When Words Collide

Mon, January 10th, 2011 at 1:58pm PST | Updated: January 11th, 2011 at 1:14pm

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Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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"X" MARKS THE KIRKMAN PART 2: THE REIGN OF UNREALITY

Ultimate Date Night

Last week I provided some context for why the Ultimate universe is, or ever was, worthy of critical concern. It was meant to be an introduction to this look at Robert Kirkman's two-year run on "Ultimate X-Men," but in the writing of it, it became a retrospective on the Ultimate line itself and its impact on the Marvel mainstream. All of that is well and good, but let's get down to the tacks of brass and talk about Kirkman's X-Men, shall we?

When Kirkman took over "Ultimate X-Men" with issue #66 (following Brian K. Vaughan, who had written the series since issue #46), he was hitting his stride at Marvel, and he had established himself as a creative powerhouse at Image. Kirkman's "Marvel Zombies" was just hitting the stands, but he had already done a handful of well-regarded miniseries at Marvel. He was in year two of the engaging but near-its-demise "Marvel Team-Up" series, and in year three of both "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead."

He was a critically-lauded creator, but he was far from a superstar, and his entrance on "Ultimate X-Men" wasn't accompanied by a sense that he was the guy who was going to revive the series or shake it up in any way. He was coming in, or so the perception seemed to be, just to keep the series humming along. To do his thing inoffensively. To help make sure the mutant trains continued to run on time in the Ultimate universe.

Last week, I argued that the real usefulness of the Ultimate universe was that it gave a chance for creative teams to do their take on Marvel characters, in a way that provided more freedom than you'd find in the Marvel mainstream (when years of continuity and annual crossovers might hamper the creative mojo). But Kirkman's beginning on "Ultimate X-Men" wasn't promoted as anything of the sort, and I don't know anyone who perceived it that way. The core fandom around "Invincible" and "Walking Dead" might have shouted to the heavens: "Finally! I can not wait to see Kirkman cut loose on Xavier's team!" But the majority of readers were probably thinking, "Oh, Robert Kirkman, I've liked his stuff just fine. This should be pretty decent." I don't recall any Marvel house ads really pushing his run on the series. No "creative supergenius Robert Kirkman is bringing Cable to the 'Ultimate Universe' and nothing will ever be the same!" kind of thing. Nope.

And Kirkman didn't start with a bang, either. He began with a quiet three-parter, a chance for him to dip into the Ultimate X-Men world by showing us some relationships between characters and kick off future plotlines. It was called "Date Night" and though it was mostly set-up, it barely hinted at the kinds of apocalyptic events that were to come.

Appropriately enough, "Date Night" featured the art of Tom Raney, initial artist of Warren Ellis's "Stormwatch" run. So if the Ultimate universe, as I said last week, is largely a "high-concept, swift-moving, post-Ellis" kind of environment, it makes sense that one of the primary architects of that original Ellisian goodness would play his part kicking off Robert Kirkman's run on "Ultimate X-Men." Or maybe he just needed a job.

Either way, Raney's art is more suited for some sequences and less suited for others. On "Stormwatch," with its leather-clad, fascist cynicism, he was a good fit (if not as well-recognized for his contribution to that era as Bryan Hitch would be), but the "Date Night" arc requires a different kind of approach. It's in the tradition of the early-1980s Claremontian/Wolfmanesque "breather" issues, where the X-Men or the Teen Titans would take a break between major events to go out on the town, or hang out at the HQ and shoot pool, or whatever it was that would provide some nice character moments and give the readers a chance to catch their breath before Magneto or Deathstroke or whomever would come back and remind them that, oh, yeah, they don't have time for fun and games. They are heroes and their lives are serious business.

The Ellis "Stormwatch" was a pretty big deal

Those breaks-between-major-story-arcs were much needed, and it's telling that Claremont and Wolfman, as dated or clumsy as some of their character work can seem now, were crafting the two pinnacles of late-Bronze Age serialized comics. Those two guys understood that the dramatic highs were only effective in contrast to the slower, quieter moments of the larger story. If every issue escalates the threat, if every story beat gets bigger and more intense, then it has a numbing effect. You get the superhero comics of the 1990s. You get the films of Stephen Sommers.

