When Words Collide

Mon, January 17th, 2011 at 12:58pm PST | Updated: January 18th, 2011 at 7:09am

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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KIRKMAN’S X-MEN PART 3: THE END OF THE WORLD REVISITED

Sinister Rises!

Throughout the first three weeks of January, I’ve been reading, and thinking, and writing about Robert Kirkman’s multi-year run on “Ultimate X-Men.” It seems like a strange thing to focus my attention on, I know, and I address that a bit in Parts One and Two, but my reading and analysis of this seemingly minor series from half a decade ago is about digging into comics and seeing how they work. That’s what all of my writing for CBR is, honestly, and most of the time I highlight the praiseworthy slices of comic book wonderfulness, and sometimes I lament the missed opportunities and alchemical failures that happen from time to time, but it’s all about the craft of comics, either way. For good or bad.

Robert Kirkman’s “Ultimate X-Men” run has a whole lot more good than bad, and that’s notable particularly – and this is an important distinction – because the X-Men, regardless of their popularity, haven’t always had the world’s greatest comics.

The highlights can be pretty high, with the world-building of the Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne era and the delightful, vicious, lunacy of Grant Morrison’s run as the two pinnacles of the superhero subgenre called “X-Men comics.” Claremont’s tenure, though the quality dropped after the first hundred or so issues, is a monster, and he so clearly defined what it means to be an X-Men comic, that even the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby originals look like nothing more than lumpy precursors to what was to follow. And Morrison revived the edgy energy the series once had, and reconceptualized the Claremontian superhero team within a more elegant aesthetic structure.

But after Claremont and Morrison, the drop off in X-Men quality is significant. Ed Brubaker’s attempt was a barrage of misfires; Peter Milligan’s version (not counting “X-Statix,” which was genius) was dull and lifeless; Joe Casey couldn’t pull off anything close to what he wanted to do with the team; Warren Ellis hasn’t done anything substantial in his efforts with the crew, as brutally charming as his take may be; and while Matt Fraction began his run with great promise, after three years most of his plot threads are unresolved and the team has spent most of the past year reacting to minor crossover events instead of zooming ahead with new, meaningful stories. Even Joss Whedon’s run, omnibus-worthy as it may be, whimpers along after the opening arc.

The point here isn’t that I think these non-Claremont, non-Morrison version of the X-Men are terrible – some of them are, but others are just merely good comics, largely forgettable a week later – but that guys like Milligan and Brubaker and Fraction and Casey and Ellis have done phenomenal work in the comic book industry. They are writers of substance who, when they sink their claws into a superhero concept, can do revelatory work in the field. Milligan, Brubaker,

Fraction, Casey, and Ellis have written major, significant, will-stand-the-test-of-time comics. But their X-Men work? It doesn’t do much more than prove how hard it is to write a really good handful of X-Men comics.

Yet Robert Kirkman wrote more than a handful, and though he hits a few spikey speed bumps along the way, and he is at the mercy of the quality of his artists at times (just like anyone who has ever worked on any comic book series, ever), his “Ultimate X-Men” run is not only good “Ultimate” comics, it’s good “X-Men comics.” It may even be good comics, period. As long as you’re willing to admit that good comics don’t have to be new-reader friendly (which is something I’m always willing to admit).

Oliver Draws Ultimate Cable

Then again, maybe Kirkman’s X-Men comics are completely accessible to a new reader – not being a new reader, I have no frame of reference to guess on how they might come across to someone fresh-faced and comic history illiterate – but I suspect they wouldn’t be nearly as effective as stories. They rely desperately on past relationships, relationships built in other comics, set in a completely different continuity. Yes, as I mentioned in Week One of my Kirkman X-Men discussion, these Ultimate comics work best when they create a dialogue between the classic Marvel mainstream and the experienced audience of today, when they recombine and reconfigure old situations and characters and spin them in a new way. The art of the narrative then becomes an art of retelling, but seeing how far you can bounce the story in different, unexpected directions.

Kirkman does that as well as anyone who ever worked in the “Ultimate” line. And he does it best once he brings in Cable, and recasts him as Wolverine.

Here’s the thing about Cable – the classic Cable (and, yes, he’s classic now because he’s been around for 20 years already, believe it or not): he is a cipher. The guy has been in hundreds of comics, but no substantial personality has ever stuck to him. He’s the son of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor, but since the reader never got a chance to know that character before he appeared as Cable, that parental information has never amounted to much. He’s just a soldier from the future who serves whatever plot point an X-Men family writer needs him to serve.

But when Cable appears in “Ultimate X-Men” #75, a one-man-strike team teleporting into the Xavier mansion, and then pulls out his claws in the final page of the comic, Kirkman instantly adds layers of characterization that Cable has never had before. Just by recasting Cable as grizzled-Wolverine-of-the-future, Kirkman adds depth to his character and creates a whirlwind of questions and considerations about Wolverine-of-the-present-day. Some readers have dismissed Kirkman’s version of Cable as some kind of grab at “coolness,” or as a cheap way to add a twist to a cliché of a character. But this revised Cable works far more effectively as a character, even if it was some kind of attempt at making the character “more extreme” or hitting the right fanboy buttons.

