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The Ultimates!

May 26th, 2009
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Last month I wrote several posts about my favorite graphic novels.  One of the works that I mentioned (saying at the time that a more lengthy review would be coming) was Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates.

In the early 2000’s, Marvel Comics launched their Ultimate line, in which they took several popular, long-running Marvel characters and basically started them over from ground zero.  Spearheaded by some of Marvel’s top talent, the idea was to make the characters fresh and dynamic again, and remove the burden of 30-plus years of back-story and continuity.  The Ultimate line kicked off with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man.  This was an amazing, extraordinary piece of work, and it deserves a longer article of its own.  Suffice to say, I have never enjoyed a monthly Spider-Man comic as much, and I am still following the series every month.

Today I want to talk to you about Millar and Hitch’s reinvention of Marvel Comics’ premiere super-hero group, the Avengers, in their series The Ultimates that ran from 2002-2004.  (The series is available in two softcover collections or in one gorgeous hardcover.)

This is a magnificent, adult piece of work, and one hopes that it will be used as a template for the coming Avengers feature film.  The story begins at the end of World War II, as we witness the last mission of Captain America.  What might be a short 4-page flashback in another series is a lengthy (taking up almost the entirety of the series’ first issue) tale of gritty combat that sets the series’ tone of brutal intensity and incredible attention to detail.  

Then the story jumps forward to the 21st century.  It’s a brave new world filled with new wonders and new threats, both at home and abroad.  Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD, decides that the only way to protect America is to create a new team of American super-heroes.  Unfortunately, no one has been able to re-create the super soldier serum that turned scrawny Steve Rogers into the super-human Captain America.  But disparate events are about to come to a head that just might give Fury the elements he needs for his super-human task force: Scientist Bruce Banner injects himself with an experimental formula; brilliant industrialist and drunkard Tony Stark creates an extraordinary suit of armor; an anti-corporate hippie who claims to be Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, has begun to amass a legion of followers; and finally, the frozen body of Captain America is discovered, perfectly preserved in the Arctic.

Mark Millar’s writing is very contemporary — the story really runs with the conceit that all these events are happening in our “real” world, and so we see all the sorts of things that would probably happen if super-heroes started coming on to the scene: press conferences, PR people, and a lot of other interactions with real-life folk (celebrities, politicians, etc.).  Millar also doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality that would come from super-powered conflicts, or from the emotional complexities that any human being would have, particularly someone with extraordinary abilities.  But Millar is able to balance those elements with his ability to tell a really ripping super-hero yarn.  There’s a lot of character development, but also a lot of extraordinary “wide-screen” action.

In both respects, Millar is aided by the hyper-detailed art of Bryan Hitch.  From the very first page of the very first issue, in which Hitch creates a gorgeous, incredibly detailed image of Allied planes flying over the North Atlantic in 1945, readers know they are in for something special.  Hitch has a talent for conveying the personalities and emotions of the characters that he illustrates.  He can make an extended “talking head” dialogue scene extraordinarily compelling — and not just because of the enormous details he pours into the backgrounds, whether the scene is set on SHIELD’s futuristic base, downtown Manhattan, or the Arizona desert.  And his action sequences are astounding.  I have never seen fight scenes in a comic book quite like these.  Issue five contains a massive battle with the Hulk in New York City, and the incredible detail that Hitch gives to every single panel of carnage is jaw-dropping.  

Millar and Hitch returned to these characters and stories in a second, 13-issue series, The Ultimates 2, published from 2004-2007.  In that follow-up series, Millar and Hitch continued to pose challenging questions about what would happen if such a team of super-heroes existed in our real world.  We witness Nick Fury’s growing temptation to use The Ultimates to pacify America’s enemies abroad, and of the devastating consequences of those actions.

I wasn’t sure if anything could top the first Ultimates series, and at first, I wasn’t sure The Ultimates 2 would.  The first six issues are fairly leisurely paced.  We witness a number of different vignettes, including the Ultimates’ deployment in Iraq, the efforts of the US’s international allies to create their own super-soldiers, the assembly of a group of wanna-be super-heroes who call themselves the Defenders, and the growing rifts between the members of the Ultimates themselves.  But it was unclear at first where all of this was going, and what sort of story was being told.  But things shifted into high gear in issues seven and eight, and then came the staggering issue nine.  In that chapter, titled “Grand Theft America,” in one horrific scene after another we witness the complete defeat of the Ultimates and the total conquest of America by a union of its enemies.  Millar and Hitch sure know how to go for their jugular — the shocking story is enhanced by their choices of imagery: devastation in New York city, the destruction of SHIELD headquarters, the capture of Washington DC, and the toppling of the Statue of Liberty.  To say that the remainder of the story (issues 10-13) is action-packed would be an extreme understatement, as the Ultimates and their allies attempt to regroup and fight back, and the situation escalates even further.  

Ultimates 2 might be a little more indulgent than the first volume (what with the digressions of its first half, and the ever-more-intense super-hero slugfests of its second half), but I love it just as much.  Each page that I turn brings to my eyes increasingly astounding imagery from the mind of Millar and the pencil of Hitch.  There really has never been a super-hero comic book quite like this.  

In my discussion of The Ultimates, I should also mention Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus storyline.  This was originally released as three limited series (Ultimate Nightmare, Ultimate Secret, and Ultimate Extinction), and has subsequently been collected in one edition.

Something or someone has begun broadcasting all over the planet images of the brutal deaths of a variety of alien species.  Nick Fury sends his team of Ultimates to investigate.  Thinking that the source of the broadcasts is a mutant in distress, Professor Xavier sends a team of his X-Men.  The two groups converge in Tunguska, where they discover the relic of an advanced, extra-terrestrial mechanical being who came to Earth to warn us of the coming of the world devourer Gah lak tus.  The Fantastic Four, along with several other familiar Marvel characters, quickly become involved as Fury tries to figure out just what that entity is, and how mankind could possibly mount a defense against something that has already destroyed countless worlds.

When writing about his sci-fi comic book stories last month, I praised Warren Ellis for the way he incorporates a lot of real-world science and far-out ideas into his tales, and his reinvention of Galactus is no exception.  When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Galactus into the Marvel Universe in Fantastic Four #48-50 back in 1966, their depiction of Galactus as a huge guy in a purple outfit was dramatic and astounding.  Today, while the look of Galactus is a classic one, it is also undeniably hokey.  Ellis’ reinvention of Galactus for the Ultimate universe is a lot more complex, and a lot more creepy.  As Millar did in his two Ultimate series, I was quite impressed at the way Ellis was able to totally reinvent a classic Marvel concept into something entirely new and contemporary, while not losing any of the iconic imagery and ideas behind the original creation.  (I was also pleased to see Ellis introduce several other classic Marvel characters into the Ultimate universe, as well:  the Silver Surfer, Captain Mar-Vell, Moondragon, and even Misty Knight!)

Ellis’ story is also supported by some terrific art: Trevor Hairsine, Steve McNiven, Brandon Peterson, and others.  I do wish that there was more consistency to the art, with the same artist illustrating the entire tale.  But since almost all of the artists used are quite talented, I can’t complain too much.  In particular, Peterson has a great eye for illustrating sophisticated technology (both real and imagined), and his work brings a lot of weight and power to the series’ final chapters.  

Are these three series (The Ultimates, The Ultimates 2, and the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy) serious comic book works with a capital “S”?  No they are not!  But they are extraordinarily entertaining stories nonetheless, ones that are aimed squarely at adults.  They sit proudly on my bookshelf, and I have no doubt I will be re-reading them often in the future.

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