The Xavier Institute: And Now For Something Completely Different

by Tony Thornley

Welcome back! We were delayed a little bit by the holiday and a vacation last week. One again though, we dive into an X-Men story of yesteryear. This week, I’m dving deep into an alternate universe X-Men story (hence our title today!). It’s a little complicated though, but hey, it’s X-Men- what isn’t?

Marvel’s Ultimate line launched shortly after the turn of the century. When the line launched we were promised modern takes on the origins of the Marvel Universe, and that’s definitely what we got. In Ultimate X-Men, the team was a lot bigger and more diverse from the beginning, the action was widescreen, and the characters were very millennial.

It was a very fun series but as time went on, it began to wear down. Essentially, trying to put a new twist on old stories got old. Sinister was turned into a turned into a cultish gang banger. Cable was revealed to be a future version of Wolverine. Don’t get me started on Apocalypse (because I still don’t understand what the hell happened).

Then in 2009, the Ultimate team wisely realized that they had a very cool opportunity. The Ultimate universe was a universe unburdened by the need to perpetually maintain status quo. So they went nuts, starting with an infamous event miniseries called Ultimatum.

I’m not here to talk about Ultimatum today. Don’t worry. However, what the event did to the X-Men is probably the most interesting of the line’s changes in the immediate aftermath. The X-Men were decimated. Mainstays like Wolverine, Cyclops, Beast and Nightcrawler were dead. So were Xavier and Magneto. Mutants became outlaws just for existing.

So what book exactly am I talking about today? Well, we’re jumping ahead about three years in publishing time and maybe a year in story, to talk about Brian Wood’s run that ended up capping the series.

Ultimate Comics X-Men by Brian Wood volume 1 collects Ultimate Comics X-Men #18.1-23 and features art by (ready for this?) Filipe Andrade, Paco Medina & Juan Vlasco, Carlo Barberi & Vlasco, David Baldeon & Jordi Tarragona, and Barberi & Don Ho, color art by Jean-Francis Beaulieu, Jesus Aburtov, Javier Tartaglia, and letters by Joe Sabino. It’s quite a diverse spread of artists, but their styles are similar enough that it doesn’t cause whiplash.

So before we get into the story here, there’s a weird thing I need to point out. This is not Brian Wood’s first Ultimate Comics X-Men story. It’s actually his second–he took over the series with the Divided We Fall/United We Stand crossover between Ultimates, Spider-Man and X-Men that started for X-Men in #13. The X-Men (and Ultimates) portion of that crossover is only collected in the Divided We Fall/United We Stand collection. Don’t know why, but whatever.

Honestly though, you don’t need to read that collection if you don’t want to. You should. It’s very good. But if you wanted to start with this collection, you can, because Wood does a great job of catching the reader up quickly.

The US Government has admitted that mutants are a bio-engineered species (which was one of the ground-shattering revelations about this universe as a whole) and have offered mutants an out. There’s a cure, and if they wish to have it, they get it for free. Those who don’t will be transported to their own new sovereign mutant nation in Southern Utah. The story starts at the remains of a concentration camp in the American southwest that once held mutants (interestingly enough- they were run by fascists who attempted to split from the United States).

From that point, the story is about rebuilding as the mutant race dwindles down to nothing. The X-Men aren’t a group of heroes any more. They’re an icon of the dying mutant race.

One thing Wood does so well here is explore what superhumans can do besides flights and tights. Using Kitty Pryde as both the POV character and the leader of the group, we see struggles on multiple fronts, that are remarkably realistic for the situation. Even though the promises of a mutant nation come from President Steve Rogers (yeah Captain America becomes president in the Ultimate Universe!), it’s clear that he’s not the one that does anything logistically. The reservation- dubbed Utopia (ironically)–is placed on an abandoned proving ground. It’s a graveyard.

But then Wood makes the most logical leap from there. Before he gets there, we have to understand one of the other great things Wood does. Much of the Ultimate Marvel universe is about new takes on existing characters. It wasn’t until after Ultimatum that we really got original characters to the universe (most famously Miles Morales). Wood however takes several new characters and establishes them as important parts of the new mutant movement.

One of these characters is Blackheath, a vine-haired mutant with the ability to manipulate plants. In working with Storm to create food for Utopia, Blackheath instead creates a mutant plant- adaptable to any condition, impervious to any weather or famine, and able to produce any food (though the last one isn’t really elaborated on). For the first time though, we see hints of superhumans being able to affect the world for the better.

Naturally this doesn’t sit well, but the exploration of the consequences of these actions are fascinating. Some powerful people try to cause problems for the mutants directly. Meanwhile, laws are passed preventing “the Sentient Seed” from moving into Europe, and agriculture futures crash.

I love this concept. I would have loved to see it come to its natural conclusion, too. I mean not just Sentient Seeds, but also Tony Stark giving the world free renewable energy, or Reed Richards permanently fixing climate change. It’s a great concept for a fictional world, and I firmly believe the Ultimate Universe may have gone there if it had continued.

For casual fans of the X-Men, I’m going to tell you- this will not be the X-Men you recognize. Jimmy Hudson is basically the second lead of the series, and he’s an interesting character… but he’s not Wolverine. Some of the biggest X-Men are either dead or just missing. Colossus and Jean Grey both barely appear. A lot of faces show up you won’t recognize.

Does that mean you shouldn’t read it? Absolutely not. These are fascinating X-Men comics, and tell a story that we’re extremely unlikely to get in the core Marvel continuity. For a longtime fan it’s pretty rewarding to see what begins to happen here though. It pays off a lot of “what if mutants made the world better?” debates that fans have had since time immemorial.

As far as the art goes–it’s well done for most of the volume, but also a bit unremarkable. Medina is a great artist, and in my opinion, grossly underrated. He really only does one issue though, and hands off the art chores from his run to date. Barberi though is stylistically similar, making for a smooth handoff. Barberi and Vlasco though give us solid work. The characters are expressive and they do their best to keep things interesting, even though these issues are VERY talky. It’s good, but not great.

I think this is a story worth checking out for no other reason that seeing some very cool things done with the franchise that we haven’t seen much. It’s definitely worth a reread too for anyone who checked it out originally and haven’t picked it up in years.

Ultimate Comics X-Men by Brian Wood volume 1 can be found digitally and in comic book stores.

Leave a Reply