after Magneto and the Brotherhood kidnap her in retribution for the Sentinels killing mutants.
Mark Millar’s approach to the X-Men in centered around cool, superpowered action with the mutants as hated and feared minorities already assumed. Issue 2 is basically just the X-Men’s rescue mission and some really brutal torture of Wolverine, but Ultimate X-Men #1 and #3 reveal characters’ differing opinions towards Xavier’s mission. Colossus is incredibly happy to drop “the homo sapien act” and not act as an enforcer for the Russian mob and ends up acclimating to the team the most while Storm misses her carefree days of being a car thief and not going by a codename. However, she understands the dangerous plight of mutants in the Sentinel-infested United States and chooses to stick with the X-Men even if she has difficulty controlling her lightning powers and doesn’t feel like being a superhero. Both characters share a slight distrust of Cyclops being team leader even though he is the second youngest member on the team after 15 year old Iceman, who spends most of these three issues scared to death.
The strongest characterization of Ultimate X-Men #1-3 goes to Cyclops and Jean Grey. Cyclops is the teacher’s pet of the X-Men, and the only one who is seen doing any serious training. (A snow-filled silent panel from Kubert and Thibert that sharply contrasts with Jean’s sassy dialogue about his inability to ask her out.) Millar writes him as a square-ish, semi-nerdy guy as he is the one who gives a lengthy explanation about the X-Men’s leather outfits blocking Sentinel tech as well as spouting exposition about Wolverine and other objects. However, despite his one-liners being less than witty, Cyclops is a strong leader and strategist, who isn’t afraid to jump directly into a Sentinel’s arm and give him a taste of an optic blast. He even semi-buries the hatchet with Wolverine in issue 3 when he tells him “Nice job” after he drives a car with the president’s daughter into the Blackbird. Kubert creates some nice tension in this scene by drawing a page length vertical drop and pairing it with a kinetic splash of the Blackbird swoping in.
Mark Millar gives Jean the funniest lines and best personality of the X-Men. In Ultimate X-Men #1, she personally breaks Storm out of jail, gives Colossus a warm hug after his identity as a mutant is blown, and makes sure any civilians aren’t hurt in the Sentinel attack on Times Square. Jean isn’t too shabby in a fight either and uses her telekinesis to throw Wolverine halfway across the school’s lawn after he almost rips Cyclops’ head off and makes Colossus bleed in what was supposed to be a “training exercise”. However, her power does have limits as she needs an assist from Iceman to take out the aforementioned Sentinel. Jean’s interactions with Wolverine read as incredibly creepy when she flirts with him after he has been making inappropriate comments about her since he first joins the X-Men, but she does bring a sparkling energy and heart to the Ultimate X-Men lineup.
Unfortunately, the villains of the Ultimate X-Men #1-3 lack these qualities. For now, Mark Millar has removed the incredible character development Chris Claremont gave Magneto in his lengthy X-Men run and turned him into a pure mutant supremacist, who treats humans as animals while secretly working with the mutant hunting Weapon X program so Wolverine’s assassination mission will be more successful. The Brotherhood are a disgusting mess with Mastermind as a pony-tailed misogynist, Blob acting as the punchline for fart and fat jokes, Quicksilver as his father’s toadie, and Scarlet Witch ends up failing the Sexy Lamp test. Toad (who is British for some reason) is actually the only competent one of the bunch and disables some of the X-Men with his acrobatic abilities in Ultimate X-Men #3 while showing off his wicked tongue with sarcastic barbs.
And then we come to the most controversial and creative part of these first few issues, which is the way Mark Millar writes Wolverine. He embraces Wolverine’s past (and present) as a stone-cold killer and makes him a kind of hitman, who says things like “I’m a professional” and has a predilection for dirty jokes and freaking out his teammates. Millar and Adam Kubert make Wolverine look and act like an animal with his dirty, unkempt hair and the fact that he spent most of the X-Men’s rescue mission in Ultimate X-Men #3 going to the bathroom against a wall like a family dog. This broad comedy clashes with Kubert’s portrayal of Wolverine in the previous issue as a man forced to act like a beast against his will with black bars covering his face and body as Wraith and the Weapon X soldiers torture and taunt him. Without this tragic sequence, Wolverine wouldn’t be sympathetic at all as a character, and by the end of issue 3, he really does have no redeeming value with the only thing on his mind is getting Jean Grey in his pants. Millar is brave to explore Wolverine’s sociopathic side, but his stupid jokes don’t mesh with his portrayal as a lone, professional contract killer that happens to be a mutant.
The real highlight in the opening chapters of Ultimate X-Men other than sassy Jean Grey and a balanced Cyclops is Adam Kubert’s detailed art and creative use of layouts. If most of these issues are extended chase and fight scenes, they might as well be interesting to look at. And Kubert obliges with a variety of money shots, like a Sentinel completely covered in ice in the middle of a believable looking Times Square or Wolverine performing an X-Games style motorcycle jump to escape from his Weapon X handlers. He’s also good at the subtler parts of superhero storytelling using a lighter, water color style for flashbacks of Professor X and Magneto helping to build a mutant “paradise” in the Savage Land, or Magneto making threats on national television. Kubert does make some misfires, like a double splash page in Ultimate X-Men #2 that makes the X-Men and Blackbird look like extraterrestrials, but makes up for it with some killer layouts and attention to minute details, like anti-mutant graffiti or even the decor of the dive bar Beast is kicked out of in Ultimate X-Men #1.
Even though it’s not groundbreaking by any means and its villainous characters lack nuance, Ultimate X-Men #1-3 does its job as an accessible introduction to the X-Men for new fans. Mark Millar and Adam Kubert immediately raise the stakes with an active Sentinel program and Magneto having designs on the White House. They bring the X-Men together not out of some desire to be superheroes, but to be safer in a group of their peers while trying to stay out of the public eye.
Mark Millar and Adam Kubert’s work on Ultimate X-Men #1-3 really is the blockbuster action take on the X-Men, but there is enough flashes of characterization, pretty layouts (Not so much those ugly leather costumes.), and clever twists like Wolverine being a bona fide villain and Colossus’ old crime boss supplying Magneto with a nuke. It’s not a particularly deep comic and scratches the surface of the idea of “post-humanism”, but Ultimate X-Men #1-3 is adequate popcorn entertainment, which led to it selling like hotcakes. (Ultimate X-Men #1 was the number one book in December 2000 with 117,085 copies, and issues 2 and 3 stayed in the top 3 with numbers around the 90,000 range.)