Hard-Traveling Fanboys: The Longbook Hunters (Ultimate X-Men Vol. 1)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories via the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.

Nick: Hey, look at us! We’re actually on time for an unprecedented second week in a row. And for such a special “second,” we figured we’d take a second trip into our Longboxes this month and pull out a second book by Mark Millar that features Wolverine. This time, we’re taking on the far less remembered flagship book of the Ultimate Universe’s early days — Ultimate X-Men. Here, we’ll be looking at the first story arc, “The Tomorrow People.”

Ultimate_X-Men_Vol_1_1Greg: Written by Millar and penciled by the fight in’ Kuberts (Adam and Andy), Ultimate X-Men helped usher in Marvel’s Ultimate line in early 2001 after the success of fellow flagship book Ultimate Spider-Man. Marvel President Bill Jemas and the creative heads at the time viewed the Ultimate Universe as an opportunity to modernize and somewhat reinvent Marvel’s traditional characters for a new generation. Ironically enough, though the books were aimed at recapturing my age group (I was 16 at the time), I completely missed these books because I was still in my dark days of not reading any comics at all. Such was the case with everyone at my school at the time. Nick, how did you first discover or hear about Ultimate X-Men?

Nick: Ultimate X-Men was my second series that I became a dedicated follower of. I first began reading Ultimate Spider-Man shortly after the release of the first Spidey theatrical film. Around the sixth or seventh volume of the USM trades, there was a crossover with UXM. Once that happened, I began tracking down the trades and getting caught up on the exploits of this new gang of X-Men. It wasn’t as thrilling to me as Ultimate Spider-Man, but I was plenty entertained enough to get caught up with the monthly book and start buying the singles from there.

Greg: There’s a lot to talk about here, but let’s start with the first thing that popped out to me: this feels dated. In the same way that picking up a comic from the late ’80s — with Reagan as president, poofy hair and shoulderpads everywhere — might seem dated, Ultimate X-Men is very of-its-time.

Everyone wears things kids in our era thought were cool — bandanas, cargo pants, baggy … everything. All of this is appropriate, since the main characters were teenagers and thus should dress in the style of contemporary teens. However, it’s a bit startling to see Beast wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, and it’s downright jarring to see Wolverine rocking an Apolo Ohno-like soul patch.

Ultimate Beast showing his ultimate fashion sense.
Ultimate Beast showing his ultimate fashion sense.

Again, I think it’s appropriate that a book based on teens should be appropriate for its time, but there’s no ignoring the fashion (and, likely, our own fashion at the time) when you read “The Tomorrow People.”

Nick: I suppose, being a product of those times myself, that one doesn’t really irk me quite the way it might some. I have a bigger issue with some of the dialogue that commits the cardinal sin of any writer when writing teenage leads — attempting to sound young or “hip” and failing miserably. I can’t recall specific examples, but during my recent re-read of this one, I remember shuddering at several dialogue choices, especially those Millar uses for Cyclops. Scott has suffered with the “uncool” label at times before, and Millar doesn’t really do him any favors in this one.

Greg: What, you mean him punctuating sentences with “Mister” didn’t make him sound cool?

"You're in big trouble, mister!"
“You’re in big trouble, mister!”

But yeah, it’s an issue throughout the book. Cyclops is presented, at times, in an interesting and compelling manner, particularly as it relates to his relationship with Xavier. But then there’s the majority of the time, in which he’s presented as the biggest stick in the mud this side of Reed Richards.

“Take one more step towards my people and I’ll burn a hole in you like a doughnut, Mister.” — Actual Cyclops line.

If it’s, like, a mid-’60s X-Men book, it wouldn’t be so noticeable.

Nick: But as bad as the writing for Cyclops was at times, I’m a pretty big fan of the way Millar writes the other characters here, namely Xavier and Jean Grey, who are portrayed with more likability and personality, respectively, than just about any of their more mainstream 616 versions I’ve read.

Xavier still has his trademark intelligence than borders on arrogance, but maintains to come across like a sympathetic human being, rather than the cold-hearted bastard he often is in the main universe. Jean, meanwhile, I can’t claim to have read very much of in the 616 U. Her main claim to fame as far as I’m concerned is her tendency to die, return and then die again. Here, it’s easy to see why men would be drawn to her, as she’s funny, witty and just seems like a down-to-earth character.

Greg: Indeed, Jean is absolutely the standout character in this arc. She’s personable, edgy without being obnoxious, and generally the most well-rounded and interesting person on the team. That she serves as the anchor character is appropriate and helped me stay invested in the story despite its many flaws.

Soul Patch Wolverine takes on Scott and Jean. All is not as it appears.
Soul Patch Wolverine takes on Scott and Jean. All is not as it appears.

From a story standpoint, this is pretty familiar ground for X-Men origin tales — mutant-hating government creates Sentinel program, Magneto leads the Brotherhood of Mutants in terrorist attacks against humanity, the X-Men try to prevent a full-scale war. Nothing original, but probably the best way to introduce the X-Men universe to a new audience. The team in “The Tomorrow People” consists of Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Beast, Colossus, Storm, Iceman, Wolverine and, most surprisingly of all, the Colossus of Boggo Road Nathan Jones.

You see, Nathan Jones was a terrible pro wrestler who lactated. Allegedly.
You see, Nathan Jones was a terrible pro wrestler who lactated. Allegedly.

