Reviewer: Brian E. Wilkinson, [e-mail] Quick Rating: Great
They’ve gone on a ‘World Tour’, passed through ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’, and now await the ‘Return of the King’… but was it any good?
Written by: Mark Millar Covers by: Adam Kubert Pencilled by: Adam Kubert, Kaare Andrews, Chris Bachalo Inked by: Danny Miki Associate Editors: Brian Smith, C.B. Cebulski Editor: Ralph Macchio Editor In Chief: Joe Quesada President: Bill Jemas
It’s been an interesting year.
From the beginning of my run reviewing Ultimate X-Men I’ve been shocked and surprised at the level of quality this series has been able to produce. I never expected it to be any good, as all of Marvel’s other ‘retellings’ of their classic books have fallen short of the expectations that readers like myself have placed on it. Yet from the first issue of this series, I’ve been a fan.
The first arc, ‘The Tomorrow People’ has so far been Millar’s best on this book. That isn’t to say that his later efforts such as ‘Return to Weapon X’ and the arcs of the past year, ‘World Tour’ and ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ haven’t been any good, but rather that Millar hasn’t seemed able to top himself. Perhaps ‘Return of the King’ will live up to that early bar of excellence but we’ll all just have to wait and see.
“I'm never really completely happy with anything I write,” said Millar when asked about what he felt was the worst he produced this year. “I’m always lying awake at night and suddenly thinking of a better way of saying something three months after publication. So it's hard for me to judge.”
‘World Tour’ was a mixed bag. On the one hand, there was excellent drama, great character development, and a fun adventure. On the other hand, there wasn’t much of a ‘world tour’ to speak of, and the plot took a few odd turns. The threat of Proteus and the revelations of Xavier’s heart were the highlights of this arc, as well as the appearance of ‘ultimate’ Psylocke, the supposed ‘outing’ of Colossus’ sexuality, and the near-death accident that Iceman had.
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‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ annoyed me. Oh, it had great characterization, wonderful guest appearances, and the inevitable clash between Cyclops and Wolverine over the affections of Marvel Girl, but there was no ‘hellfire’ and no ‘brimstone’ so far as I could see. Nightcrawler, Angel, Rogue, and others were all rumoured to appear in this series, but none made it into the book. The art seemed rushed in one or two of the issues, and a few of the plot elements (including the trip to the Savage Land) just seemed to confuse the story.
The first issue or two seemed to be one giant set-up for moving Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch over to the pages of The Ultimates. The rest of the issues seemed like the perfect build up to Millar’s last arc, ‘Return of the King’ and the events unfolding in the pages of Ultimate War. There were some great surprises and the new addition of Kitty Pryde to the team, but on the whole, Millar just put too much on his plate to accomplish in this five-arc series. Individually this arc was a little frustrating, but as part of a greater whole (which we will see soon in trade paperback form) it is quite a compelling read.
“Year two has tried to focus on the inter-personal dynamics of the team a little more than the first year. It was such a huge part of the X-Men which, as a non-reader, I was quite unaware of. Giving them all equal screen-time is important. Really important,” Millar said.
Through all of this writing and adventuring, there comes the incredible effort put forth by artists like Adam Kubert, Chris Bachalo, and Kaare Andrews. Kubert is the regular artist for the series, and for my money, one of the best artists that Marvel has. Kubert’s covers have been one of the many highlights of this series, with drastically different approaches taken for each and every one. His Beast cover of issue #17 stands out in my mind, as does issue #20 featuring Xavier.
Kubert’s art on the inside is never quite as good as his work on the covers, but I mostly attribute that to the detail that colorist Richard Isanove adds to the covers. Not taking anything away from the regular inking and art teams, but Isanove has been producing something gorgeously unique since his work on the Origin mini-series and would be an incredible asset to the regular team on this book. Isanove’s work just goes to show that you don’t have to be an incredible artist to make things look outstanding.
