“Sometimes it hurts to be a little different.”
That’s the opening line for Mark Millar’s polarizing take on the X-Men. Mark Millar had been a major established writer, as detailed in Colin’s excellent series on Millar’s work, prior to being asked to write Ultimate X-Men. He had worked with Marvel on several projects before being tapped to pen a rebooted and modernized take on the Marvel Universe. The selection of Millar was certainly logical as he had a deep love of superheroes and his writing style of bombastic stories would theoretically attract many new readers. But Millar himself admitted that he was not a fan of X-Men growing up. Marvel suggested that Millar see Bryan Singer’s X-Men film before making his pitch on the series. With only a minimal knowledge of X-Men Millar wrote an inventive 35 issue-run (with four of the issues being a crossover comic with his other series The Ultimates). Millar’s approach to the book was commercially successful, with sales second only to his one-time friend Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. However, the run had a mixed reception, with hardcore X-Men fans rejecting Millar’s alternative take on the series. While there are many fair criticisms to be levelled at the series, it seems unjust that such a fantastic series is relegated to a footnote in most comic fans eyes.
The first storyline to debut the series begins with a dramatic hook of watching Sentinels shoot-on-sight several mutants. The drama along with the opening line suggests a government that approves attacks on civilians. From this introduction we see a series that takes concepts of the Marvel Universe far more gravely than others. The debut issue also focuses on labelling all mutants as allies of the terrorist organization, the Brotherhood of Mutants. This interpretation of the Brotherhood is far more lethal, and is disturbingly similar to Al-Qaeda which is surprising given that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened after the first storyline. Millar provides through science-fiction a scathing indictment of American culture. America’s response to mutant terrorist attacks was to create weapons that target and kill all mutants regardless of political allegiance. Millar gravely states that America’s immediate response to attacks is violent and irrational, blanketing all members of a minority as enemies of the state. Given that after the attack on Pearl Harbor the Americans interred Japanese-Americans, this unnatural paranoia depicted by Millar is not unprecedented. Millar also is able to identify a specific cause for mutant hatred. Rather than racism that is born from cultural norms hatred of mutants in the Ultimate Universe stems from fear of attacks by the Brotherhood. Such hatred is far more understandable as it reflects natural hasty judgment and masking fear with hate.
From this stark depiction of attacks, readers are then informed of the Brotherhood of Mutants leader Magneto who describes his terrorist attacks as natural selection. What is fascinating is that within the first pages Millar draws greater distinction from the mainstream Marvel Universe. Not only is Magneto actively targeting innocent civilians but he is completely divorced from identifying as a mutant human. Instead Magneto espouses the belief that mutants are genuinely a separate species from humans. This vantage point is never greatly explored in most mainstream depictions of mutants. Most writers and characters within the Marvel Universe treat mutants as humans with superpowers, they are the next stage of evolution, not a separate species. But Magneto does not see himself as even remotely human, and creates a mutant language and mutant names to rid his species of being confused with humans. While Millar could have simply allowed this attitude to be solely the opinion of the villains of his story he has it be the expressed opinion of the benevolent and enlightened Charles Xavier. Xavier similarly refers to non-mutants as humans and expresses a similar disassociation with humans. In fact, all of the mutants in the X-Men and Brotherhood view themselves as a separate species, with a strong confusion at human culture in general. This disassociation with humanity eventually leads the frustrated Cyclops to leave the Brotherhood as he cannot tolerate appeasement with a species that is so wantonly cruel to his kind.
The cast and characterization for most of the X-Men in the book is mostly similar to their mainstream counterparts. The greatest difference in the introductory work is the characterization of Storm who speaks and behaves like a teenager. But Millar’s interpretation of Cyclops and Marvel Girl is more engaging. Millar treats Cyclops not as a perfect boy scout or an introvert but as an emotionally sensitive young man who is confused. The controversial decision of Cyclops joining the Brotherhood comes across less as “shock value” or a plot device but as a decision that any young man could make given the difficult circumstances. Cyclops is impatient for major change and cannot help but be drawn to the message of mutant pride and defending his people against slaughter by his enemies. His opposition to Magneto is not in Magneto’s social ideals for mutant society, which indeed are shown to be as progressive as Xavier’s but the inseparable methods Magneto seeks to realize his goals. Cyclops moral compass is that which makes him endearing, he always wants to do the right thing and is simply uncertain until the end of The Tomorrow People of what is the right way. But forced to choose between Xavier and Magneto, Cyclops not only returns to the X-Men but is able to convince Magneto’s own children to rebel against their father.
Millar’s most daring and radical departure from the norm, however, is his characterization of Wolverine. While some aspects of the first storyline of Ultimate X-Men seem radically different, most of the narrative is not a vast departure from mainstream Marvel. However, Millar’s treatment of Wolverine is indeed a radically different take on the character in which he is a member of the Brotherhood of Mutants and sent to kill Charles Xavier. Wolverine is treated far darker, with the scars from being tortured by Weapon X simply too deep to have any empathy or compassion. Throughout most of The Tomorrow People we are genuinely uncertain if Wolverine is deceiving or has genuinely joined the X-Men until the conclusion of the narrative. Wolverine was originally conceived as the dark member of the X-Men, the renegade of the group whose unpredictability and rebellious nature made it impossible for anyone to trust or even like him. Millar takes this approach to new levels of darkness as Wolverine personally delights in having seduced Jean Grey while Cyclops bitterly watches from afar. Millar’s Wolverine in the Ultimate Universe in his introduction lacks the underlying nobility of the mainstream Wolverine. Instead, Wolverine is a violent animal that makes some genuine amount of reform by the end, but is still sorely lacking in compassion.
The climax of the story is a fantastic concept of retaliation by the mutants. Magneto’s angry militant attitudes combined with genuine tragedy makes him reverse the death machines onto humans. Millar may be giving readers the casual warning that relying too much on technological superiority is unwise. But then again, it also is simply an excellent action-story development, as The Tomorrow People was inspired by Independence Day. The conclusion see’s Magneto attack the source of the Sentinel program, and forces George W. Bush to lick his boots. Magneto is desperate to reinforce the fears humanity has for mutants, in particular enforcing the notion that might-makes-right. The chilling image has Magneto make the most powerful human on Earth a figure of mockery to the almighty mutant. Millar is not greatly sympathetic to Magneto, much like his colleague Grant Morrison, he see’s Erik Lensherr as a mad-terrorist whose violence offers nothing to society. His coldness is also reflected in his constant belittling of his twins, with a particular disdain for Quicksilver whose only sin was trying to get his father to love him. Magneto has forsaken his genuine friend Charles and is justly punished by his son for his unfair treatment. Once made vulnerable Magneto, becomes the same groveling embarrassment that he forced the President to be. Xavier unsympathetic to his monstrous former-friend simply remarks, “Give my regards to the Dodo old friend.”
The Tomorrow People serves as an excellent start to a series. It is not perfect as it is lacking in the development of most of the mutant team aside from Cyclops, Marvel Girl and Wolverine. However, the story is an effective draw as Millar took the series to more science-fiction and blockbuster-action for the series with a mix of comedy and romance to spice things up. As Charles Xavier promises, bigger things are to come.