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ULTIMATE X-MEN

Mark Millar and Adam Kubert on relaunching Marvel's number one franchise.

By Russell Lissau     December 20, 2000

Before you read the first issue of Ultimate X-Men, you've got to do one important thing: Forget everything you know about Professor Charles Xavier's merry band of mutants.

Forget the heroes you love. Forget the villains you hate. Forget the costumes. Forget the love triangles. Forget the characters' pasts. Forget their many possible futures. In other words, forget the continuity that has been a bothersome weight around practically every X-writer's neck for years, the continuity that has completely confounded countless readers for as long as Wolverine has needed a good shave. (And that's a really long time.)

With Ultimate X-Men, all you knew about comicdom's favorite mutant heroesor thought you knewwent out with the morning trash. Writer Mark Millar and artist Adam Kubert have pumped new blood into a 37-year-old comics franchise thatdespite a recent summer blockbusterhas been showing its age. By revamping the characters and filling the debut issue with so many fast-paced action sequences that your eyes will get whiplash, they've created what surely will be one of the hottest comics of the new year.

So what if the adventures in Ultimate X-Men don't fit into the current goings-on in the Marvel Universe. Who says it has to fit in anyway? Standing tall on your own is what the X-Men are all about.

'It's differentit's totally different,' Kubert says proudly. 'It's going to be what people don't expect.'

The New Wave

The new title is the second in Marvel's new Ultimate line, following Ultimate Spider-Man. Just as Ultimate Spider-Man has overhauled Peter Parker's legendary tale and made it fresh for a new generation of readers, Ultimate X-Men simplifies decades of comics history by modernizing and reinventing the team. It starts with a core group of characters fans will identify as current or former X-Men, characters non-readers will easily recognize as archetypal heroes: Cyclops, Marvel Girl, the Beast, Iceman, Colossus and Storm. Conspicuously absent from the list is Wolverinebut that will change soon, Millar promises. Although all of the aforementioned heroes are well into their adult years in regular continuity, Ultimate X-Men returns them to their teens, just as the original X-Men started out as adolescents back in 1963.

In case you were counting, there are only a handful of mutants in this version of the X-Men, far fewer than are part of the X-teams over in the Marvel Universe. The Ultimate X-Men lineup is deliberately small to eliminate the reader confusion and disinterest that are all-too common with the other X-books, according to Millar. 'A real problem I had as a reader when the stands were choked with X-titles is that I had no idea who most of these guys were,' he says. 'But Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman, Wolverine, Colossus and Storm just are the X-Men as far as I'm concerned. They're the most interesting, well-designed characters the franchise has to offer. These characters have personality, and that's what interests me about them as a writer.'

Like Ultimate Spider-Man, the new series updates all of the X-Men for a 21st Century audience. For example, the new Beast is hipper and far less brainy than his counterpart in the Marvel Universe; Jean Grey's flowing red hair has been replaced by a short-cropped hairdo, and her new fashion sense would be perfect in wild South Beach; Colossus is a tough illegal arms dealer, not an artistic Soviet peasant; and Wolverine...well, let's just say that Wolverine still is the best at what he does, but who he does it for is very different in the Ultimate universe.

The heroes' costumes have been updated, too, clearly inspired by the recent motion picture. Rather than wearing individually tailored jumpsuits of various colors and designs, as the X-characters in the Marvel Universe do, all of the X-Men in the new book are decked out in sleek, black and very serious-looking outfits. The costume changes were important for Millar. 'We just hit a point where we realized that the same stupid names and costumes designs had been used for more than half a century, and that it was time to try something new,' the Scottish writer says. 'Superheroes generally look stupid. My new rule of thumb is never to actually put a character into something you couldn't buy in a London or New York clothes store.'

'Right off the bat you want this book to be different and look different,' Kubert adds. 'If you're dealing with the same costumes and the regular characters, then it's [just] another X-Men book. What sets this apart is that the characters are really different. They're ages are different, and their attitudes are different. The relationships within the group are different. And we want to make them different. But we don't want to make them unrecognizable.'

One essential thing about Ultimate X-Men will carry over from the traditional X-books: The mutant heroes still are despised by the humans they are trying to protect. That discrimination is key to the X-Men mythology. 'I like the idea that the X-Men are committed to helping the same people who fear and hate them just because they're different,' Kubert says. 'Prejudice, at its core, is a concept that everyone at one time or another can personally relate to. It's a concept that will always remain contemporary and is not bound to any one age group.'

Revamping the Right Way

The Ultimate line isn't the first time comics publishers have tried to jumpstart their lines by revamping characters. Marvel has done it a few times, with projects including 'Heroes Reborn' and 'Marvel 2099,' but only with limited success. The biggestand hands-down the bestcomics overhaul in many fans' eyes was DC's recreation of its entire universe in the 1950s and 1960s, the start of what eventually became the Silver Age of comics. To his credit, Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada resists comparisons to these other projects. 'This is the here and now,' Quesada says. 'We're just trying to do good comics.'

As fans may have heard, Millar wasn't the original writer chosen for Ultimate X-Men. Brian Michael Bendis, who writes both Ultimate Spider-Man and the forthcoming Ultimate Marvel: Spider-Man and... team-up series, was tapped for the job first but couldn't come up with the right kind of proposal for the series. Quesada then recommended Millar to Marvel President of Publishing and New Media Bill Jemas, who has championed the Ultimate line from its start. Knowing what Millar has planned for the series, Quesadawho compared Millar's popular work on The Authority, Swamp Thing and other titles to blockbuster action moviesis confident they've got the right man for the job. 'We're dead-on with Mark Millar,' Quesada says. 'He understands character, and he understands action sequences. There's something really kinetic and wonderful about his writing.'

