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‘Ultimate X-Men’ #7-9 is a black ops block party

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Ultimate X-Men #7-9 (2001)
Written by Mark Millar
Pencils by Adam Kubert (7-8), Tom Raney (9)
Inks by Art Thibert, Scott Hanna (9)
Colors by Richard Isanove (7), JC (8), Transparency Digital (9)
Published by Marvel Comics

In his second arc on Ultimate X-Men, title “Return to Weapon X”, writer Mark Millar decides to not make everything about Wolverine and gives readers an in-depth look at the Ultimate Weapon X program. The Weapon X program in the Ultimate Universe is a blacker than black ops group where SHIELD uses mutants for deep cover and wetwork missions while experimenting on them and torturing them to make them more docile participants in these attacks, which are often on countries with “illegal genetic” material or technology. (Even if these issues have little too much  bodily fluid humor and semi-dated pop culture references, Millar is a good at writing political doublespeak.) Millar and artists Adam Kubert and Tom Raney show the horrible treatment of some familiar X-Men faces, like Nightcrawler and Rogue, in the Weapon X program while giving Wolverine a mysterious role in the plot.

Foreshadowing a later trick in director Bryan Singer’s X2 playbook, Millar and Kubert open Ultimate X-Men #7 with a series of double page spreads showing Nightcrawler’s failed escape attempt from the Weapon X compound. The sight of one of the most beloved and gentle mutants (And Millar still portrays him as an innocent in a telepathic chat with Jean Grey in issue 9.) getting verbally and physically abused by the monstrous John Wraith casts a tragic pall on the issue that contrasts with the warm reception Colossus, Cyclops, and Storm get in a TV interview in Tokyo. For some reason, the Japanese like the X-Men, and this is a nice nod to their excursions to Japan during the Claremont era though Mariko Yoshida and Sunfire are nowhere in sight. Millar revels in the trope of mutant as celebrity with Colossus and Storm swapping banter about being voted “Sexiest Mutant Alive”, but loses some of his goodwill with a tone-deaf remark about the Japanese people’s “quaint obsession” with the futuristic. This could have been better worded while still paying tribute to the futuristic worlds crafted in influential manga, such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

Ultimate X-Men #8 pairs off the X-Men for some much needed character work as Wolverine and Cyclops talk about ethical dilemmas while putting the fear of God into the Russian mafia leaders that are threatening Colossus’ family, Jean and Professor X debate the ethics of erasing Iceman’s memories of his new girlfriend to keep the school a secret, and Storm and Beast go out on a date. (This is a superhero comic, not a philosophy lecture, I swear.) With some cross-cutting from Kubert and a darker color palette from JC, Wraith’s Weapon X commandos and mutant hit squad, including Nightcrawler, Rogue, Juggernaut, and Sabretooth take out all the X-Men (except for Wolverine who is looking for the Weapon X base). The issue ends on a horrible down note with the Xavier School in flames, Professor X with a crude “8” on the side of his head (A nice dose of dark humor from Millar, who is channeling his inner Garth Ennis.), and the X-Men set to be brainwashed assassins and soldiers of Weapon X.

With fellow Kubert School alum and former Uncanny X-Men and Mutant X penciler Tom Raney filling in for Kubert, Millar goes a different direction in Ultimate X-Men #9. It opens with a nine page, modern reimagining of an issue of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Ultimate Nick Fury goes on a one man, gadget filled spy mission in Delhi to shut down some illegal superhuman experimentation. He’s unfortunately captured, and ironically, John Wraith is tasked into rescuing him with the help of his illegally captured mutants. Millar continues to up the sadness scale as Jean Grey is part of Nightcrawler’s first conversation since he was captured, Beast is made more blue and feral by Dr. Cornelius (the guy who gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton), and the issue ends with Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler dutifully acting as SHIELD’s pawns while Wolverine wanders alone in the snow. Raney’s depiction of Wolverine slowly trudging in the middle of nowhere with rough inking from Scott Hanna truly captures the bittersweet tone of these three issues.

Instead of giving the X-Men some missions against the last offshoots of the Brotherhood or prematurely introducing Ultimate Apocalypse or Mr. Sinister, Mark Millar builds off the Weapon X plot point from Ultimate X-Men #2, operacjawhich featured the X-Men rescuing Wolverine from its tyrannical, genocidal *insert horrible adjective here* leader John Wraith. Instead of just using Weapon X to focus on Wolverine’s origins and pain (which do play a role in one of Kubert and colorist Richard Isanove’s lovely watercolor insets), Millar uses them to tell a comprehensive story featuring the X-Men team and some new faces. He also continues to highlight the amoral behavior of the US government in the Ultimate Universe, whose treatment of the mutants in the Weapon X is eerily similar to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. This arc also marks the introduction of superheroes as a metaphor for WMDs that Millar would refine in his run on Ultimates once the War on Terror started to heat up.

