“X” MARKS THE KIRKMAN: PONDERING THE ULTIMATE UNIVERSE
A few years ago, though it feels like another era — some kind of time paradox that begets the status of “instant relic” — recent-television-superstar Robert Kirkman wrote a whole bunch of X-Men comics. Over two years’ worth of serialized issues, part of an extended run that compressed and reconfigured decades of X-history into a handful of story arcs.
But the run was on “Ultimate X-Men,” and looking back on that comic presents a series of problems.
First: Does the Ultimate line matter at all anymore, even in retrospect, particularly after “Ultimatum” destroyed the universe and failed to provide anything more than an excuse for Brian Michael Bendis to establish a new gang of Amazing Friends living in Spider-Man’s house? (I will note that Bendis, and his take on Spider-Man, has consistently been the best thing about the Ultimate line, then and now, but he’s the only one who’s done much of anything with the new, post-“Ultimatum” status quo, and the only thing worse than a poorly-executed series is a poorly-executed series that tears down the mythology of its own superhero universe, and “Ultimatum” certainly did that.)
Second: Did the Ultimate line ever matter? People seemed to like Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on “Ultimates,” but even though that series made its impact not all that long ago, it now seems like a quaint memento of a time when comics were trying to get our attention. And it’s probably the Hitch connection, but it also seems like a Marvelized post-“Authority” attempt at comic book spectacle. So it’s the comic book equivalent of that band that wore flannel and sounded like Nirvana in 1995. You know the one (or the hundreds).
Third: What was the point of the Ultimate line, again? Something about telling old stories in new ways to attract a new audience? Something about Peter Parker using the internet and Wolverine having a soul patch and Iceman having a do-rag?
Fourth: Wait, aren’t those all business concerns and don’t necessarily have anything to do with whether or not the comics are worth looking at critically?
Fifth: Kirkman’s nostalgia is based in 1990s comics. Who the heck prefers the days of Gambit and Cable and Onslaught over the days of the Shi’ar Royal Guard, “Days of Future Past,” Wolverine in Japan, and, um, Nimrod?
Sixth: What were they thinking with the “Ultimate X-Men” cover logo? Seriously? Is it supposed to be glowing metal that has just wooshed into place and that’s why the letters are kind of blurry? Or was it a printing error on every single issue ever published?
These aren’t straw man arguments — they are more like questions I asked myself as I pulled the Kirkman “Ultimate X-Men” issues out of the long boxes when I found myself hit with a sudden compulsion to reread his entire run last week. I don’t always have an idea what sparks these nostalgia trips of mine — Hey, why don’t I reread some comic book series that nobody cared about from a few years ago, but just focus on the issues written by one guy who now writes a television show that I sort of watched based on a comic book I read a while ago but I’m way behind on? — but I think it all began with Yanick Paquette.
Yanick Paquette, as we all know, is the stellar artist of opening arc in Grant Morrison’s “Batman Inc.” And he was the stellar artist of that piratey issue of “Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne.” And anyone who has listened to the Splash Page podcast knows that I have said, repeatedly, “Yanick Paquette is amazing, much better than you think he is.” Because I have found myself, over the years, consistently bumping into message board posters who complain about his work. Particularly on X-Men-related titles. Those people were wrong, and continue to be wrong.
So part of my interest in the Kirkman “Ultimate X-Men” run was my curiosity about whether or not Paquette, in 2007ish, was as good as I remembered him, without Michel Lacombe providing the inks. Paquette did a bunch of the Kirkman issues, though not all of them, and with Serge LaPointe on inks, he looks as great as I remember. Paquette can draw. His work on the series is the high-point, visually, of the 100-issue series. Only Bachalo and Immonen come close, but their work (while perhaps better elsewhere) doesn’t reach Paquette’s clarity and dimensionality and dynamism on this series.
But I was also curious about how Kirkman’s run reads as a whole. I had only read it in monthly form, and my memory of it was that it was a series packed with occurrences without a whole lot of development. In other words, I remembered that a lot of stuff happened, but I don’t remember understanding the in-story logic for why everything happened. But I did appreciate the momentum, the rapid-pace at which the story was told, which was in contrast to the laborious pacing of the contemporaneous Ed Brubaker “Uncanny X-Men” run, or the decompressed Joss Whedon “Astonishing X-Men run,” or the sleepwalking Peter Milligan “X-Men” comics.
