Most fans are familiar with the Marvel Universe's mutants. As the next step in human evolution, mutants are imbued with fantastic and amazing powers which separate them from normal humans. However, in Marvel's Ultimate Universe, mutants aren't the result of evolution; merely one of humanity's mistakes -- and in the first arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men" written by Nick Spencer with art by Paco Medina and Carlo Barberi, the populace of the Ultimate U discovered mutants are a byproduct of an experiment conducted long ago by the U.S. government.
The revelation kicked off the most intense wave of anti-mutant hysteria the Ultimate Universe has ever seen. Now, the X-Men of the Ultimate U aren't just fighting to protect a world that fears and hates them -- they're fighting for their very survival. On February 15, Nick Spencer begins a new arc for the Ultimate X-Men in issue #7, beginning directly after the harrowing revelation to the general public of the true origin of mutants.
The initial arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men" introduced readers to a group of young mutants and one super powered human banding together to help cope with the current climate of anti-mutant paranoia. Their ranks include the Human Torch, Iceman, Jimmy Howlett, Rogue and the team's de facto leader Kitty Pryde.
"Kitty is the person that everybody looks to when the chips are down. It's not a position that she ever wanted and she's always been my favorite character within the Ultimate Universe because of the amazing work that Brian Bendis did on her in 'Ultimate Spider-Man,'" Spencer told CBR News. "As soon as I heard the words 'Ultimate Comics X-Men,' I knew she was my lead. I think we hit some great emotional moments with her in this first arc like the confrontation between her and Johnny.
"Kitty's arc; how she comes to grips with who she is and where she goes from here, is the book. Whether or not she can be a leader is something that we've been setting up since the first issue," Spencer continued. "Now after our first arc, Kitty isn't just responsible for a few of her friends. She's now the de facto leader of a few dozen young, homeless mutants."
While Kitty may have fallen into the role of leader, her dynamic with the team was especially complicated in the series first arc -- with a very contentious relationship with the devoutly religious Rogue.
"She's our other lead and someone on Twitter referred to her as the mutant Joan of Arc. I think that's a fantastic way to sum up where she is," said Spencer. "Rogue's religious backgrounds and leanings were something that made me gravitate towards her in this story because when you look at everything that mutants had been through -- and the world had been through -- over the last couple of years in this universe, it was really obvious to me that somebody like her would fall back on their faith and beliefs. A key part of this story is a belief in something greater, something better versus pragmatic realism.
"Rogue and Kitty are the two sides to that coin. The way they play off each other is a lot of fun for me to write and one of the strongest aspects of the book. That is always a really cool dynamic because the reader is so eager to go with the person who believes in something better. We're trying to make that really challenging. When we made it look like Rogue was betraying the X-Men in this first arc, people were saying awful stuff about her all over the Internet. Nobody has apologized," Spencer said with a laugh. "So that was fun."
For Spencer, the fun continued with readers' responses to the reveal of the identity of Rogue's unseen "God." In the first arc, Rogue claimed her unknown benefactor gave her a plan to help defeat the X-Men's first foe by making it seem as though she had betrayed the team. At the end of issue #6, readers leaned "God" appears to be Professor Charles Xavier, the founder of the X-Men, supposedly dead after the events of "Ultimatum."
"It was a lot of fun seeing people's responses to that scene," said Spencer. "We played a long game on the arc. We let the tension mount up and we set up our mysteries very carefully. In this age of instant gratification and short attention span, reading that can feel like a tough slog. When issue #6 dropped and I saw the response, it was really rewarding. It validated the direction that we chose."
While readers will learn more about Rogue's conversations with Xavier and possibly other characters in upcoming issues, it's only one of several ongoing mysteries that Spencer is developing in "Ultimate Comics X-Men" -- a tactic the writer compares to his critically acclaimed Image series, "Morning Glories."
"I think now people can see that this is probably the closest to a 'Morning Glories' style long form mystery that I've done at Marvel. I think you can see some similarities in the structure of the stories and I was really curious to see how the mainstream super hero comic reader would respond to that kind of structure, pacing, and approach -- because we are in an age of recompression," the writer said. "You've got to really have some patience and confidence to not put all your cards on the table in your first three issues. We've had all these hints that we've been laying out about who's dead and who isn't, the mystery of who 'God' is, the mystery of what's been going on in Egypt and the mystery of what Quicksilver is up to. You really start to see it hit that crescendo at the end of issue #6 and people were going nuts. It was fun. That's what comics should do."
Rogue seeing Xavier also raises questions about the nature of death in "Ultimate X-Men" and the Ultimate Universe, which has operated on a "dead is dead" principle, with characters coming back to life only rarely. "It's been funny seeing all the responses on the Xavier thing -- and also in terms of the Scarlet Witch, who is also dead but has been seen interacting with Quicksilver. Everybody is saying, 'This can't really be them because they told us dead means dead,'" said Spencer. "The first thing I would say to that is if I thought it would make something more shocking and make the story stronger, I would lie through my teeth about that kind of thing publicly. I have no qualms about that I will happily misdirect you.
