Jonathan Dobres

the other man of steel

Like I said, I’ve been in the throes of a renewed X-Men addiction for several weeks now. Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men is (or I suppose, was) so entertaining that I had to have more. I figured that my safest bet would be to try Ultimate X-Men, a series that restarted the X-Men story from scratch in 2001. The upshot about action-oriented comics like Ultimate X-Men is that if you really care, you can catch up on 94 issues in, say, three weeks. The down side is that they’re not written by Joss Whedon. That’s not really a fair criticism, but it’s still true.

Whedon is always careful to write the characters appropriately. In every line of dialog, in every interaction, the personalities behind the superpowers bleed through. Emma Frost never lets her guard down, always throwing up a wall of arrogance and superiority, especially when she’s around Kitty Pride. Beast might threaten to eat you, but he’ll do it with a dash of intellectual shame. Since Astonishing X-Men represented my first foray into mainstream comics in a long time, I’d forgotten how rare that kind of subtlety is.

So, the writing in Ultimate X-Men isn’t as good. It would be fair to call some of it bad. The comic also “youngs up” the X-Men, putting them in their mid to late teens. This is an unnecessary contrivance that I found annoying even when I was a teenager myself. Aside from claiming that the X-Men are now teenagers, you’d be hard-pressed to find any real evidence of it. They attend school in name only and grapple with the same Earth-shatteringly dangerous missions and personal problems that their adult counterparts do. The only character who legitimately feels like a teenager is Iceman. I’m willing to admit that it works for him.

Ultimate X-Men isn’t perfect, but it’s an entertaining read, and every so often there’s a twist or a new interpretation of an old story that makes you glad to be reading comics. Rewriting Colossus as gay, for example. He’s the hulking fellow made of nearly indestructible organic steel pictured at left, for those who don’t follow these kinds of things. Prior to this, the only gay mutant of any real importance was Northstar, who debuted in 1979, didn’t get a back story until 1983, and didn’t come out until 1992. Northstar was always vaguely effeminate and had elfin, pointed ears, at least until recently. The original plan was to have his character die of AIDS shortly after coming out (hooray?), but this was ultimately scrapped. Instead, it was implied that Northstar was dying in our world because he was actually a creature from another world, literally a homesick fairy.

Contrast this with Colossus, whose power is that he has incredible physical strength. He’s the kind of person who can crack continents when angry, and in general he is unambiguously awesome. He has a long history in the X-Men Universe and nothing about him reads as stereotypically gay. Ultimate X-Men’s treatment of his sexuality is daring in conception, but it errs on the side of extreme subtlety in execution. By and large it is a non-issue, which says something about today’s social climate. When Northstar came out in 1992, he promptly adopted a young girl who had contracted HIV in the womb, only to have her succumb to the disease shortly thereafter. In 1992 this was the socially conscious thing to do, though it seems a bit much now. Ultimate X-Men takes the quiet road with Colossus, hinting at his sexuality for a long time before outting him, then hooking him up in a healthy relationship with (of course) Northstar. He also deals with homophobia from a close friend: Nightcrawler, of all people.

If anything, Colossus’s sexuality is a little too subtle. Romance boils hot and strong among the X-Men, and the Ultimate version is no exception. Jean Grey and Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine, Beast and Storm, Storm and Wolverine, Rogue and Iceman, Iceman and Kitty Pryde, Rogue and Gambit, then Iceman and Rogue again, Dazzler and Angel, Dazzler and Nightcrawler (kind of). Even the stately Professor Xavier is a player, leaving a trail of relationships with Moira MacTaggart, Mystique, and Emma Frost in his wake. He even confessed to having feelings for (take a guess!) Jean Grey. Amidst all this craziness, Colossus merely came close to admitting he had feelings for Wolverine, before eventually holding hands with Northstar.

Ultimate X-Men has been fun, but the most recent issues—which focus on a drug called Banshee—have been monumentally stupid, specifically for what’s being done to Colossus. Banshee vastly enhances a mutant’s powers, and we learn about it when a seriously doped up version of Alpha Flight swoops in from Canada to abduct Northstar. Desperate to get Northstar back, Colossus accidentally reveals to Jean that he’s been using Banshee for years. Without it, he doesn’t have super strength, and can barely lift his steel arms once he transforms.1 Never mind that the existence of Banshee has never been mentioned or even implied prior to this story. The writers can’t seem to decide if it’s Mutant Growth Hormone, Mutant Heroin, or some strange combination of the two. Moreover, it is wildly unlikely that Colossus could have been adequately juiced up for every fight, which often take the X-Men by surprise. How, exactly, did he keep this a secret from not one, but two of the world’s most powerful psychics? Why in God’s name would you take one of the coolest, most straightforward mutants and turn him into a roid-powered steel paperweight? Colossus has never been much of a talker and a lot of his character comes from his physicality, which the Banshee revelation thoroughly ruins.

Not all is lost, however. The identity of Colossus’s dealer is completely obscured, but the writers still went through the trouble of putting him on-page while Colossus pays for more Banshee. Throughout the transaction, no hint is given as to who the dealer is (he’s never on camera), and he vanishes without a trace the instant he has his money. Why bother writing the scene at all? Couldn’t Colossus just have shown up with more Banshee, the deal implied to have happened earlier? This is Extremely Suspicious. Combine this with the recent revelation that Wolverine has screened positive for Banshee, having used it at some point in his unremembered past, and it appears that Things May Not Be What They Seem. I hold out hope that Banshee turns out to be a placebo, or a psychic hallucination, or something, anything other than what it appears to be right now.

  1. You could make that case that this is inconsistent with what we know about Colossus’s powers. He transforms into an “organic steel” substance, and it’s supposed to be more or less unique in all the universe. Presumably Colossus’s super strength is a property of the steel itself, as opposed to his mutation. Then again, one shouldn’t debate physics in a world where a man can shoot inexhaustible death rays from his eyes.