Millar truly subscribes to the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” in this arc of Ultimate X-Men. The idea of non-action comes to play in issue 9 when General Thaddeus Ross, a good military man dedicated to the shutdown of non-US government sponsored superhuman experiments around the world, literally runs away and knowingly lets John Wraith send the X-Men on a sleazy black ops mission. He is a stand-in for  bureaucracy of the federal government, which despite its money and resources, is ill-equipped to clean up its own house while sticking its hands into dozens of other pies around the world. This is Millar taking a shot at powerful countries, like the United States and possibly his own native UK, who would rather send troops or operatives to fix problems around the world instead of dealing with their own internal problems. He makes this solid point about foreign policy using the guise of an about to be brainwashed superhero team and a super spy, who is too busy making chauvinist wisecracks or showing off his gadgets to actually complete a mission. (Millar would write Fury as much more competent spymaster in his run on Ultimates.)

Ultimate_X-Men_Vol_1_9Ultimate X-Men #7-9 takes more risks with its storytelling than “Tomorrow People” as Millar and Kubert turn two beloved X-Men, Rogue and Nightcrawler, into brainwashed assassins. Millar pays homage to Rogue’s villainous origins by making her spy on the X-Men in Japan and supporting Magneto’s vision of a mutant utopia in a religious way. He makes her crafty and unsettling like when she steals Jean Grey’s powers and makes Iceman feel like his appendix is being removed without surgery. This willful use of torture fits in with Wraith’s Weapon X regime, but Rogue has a long road to becoming an X-Men.

However, Nightcrawler gets treated more compassionately by Millar and especially artist Tom Raney in Ultimate X-Men #9 where he takes a break from drawing spy missions and square jawed military commanders yelling at each other and their operatives to compose a beautiful vision of the Bavarian countryside. Transparency Digital uses a full green palette to contrast with the sterile war rooms and prisons that make up most of this issue and gives Jean and Nightcrawler’s talk a comforting feel. Their conversation is short, yet sweet as Nightcrawler opens up to Jean, who is the only person that has talked to him at Weapon X because he only speaks German. The comfort continues with Raney’s drawing of Jean cradling the fourteen year old like a small child, who has had a bad day. Though she is trying to recruit him to be a part of Cyclops’ escape plan, Jean’s dialogue has a true warmth to it even when she is being manipulative. By the end of the issue, Millar uses the close relationship between her, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler for an interesting cliffhanger as they speed off in the distance. Are they on a mission for the government, or is this just the first step in their quest to bring the X-Men back from the dark depths of Weapon X?

By the end of Ultimate X-Men #9, I get the feeling that I know these characters a lot more than in “Tomorrow People”, which jumped from setpiece to setpiece without taking a moment to just hang out with the X-Men, which was a hallmark of Chris Claremont’s classic run. As I mentioned earlier, Adam Kubert uses the cinematic technique of cross-cutting to show Storm and Beast curled up on the couch, Jean constructing a house of cards with her telekinesis, and Iceman and Colossus lifting weights juxtaposed with the black ops squad moving in. This just isn’t a basic action scene, but Kubert digs into the emotions of the X-Men having a peace before literally toppling their lives with an overhead shot of the school exploding from all sides.

One character bit that doesn’t sit well in Ultimate X-Men #7-9 is the relationship between Storm and Beast. They don’t really have much in common, and most of their conversations are about why they’re a mismatched couple with Beast channeling a more erudite Kevin James in sadly exploring the “fat guy, hot girlfriend” trope. This contrasts with Cyclops and Jean, who might actually make a great romantic pairing as Jean talks to Beast about Cyclops playing backgammon with her to help alleviate her psychic migraines. They also end up sharing a cell in the Weapon X complex.

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Even if he makes Beast look like Wolverine (unless Beast’s glasses are visible), Adam Kubert continues to bring a strong sense of detail to his work on Ultimate X-Men. With crows, blood red graffiti, and broken barb wire everywhere, Kubert makes the abandoned Weapon X complex in Arizona seem like a graveyard for broken souls as Wolverine keeps searching for the source of what made him a monster. This detail bleeds into his widescreen sequences, such as Nightcrawler’s fight against Wraith in the beginning of Ultimate X-Men #7, where he starts out by showing just the tip of his tail before revealing his full blue furred form to some possibly angry readers. (Why is a devout German Catholic technical pacifist using an assault rifle?) There’s also a close-up of the SHIELD badge on Wraith’s shoulder revealing that to the “outside world” that these murderous soldiers are technically good guys and also acts as an important piece of foreshadowing when Nick Fury comes into play in issue 9.

Ultimate X-Men #7-9 goes for a more political look at the well-worn “mutant as a metaphor for oppressed minorities” story by making the formerly shady Weapon X folks completely aligned with the US government even if members of the government and military want to shut them down. There is still a lot of action, but writer Mark Millar and the art team of Adam Kubert, Tom Raney, Art Thibert, and Scott Hanna wring out emotional moments from these fight scenes, like having readers take pity on Nightcrawler and Rogue for being manipulated by Weapon X or destroying the mansion just when the X-Men had time to kick back and enjoy life. Millar, Kubert, and Raney also continue to use Wolverine sparingly keeping his violent, loner side while building a relationship of mutual respect between him and his contemporary Professor X. With the first half of the “Return to Weapon X” arc ending on down note, he will definitely play a role in its climax and conclusion coming to grips with pain and torture depicted in Kubert and Isanove’s tasteful water colors.

 


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