Review: Ultimate X #4

By | March 31st, 2011
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

Written by Jeph Loeb
Illustrated by Arthur Adams

The Ultimate Universe’s most talked about series continues! Ultimate Spider-Man Peter Parker’s classmate Liz Allen vanished after Ultimatum. Where has she been hiding and what connection does she have to the terrible horrible Blob? Join the new cast of Ultimate X as they head to Southern California to find out these secrets and more when Eisner award-winning writer JEPH LOEB and master illustrator ARTHUR ADAMS bring you the next thrilling chapter in this critically-acclaimed series that’s selling out everywhere!

Like a ship steering its way out of the Bermuda Triangle, Ultimate X arrives some nine months after the last issue, acting as if service had never been interrupted. Jeph Loeb and Art Adams continue along their path, showing us Jean Grey and the son of Wolverine recruiting an All-New, All-Different, Possibly-X-Men… but at this astonishingly delayed rate, should we even care?

Let’s talk about that, and other things like feelings, after the jump, where we can let it all hang out.

Jeph Loeb writes comics like they’re movies. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself until you remember that Jeph Loeb started as a Hollywood screenwriter, and then, as with all things cinematic, it comes down to a matter of taste. Famous credits to Jeph Loeb’s name: Commando, Teen Wolf. So, yes, he writes comics like they’re movies, but he writes them like those movies. Subtlety isn’t even worth asking about, and let’s face it: if you fall asleep somewhere in the middle of Teen Wolf, you can wake up toward the end and not really miss a beat. Sure, there’s a whole, you know, plot, with characters and all that. It’s also a series of set-pieces about Michael J. Fox being a werewolf though, and as long as you know that much, you’re pretty golden.

To this end, Jeph Loeb does not write complicated or especially deep comics. He’s given his due accolades for things like Batman: The Long Halloween and the “color” series, but without even bringing Tim Sale into it, the secret ingredient in those stories is that he’s playing in the past, with stories that have to some extent already been written, and characters whose motivations and problems have been laid out well in advance. All Loeb has to do is take what’s old and give it a Hollywood polish, adding schmaltz or shadow as the need arises.

Left to his own devices, Loeb’s comics tend to simply take one idea and push on it until it’s over. Ultimate New Ultimates, his most recently completed project, spent five issues (and five narrators, to no real purpose) doing one thing: bringing Thor back, and making everyone have a big fight before, during, and after that process. He kept things moving through twists right out of a standard-issue spy movie (or TV show): “Oh, that person was faking all along!” “Oh, but he was crazy all along!” “Oh, but she has to make a deal with the devil!” Etc.

When Loeb gets more ambitious, as he attempted with the Defenders vs. Offenders arc in Hulk, he trips over his feet, like someone telling a story but getting so excited that they leave out the middle. When the Defenders and the Offenders clashed, so much attention was lavished upon people breaking each other’s teeth with thunderous punches, that the bendy time-travel nature of the plot was almost an afterthought. Now just think: doesn’t that sound a bit like some kind of big-budget science fiction CGI action romp?

With those expectations in mind — that Jeph Loeb is a fair hand at revamping what we already know into something slick and easily digested, but that he suffers when left to plot his own tales — Ultimate X is the furthest possible thing from a surprise. The cliches fly fast and furious in a plotline that works with the efficiency of an assembly-line television drama. At C2E2, a bit of a deal was made about how one of the pages in the book was mistakenly printed without dialogue. You know what? I got by just fine without it. Part of that is due to the confidence of Art Adams’s storytelling, but we’ll get to that later. I’m not done picking apart this Loeb thing yet.

When last we left Liz Allen, she was made the de facto Ultimate Firestar in the “Amazing Friends” arc over in Ultimate Spider-Man (years ago). This was a departure from non-Ultimate Liz Allen, who married Harry Osborn until his case of Goblinitis ruined their lives and her nerves, and then dated Foggy Nelson until being written off into oblivion sometime during the Kevin Smith run (she’s probably reappeared since, but nothing big enough for me to notice, I guess). Here, things are both less and more complicated: Liz is a mutant, who’s had to change schools and build a new life across the country due to post-Ultimatum anti-mutant hysteria. This puts her on the radar of the new X-Men that Jean Grey is assembling.

Continued below

In the meantime, Jeph Loeb breaks out everything but the kitchen sink to remind us that this is a dramatic story set in a high school. We get zany antics filmed on cameraphones for YouTube, picked-upon misfits with disciplinary problems and self-esteem issues, embarrassing siblings, people saying “OMG” aloud… and on and on, all the way up to the near-token school shooting. Give Loeb some credit, though — once it goes from being high-school melodrama to mutant-terrorism melodrama, the story turns on its heel nicely until its bizarre, rushed end. Then again, maybe speeding through the drama beats of the ending was a knowing wink to Quicksilver making the scene, but really, it’s just wonky pacing.

Ultimate X #4 is front-loaded with content establishing Liz’s privileged new life, so that she can throw it all away in the last couple pages once the X-Men (or whatever Jean and Jimmy’s group is) get involved. We’re presumably meant to remark upon her sacrifice, how hard it must be to turn her back on all of it — but she really doesn’t have a choice, does she? There’s a wooden quality to Liz’s dilemma, a sense that she’s moving through what the plot needs her to move through and not building (or demonstrating) any real character to speak of. Team books can survive that, but not this issue: the other protagonists barely appear, and four issues (and two years) in, we’re still not sure what their plan is. This is Liz’s big issue, and she kind of blows the opportunity.

Lucky for us that we have Art Adams, then. By all accounts, the massive delay between Ultimate X #3 and 4 was due to Adams. He was never the fastest guy, but his already slow output ground to a halt when he and his wife (fellow illustrator Joyce Chin) had their first baby. One can only imagine that with newborns requiring constant maintenance when they’re not asleep, some of these pages must have been done under rough conditions. With the art shot right from the original pencils and turned over to Peter Steigerwald to color (in the bright, sunny pallette of some MTV show about rich kids), it occasionally shows. Figures fill the panels to cover for a lack of backgrounds on some pages. Adams’s obsessive detailing of backgrounds relaxes throughout. His signature style of cross-hatching is still prevalent, but for the most part, we’re not treated to the master-class in how to render minute textures that we might expect.

Stripping the surface detailing away reveals the master storyteller that Adams has become over the course of his career. As I noted before, one page is dialogue-free by production error; the entire book could go without, and the visuals alone would be able to at least present a semi-coherent narrative. In a comic whose overall story has such off pacing, Adams’s layouts give each page clarity unto themselves, calmly working through the story beats without ever getting confusing or cluttered. As ever, his faces and body types can be a bit same-y (shave Jean and Liz bald and wipe off their make-up, and see if you can name who’s who), but his cartoony, exaggerated characters are ideal here. In a story cobbled together out of ain’t-it-cool moments and genre flagstones, the subtle expressions of Steve Dillon or Michael Lark would be wasted.

Still, just because something’s good enough doesn’t mean it’s great. At the end of the day, Ultimate X #4 had us wait a year for a legendary artist delivering work visibly removed from the top of his game, and a writer serving us microwaved syndicated-TV re-runs. And we still don’t know what the hell Jean is up to. I wish I could say I was compelled to find out, but, well…

Final Verdict: 5.0 – Browse/Pass

Patrick Tobin

Patrick Tobin (American) is likely shaming his journalism professors from the University of Glasgow by writing about comic books. Luckily, he's also written about film for The Drouth and The Directory of World Cinema: Great Britain. He can be reached via e-mail right here.