"What I will say about this story in particular is the answer may not be as simple as 'Are they or aren't they?' There could be more to it," Spencer continued. "I think we've come up with a very rewarding story in its own right that strengthens the uniqueness of this universe. I think the primary reason of the 'dead means dead' rule is to give the Ultimate U something that distinguishes it from the mainstream Marvel Universe. When this story is done I think readers will see that's still the case regardless of the validity of these appearances."
Rogue's visions of God and dead people make her one of the book's more mysterious characters, Johnny Storm -- who may be the team's only human member, but has made it crystal clear he's just as devoted to the cause of mutant rights -- seems to be a much quicker study.
"I think one of the things that is always easy to forget when you're writing these books is the age of the characters in question. They're all teenagers -- and in my experience nobody picks up a cause like a teenager. When they get it in their head that a treatment of a particular group is wrong, they tend to go all in. Johnny's best friends are mutants and he's surrounded by them, so it made a lot of sense to me that he would get really into the cause," said Spencer. "So it's almost like he's trying to be a mutant and it's a source of consternation, especially to Bobby. This speaks to his character, though. Johnny is a good guy who cares about his friends. This is his way of trying to show solidarity with them. Maybe he's overdoing it, but it's a sweet gesture."
During their quest for mutant rights, the group was forced to confront a group of violent human supremacists armed with high tech weaponry. Their leader, William Stryker Jr., has the ability to turn off mutant powers -- something he claims is a divine gift. However, in issue #6, Stryker's ability is revealed to be the mutant power to communicate with machines -- a revelation which hints at the Ultimate X-Gene being man-made technology.
"We're still exploring the nature of what the X-Gene is, but in issue #6 we hint that the X-Gene is in fact man-made technology. That's why Stryker is able to do what he does to mutants, because of his ability to communicate with technology," Spencer explained. "We are going to explore the history of the X-Gene. We'll touch on that in issue #12. That is going to be another big, shocking moment for readers who have been following along."
Stryker and his anti-mutant bigotry are familiar to long time X-Men fans. The character made his Ultimate Universe debut in the final story of "Ultimate X-Men" before "Ultimatum," but in "Ultimate Comics X-Men" #6, he power and danger grew exponentially when he used his mutant ability to transfer his consciousness into bodies of the U.S. government's fleet of anti-mutant Nimrod robots.
"As soon as I started thinking about the book, Stryker was an obvious choice for a first arc villain because there's something familiar about him," Spencer said. "He's thought of as an 'A-List' preeminent X-Men foe, but I think what we've come up with for him takes him in a new and very terrifying direction. That's really what the Ultimate line of comics is all about. You're supposed to be taking things that are familiar so people think they know what they're getting and then turning them on their head."
Stryker was able to gain control of the Nimrod fleet thanks to Pietro Maximoff. Pietro, known as Quicksilver, convinced the President of the United States to link the Nimrods to the mutant tracking Cerebra computer -- a decision the president immediately regret.
"In issues 5 and 6, there was considerable debate amongst the White House staff over what has happened to the president in his conversation with Pietro," said Spencer. "Was he somehow being manipulated? Was this his decision? The bottom line of whether or not he was of sound mind at the moment of his decision is going to quickly be irrelevant because he has had a very bad 48 hours. It's probably the worst 48 hours that any president in the history of the United States has ever had, even in the Ultimate Universe. He is looking at an avalanche of bad news in terms of the 'mutant problem.'
"That is going to be a major part of the book as well. There will be consequences for his actions. Val Cooper, who is a major part of our story, will have to deal with a lot of them. She's a new Ultimate character that I'm enormously proud of and a love to write," Spencer continued. "We are going to see in issue #8 that Val has more problems on her hands then she even realizes. That's another one I think is going to surprise the hell out of people. It's fun because we're still in our set up phase. Really our first year is all about setting the foundations and stage. We are now at the point though where the twists will start coming real fast."
One of the Spencer's unknown twists is Quicksilver's true agenda, which has been murky since "Ultimate Comics Fallout." Is the former member of the Ultimates insane? Is he out to destroy mutants or save them? According to Spencer, readers may soon get answers.
"Pietro is the focus of issue #7 and we're going to spend some time with him. We'll answer a couple of the questions we posed about what he's doing, why he's doing it, and who's instructing him to do it. He's one of my favorite characters to write in the book. He has been since we started setting things up in 'Ultimate Comics Fallout,'" said Spencer. "We've seen him make a play in the private sector with Worldwide Solutions. We'll find out more about the extent of that. We've seen him make a political power play with his grabbing the president's ear. The ramifications of both of those moves on his part are going to be felt throughout this series. I believe at the beginning of issue #7 it's going to be really clear to the readers just how devastating those choices he's made have been for mutants throughout the entire United States."