Hence, the digging out the Kirkman issues. And the series of questions that ran through my mind as I did so, because I can’t just read a stack of comics to read a stack of comics, can I?
So, now that I’ve read “Ultimate X-Men” #66-93, the entirety of the Kirkman run, do I have any answers to the questions at the beginning of this column? And does Kirkman’s run merit the time and attention it takes to reread it and think about these sorts of things.
Sort of, and yes, definitely.
The Ultimate line does matter, even after “Ultimatum,” because it’s still free from the kind of continuity constraints that bog down so many other superhero comics. If you checked out the consensus 100 Best Comics of 2010 list that has been running at CBR, you know that, proportionally, not a whole lot of serialized superhero comics made the list. Plenty did, sure, but far fewer than in previous years. Far less than you might expect, especially from a site that writes tens of thousands of words about mainstream superhero comics every day. And as flawed as Jeph Loeb and David Finch’s “Ultimatum” was, and it’s terribly, terribly flawed, it did provide a get-out-of-continuity-free card to any future writers working in the Ultimate universe. Because the game, until then, had largely been about how these old Silver-and-Bronze-Age stories could be repurposed. But, post-“Ultimatum,” the landscape is different. The universe isn’t a sped-up mirror to the history of Marvel. It’s divergent. Using familiar superhero concepts but without the tether of familiar storylines.
I don’t know that it’s worked out that way, but the Ultimate line does offer such possibilities, more so now than ever. Is there hope for the impending Jason Aaron/Ron Garney “Ultimate Captain America” series, then? Yup.
What about my second concern/question? Did the Ultimate universe ever matter — or, did it matter as much as people seemed to think it did? Was it more than just a watered-down post-Warren Ellis cash-grab? Yeah, it was, even if “Ultimates” and “Ultimates 2” don’t hold up as well as they should.
I remember, a decade back, when “Ultimate X-Men” was kicking off, and Grant Morrison and Mark Millar had just come off a series of collaborations together and publicly discussed their difference of opinion about the Ultimate line. I don’t remember where they aired this debate, but Morrison basically said that real change needed to happen — should happen — within the mainstream marvel line. Millar took the position that the Ultimate universe was the best chance to change things, to tell new stories without the baggage of the old to hold everything back.
And looming over that difference of opinion, in the early Jemas/Quesada days, was the idea (maybe never deeply considered within Marvel, but certainly pondered on the side of the readership) that, if the Ultimate line were a significant enough success, the Ultimate universe might become mainstream Marvel, in the way that DC’s Silver Age comics supplanted the Justice Society status quo of yore.
History has shown that Morrison’s within-the-mainstream-of-Marvel approach did result in superior comics to anything Millar did with the Ultimate title, but that probably has less to do with the constraints of their situations than the talent of the creators. And even though his was the better work, Morrison’s “New X-Men” didn’t affect the Marvel mainstream at all, really, with everything he did being quickly retconned or forgotten, until the recent Sublime machinations in the Matt Fraction “Uncanny X-Men” series.
“Ultimate X-Men” had a longer-lasting impact, actually, and it’s not because of what happened in that series, but because of the cumulative affect of how it happened, and how Millar (and writers that followed) told Marvel superhero stories in the Ultimate fashion. Bendis is kind of the exception here, with his dialogue-heavy, character-based approach taking a different tack than the high-concept, swift-moving, post-Ellis, Mark Millar comics in the Ultimate stable (“Ultimate FF” included).
Looking at the Marvel mainstream of today, the 616 universe, as I’ve been reluctant to call it throughout this column, it more closely resembles the early-to-mid years of the Ultimate universe than anything else. Bendis and Millar, the major architects of the Ultimate tone, are now two of the major architects of the Marvel mainstream. And if you add Matt Fraction into the mix, whose post-Ellis, high-concept, swift-moving (but lengthy) story arcs fit right into the precedent set by his peers, you can see that the bulk of the Marvel mainstream has the feeling of the Ultimate universe, circa 2004. It may simply be a case of fresh, young voices supplanting the more traditional storytelling approaches, and many of them honed those voices while on the junior varsity Ultimate line, but there’s little doubt that what “mattered” about the Ultimate universe in the pre-“Ultimatum” days was that it was a way of telling stories that was a bit different from what you might see in the pages of the Marvel mainstream at the time. Not radically different, but a bit more streamlined. A bit more fluid, even if plots took longer to resolve.
