It's entirely appropriate that this review is a few months late, because if Ultimates was famous for anything, it was missing planned publication dates. In 2002, Ultimates #1 appeared. Five years, but only twenty-six issues (and one annual), later, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch finished their story. In between came one of the most talked-about superhero comics for several years.
The original intention behind the Ultimate Marvel series was to tell stories about Marvel's superheroes without being shackled to forty years' continuity, or the sillier elements of Marvel's past. Younger readers, lacking the grounding in decades of Marvel that the shrinking regular audience had, would find it easier to pick the comics up. Early titles showed the same spirit as their antecedents. Ultimate X-Men maintained the racially-driven paranoia that characterized X-books after the 1975 relaunch, whilst Ultimate Spider-Man had the same fun-filled teen angst found in the Lee/Ditko issues.
Ultimates is different. Its original is Avengers, begun in 1964, imitating DC's Justice League of America, and bringing together some of Marvel's solo stars: Norse god Thor (alter ego lame Dr. Donald Blake), Iron Man (billionaire industrialist Tony Stark), the Hulk (inner monster of scientist Bruce Banner), and Ant-Man (scientist Hank Pym) and his partner the Wasp (socialite and flirt Janet van Dyne). Arguably, Avengers holds the Marvel Universe together: almost every significant hero has passed through its roster at some time, and it's notable that this comic received the Ultimate treatment before the arguably more iconic Fantastic Four. But where Avengers was typical 1960s Marvel, full of people unsure of themselves, but who ultimately gelled as a team and acted from unimpeachable motives, Ultimates is equally a product of its time: a paranoiac vision of a government-controlled superhero team, whose members don't even like each other much.
Millar works in the post-Watchmen deconstruction-of-superheroes model that has dominated (some might say, blighted) mainstream comics since 1986. He significantly reinterprets key characters. Ultimate versions of some of these had appeared already in Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Marvel Team-Up in 2001 and 2002—but, although there are hints that Bendis deliberately seeded plotlines for Ultimates, Millar also departed considerably from those interpretations.
I want to look at three examples. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original Hulk was sympathetic. Drawing from the 1950s monster strips they produced, Hulk combined the Jekyll and Hyde motif of a man's uncivilized inner self released, with the James Whale/Boris Karloff interpretation of Frankenstein's Monster; persecuted by fearful people, the monster reacts violently, but, left alone, is basically gentle. Millar's Hulk is pure Jekyll/Hyde, and in the Hyde persona, violence for its own sake; he destroys and kills almost at random. It is more realistic that the Hulk's rampages kill, instead of just destroying property, as old stories had it. But it removes reader sympathy. One hardly sees how Millar's Hulk could sustain an ongoing Ultimate Hulk series. (So far there has only been an uncompleted Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine mini-series, and a team-up of Iron Man and Hulk promised.)
Then there's Captain America (Steve Rogers), iconic war hero, with whose apparent death in the Arctic, on a secret mission in 1945, Ultimates begins. Though not there from the beginning (he joined in Avengers #4), for many long-term readers, Cap is the Avengers. When he's absent, the team's heart seems partially missing; no other early member has the same effect, excepting possibly the Wasp and Hawkeye. The values Cap embodies are those of the Avengers.
Millar's Captain America Is a long way from the 1940s original. When Kirby and Joe Simon created Cap, he stood for what was, broadly speaking, a left-wing cause: American intervention in the European War. Millar's is a Cap for a different age, where the American Right has appropriated flag-waving and patriotism (and the American Left has let them). This Cap buys into, for instance, the notion that the French are natural cowards. Also, Cap's partner Bucky survives WWII, thus sparing Cap from the guilt that was a defining characteristic in 1960s stories.
Finally, there's Thor. In the 1960s, readers knew Thor really was a Norse god, but most people in the Marvel Universe assumed this was a superhero pose. Millar picks up on that. Stripped entirely of Don Blake, Thor is a Norwegian nurse, telling everyone that he's a god, sent by Odin to save the world; everyone else assumes he's a lunatic with a big hammer. Millar's trick in the first volume is never to give the reader any conclusive evidence one way or the other. That makes Thor fascinating, but the mystery is unsustainable; Andrew Hogg rightly observes that once it is resolved, Thor stops being interesting.
