Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ultimate X-Men volume one

Mark Millar, various Kuberts, some other guys...
Ultimate X-Men volume one (2001)

Marvel's Ultimate line began in 2000 as a series of comics reinventing existing characters and titles within a vaguely more realistic setting and generally involving an increased grit ratio. In other words, hitting the reset button on Spiderman and pals but having them kidnapped by secretive government agencies rather than planet-sized dudes in purple armour issuing edicts in fake Shakespeare talk, or thereabouts. It's not a bad idea in itself, at least as a way around people who were at high school in the early sixties still being teenagers forty years later, the main problem of which is that such things remind us that we're reading a comic rather than an account of something which actually happened, because apparently that's bad; although I'm not convinced.

Personally I'm quite happy with the X-Men being those five goofy kids who signed up at Xavier's way back when the X still stood for xtra powers; and I'm quite happy with none of them having met Wolverine or Storm until Chris Claremont took over the book in the seventies; and I'm quite happy with Jean Grey turning out to be Phoenix, and the trial of Magneto, and the complete change of line-up which introduced Psylocke and Gambit, and everything up until about 1992 - the point at which it all turned to shit and landfill. As a writer, Claremont wasn't without problems, and I could have lived without all those horrible thinky bubbles he used to cram with streams of emo consciousness written in what I guess he regarded as street talk; but his worth became painfully obvious once he jumped ship. Claremont's characters had some sort of depth, and whilst his story lines might have seemed ridiculous in the cold light of day, they did their job regardless and you kept on reading. The villain would turn out to have been someone we'd already forgotten from fifty issues back, and his labyrinthine schemes would be revealed as the framework upon which the last few years had been built. Then the next guy would be even worse, and it would turn out that the previous villain had been merely a pawn in this guy's cosmic chess game, and eventually it would turn out that even this guy was but part of some larger, darker puzzle. It was horseshit, but no-one noticed because it worked, and Claremont's X-Men will remain the definitive version for me, not least because that's where we encountered New Mutants which remains the greatest title Marvel ever published, in my view. Then Rob Liefeld gave everyone a Japanese sword and drew them like they were trying hard not to quack their pants, and a series of writers I don't even like to think about tried hard to duplicate that Claremont magic, and failed miserably, and I stopped reading.

Grant Morrison did a reasonable job of bringing the X-Men back in New X-Men, because whilst it was something different stuffed with all sorts of weird Morrisonalia, it felt like a continuation of what Claremont had done; it retained the soap aspect, the characterisation, and the novelty of new, ever weirder mutants popping up each month like collector's cards, appealing to people such as myself who like to think about sets of things.

Anyway, Ultimate X-Men doesn't really seem to improve on anything, or do anything better than it had already been done, or even different to how it had already been done, so I'm not really sure what the point was aside from selling more comics with what may as well be recycled material. In terms of X-Men mythology, it does more or less what the films did because they were in another medium, but for no real purpose other than jamming together a group of vaguely familiar characters in a particular combination without having to worry over how many decades any of them have spent as a teenager. In fact, it's almost the Saturday morning cartoon with much more frowning and just a touch of Guantanamo Bay. To be fair, Ultimate X-Men isn't bad, or at least it isn't bad in the same way as was Millar's take on the Avengers with a rapey version of the Hulk, but there's something unpleasant about the contrast of a story told in terms suggesting it has been written for a much younger audience than the material would imply. I suppose there are some nice twists in there, but nothing as weird or interesting as what you get in the Morrison or even Claremont versions; and the art is of that generic post-millennial what if Rob Liefeld took an anatomy lesson? kind with the manga eyes and most facial expressions being either angry determination or glee.

Just last week I saw the new X-Men film at the cinema, regarding which, my thoughts as shared on facebook were as follows:

Not bad, bit po-faced and not as good as those Avengers films but generally watchable. Kind of wish James McAvoy wasn't in it because he's James McAvoy in everything he's in, plus he sort of resembles Mark Swannel from work, which isn't a bad thing but you don't go to the cinema to watch your mate from work as Professor X - it's just too weird. Quicksilver was funny. Apocalypse was a bit Stargate, but never mind. Still can't get over it not being a late eighties comic drawn by Walt Simonson, but yeah - it was definitely all right.

Sadly, even that was better than this thing. Ultimate X-Men just makes me want to go back and read the good stuff.

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