Underrated: Ultimate X-Men
This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: Ultimate X-Men
Ultimate X-Men was a series launched under Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel imprint that aimed to do away with 40 years of so called convoluted continuity into a more modern and updated setting. The second title to launch after Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men was written by Mark Millar and drawn by Adam and Andy Kubert. Millar was largely ignorant of the storied history of the X-Men, and reinvented the characters with the 2000 X-Men film as his primary reference. Millar has admitted in an interview with Sequential Tart that he knew bugger all about the characters before Joe Queseda and Bill Jemas asked him to pitch for X-Men, expecting them to use the script as toilet paper. Instead, because Millar knew next to nothing about the franchise, they decided that he should be the one to reboot the X-Men for Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics.
Free from the shackles of the past Millar set about crafting a new, and more modern universe for the X-Men to inhabit aimed to bring a return to the mainstream appeal the franchise enjoyed years before.
Launching in 2001, Ultimate X-Men was also part of Marvel’s “dot-comics” format, which was an early translation of print to digital using a slightly animated Flash format. Comic pages would appear on the screen showing a handful of panels at a time, and speech and thought bubbles hovering over the characters. The format would eventually pave the way toward Marvel Unlimited. Although not the first comic on the dot-comics format, it was one of the first that I read that way. Because the dot-comics were free to whomever had an internet connection and the patience to read the comics in their episodic form (if memory serves, five or so pages were uploaded every few days), they were a great way for people like myself to get introduced to a series that I otherwise would not have before.
Although I had previously dabbled in the X-Universe before, I was never a constant reader. Ultimate X-Men drew me into reading an ongoing series featuring Marvel’s merry mutants for the first time. The characters were familiar and yet felt fresh, the situations they were in reflected more of the world around them than the main Marvel universe characters did. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. It was here, with a newly discovered love of the characters that I truly became an X-Men fan and not just a Wolverine fan. At the time the irony that the series was being written by a man who knew bugger all about the characters was something I was unaware of, but the benefit of hindsight brings into sharp focus that provided one is a competent writer and has some understanding of the subject, then the essence of characters one is writing about shine through. And Millar, for the most part, had that understanding.
Running from 2001 until 2009 where it was cancelled at the conclusion of the critical and commercial failure of the Ultimatum crossover, Ultimate X-Men enjoyed nearly a decade as the fan favourite X-title. Although it was eventually relaunched as Ultimate Comics X-Men in 2011, the series never enjoyed the success of its pre-Ultimatum days.
Would Ultimate X-Men have worked had it been released today? Although we’ll probably never know, you can look at DC’s New 52 and to a lesser extent the successor to the Ultimate line (Ultimate Comics) to get an idea – although there are obvious faults with either comparison. The New 52 replaced DC’s continuity in its entirety, to much chatter from fans, and the Ultimate Comcs line tried to pick up after the failure of Ultimatum which had driven many fans away already. However you look at it, for nearly ten years Ultimate X-Men, and some of its companions under Marvel’s Ultimate line, were among the pinnacle of superhero comics. The reimagining of the characters, stripping them down to their core and putting them in a different world was a brave choice, but one that I, and thousands like me, fell in love with.
I grew up reading Ultimate X-Men, both as a comics fan and a human, and it hurts me a little to see people ignore it as an unimportant part of Marvel’s past because it’s not chronologically relevant in the X-Men’s story. It’s not, not really, but that doesn’t mean the stories told under the Ultimate X-Men banner remain among some of my most cherished to this day. If, for whatever reason, you haven’t read them then you can find the collected editions easily enough at your favourite online retailer (or, maybe your LCS can get them in for you).
That’s all we have for this week, folks. Come back next time when there’s something else Underrated to talk about.