My third question, about the original intent of the Ultimate universe, well, that barely matters. It may have been conceived or pitched or hyped as a new way to bring in readers, but it immediately found its place as something else: as a way to do what superhero comics do best: revise and retell. Superhero comics are often described as methods for delivering simplistic power fantasies, but while that may have been true originally, back in the Golden Age, they haven’t really been about that in decades. They’ve been about recursion and revision, as I argued in my very first “When Words Collide” column. What are the most highly-lauded superhero comics, inside and out of fandom? “Dark Knight Returns.” “Watchmen.” “All-Star Superman.” All of which are comics that play with superhero tropes and revise them from a writerly perspective. A “take” on superhero conventions. Recursive, even if the stories are “new.” (And in all three of those cases, how much praise is delivered on the basis of originality of plot? Not so much.)
The Ultimate universe may have originally been intended to bring in new readers, and it may have done so, to a limited extent (though I haven’t seen any evidence of that), but, in reality what it did was give the current crop of readers exactly what they tended to like best: new twists on old stories. Classic characters and plots, retold once again. The soul patch Wolverine and the do-rag Iceman seem like embarrassments because they are superficial reminders of how the stated intent of the line misaligned with the reality. They are just obvious attempts to pander to a perceived (but absent) audience. The actual audience were the readers who knew the stories already, and looked forward to the spin someone like Mark Millar, or Brian K. Vaughan, or Brian Michael Bendis, or, yes, Robert Kirkman, would bring to the starchy old plotlines.
So, are these business concerns — or concerns of intent — and have nothing to do with a critical approach to the comics themselves? Yes, that’s true, except when we’re looking at these comics in a larger context. I’m not particularly interested in the sales figures for these series, but I am interested in their aesthetic impact. Part of that impact was due to the popularity of some of the Ultimate comics, and part of it was just an editorial awareness of what was working on the storytelling level and what wasn’t. Would Bendis have ascended to be the cornerstone of Marvel without the success of “Ultimate Spider-Man”? Maybe. After all, Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron began with less-than-shockingly-good sales on their Marvel comics and they have continued to get higher-and-higher profile work because of their clear talent. But the Ultimate universe, as a whole, had an impact, as outlined above. It is maybe not the only herald of the Marvel that exists today, but it’s one of them. An overwhelmingly obvious one. To put it in even geekier parlance, if Marvel is Galactus, then the first decade of the Ultimate line may not have been the Fallen One, but it was definitely the Silver Surfer, riding that surfboard through the cosmos of the new cool.
As to Robert Kirkman’s 1990’s nostalgia, though I don’t share it, I can appreciate that it’s no different than any other form of nostalgia. He likes what he likes, and what he likes is the stuff he grew up reading. The saga of Cable and Bishop is not inherently different than the “Days of Future Past,” in terms of quality. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s might disagree with that opinion at first, because we have a fondness of Chris Claremont and John Byrne showing Wolverine and Kitty Pryde in the future, but if you go back and reread that story, it is evocative but too brief. Underdeveloped. It impacted so many because it was something seemingly new, but it’s not a story that’s particularly well-told. Neither is the saga of Cable and Bishop, which I can’t even summarize because I lost interest pretty early in the original telling. But there is a generation of readers who grew up on Rob Liefeld instead of John Byrne, and, to them, Cable and Bishop were revelations. Energetic, bombastic, exciting.
That Kirkman manages to take that nostaligia and revise the characters in a way that makes sense within the Ultimate universe and beyond is a testament to his skill. But I’ll get to that next time, because I’ve babbled about the context of the Ultimate universe for far too long already this week.
I don’t have any answers about the “Ultimate X-Men” cover logo, unfortunately. That was just a bad choice (as were the designs of pretty much all the covers in the Ultimate line — not that the drawings were bad, but the borders were unnecessary and the faux-futuristic metallic sheen of the logos did little besides point out the incongruity of the intent vs. the execution). Clearly, neither Todd Klein or Rian Hughes were brought in to design this abomination. But if Marvel wanted the covers to look like something put out by Broderbund software in 1992, they pulled it off.
Let’s get to the Robert Kirkman issues next time, eh?
NEXT WEEK: The Robert Kirkman issues.
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