#307- This is Why (The Ultimates)
Re-reading an entire series, in preparation for the upcoming launch of its follow-up, is one of those things that I always think about, but seldom have the time for…
Fortunately, this was not the case with Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates, which I've been spending the last several days with, in preparation for Millar’s imminent return to the Ultimate universe with Ultimate Avengers. If there’s one thing it’ll take some getting used to, it’ll be seeing other artists rendering these characters to Millar scripts, as their collaboration (and Hitch’s pristinely glorious artwork in particular) was a big reason the one-two combo of Ultimates books were a major success. But the four guys that’ll be illustrating UA will undoubtedly be highly talented in their own right, and obviously Mark will have a good handle on things as one of the original architects of the Ultimate line.
But before we go forward into this brave new world, let’s go back once again to one of my absolutely favorite runs of comics, as I’ve had the time to adequately prepare. We start, obviously, at the very beginning, with the obvious excellence that is The Ultimates, which was launched way back in March of 2002. Hope you guys have the oversized hard covers, or the recently released omnibus, as that’s the only way to properly enjoy the series in my ever so humble opinion. Many more of those about the series can be found directly below. Enjoy.First Impressions (Issue 1)
It doesn't feel like it now, but what Millar and Hitch chose to do with this opening issue was a huge risk. To launch a title, which is essentially "Ultimate Avengers," with the Avengers not just completely absent, but with 95% of the story set entirely during World War II, was a gutsy play. Yeah, Bendis buttered people up for stuff like this with his first arc on Ultimate Spider-Man, but the lion's share of the credit here belongs to the actual creators, who kicked things off with a story so visceral and so beautifully drawn that it makes it hard (not to mention foolish) to nitpick over such a minor thing. There are so many panels where the artwork and pacing just pull you into the story of Cap's final mission, and this is where they also plant the seeds of a Captain America who's actually "cool".
Sure he is today, guided these last few years by Ed Brubaker, but back when this book started, there was a general vibe about the character that wasn't attractive to me (and I think to many others) that was completely changed by this interpretation, and that all started right here. This version of Steve Rogers was just a regular guy driven to do the right thing, and he was more than willing to kick the ____ out of people for a good reason. He just felt a little harsher in the Ultimate universe, which was more than appropriate, given the line's more contemporary real world perspective on superheroes.
Though it comes as little surprise, a great story with great art still makes for a great comic book, and The Ultimates #1 is definitely one of those, even a few years removed, and without any of the other characters that will eventually come to populate the book. After this issue, you're instantly filled with major confidence about the future of the book, and that's what any first issue hopes to accomplish.
Captain America Reborn (Issue 3)
Millar's finest character work in the entire series revolved around Cap, and his unexpected transition into the twenty-first century. This entire issue deals with that, and it's really appropriate that the first thing he does after waking up is fight his way out of the hospital, thinking the whole thing is an elaborate Nazi trick. Also pretty clever how he's ultimately brought down by Hank Pym, who smashes him into a jeep with his giant hand, in a moment that clearly foreshadows their upcoming brawl over Jan. Even the quieter moments are well done here, and more than a little heartbreaking, as Cap finds out what became of Bucky, his ex-fiancé Gail, and nearly all of his family members. Though as Nick Fury wisely points out---not everything he loved is gone, which leads to a launch party, a new costume, and a very important question from the President. Definitely cool, indeed.
Poetry in Motion (Issue 5)
Still one of the best comic book fights ever. Anytime I sit down to plan out a major fight sequence, this is the incredibly high bar I always aim for, as the choreography and staging is just flawless from beginning to end. Honestly, if this were just Hitch drawing beautiful shots of the Hulk slamming into everything and screaming, it would be worth looking at, but this is so much more. The conscious and methodical way that The Hulk is funneled from character to character, forcing him into a final confrontation with Cap and his awesome tank, all while SHIELD is clearing entire city blocks full of people. There's a poetry to it really, every attack seamlessly transitioning into the next, until Thor finally shows up for his turn at the plate---after Bush doubles the foreign aid budget, of course. And how great was that ending?
