Sometimes, a story comes along that reminds you why you started reading comic books.
For me, that story is Ultimate Comics X #1.
No, this isn't an early review of this week's debut issue, and I'm not trying to sell you on it. But as I sat down to write the introduction to this interview with writer Jeph Loeb, my usual straightforward, "just-the-facts" style didn't really fit.
So before we get to what Loeb had to say about Ultimate X, his new ongoing comic with illustrator Art Adams, it's time for a testimonial: Loeb was the reason I started reading comics in the first place. The Daredevil: Yellow comic he did with Tim Sale was one of my firsts, and it introduced me to the idea that superhero comics could be mature without being gritty, could have a deep emotional resonance while still having fun.
When I had the opportunity to read Ultimate Comics X #1 for this interview, it reminded me more of Daredevil: Yellow than the Loeb comics I've been reading lately. And while there's always room in entertainment for big, blockbuster stories like The Hulk and Ultimatum, Ultimate X returns this writer to a type of story that reminded me of the Jeph Loeb who captured my imagination years ago.
At its most basic description, Ultimate X is reviving the X-Men corner of the Ultimate Universe, but without the original X-Men team – many of whom died or disappeared during Ultimatum. In fact, the entire Ultimate Universe has been devastated by Magneto's actions during that event, and now mutants are more mistrusted than ever.
This brand new group of "X" characters who come together in Ultimate X was teased by Marvel a couple weeks ago in an image that had a few characters who looked familiar – and others that didn't. One of them looked a lot like a "Hulk," and another had claws, although Wolverine was killed during Ultimatum.
Loeb wouldn't reveal a lot about that teaser image, nor could either of us spoil the first issue, but we talked about his choice to write an X-team origin that makes use of the intimate while still incorporating that youthful excitement that is reminiscent of the X-world's beginnings.
Newsarama: Jeph, reading through this issue was a bit of a surprise on two levels. First was that it doesn't come across as what I can only label the "traditional team set-up" comic, with the banter and comical ribbing you'd expect from a super-powered group. That's not here. And it's also surprising because it's so very different from your recent work on Ultimatum and The Hulk. Is that something you specifically wanted to do, this different type of story?
Jeph Loeb: I would like to think I have a different approach to every project. But yes, this one in particular was something that was meant to have a different feel to it. Ultimatum was and is very much a Michael Bay movie. It's a big, noisy, disaster story about a massive change in the Ultimate Universe that was oriented with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar and Joe Quesada and a whole team of people, coming up with where we saw the future of this very special place. Dave Finch and Peter Steigerwald just did an amazing job capturing the spectacle and emotion. I specifically tailored it to be a big, blockbuster-y kind of thing.
In some ways, Ultimate X is a very direct opposite to that project. Arthur Adams is such a gifted illustrator that he could give me anything I ask for. I wanted to tell a smaller, quieter, more character driven story and when you do that, you need an artist who can deliver on the tiniest of details. That’s Arthur Adams.
Nrama: Even when you were doing Ultimatum, did you know you'd be switching gears like this in your next Ultimate project?
Loeb: From the very beginning, when we started talking about the aftermath, I knew that I wanted to do something that was much more small, and much more intimate.
So I approached it completely differently. I spent a lot of time looking at things like Superman For All Seasons, Daredevil: Yellow, and Spider-Man: Blue, which started out very slow and small and character-driven. And I was also very influenced by the first five issues of Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis. I don't know that people really remember how long Brian took to introduce the cast, and getting to the place where Spider-Man even got into his costume. I wanted to have the same opportunity for these characters to let the aftermath of Ultimatum settle.
It's always very hard, when you do something like Ultimatum, to tell stories about what happened after the big invasion, after the great calamity. It's particularly challenging in the Ultimate Universe that wears a reality that’s close to the “real” world. When you try to tell stories about New York after 9/11, or you try to tell stories right now with the terrible things that are going on in Haiti, comics can offer the canvas to show, as difficult as it is, the triumph of the human spirit, and how we have to go on, and do go on.