Cable doesn’t do a whole lot during Kirkman’s run; he basically shows up at the beginning of Kirkman’s full-time tenure on the book (which, as helpful message board posters have reminded me, began when Bryan Singer finally dropped out as the announced-but-never-actual writer of the comic), and then comes in strong at the end. But his presence lingers, and he watches the events from afar, and knowing that it’s future-Wolverine keeping Charles Xavier hostage so he can train him for some cataclysmic final battle is inherently more interesting than thinking about a blank-slate Cable doing the same thing.

Psylocke Triumphant by Paquette

Kirkman plays not only on the Ultimate continuity of Wolverine, but he uses the reader’s knowledge of the character to give strength to the scenes. For those who say that everything should be on the page, and relying on reader’s prior knowledge of a character to make a scene work is bad writing, I would say, “ha.” Good writing, anywhere, is often based on metaphor and allusion. In comics, it’s no different. The past matters, and so does the reader’s knowledge of the past, even if it’s from a completely different continuity.

After Cable abducts Professor X, making it look like the Professor has died in an explosion, we get a few weak issues of remorse and sadness and Nightcrawler joining the Morlocks. These aren’t the highlights of Kirkman’s run. No, those would be the “Cable” arc in issues #75-78 and, the best of Kirkman’s best, the “Sentinels” arc in “Ultimate X-Men” #84-88.

A quick digression on the artists Kirkman worked with: Yanick Paquette is so clearly superior to everyone else working on the book that it’s not even fair. Paquette draws the entire “Sentinels” arc (other than a brief epilogue to the arc/prologue to what’s coming), and his mix of energetic, sexy, bold characters gives life to Kirkman’s stories in a way than no other collaborator on his run can match. Ben Oliver is Kirkman’s second-best collaborator, and though he goes with a kind of stark but minimalistic “realism” in contrast to Paquette’s romanticism, he tells his part of the story crisply and cleanly, with just the right amount of physicality. Pascal Alixe provides a few, raw-looking issues, but since he’s mostly drawing Morlocks and underdwellers, it’s not a bad match at all. Salvador Larroca, not quite in his “Invincible Iron Man” phase, draws most of the climax of Kirkman’s big story, and he’s completely the wrong man for the job. His stiff characters and uninventive page layouts cause many of the action scenes to fizzle. And, unfortunately, Harvey Tolibao draws the final issue of Kirkman’s run, and ends with some of the ugliest, most ridiculous-looking pages of the X-Men and Professor X that you will ever see.

So while it’s true that Kirkman’s run doesn’t end as well as it began, and though it seems somewhat truncated in its final issues, and the climax isn’t nearly as effective as the stories leading into it, the art is partially to blame. Paquette may not have been able to pull it off, either, with so many events slamming into each other in those final issues, but at least the comics would have looked good.

Back to the Kirkman side of things.

Besides the addition of Cable-as-Wolverine, Kirkman provides a take on Bishop that’s stronger than the classic Marvel version as well. “Hold your horses,” I hear you say. “Bishop was, like Cable, little more than a costume and an attitude. It’s not very hard to do a stronger take on the character, since the original was so thinly conceived.” True, but then why, after 20 years, is Bishop, in the Marvel mainstream, still so little developed that he could have tried to kill a baby in recent continuity and readers mostly had this reaction: “wait, what is Bishop’s deal, again? Why is he doing that?”

Larocca Covers Kirkman's Final Issue

No matter how many times Bishop has starred in a series (with his name on it or otherwise), he still hasn’t gotten a personality that has stuck. Kirkman’s Ultimate Bishop is almost immediately recognizable as a character, though. As more than a costume and an attitude. Kirkman gives him a history – he married Psylocke in the future, and she died in a catastrophe, and when he meets the teenage Psylocke in the present day, he’s protective of her, which she, in her teenage way, sees as particularly creepy – and a voice. He’s the patient mentor from the future. Militant, stern, but supportive. And he works with the young mutants to speed up the development of their powers, not through artificial enhancements, but through coaching. Through building confidence in his pupils.

The X-Men have historically been based in a school, but Bishop, in Kirkman’s run, is one of the few characters who has been shown to do much effective teaching.

The school concept is central to Kirkman’s run, though, at least, it seemed to be in the moments after Xavier “died.” Kirkman plays the old “the X-Men are now disbanded” card, but his version of that sequence of events leads to some interesting explorations of the facets of mutantdom.