To an extent, all Millar's reinventions, rather than updating originals as Bendis' Spider-Man did, play off old versions. Whether hinting that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have a little more sibling affection than is decorous, or portraying Iron Man's supporting cast as the business professionals they ought always to have been, Millar elicits a wry smile from long-term readers. Like Ronald Moore's Battlestar Galactica, Millar messes with the long-term audience's expectations. You may think you know who the characters are, he says, but actually, they're like this.
Millar's first storyline, "Super-human," shows Nick Fury, head of SHIELD (here reconfigured as a U.S. rather than international organization) assembling his team: Iron Man, Giant-Man (the second identity of Ant-Man in the original continuity), the Wasp, and Bruce Banner, Jekyll to the Hulk's Hyde, as chief scientist. Captain America is found frozen in the Arctic. Thor refuses to join, but agrees to help out (in an excellent line, Cap comments, "This way we get you for free"). Banner has a Hulk episode, wrecking New York (in early issues of Avengers the team fought the Jade Giant). The story ends with Hank Pym revealed as a wife-beater (an unloved legacy of Jim Shooter's second run scripting Avengers).
For the second story, "Homeland Security," Millar pits the team against alien invasion, and introduces their "black ops" side: archer Hawkeye (Clint Barton), ex-KGB superspy the Black Widow (Natasha Romanova), and former members of the Brotherhood of Mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (Pietro and Wanda Maximoff). The change of tone is clever. After the early issues' cynicism, where the team fight a menace they created, then cover up their own involvement, it's refreshing to have the Ultimates go against a menace about which there are no moral questions (not only are they murderous aliens, they're murderous alien Nazis), allowing the team to appear actually heroic.
In the pause between Ultimates and Ultimates 2, the team turned up in a number of mini-series, such as Millar's Ultimate War (Ultimates vs. X-Men), and Bendis' Ultimate Six (Ultimates and Spider-Man). Most significant perhaps is Warren Ellis' Ultimate Galactus trilogy. This introduces Ultimate versions of several characters (Falcon, Vision, Captain Marvel, Carol "Ms. Marvel" Danvers, Moondragon) who have been significant in Avengers history, though so far only the Falcon has actually appeared in Ultimates itself.
But when Millar resumed with Ultimates 2 (divided into two volumes, "Gods and Monsters" and "Grand Theft America," but really one single storyline), it was as if these stories never took place. This seems characteristic of Millar's approach in the Ultimate line. Not only is he unconstrained by Marvel continuity, he's not particularly bothered by the Ultimate Universe's continuity either. Even events earlier in Ultimates aren't sacrosanct; the death toll of the Hulk incident mentioned in Ultimates 2 is nearly three times that mentioned in Ultimates (albeit the earlier count is flagged as preliminary).
Nevertheless, Ultimates 2 is a very fine piece of comics writing. As Millar ratchets up the tension, the team is taken apart. Banner is exposed as the Hulk, tried, condemned, and apparently executed (a storyline concluding with a brief nod to the 1970s Incredible Hulk television series). Hank Pym is sacked. Thor is shown as a lunatic, and taken down by the others. And there is a traitor.
In the handling of the traitor Millar shows his skill in misdirecting readers. When we see them talking to Hank, nothing more is seen than a gloved hand (a trick, incidentally, easier to do in comics than film or television). The traitor gives their reason; they no longer believe in "this country," they never signed up to Guantanomo. Could this be Cap, the liberal reader wonders, so at odds with Bush's America that he would betray it? Millar's story is one in which the U.S. uses its superheroes to arrange the world to its own advantage. This allows him to make some trenchant criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, whilst still allowing its instigators a point of view where they feel they're doing the right thing.
At the end of the next issue, the traitor leads a team that kills Hawkeye's wife and children, and shoots Hawkeye. Those of us entertaining the possibility that it's Cap are shocked. Would Cap do that? Well, apparently yes, as video footage reveals in the next issue. (The originally announced cover for #8 showed a silhouetted head and hands in manacles. The final cover makes it more obvious that it is Captain America, which I think was a mistake, taking away part of the surprise.) But then the next issue immediately reveals that it wasn't Cap after all; it was the Black Widow.
By this point, I was expecting an apocalyptic ending. It seemed impossible that Cap and Hank Pym could ever have a working relationship, as the former had put the latter into hospital and was dating his wife. What would happen to Thor? Would Millar put the team back together, or would he render these characters all-but-unusable in the future series of Ultimates already announced?