So I wanted the next book to be about hope, and about what the world was going to be like after this terrible thing happened.
Nrama: It does seem like there's fear surrounding the characters, but in this first issue, it didn't feel like fear is the central emotion experienced by the characters. It does seem like there's a youthful hope. Yet will we see more of the fear side in the aftermath of Ultimatum?
Loeb: It's not an easy place to live in. I'm not sure that, for a lot of people, the real world is an easy place to live in. And yet we still soldier on. And because we find heroes in that world, we're able to find hope. So that's really where it's going.
Nrama: Am I right in interpreting this as a young group, much like the original X-Men?
Loeb: Yes. The idea is to focus on a group of people whose lives are starting out. And that's very much a theme of the story, which is about both starting over and starting out. So for a lot of these people, they may never have done this before. And that includes already established heroes – they may be in situations that they've never had to experience, because it is a different world.
Nrama: These young characters... will they be fighting bad guys most of the time? Or is it more about their individual struggles? Or a combination?
Loeb: It's a combination. The idea is to introduce the characters, then to put them into situations where they have to make choices about how they're going to live their lives. And sometimes that's not going to be about whether or not a supervillain is trying to take over the world as much as whether or not they're going to live at home anymore. And what their responsibilities are when they're someone who's been, depending on how you look at it, blessed or cursed with an ability.
But this isn't a book that's going to have a "team," so to speak. No one's going to be running around in a costume, at least to begin with. There's no mansion; there's no headquarters. There's no secret decoder ring. It's the story of people's lives.
Nrama: Why is this type of story appealing to you as a writer right now? Did you feel like this was something you wanted to get back to? Or was it just the requirement of the story when Marvel presented it to you?
Loeb: No, this was something I brought to them. I'm very lucky that way. I have been working on a lot of things that were very "big." Very "popcorn." Which I love. I love working on The Hulk. And we're in the middle of a gigantic war with Hulks and villains and heroes and a big, huge, very comic book kind of world. And I got a chance to do with Ultimatum something that I've never done before, which was a real epic spectacle, a Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay kind of movie.
But that's not what I've always done. I feel very lucky that I've also done things like Superman For All Seasons and Daredevil: Yellow. And every once in awhile, when I'm working with the right artist, I like to return to that kind of material. That doesn't mean that's what I'm going to do exclusively. I'm also, as you'll see in the back of the first issue of Ultimate X, there's a five-page preview of the new Ultimates that I'm doing with Frank Cho, and even that has a different flavor from Ultimates 3 that I did with Joe Madureira. Because it's a different artist and a different time, and I wanted it to have a different feeling to it. I think that is more character-driven than Ultimates 3 was, but still can be fun and larger-than-life. It's the story of Thor returning to the world in a big climactic battle with Asgard.
But this is very different. Ultimate X is a much quieter story, and will continue to be that way for the first five issues.
Nrama: Did you create all these characters on your own, or were there certain characters or even types of characters that you were told had to be in there?
Loeb: No people "told me." [laughs]
Nrama: [laughs] No evil overlords?
Loeb: No. There isn't a "Dark Cabal" or "Illuminati." [laughs] I have an awesome relationship with Mark Pannicia, who is my editor. But also, when you're dealing with the Ultimate Universe, I was enormously helped by the fact that Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis all have very strong input available. And I do like getting that input.
It happens to be one of those rare opportunities where what I'm seeing on the page is exactly what I had in mind, and in many ways, 20 times better because I'm dealing with Arthur, and a big shout-out to Peter Steigerwald and the guys at Aspen, who are doing digital inking and beautiful color on the book as well. And Albert Deschesne over at Comicraft did the lettering. It's one of those projects where everyone is bringing their A-game to it. And that's very much what the original intent of the Ultimate Universe was about, was to try to get that kind of magic. Certainly we saw it with everything Brian had done with Ultimate Spider-Man, and Mark Millar's and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates. It was just astonishing.