Millar certainly appreciates the opportunity. He is sure the series will be a hit, attracting new readers to tales of the X-Men and retaining the faithful fans who have followed the heroes for years. 'I think anyone who likes comics is going to really enjoy this book, but people who like the X-Men will be especially pleased because someone is actually taking the book seriously and treating the concept with the respect it deserves,' Millar says. 'I took on Ultimate X-Men because I really believe in it. It's hard to believe now, but the X-books were actually regarded as the more sophisticated comic books 15 or 20 years ago. I really want to bring that intelligence back to the title. Grant Morrison and Joe Casey (the new writers on the main X-Men titles) will be doing the same thing in the regular books, too. By the end of 2001, I want the X-books to be the most respected titles in the industry because the readers are smart and they deserve it.'

Uncanny X-Men and its various spin-offs may be the best-selling comics of the past two decades, but not every fanboy or fangirl is into the series. For proof, look no further than Kubert himself. Kubert (whose credits also include Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk and Uncanny X-Men) and his younger brother, fellow penciler Andy Kubert (X-Men, Ka-Zar) never were exposed to Marvel funnybooks as youngsters in the 1960s and 1970s. They were strictly DC Comics readers, thanks to their father, legendary DC artist and editor Joe Kubert. Marvel books never made it past the front door of the Kubert home. 'I didn't even know Marvel existed when I was a kid,' Kubert recalls. 'My dad worked at DC, and he brought home DC [books], and that's all we read.'

Today, Kubert believes his parent-imposed comics isolationism actually helped him become a better artist. It especially pays off on Ultimate X-Men, in which he is trying to reach potential fans who may not know much about the comics-version of the X-Menjust as he didn't as a child. 'For me that's an advantage, because I didn't have any preconceived notions as to what the X-Men were about,' Kubert says. 'When I dove into Wolverine, that was my Wolverine. That wasn't anyone else's Wolverine. And that's been my approach with any character that I do.'

Most of the characters appearing in the first issue of Ultimate X-Men were designed not by Kubert but by artist Salvador Larocca (Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four). But Kubert has left his mark on a few of the heroes and villains, including Colossus, Iceman and Quicksilver. He also is developing new looks for the Toad, Mastermind, the Blob and other members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who are only seen briefly in the premiere issue. 'In the first issue I left them in the shadows because I haven't figured out what to do with them to make them different enough,' Kubert says. 'I really want to sit down and figure them out.'

X-Citing New Tales

Millar's storytelling plans for Ultimate X-Men also break with tradition. Most importantly, he promises that none of his arcs will last for more than six issues. Although some themes will be carried over from arc to arc, all sub-plots will wrap up nicely every six months, thus doing away with comicdom's dreaded C-word. 'I really want to get rid of the concept of continuity altogether,' Millar says. 'The strategy is basically the opposite of just about every Marvel and DC book written in the last 10 years. I'm approaching every script from the point of view of someone who has literally never read a comic in their life.'

If the debut issue is any indication, this first arc is going to be a whopper. 'I don't want to give too much away, but the first storyline is basically the battle between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which should, I hope, re-establish Magneto as comics premiere bad guy,' Millar says. 'The second storyline focuses a little more on Wolverine, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the covert S.H.I.E.L.D. division called Weapon X. Unfortunately, I can't say much else without giving too much away, but we've got some nice stuff coming up like Wolverine shagging Jean, Magneto taking on the Sentinels, Magneto leveling Washington and executing the President, and various little fun things like that.'

With teases like that, Ultimate X-Men should have no trouble pulling in readers. In fact, a primary objective of the Ultimate line is to draw new fans to comics, and Ultimate X-Men is no exception. The book will be a cornerstone of the soon-to-be-released Ultimate Marvel Magazine that, starting in January, will be sold at mainstream magazine racks across the country. Every month, the magazine will reprint Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men stories for readers who wouldn't be caught dead inside a traditional comics shop but who may not mind picking up a superhero adventure at their local bookstore or supermarket.

The market definitely seems to be there; the successes of the X-Men film this past summer and the new X-Men: Evolution cartoon certainly appear to be proving that. 'One goal of Ultimate X-Men is to turn X-Men fans into comic book readers,' Jemas says. 'Millionsyes, millionsof people around the world loved the X-Men movie, DVD and video. Millions more are watching the original and new X-Men shows on Fox and Kids' WB! and in syndication around the world.'

Quesada believes people who got hooked on the X-characters through the film and cartoons will enjoy Ultimate X-Men, as will veteran X-fans and comics readers. 'The goal was to do something that was a little closer to the movie without being the movie, something that was a little closer to the animation without being the animation, to try to attract some of those customers,' Quesada explains. 'But once you get close to the movie or the animation, you naturally get close to the purity of these characters, what this book started out with back in the day. It's sort of a back-to-basics approach. We're going to strike those chords that originally got X-Men fans to pick up this book, the whole mutant/human dilemma. It's very simply getting back to the archetypes of what these books are about.

'We're crossing our fingers,' Quesada adds. 'But I really think this is going to be quite successful.'

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