Kirkman, working in an age of decompression (which, when it boils down to it, is really the age of slightly-more-character-based cinematic storytelling) takes three issues for his breather arc, and it's an interesting choice because he begins his run not with a bombastic hook, not with a declaration of, "I am here and I will blow your mind with the greatest comic you have ever read," like Mark Millar would have tried to do, but with a check-in to see where the characters are, physically and emotionally.

And yet within this breather of an opening story, he drops in a handful of smaller hooks, each one of which could have been the single plot thread that could have driven his entire run. Instead of taking the Mark Millar approach and exploding one of those hooks into something huge, he just casually drops, in his opening arc ("Ultimate X-Men" #66-68), the introduction of the Shi'ar, their interest in Jean Grey's Phoenix force, the debut of a brand-new mutant who killed his family before being captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. and brought to Xavier's school, and the shocking revelation that Sabretooth is Wolverine's son!

That's a lot of information for an opening story in which much of the time is spent showing the relationships forming or changing between Cyclops and Jean Grey, Rogue and Iceman, Nightcrawler and Colossus, and Kitty Pryde and Spider-Man (yes, though Kirkman never got to write the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, which he seemed, at-one-point, destined to do if Bendis ever left, he did get to include Ultimate Spidey in a couple of his X-Men issues). Kirkman cuts back and forth rapidly between the different hero pairings and contrasts them with one another, while simultaneously showing the revelations mentioned above.

What was so frustrating, reading these comics at the time of their original serialization, is that Kirkman's impressive start -- his high-wire act balancing an enormous cast and a handful of strong plot hooks -- didn't pay off. It's as if Kirkman launched his run with this signal to the reader about the direction the series was heading, but then he lost interest and took a different path. Either that, or, as so often happens in comics, his plans were thwarted by larger editorial concerns about the direction of the comic. I don't know the story behind the story, but I know that by issue #74, Kirkman's seemingly-much-larger plot hooks have amounted to almost nothing (with only the Phoenix force itself playing a significant role, and it's not one that matters much until the run's finale, a year-and-a-half later), and when Ultimate Cable shows up in issue #75, Kirkman sets off a chain of events that will lead right through the rest of his run, ending with issue #93.

The best way to look at the overall structure of his run is to approach issues #66-74 (plus Annual #2) as a prologue, and issues #75-93 as the meat of the story. The prologue, broken up into a trilogy of arcs, "Date Night," "Phoenix" and "Magical," provide thematic parallels for what is to come with the nearly two-year Cable saga. They don't so much set the stage for what is to come as provide precursor moments for the kinds of things Kirkman does with the characters and story. Almost as if the first three arcs are the rehearsal for the big show that follows.

The magical Elliot Boggs

Specifically, the prologue, culminating with issue #74, focuses mostly on Elliot Boggs, a.k.a. Magician, the mutant who kills his own family and later becomes a member of the X-Men in a ridiculous-too-hurried fashion. We don't know Boggs is the focus until the third arc, actually, because we think the X-Men are involved in a variety of other conflicts (with, say, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants), but what's baffling is how quickly this Boggs character -- a character who seems to have whatever power he needs at the moment and the charisma to charm anyone -- becomes an X-Man. Even the characters comment on the unlikely situation he finds himself in.

What Kirkman does, however, is constantly erode the reliability of his own narrative. Intentionally. Characters behave strangely, and plot points appear and disappear in these opening few arcs. "What is the Brotherhood up to?" we wonder, "and why do they appear and disappear so abruptly? Is it just sloppy storytelling?" Kirkman lets us stew in our own questions for months before revealing, in the "Magical" arc in issues #72-74, that Elliot Boggs is a character with the power to shape reality. He has been manipulating everyone all along, using everyone to fulfill this ideal version of what his life might be like, maybe without even knowing the extent to which his reality-shaping has influenced the behavior of those around him.

Then he disappears, and wipes all memories of him from the minds of all the characters in the comic. It's as if Elliot Boggs never existed, though, in typical comic book fashion (like the vague memories the DC heroes used to have about the "Crisis on Infinite Earths"), there's a wistful hint of his existence. Some vague shadow of a recollection in the mind of Kitty Pryde, at least, who he monologues at before disappearing forever.

