Competitive Edge: Aron Coleite talks "Ultimate X-Men"

The X-Men are heroes, and heroes don't do drugs; but is this a realistic position in a world where enemy mutants are augmenting their powers with performance-enhancing steroids? "Heroes" writer Aron Coleite is exploring this dilemma in his four-issue "Ultimate X-Men" arc, "Absolute Power," the second part of which is on sale this week in issue #95 with art by Mark Brooks. CBR News caught up with Coleite to discuss his run on the series, and the grey areas around "juicing" in the superhero community.

In "Ultimate X-Men" #94, the savagely powerful Ultimate Alpha Flight arrived at the X-Mansion to repatriate Northstar to Canada -- whether or not he was willing to go. The international squad, comprised of Vindicator, Sasquatch, Sunfire, Aurora, and Jubilee, roundly defeated the X-Men and succeeded in abducting Jean-Paul Baubier despite his boyfriend Colossus's best efforts. After the battle, our heroes discovered that Alpha Flight had an unfair advantage: they were using a mutant growth hormone called Banshee that enhanced and expanded their powers. An indelicate mind-probe by Jean Grey soon brought to light that Colossus, too, was secretly addicted to MGH - -but in a world populated by beings of incredible power, is he necessarily in the wrong to boost his natural abilities?

The parallels between the Banshee drug and Major League Baseball's human growth hormone (HGH) scandal are not accidental. "The Congressional hearings were breaking right when Ralph Macchio and Joe Quesada talked to me about doing 'Ultimate X-Men.' And I was pretty shocked at my own emotional reaction to who was using steroids," Coleite told CBR News. "I'm not an idiot, I knew those players were using steroids, I knew that's what was going on -- there's no way people can pitch like that, that they can hit like that. I knew it was all going on, but even so to have that confirmed. I couldn't believe how angry I was, how betrayed I felt, you know? Because I'm a lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, there are so many people on that list that I didn't want to believe were doing steroids! I was so in denial about it, but when it happened it all made sense -- unfortunately -- and it sullied their accomplishments, and years of emotional investing in them was kind of thrown away.

"I thought, well, these people were heroes to me, they were heroes to a lot of kids. What would happen if my other heroes were caught using drugs? How would I react? How would the characters react? The idea sprung from there."

After the revelation that Colossus used mutant growth hormone to give himself extra strength -- enough strength, in fact, to maneuver the metal limbs of his own body -- certain X-Men followed his lead, among them Nightcrawler, Angel, and Dazzler. But why are these heroes more susceptible than others to the allure of chemical augmentation? "There's an argument made in the book that there are people who have these mutations and they're kind of powerful -- but they're not as powerful as some," explained Coleite. "In a fight, Wolverine can heal from anything, Jean Grey has the power of Phoenix, Iceman can almost freeze the world. These are really powerful beings: Magneto, Xavier, these are almost gods. So when Warren [Worthington, aka Angel] only can fly, with his wings, does he look at the other people and say, 'yeah, I'm on the team, I'm a member of the X-Men, but I need an advantage, too. I need something to help me.' Same with Nightcrawler. Yeah I can teleport, but what does that mean when somebody is barreling down on me with laser beams coming out of their eyes that I can't always evade? It's about people going into battle and needing that extra edge, and about seeing Colossus's side of the argument.

"There are two sides to the argument. The argument is, yeah, people shouldn't use steroids, but the other side of that is, if everybody's using then you need to stay competitive. That was Colossus's rational argument, that there are dangerous people out there and we need every advantage that we can get. We can't necessarily just rely on our training or our mutations."

Coleite also noted the stakes are somewhat higher for the X-Men than they might be for real-world athletes who juice to stay competitive. If a Major League Baseball player doesn't use steroids, he might not hit as many homeruns and his team might fall down the league tables; but if a superhero shuns performance-enhancing drugs while his adversaries embrace them, she could find herself in mortal danger. "You don't have to shame Colossus for using drugs, you can really understand why he would choose to use it," the writer said. "You know, if you're going up against Magneto or the Juggernaut, Sabretooth -- yeah, this is your life on the line, so why wouldn't you do something that would help you in that instance? Even if it is a form of drug use, even if it is illegal? What extent would you go to in order to fight the good fight? And it might come out a little anti-drug or a little pro-drug, but what I was attempting to do was show both sides of the fight and hopefully that'll come across."

This storyline also marks the debut of Ultimate Alpha Flight, who are something a bit more than "super-heroes from Canada." "I really wanted to make a more international-feeling team than a Canadian team," Coleite said. "That's why Sunfire's there, you'll find out who Sasquatch is (it's not Walter Langkowski), you'll find out who Vindicator is (he's not Mac Hudson). They're operating out of Canada, but they are an international team, an international coalition. The Ultimates, for however cool they are, they represent America. The world needs a voice in this super hero fight. And the world's a little bit more lax on steroids than America is. So that's a team that takes the stance that you do need to do anything to get the job done.

"The Banshee issue is going to be a huge rift amongst the X-Men, and we're really going to see how deep those bonds really go. My favorite X-Men stories are always when the X-Men are fighting with each other, not necessarily anyone else. Like any good family drama, you want to see the family fight each other."

Coleite's run on "Ultimate X-Men" will continue on for a time after the current arc, and the next storyline will be a spotlight on Rogue tying in into the Ultimate Universe event, "Ultimatum." Beyond this, Coleite, whose previous comics have included "Proximity Effect" and "Covenant" for Top Cow in addition to the "Heroes" graphic novel, said that working on "Ultimate X-Men" has given him a "really interesting" opportunity to tinker with his favorite characters. "I'm a huge X-Men fan, going way, way back. It's the first book I started collecting, 'God Loves, Man Kills' was really the first book I ever got as a kid. So I've been in love with these characters forever," he said. "When I wanted to be a writer in high school, I said, 'one day Chris Claremont's not going to be able to write X-Men anymore and I'm going to! I swear it!' I keep telling Jeph Loeb the only book I want to write is 'Uncanny X-Men,' and hopefully I'll be able to do that some point in my career.

"Getting 'Ultimate X-Men,' for me, was huge. Although heroes are different, although they have different histories, it's still X-Men. It's still the characters that I love, for all the reasons that I loved them going up. And even for the fact that, you know, I thought I was totally going to get shot down when I said, 'Oh by the way, yeah, Colossus is a drug user using steroids, what do you think about that story idea?' Now, I think if I did that in 'Uncanny' I would be crucified. You can't do that, I'm sorry! But that's one of the cool things you can do in the Ultimate Universe. I think it's also one of the cool things [Mark] Millar and [Brian Michael] Bendis did in establishing the Ultimate Universe, is it can be more contemporary. It can feel like these are the issues that kids and adults are going through today, and it should be a more contemporary take on it. Steroid abuse in high school is at an all-time high, and people need to be keyed in to this. It's not, you know, a ripped from the headlines story, but comic books at their best do social commentary. 'Uncanny X-Men' was social commentary--it was about racism, it was about anti-Semitism. This is what science-fiction can do, so when I had my first opportunity to do that it's what I wanted to embrace, and deliver a really relevant story that's not just people beating other people up."

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