Does Millar actually like the Avengers very much? He has previous for apparently not doing so. When he took over from Warren Ellis on The Authority (on which Bryan Hitch made his name, though he left with Ellis), Millar's first story featured obvious imitations of the Avengers (and other Marvel characters). Portrayed in an unfavourable light, almost all of them come to bad, nasty ends. The depiction of the Defenders in Ultimates 2 #6 as a hopeless bunch of powerless superhero wannabes looks similar.
So what does Millar provide at the end? Somewhat to my surprise, he gives long-time fans largely what they want. The Liberators (Ultimate versions of the Masters of Evil), nasty forces from foreign states, who have taken over America, are defeated. Thor is vindicated in the most emphatic manner possible. The Scarlet Witch, manipulator of probability, so underplayed earlier that anyone who hadn't read Ultimate X-Men could believe she was actually powerless, plays a pivotal role; in another great line, she says she can stop evil Norse god Loki by increasing the odds of someone showing up to kick his ass. The Ultimates resign from U.S. sponsorship to become an independent team of world-savers funded by Tony Stark; much like the Avengers, in fact. And best of all, it's Cap who gets to give Fury the speech on how their responsibilities are greater than just to the U.S.
Of course, things are not quite the same. The Black Widow and Jarvis, in the main series the Avengers' long-standing butler, are dead by the end of Ultimates 2. Hank Pym is in prison. These are Millar's signals that things will continue to be not the way readers expect. And the book is not perfect. Millar sometimes engages in shock for shock's sake, regardless of narrative logic. In the penultimate issue Cap states that executing people without trial isn't the way it's done in the U.S.; a few pages later he executes without trial the person he said this to. And much of this story depends for its impact on having read a lot of old Marvel comics; the original intent of the Ultimate line is further lost.
The worst thing about Ultimates, as with Watchmen, is probably its legacy. Everyone now wants to write Ultimates, with a detrimental effect upon Avengers. Much though I like Ultimates, I also like Avengers, and would prefer it to preserve its original values. Instead it has become Ultimates-lite, which all too often doesn't work, because the writers are less skilled, and because the past history of the characters works against them being as dark and ambiguous as their Ultimate counterparts. Meanwhile, Millar's reward for Ultimates was Civil War, which applies a Watchmen/Ultimates treatment to the whole Marvel Universe.
I've given little attention to Hitch's artwork, but the comic wouldn't work without his realist style. These days most artists engage in anatomical exaggeration or cartooning. Hitch has a much more realistic style. This makes him the natural heir of the likes of Neal Adams, John Byrne, and George Perez. But that's not really the tradition he is coming from. Rather, he lies stylistically with the artists who worked on British adventure comics in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; the likes of Frank Hampson, Don Lawrence, Ron Embleton, Frank Bellamy, etc. He has the same attention to detail, both in the portrayal of faces, and in that of equipment and technology—just look at the German steam locomotive at the beginning of Ultimates #10, or the Tornado fighter at the end of #12. His draughtsmanship allows Hitch to add to Millar's story without there needing to be explanatory dialogue. For instance, the intelligence officer giving a briefing to Captain America in 1945 is plainly Wing Commander Guy Gibson—but a less realistic artist wouldn't have been able to convey that. He also conveys dynamism though a series of still images. Where Kirby or Steve Ditko conveyed movement in their artwork, Hitch freeze-frames, even when showing action. An explosion catches debris fixed in mid-air. Often Hitch shows the moment before, or after, action, not the moment of action itself.
Hitch gives Ultimates the same realistic, almost cinematic, appearance that he brought to The Authority. Neal Adams once said that if superheroes really existed, they'd have to look like he drew them; well, if there was a film of Ultimates, it would have to look like Hitch draws it. (In a case of art imitating other art, Hitch draws Nick Fury to look like Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is now playing Fury in the upcoming Iron Man film.) This is a marked contrast to the more expressionistic styles of Adam Kubert, the initial artist on Ultimate X-Men, and Mark Bagley, who drew Ultimate Spider-Man up to #110. So compelling is Hitch's vision that when one looks at the more exaggerated art of Chris Bachalo in Ultimate War, or even the great Steve Dillon in Ultimates Annual #1, it just doesn't look right.
On final judgement, these twenty-six issues are great. They will be a hard, perhaps impossible, act to follow. And it is entirely appropriate that the story ends with the words "dedicated with love to Stan and Jack."
Tony Keen began his fannish career in comics fandom, and reviewed for the major British critical journal of the 1980s, Fantasy Advertiser.
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