Basically, after the “Cable” arc – after Xavier is missing but assumed dead – Scott Summers focuses on the school and disbands the superhero team. Bishop reforms the X-Men, slowly (but in Kirkman’s accelerated “Ultimate X-Men” pace slowly to him is still a few issues faster than what you’re likely to see in most superhero comics today), with members like Storm, Wolverine, Dazzler (Kirkman’s Ultimate Dazzler is pretty effective, actually, as a character in the comic, and as a member of the team), Psylocke, Angel, and Pyro (and Ultimate Pyro is even more interesting than Dazzler, with his lightweight intellect and severe burns and good intentions). Meanwhile, we have Nightcrawler as new leader of the mostly-hideous and socially-outcast Morlocks, and we have a long-haired Stryfe, stirring up trouble with the Mutant Liberation Front.

As he builds toward the climax of his multi-year story, Kirkman contrasts these four mutant factions. They don’t all get equal page time – the Bishop-led X-Men strike team is far more visually interesting, and they prove themselves worthy of the spotlight – but they all play roles in what is to come. But look at what the four factions represent: (1) Xavier’s School, run by Scott Summers as a haven for mutants, (2) the X-Men, led by Bishop, with the concept of mutants as active saviors of the world, (3) the Morlocks, with Nightcrawler now in charge, as the freaks and outcasts the world would rather ignore, and (4) the Mutant Liberation Front, stirred to action by the man called Stryfe, representing that aspect of mutantdom that fights for equality through social protest and acts of violence.

Simplistic divisions, yes, but these four aspects are essential to the X-Men concept, and they provide a more sophisticated take on the social issues underlying the comic than the traditional Professor X/Magneto dichotomy. Kirkman almost completely ignores Magneto (he only appears on a single page of Kirkman’s run, in what amounts to nothing more than a check-in to show that, yup, Kirkman’s not using Magneto to do anything important), and he pulls Xavier out of the comic near the beginning of his run. Kirkman rejects the duality inherent in the traditional X-Men comics and fragments it into smaller, more discrete pieces. Though all four of the factions are based on characters or groups that existed in Ultimate continuity or find inspiration in the Marvel mainstream of decades earlier, Kirkman crystallizes the mutant conflict into four distinct boxes. And by tracing the plot through the interactions and reactions of these four factions, he creates a sufficiently complex story without sacrificing the speed and efficiency of the narrative. It has a lot going on, with a large cast of characters, but Kirkman never makes it seem confusing or muddled.

Yet, as I have said above, the ending doesn’t really work all that well, partly due to the art, and partly due to the way all the pieces wind up on the table. As he moves closer to his concluding arc, Kirkman ditches some of his earlier plot threads and mysteries. He wraps up a subplot involving Storm and her Shadow King nightmares (thankfully, because that was a subplot that didn’t have any teeth to it), and he abandons the Sabretooth-is-Wolverine’s-son idea completely, by dismissing it in a dialogue scene where Wolverine basically says Sabretooth is lying, and that’s that.

Jean Grey is Sad

And the finale plays out like this: whatever’s left of the factions convene for a final battle against Ultimate Apocalypse, who has evolved out of the shell of Ultimate Mr. Sinister. Silly? Probably. But Apocalypse is a potent villain, though not as drawn by Sal Larroca. Cable returns from the future with Professor X (dressed as Ultimate Onslaught, for no particular reason, other than it gives him some extra protection and symbolizes that he’s been training with Cable for a year and Cable has a strange fashion sense). It turns out that Bishop and Cable have been working together all along, and Bishop’s whole deal was that he was helping the X-Men mutants reach their full potential so they would be better equipped to stop Apocalypse when he appeared.

Cable and Bishop knew he would appear, because in the future they’re from, Apocalypse has taken over everything, and that’s what they want to stop.

Anyway, none of that really ends up mattering, because Jean Grey unleashes the Phoenix force for basically the entire final issue, defeats Apocalypse and fixes the world so that there was no sign of this huge battle that just took place.

All Bishop and Cable’s planning and training didn’t matter at all. Jean Grey saved the day, with a (very) little help from her friends.

The climax isn’t anti-climactic, because Kirkman has been brewing the Phoenix story since his first issues. But everything in the end feels surprisingly abrupt, until we get page after page of Phoenix vs. Apocalypse. It’s not Kirkman’s best moment.

But in the end, if you ignore Harvey Tolibao’s ugly, sinewy art (seriously, Scott Summers has veins that literally bulge through his sweater in the second-to-last page of issue #93), you’ll see that Kirkman’s story ends with the four factions united under the guidance of Professor X. Mutantdom is no longer scattered and fragmented, and Xavier’s final words – Kirkman’s final words – are about Jean Grey and what she represents for the future.

“We’re going to help her, my X-Men. We’re going to change the world.”

In the end, after all the references to 1990s comics and past X-Men stories, after all the mutant factions in conflict, after Wolverine-from-the-future and Ultimate Apocalypse, Kirkman ends with what X-Men comics always rely on: hope. Hope that the characters matter, that they’re making a difference in their world, and telling us something about ours. Hope that a creative team will figure out how to make these characters interesting and how to make them fit into stories that we want to keep reading.

Hope that, years later, someone will spend almost 8000 words saying, “hey, these Robert Kirkman X-Men comics, even with all their problems, are still pretty darn good. Still worth some thought, serious or otherwise.”

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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