Ultimate Comics: X-Men #1
By Zak Edwards
September 21, 2011 - 18:36
Publisher(s): Marvel Comics
Writer(s): Nick Spencer
Penciller(s): Paco Medina
Inker(s): Juan Vlasco
Colourist(s): Marte Garcia
Letterer(s): Joe Sabino
Cover Artist(s): Medina, Marte & Vlasco, Variants by Bagley & Lanning
Ultimate X-Men was a strange book, a place where good writers seemed to come and crap out their worst material. Consider those who wrote for it: Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, and Robert Kirkman; all when they were on the top of their game and most had disappointing runs at best. Kirkman in particular took the book to new lows of an almost impossible concoction of predictability and convolution. At it’s core, the book started out exciting and interesting, using the metaphorical landscape created in comics following 9/11 to start a book about terrorism and minorities. It was a brave strategy when you think about it. When most were wary of anyone of Middle-Eastern descent, Millar and Kubert were telling stories about people considered terrorists from their perspective. It didn’t always work and it could be heavy-handed, as Millar is famous for, but man was it exciting and interesting. Not to mention the excitement of seeing “Ultimate” versions of characters hadn’t worn off yet.
What new superstar writer Nick Spencer has back is the the pure excitement. After Ultimate X-Men ended, in the wake of Ultimatum and in a blazing finish of copying a story almost word-for-word from less than a year previous, with the same artist I may add; the book stopped and most didn’t even know, and certainly didn’t care. Even though Ultimatum itself was simply awful, the Ultimate X-Men gained something in the loss, something Spencer has tapped into: there is no Wolverine, no Cyclops, no Professor X, and no Magneto. The major players are all dead and with them their ideological battles. These X-Men, who aren’t even calling themselves X-Men, are living in an age of nihilism, not unlike the late seventies of America. And the Ultimate world looks suspiciously like the moments that gave birth to punks. The government can’t keep a handle on their secrets or the fallout of them and the major cities are experiencing mass violence at the revelation that mutants were actually created by the American government during the Second World War. Spencer takes it even further with containment camps for mutants, a move that somewhat heavy-handedly brings the message home. But the camps are only reminiscent of the Weapon X story arc of the original and Kitty Pryde’s declaration at the end is similarly in keeping with the original book. No, this isn’t a safe and predicable book anymore, where old stories a rehashed with thick layers of make-up. Instead, Spencer is simultaneously getting back to the origins of the book while making the entire world feel incredibly different. The arguments are different, the stakes real, and the possibility exciting. Conceptually, Spencer has got a book with massive potential simply because he makes it so different, and in practice, all these moments work as well. From the outset, the desperation of all people involved in the mutant issue are clearly outlined. Jean Grey, under the pseudonym Karen Grant, witnesses a family’s willingness to kill their daughter than see her have to live as a mutant. Comparisons to disease and mistakes come through a question period put on by the government. But the meat of the story is through the discussions between mutants themselves. It is here that the characters articulate the mood and ideological stakes of the book, where Spencer lets it be known this is a book of ideas rather than a place to smash action figures together to make pretty sparks. The characters debate and argue not only what to do, but what they believe, and it’s all quite exciting. Similarly, Kitty’s monologue is an almost attack on the mainstream X-Men. While the book can be blatant in its differences from the outset, it opens with an outlining of the mainstream continuity only to upset it almost immediately, Kitty’s observations that mutant metaphor isn’t only one of fear or jealousy, it’s one of shame. Her subsequent acceptance of the meaninglessness of the opposing discourses of Professor X and Magneto opens up the middle ground, which she seems to make dangerous and extreme in its own right. Spencer has a book that re-ignites the Ultimate line. If you were one of the many to walk away, I recommend coming back, the past year of the Marvel year, dead Peter Parker aside, has been an extremely surprising return to form and beyond.
But if Spencer’s words and concepts have got gotten me this excited, Medina’s art only distracts. I am not a personal fan of Medina, I find his style to be exaggerated in ways that make scenes seem ridiculous and inconsistent to the point of distraction. Spencer’s serious moments of debate and ideas are interrupted by an almost constant male gaze of objectification. Too often scenes feature extreme foreground pictures of giant breasts or tiny waists exploding into giant behinds beyond the normal, almost expected strange postures comic book characters often strike. Additionally, Medina’s characters look extremely awkward facially, becoming suddenly cross-eyed or simply odd due to bad perspectives. This happens twice to considerable distraction here: first when Jean Grey sees a helmet that looks like Magneto’s and, secondly, in the final panel in a scene between Nick Fury and Quicksilver. Both panels, featuring straight-on shots of the characters’ faces, look simply terrible and quickly drawn and ignored, and detract from the quality of the book. All of this would be easy to dismiss if Medina wasn’t an obviously skilled artist in many ways. His expressions can be amazing at times, and the energy of his panels do really come off the page. But too often I feel like I have to look behind things to see the book rather than enjoy the art with such a compelling story.
Grade: A- Wonderful in concept and execution, if only the art could keep up.
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