Kubert’s work alternates between gorgeous and at times, lazy. His close-ups, drama, and backgrounds are wonders to behold, yet one gets the feelings that if he’s behind on his deadlines that the backgrounds start to disappear and we get farther away from the characters so there isn’t as much detail required. This is rare for Kubert, but for a ‘Year-In-Review’ it bears mentioning.
The fill-in artists this past year have been Chris Bachalo on ‘World Tour’ and Kaare Andrews for ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’. I was more excited about Bachalo, and there was quite a lot of hype drummed up because it was his big return to the halls of Marvel Comics. I’ve always been a huge fan of Bachalo’s, especially since his quirky days on Generation X. Though Bachalo’s art stands out in a trade paperback format as being quite different from Kubert’s, I thought the continued efforts of the colorist and inker kept that apparent difference from being too noticeable. I thought Bachalo was given room to shine while staying within the look and feel established for the series. I’m quite pleased to still have some Bachalo art to look at in the fantastic Ultimate War mini-series going on right now.
Kaare Andrews’ art provided a little harder for me to get into. I hadn’t been exposed to much of his art before ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ but Millar seemed so excited about his coming on board that I figured he’d be great. Though Andrews’ attention to backgrounds and expressions were fantastic, I couldn’t get around the coloring style used to depict the characters. I found that he kept to Kubert’s vision for the book, but the dark lines around the mouths and eyes proved a bit too distracting. Fantastic work, overall, but not quite my taste.
Writer Mark Millar has crafted quite a legacy with this book so far, and though he won’t be around past issue #33 there is no doubt that his influence will be felt on this title for years to come. My only real complaint about Millar’s more recent work on this title is that it so obviously suffers compared to his incredible work on The Ultimates. Then again, everything about The Ultimates is incredible and shocking, including how late it is every month.
Millar’s favorite issue was #20. “This is the one where Charles is so despondant about what's happened to the X-Men and how he's messed up the lives of these teenagers that he's going to give up. The twist I was most pleased with was Magneto being the one who actually convinces him to keep trying and believing in humanity. Either that or issue #15; which is where the book took a whole new direction in response to the hostility against Muslims and their extremist cult leaders,” Millar said.
Millar has never disappointed me, though. Each month he has kept me guessing and either blown my expectations out of the water, or taken me on turns I would never have imagined. He’s made these characters fresh and interesting while remain true to their original roots. It’s too bad he’s moving on to other things, but I can’t complain too much as we have an incredible catalogue of stories to read and re-read again over the years to come.
Ultimate X-Men has been a mixed bag over the past year. The major fault I found was with Millar’s lazy naming of the arcs such as ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ as the stories had almost nothing to do with what they were called. This lead to expectations of story elements and character appearances that fell somewhat short. Millar himself would take part of the blame for this as he often hinted to fans that characters would be appearing that unfortunately, when it came down to writing time, he didn’t have room for.
The characters themselves went through quite a lot, and Millar has done an excellent job of building plotlines that are quickly resolved leaving his next arc (or that of Brian Bendis’ who starts with issue #34) free for other explorations. Most fans complained that Millar didn’t give equal spotlight to the diverse cast, yet if you look closely each character went through a learning curve that was interesting and compelling.
Looking ahead, ‘Return of the King’ seems as though it will be the arc that will leave fans talking for years, and screaming for the return of Millar to this arc. Though the ‘King’ likely refers to Magneto, my sense is that the best Millar has to offer has come back to lead fans into one of the most exciting years for X-Men comics yet.
“Book Five (‘Return of the King’) is my swan-song on this book and is therefore the one I want people to remember. This is the arc I've been building towards since issue one as we see Magneto, a brand new Brotherhood, international terrorism on a preposterous scale, the team scattered, one of the team missing and feared dead, a possible traitor in the mix, the return of favourites like Rogue and Nightcrawler and the single most violent fight scene in the history of X-Men. This lasts for two issues and gives you Magneto like you've never seen him before. I think you'll like it,” said Millar.