Kirkman seems to be setting up Boggs as a character who would later return -- why go through all this trouble of telling his story and then just have him really disappear forever? -- but Boggs never comes back. Not even in the final time-traveling, apocalyptic confrontation at the end of his run, when a reality-shaper would have fit right in. It would have been to much of a deus ex machina perhaps, and Kirkman already had one of those anyway, in the Phoenix force.

So the crucible of the Elliot Boggs story didn't have any bearing on the plot direction that Kirkman would follow for the nearly two years remaining on his run, but it did have a thematic parallel -- two of them, in fact. First, though the memory of Elliot Boggs is faint or nonexistent for the characters, the unreliability of what they experienced remained. What I mean by that is that we, as readers, and the X-Men themselves had more doubt and maybe even paranoia about their further experiences after what they had gone through with Boggs. Because Kirkman had upended expectations and called the reliability of the words we read and the images we (and the characters) saw, our expectations for the stories that followed were more suspect. We wondered how much we could trust. Second, the Boggs plot established this notion of the presence-and-absence of a reality-shaping force. I joked in the previous paragraph about the Phoenix force being around as a deus ex machina, but that's absolutely how it has been used in the past, and how it is used in Kirkman's run. Jean Grey unleashes the Phoenix and it changes everything, and then she puts the whole world back the way it was. Kirkman's prologue ends with the status quo getting a reset, with Boggs wiping away all memories of his deeds. And Kirkman's eventual finale ends basically the same way, after a cataclysmic final battle that devastates the entire city, and yet gets completely reset by Jean Grey and/or the Phoenix force.

For all the complaints about Kirkman's run, it's a run that never actually happened. Or, it did, but then it was, by Kirkman himself, basically retconned out of existence for all intents and purposes. Only the memory of the story remained in the minds of the X-Men, and in the minds of the readers.

Jean Grey is troubled

That mind-wipe and return-to-the-status-quo may have been editorially mandated (after all, immediately after Kirkman's run, the series shifted into "Ultimatum"-crossover mode), but it certainly wasn't an ending that came out of nowhere. Kirkman had set it all up in his make-shift nine-issue prologue, even if none of us knew it at the time.

(Speaking of Elliot Boggs one last time, I'd just like to point out that he still presumably exists in the Ultimate universe -- he says he's going to Alaska or the arctic when he disappears -- so if any future Ultimate universe scribe wants a quick and easy, in-continuity way to retcon what happened in "Ultimatum," Boggs is your guy. He's got the skill set.)

Though his three-arc prologue sets the table for the storytelling pot-luck that followed, I don't remember Kirkman getting much criticism for his first six-to-nine months on the series. It wasn't until he brought in Cable and Bishop and the other accoutrements of 1990s Marvel comics that readers began railing against Kirkman's approach. But that was when Kirkman's run started to get good. When he played with reader expectations in another way (besides the approach of oh-this-reality-shaping-guy-has-made-everything-up-that-you-have-seen). He brought back the iconic X-Men characters of the Liefeld/Portacio/Lee days, and he moved at hyperspeed to give us a condensed, Ultimatized version of the excesses everything from mid-period Claremont to the ultimate conflict between Cable and Apocalypse. By the six-or-seventh year of the Ultimate universe, Kirkman's X-Men was chewing through mainstream Marvel continuity at a pace that would outstrip the source material. Pretty soon, this universe that was built on the concept of retelling classic adventures for a new readership would run out of classic adventures to retell. It would have to begin to devour itself or move in a new direction.

And maybe that trend, embodied by Kirkman's "Ultimate X-Men" more than any other series, helped to speed up discussions of a new direction for the Ultimate line, or maybe not. But when Kirkman started burning through previous X-Men stories at top speed -- yet providing his own, distinctly different take -- his "Ultimate X-Men" became considerably more interesting. Flawed, and far from a masterpiece, but his giant Cable-and-Bishop-vs.-Apocalypse saga, which ran from issue #75-93 is one of the highlights of the entire Ultimate universe. It has scope. It has a distinctive authorial voice. It has the good Ben Oliver and the even better Yanick Paquette on most of the art.

And it has a cyborg Wolverine from the future, kidnapping Professor Xavier and stirring up trouble.

NEXT WEEK: Spoilers from half-a-decade-ago, Cable is Wolverine. From the future. And guess who he will kidnap? And, yes, I will wrap up my look at Kirkman's "Ultimate X-Men" run.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, robert kirkman, ultimate x-men

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