Ultimate X-Men #4-6 (2001)
Written by Mark Millar
Penciled by Adam Kubert (4), Andy Kubert (5-6)
Inked by Art Thibert (4), Danny Miki (5-6), Joe Weems (5)
Colored by Richard Isanove
Published by Marvel Comics
In Ultimate X-Men #4-6, writer Mark Millar and artists Adam Kubert and Andy Kubert continue to amp up the action with a pair of Sentinel assaults in the final two chapters while also giving Cyclops, Quicksilver, and Wolverine much needed character development. Millar continues to portray Magneto as the mutant Hitler (Cyclops even invokes Godwin’s Law in a “father/son” chat with him.), but his work with Xavier is slimy as well. Sure, he seems like a good guy, but he messes with Cyclops’ brain chemistry to try to get him not leave the team and concludes the “Tomorrow People” arc with Ming the Merciless-type stare while revealing he has a secret plan that might involve Wolverine. So, even if Wolverine comes across as a declawed version of the ruthless, vulgar assassin he was in the first three issues (Except for when he disembowels Magneto.), Millar commits to the long game of exploring Professor X’s more nefarious side that has been lurking beneath the surface since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Uncanny X-Men #1 when he revealed a romantic interest in the teenaged Jean Grey along with sending the X-Men against actual saws and death traps, not just simulations.
Ultimate X-Men #4 is the darkest moment for the X-Men as the combination of almost getting Beast killed, fired upon by humans, and seeing Wolverine and Jean Grey have a sexual relationship leads to team leader Cyclops deciding to take up with Magneto and the Brotherhood. This is a legitimate plot twist even though it was Storm, not him, who was most belligerent about rescuing the president’s daughter.
Ultimate X-Men #5 is an excellent character study of Cyclops while also acting as political prophecy as President George W Bush orders a pre-emptive Sentinel assault on the mutant “terrorists” based in the Savage Land. The cover date for this comic was June 2001, three months before 9/11, four months before the US invasion of Afghanistan, and a little less than two years before the invasion of Iraq. The killing of the Savage Land mutants causes Magneto to wreak vengeance against the United States, and Cyclops and the X-Men are determined to stop it. This issue also marks the debut of Andy Kubert, an experienced X-Men artist, who had previously worked on Uncanny X-Men and X-Men after Jim Lee left to co-found Image Comics.
Ultimate X-Men #6 concludes the “Tomorrow People” arc in quite a bombastic fashion. There is a shot of a naked President Bush kneeling before Magneto on national TV as well as Quicksilver finally standing up to Magneto by removing his helmet and letting Wolverine and Professor X subdue him in a violent manner. The storyline ends with Wolverine as an accepted member of the X-Men along with Cyclops back as team leader and a truce between the X-Men and both the Brotherhood and US government. And there is promise of a “solo” Wolverine adventure and Professor X’s cryptic “Phase 2” plan in the next arc.
Even if Storm, Colossus, Iceman, and Beast are relegated to action figures on the board for the most part, Ultimate X-Men #4-6 is a stronger and more serious storyline than issues 1-3. There are flashes of Mark Millar’s interest in the intersection of politics and superhero comics as the X-Men (Mainly Professor X) get in bed with government and almost rise up with fleas as President Bush tells Xavier that there’s nothing he can do because he’s an international terrorist. Even after the attack, Xavier continues to court the US government’s favor, but he might have another kind of agenda up his sleeve. As a kind of pit stop between his run on The Authority and Ultimates, Millar shows how the United States government uses brute force with no thought for collateral damage or consequences to reach its ends through the not so transparent veil of the Sentinel attack on the Savage Land. He even takes a shot at former UK prime minister Tony Blair following the US’ lead in foreign policy in the opening of Ultimate X-Men #5 where the Brotherhood bomb the Houses of Parliament building to halt
But Ultimate X-Men #4-6 continues to be Millar and the Kuberts’ blockbuster action take on Marvel’s merry mutants as much of the political satire comes from the mouth of Magneto between paragraphs about genocide. (It’s nice that you care about ocean pollution and conserving dinosaur habitats, but do you really have to kill every American just because its leaders are corrupt.) Even though he’s technically a fill-in artist, Andy Kubert brings a real passion for widescreen storytelling a la Bryan Hitch with huge poster worthy spreads of Sentinels coming out of the crust of the Savage Land, or Magneto turning them against the United States in the following issue. He and colorist Richard Isanove bring an otherworldly feel to Professor X’s mental attacks in Ultimate X-Men #6 with a light blue palette, and Xavier’s astral form overshadowing the battered, bleeding Magneto. The one knock against him are that his
The Kuberts’ layouts are also uncomplicated and easy to follow without being boring most of the time. For example, Adam Kubert uses a series of four panel pages to frame the argument between Professor X and Cyclops using close-ups of Cyclops’ visor and Xavier’s eye as he tries to basically hypnotize Scott into staying to add gusto to what could’ve been talking heads tedium. This concept of doubling even extends to the next double page spread with facing panels of Cyclops’ visor and Magneto’s helmet hinting at their shortlived alliance and father/son relationship.
Ultimate X-Men #5 is strongest single issue of “The Tomorrow People” arc because Millar and Andy Kubert introduce a human dimension to both Magneto and Quicksilver while continuing to craft a Cyclops, who is conflicted, but won’t back down. The final page of Cyclops front and center calling Professor X about Magneto’s plan truly sets him up as the hero of the arc. Like Magneto and Xavier, he is willing to stand up for what he believes, but he also doesn’t want to play with human or mutant lives. He doesn’t see Quicksilver as a pawn against his father, but inspires him to stand up against this “bully”, who told him his powers were lesser. These pair of conversations between Scott and Quicksilver and Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (who gets the short end of the stick in all of these issues and doesn’t even get to use her powers.) add a nice kick of empowerment to the page when he uses his speed to take off Magneto’s helmet before Wolverine delivers the coup de grace.
Wolverine’s arc in these last three issues isn’t as strong. He does spend most of the time drinking beer and sleeping with a 19 year old Jean Grey. And by the end of “Tomorrow People”, he’s the X-Men’s clean-up guy getting his claws literally dirty stabbing Magneto while the rest of the team takes out the Sentinels. Basically, he decides to throw his lot in with Professor X’s ideas of mutants living among humans because he lusts after Jean Grey. Millar does spend a couple pages showing that Jean does loathe Wolverine as a person even if she is physically attracted to her in a manner similar to the X-Men film. (Andy Kubert’s art ensures that Jean and Wolverine have loads more chemistry than Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen in the films not titled The Wolverine.) And he does treat the relationship like a casual fling instead of creating an angst ridden love triangle. I would say that Wolverine has “just enough” panel time in Ultimate X-Men #4-6, and the focus on Cyclops is refreshing compared to how he was thrown under the bus in the X-Men film that came out the year before.
With a dose of political satire, some soaring team-up action grounded in character moments (Storm struggling with her power; Quicksilver’s daddy issues; Wolverine the reformed assassin), and a robust arc for Cyclops, Ultimate X-Men #4-6 is definitely an improvement over the preceding three issues. The “death” of Beast is a cheap storytelling ploy, and I am still skeezed out from Wolverine’s sexual liaison with Jean Grey, but Millar and the Kuberts end this first arc on a triumphant, if dark note albeit with some skeletons in the closet waiting to be brought out for the following “Return to Weapon X” storyline.