Nrama: When the Ultimate Universe was first launched, it felt like a reinterpretation of the regular Marvel Universe, with just a few new twists. But this feels like something very new. It seems to rely heavier on the Ultimate Universe for its genesis than the Marvel Universe, although there are smatterings of both.
Loeb: Well, it certainly lives in that Ultimate world. This is not a reboot by any means. Everything that happened in the first 10 years that Mark and Brian brought, and all the other writers who worked on it, is completely in continuity. We're just talking about what the world is like in the aftermath of a terrible disaster. And some time has passed as well. While we're not entirely specific, it's less than a year and it's more than six months. And we're not in, for at least the time being, we're not in New York City, which was the most devastated area. So you do get a chance to see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world is playing out, through the eyes of these characters.
I don't know that these are necessarily reinterpretations, other than the next logical extension of people who have been established, and some characters that we've not met before. And in that way, yes, I'm very much adhering to continuity. I'm trying my best to make sure that we don't introduce somebody that's already been introduced. And if that happens, that was not the intent.
Nrama: Looking at the make-up of the team, or at least the people on the first cover, it does appear to pay homage to the original X-Men team from the Marvel Universe. Did you take that into consideration at all?
Loeb: There's a very specific reason, which I don't want to go into, that leads to these people being brought together. Certainly, the reality of what it is to be a mutant in the Ultimate Universe – that there is a law that says if you're a mutant, you have to turn yourself over to the government or you can and will be shot -- is a very different place to live in. That kind of harsh discrimination in a post-9/11 world is not that hard to really imagine. It's very difficult for a lot of people in the world right now because of their religion or their color that have nothing to do with anything that is even borderline terrorism or anti-government. Yet, because of what happened, and maybe not so unjustified within the Ultimate universe, Magneto's acts have made it so that if you were born with a gift, you don't have a whole lot of choices.
So those characters will be ones that we will be focusing on to a certain extent. But this is not an X-Men book. It might have characters that come from that world, but it also might have characters that don't. And that's why we don't want to pigeon-holed into anything other than just calling the book Ultimate X, and that's what it is.
Hopefully this family of characters will find a rhythm to itself and a purpose that people find compelling enough to buy it every other month. We are bi-monthly, because we're really going to try to keep a schedule. Hopefully, the readers will also be getting New Ulitmates with Frank Cho which will ship in the other month. So its UX one month and then NU the next.
Nrama: You said it isn't really a "team" we see in the comic. Does that mean these characters we've been shown are only the beginning of the cast?
Loeb: I'll just say that, within the first five issues, we'll deal with the characters that are on that first cover. How they interact and what they're doing and when we meet them and that kind of thing will be explored, and I think after the first issue, people will get a sense of the pace we're going at, which is going to be very gentle. I really do want people to have the time to get to know not only who they are, but where they came from and why they would have anything to do with each other.
Nrama: I have to ask a few questions about that teaser image. There are tons of guesses about who each of them are. I know you probably can't say too much.
Loeb: No, but you're welcome to ask! (laughs)
Nrama: The last person who was revealed when Marvel did this tease was this "Hulk" type character. Is there anything you can tell us about that character, even if it's just a word or two?
Loeb: He's necessary.
Nrama: Ah ha. Then let's do the same thing with the rest of the characters. To avoid spoilers of their names, since I've read the first issue, we'll just go with descriptions. The guy with the claws?
Loeb: Is new.
Nrama: The female character on fire?
Loeb: She's very afraid.
Nrama: The character with the wings?
Loeb: I want to say, "dangerous."
Nrama: The black-haired female?
Loeb: The one with a secret.
Nrama: I'm sure readers will try to figure out what that means, and we'll find out soon. Is there anything else you want to tell people about Ultimate X?
Loeb: For people who enjoy things like Superman For All Seasons, Daredevil: Yellow, and Spider-Man: Blue, this book lives more in that world than something that's more like Ultimatum was. But then people can also rest assured that we have Arthur Adams, who can draw anything, and there will be some "big" stuff. But really the drive of the book will be more character and it will be more emotionally driven, with Arthur's own brand of cool.