Nick: Yeah, it ain’t blazing any trails in terms of its creativity, but I will say it at least doesn’t try to spend too much time giving each character a long introduction. It’s more of a rapid fire approach, with us getting versions of these characters that seem to be fairly similar to their 616 counterparts for the most part. Once introduced, however, Millar does take them a few different directions. Wolverine is a member of the Brotherhood to begin with, for example. Another notable example is Magneto being a bit more blatant and forthcoming with his desire to mentally and emotionally torture his estranged son, Quicksilver.

Greg: This certainly isn’t the story to turn to if you’re looking for a complex, relatable Magneto. Here, he’s a villain through and through. He does have some great villainous lines in the back half of this one, my favorite being “I’m not a cruel man, you understand. It’s been years since I’ve even tasted flesh, human or otherwise.” He even asks Cyclops to call him “father” whenever Quicksilver is around.

He’s essentially a top-level WWE heel: a complete bastard, a bully and someone who, when in a vulnerable position, literally begs for his life. Though entertaining, it’s … not my favorite take on the Master of Magnetism.

Nick: Yeah, this is one of the few that feels like a complete departure from what the character has been in other versions. Like you, I would have preferred a more nuanced Magneto, though it is pretty awesome at times to see him crank up the mustache twirling. Like many Millar books, this one at times feels as if it is at odds with itself. You’ve got believable, relatable, grounded characters that behave like real-world people for the most part…..and then comes a bad Cyclops one-liner or a scenery-chewing Magneto panel. It’s odd, and leaves the book with a little bit of a disjointed feel.

Greg: I had similar issues with Millar’s takes on some of the X-Men. As great as his characterizations of Jean, Professor X, Wolverine and (to an extent) Storm are, his versions of Colossus and Beast lack distinctive voices and some of the driving characteristics that define the two. I don’t think, by 2000, you necessarily needed to write Beast speaking in literary quotes like the animated series or Colossus to use “da” in every sentence like the ’80s heyday, but I do think the characters should speak in a way that makes them stand out from the rest. Other than one throwaway line and his name, there’s no indication that Piotr Rasputin is from Russia, and Beast talks just like any high schooler, never displaying the wit that’s made Hank McCoy a fan favorite since the X-Men’s initial appearances in the ’60s.

Similarly, Storm doesn’t have the regal, cultured speaking style of her 616 counterpart, but I did feel Millar wrote her in a unique enough way to make her stand out from the cardboard cutouts that were Hank and Piotr.

Nick: I didn’t have an issue with his Peter or his Hank. Neither stood out, I’ll agree, but I thought both had their own little moments to stand out and take center stage during the story. Storm, meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoyed. She seems to be the most reluctant of the X-Men, and that streetwise attitude works for me here.

But what REALLY worked for me, perhaps more than any other aspect of the book, was the Kubert brothers’ art. It has something of an iconic feel to it, with heavy lines and a sense of motion dominating the book’s panels. Sure, some of the characters have that late ’90s/early 2000s overly muscled style, but it kind of works for the straightforward story being told. It may not be for everyone, but I loved it.

Greg: I liked it, especially as the story went on. I was unhappy with the design choices of a few characters (Beast, most notably), but the actual pencils are strong throughout the book. This thing just looks good from beginning to end. There is a clear influence taken from some of Jim Lee’s iconic X-Men poses, but the Kuberts infuse Ultimate X-Men with its own identity that stands apart from modern X-Men stories or even the ones that came before.

Jim Lee’s Magneto
Andy Kubert perhaps took some inspiration in his version of Magneto.

The colors, from Richard Isanove and Brian Haberlin, are distinctive and help the book “pop,” but there are a few script-to-page issues, such as Colossus telling Cyclops about a “guy in a purple cape,” when the cape is clearly red.

But overall, the art is very good and the book’s biggest strength. For the interchangeability of many of the characters’ dialogue, there is no such confusion when it comes to the art team.

Nick: Like we said, the book’s plot is pretty straightforward — government, two camps of mutants, sentinels, rinse and repeat. So, with all that said, Greg, where do you ultimately come down on this one? Is it a buy, read, or skip?

I’ll go with “read” on this one, as it lays the foundation for one of the major corners of my beloved universe. However, there were much better story arcs to come for UXM, and to get to those, you should at least have a working knowledge of the events that brought the team together. Don’t expect anything earth-shattering from it, but I say give it a shot.

Greg: I’ve been wrestling with this question since we started writing this one, and I’m still not sure I’ve made up my mind. If I’m being completely honest, I’d say to skip this. If the ensuing arcs are better, just read a summary of this arc and plunge into the better stuff, because I felt pretty underwhelmed after reading “The Tomorrow People” … although the ending is promising.

Nick: Well, I’d suggest that some people just need to stop overthinking it and just enjoy the damn product.

20130911_LIGHT_JimRoss_CBut in any event, that brings an end to this week’s longbook hunt. Be sure to check back next week as debut a mysterious, ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT column the likes of which you’ve never seen before!

Greg: And it’s gonna be totally awesome! And made with YOU in mind! There may even be more than 52 new words in it.

So whose side did you take in the Ultimate X-Men debate, Nick’s or Greg’s? Hit us up on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page!