Looking to the upcoming arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men," Spencer will focus on some characters that have only appeared briefly -- like Quicksilver -- and others who have not appeared in the book yet at all, meaning readers will be taking a break from Kitty's rag-tag team of teen mutants.
"The biggest thing about the second arc is that we're not going to spend any time with the kids. We're going to be doing quick stop ins across the country and across the globe and seeing the reverberations of what happened with Kitty, Rogue, Bobby, Johnny and Jimmy. So we're now going to take six issues away from our main cast and in this age of impatience it's a little terrifying for a writer to do that," said Spencer. "Knowing what I know about the third arc though, which is about starting to connect these things and seeing how they're all inter related, it's going to make it so much sweeter when we come back to Kitty and company in issue #13."
Some of the characters featured in the second arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men" have the potential to become regular cast members -- if they survive the events of the arc. "We will be checking in with some mutants we have not yet seen in the past arc, but were an important part of 'Ultimate X-Men' in the past. We're going to be visiting some familiar faces and see where they are,' the writer said. "We checked in with a couple briefly in issue #1, but we didn't get too spend much time with them all. We're going to be coming back to them in a big, big way. What they do is a major part of our story."
Spencer will actually be telling several different interconnected tales in the second arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men" that follow the events of issue #6. "The biggest of that are the ramifications of where we left Pietro, Stryker, and the Nimrods at the end of issue #6. The Stryker-controlled Nimrod fleet flew off and we're going to see what they're going to do next. The ramifications of it are the biggest thing we've done in the book by far," Spencer said. "Our first arc was really about putting these characters in place and Jonathan Hickman over in 'Ultimates' has been blowing up countries. He's been doing these massive things. So, I can say don't count us out of that yet! Now that my pieces are all in play, the scale will start to increase exponentially. We go global and things are going to get real big."
One of the locales Spencer visits in the second arc of "Ultimate Comics X-Men" is the Southeast Asian Republic, home to two new mutant dominated cities; the Celestial and Eternal cities ruled by brothers Xorn and Zorn. Jonathan Hickman introduced the cities and their rulers in his recent "Ultimate Comics Hawkeye" mini-series.
"Jon set up a really amazing other component to mutants' statuses in the Ultimate Universe with the appearance of Xorn, Zorn and their cities. We're going to be playing with all of that in a big way. We started to see a little bit of that in issue #6 when the Oracle appeared, but issue #8 will link these two stories very intimately," said Spencer. "Ultimate Hawkeye' ended with Karen Grant, Liz Allen and Derek Morgan -- the stars of 'Ultimate Comics X' -- still in the SEAR. What they're doing and what's happening there is going to be a huge moment. I know lot of 'Ultimate X' fans have wondered when we're going to see those characters and what's going to happen to them. All I can say is make sure you check out that issue because they are the focal point there."
"Ultimate Hawkeye" isn't the only book Spencer will follow up in "Ultimate Comics X-Men." In upcoming issues the writer will examine how the climate of fear being created by the Children of Tomorrow as they assimilate Europe in current issues of "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" impacts mutants in the Ultimate U.
"We want to make sure things that happen in one book play off of and are felt in the others," said Spencer. "I'm very committed to that. It's not just Jon's 'Ultimate Hawkeye' stuff that you'll see reactions to in 'Ultimate Comics X-Men.' One of the biggest things to think about on that front is obviously there's a lot of history between Johnny and the Children of Tomorrow's leader, Reed Richards."
Confrontations with former teammates and dealing with anti-mutant bigotry means "Ultimate Comics X-Men" is a series that regularly deals with intense, and often ugly emotions. Spencer doesn't want the book to be heavy or emotionally draining and seeks to balance the emotion of the book by regularly including other elements like adventure and mystery. The writer feels his artistic collaborators Paco Medina and Carlo Barberi are integral in helping him achieve balanced stories that walk the line between intense and fun.
"Paco and Carlo are switching off between arcs. I'm working with Carlo right now and both of these guys are a blast to work with. It's always great when you have an A-B artist team that synchs up well with each other," said Spencer. "It makes the book consistent despite there being two artists and that's almost impossible to find in comics. So I'm thrilled about that. I think there's such an energy and dynamism in their work and that really bleeds into how I tell the story.
"Paco has such a strong grasp on that core cast. His depictions of Kitty, Rogue, Bobby, and Johnny are fantastic. He did an incredible job of taking characters that were already known and making them his. Plus, he's a fantastic storyteller. He brings a lot of positivity and energy to his projects and Carlo is the same way," Spencer continued. "They are the perfect fit for this book. They're finished work looks really, really close and I really wanted the book to read consistently. When you're doing a long form mystery that helps a lot. So getting Carlo on board was exactly what we needed. I feel really good about where the book is and where it's headed."
"Ultimate Comics X-Men" #7 is on sale February 15.