"But I haven't got a gash on my cheek."
"You do now, son."
This is the kind of prick move that subtly distinguishes the 616 version of Steve Rogers from this one, and gives him an additional edge that still remains in character.
Juxtaposition (Issue 6)
Will always love stories told like this, and because of the way time can easily be manipulated in comics, it always seems to work best in our medium. You take two very important scenes and run them parallel, the events in both playing off the other, in addition to being completely reliant on the complementary scene in order to even exist. Here we have the infamous Giant-Man vs. The Wasp domestic incident cut into the dinner at Stark's fancy home. Most of the tension (and disgust) can be found in the former, but without that party, and Hank's childlike insecurity about why Jan wants to go to it in that dress, there's a possibility nothing at all happens in that scene.
But it does because of what happened during and after the Hulk fight. Hank feels like an asshole, and he is, though not for the reasons he thinks. We'll find out soon this isn't the first time he's put his hands on his wife, but it becomes obvious in the middle of this that this isn't the first time it's happened, and that's really the most upsetting thing about the whole scene. That this is somehow common and expected in their particular relationship, with only the use of superpowers being the unfamiliar element.
On the flip side, would Tony have been as comfortable revealing the true reason he joined The Ultimates with everyone sitting there? Maybe, but it wasn't hard to recognize these guys developing a kind of camaraderie/friendship as they traded stories over dinner and a hovering Jarvis. Obviously, there's no way of knowing the answer in either case, but these are the kinds of questions I always find interesting, and at the end of the day we learned that neither Hank Pym nor Tony Stark were the men we thought they were.
Hawkeye & Black Widow vs. The Office (Issue 8)
An obvious The Matrix vibe in this sequence, but that’s cool with me, as I love The Matrix. Do remember being a little shocked and a little awed at this scene on the first read years ago, because as cool as it is seeing people sprayed with bullets and arrows, I was like…wow, I hope they’re just not killing people. Thankfully, the office buildings were filled to the brim with alien sleeper agents, so I can now and forever responsibly enjoy every bit of the beautiful destruction. But again, the overall staging and pacing is flawless, and there are few things cooler than Black Widow’s final takedown. Think the woman on the street below says it best…no way.
Only As Big As You Feel (Issue 9)
Oh, you just knew this was coming. There's a scene in an earlier issue, when Betty is revealing that Hank has been abusive to Jan before, where you can feel Cap's blood boiling up and out of the panels. And a few pages later, when he heads to the satellite room and tells it to search for Pym, the tension builds even higher, until we reach the close of issue eight, and Cap has his hand on the fugitive batterer’s shoulder and says, "A word in your ear, Doctor Pym."
After that Cap pushes him into an alley, and starts slapping him around, trying to provoke
him into changing size. Naturally, he does, and then the scene really gets fun---and even Cap thinks so, judging by the obvious smirk on his face during his strategic retreat. This is another example of the type of stuff I'm talking about in regards to Cap, as the regular Marvel U version would never set out to intentionally injure one of his teammates like this. And even on the incredible off chance he did, it certainly wouldn't be like this, two superheroes fighting in back alleys and abandoned construction sites. In the world of The Ultimates though, it makes complete sense, and the beating is entirely well deserved and great to see. Dude doesn't even break a sweat while doing it, and in true action hero type fashion, even talks some ____ after burying Hank's giant naked ass under a stack of heavy pipes.
Clever Girl (Issue 10)
I always thought Fury and Cap experienced a mutual brain fart in never considering that the shape changing aliens had actually infiltrated SHIELD, and unfortunately for Jan, she’s alone in the infirmary when it all starts going down. There’s a really nice moment that I’ve always loved though---when one of the aliens tries to shoot Jan in the back of the head, but instead guns down her own partner (and a piece of Jan’s hospital gown) when The Wasp miniaturizes at the very last second. Tiny bit, but it was something that was staged perfectly, and used the page turn to maximum effect.
Weapons of Last Resort (Issues 12 & 13)
So many other aspects of this series were structured like a high priced action movie, that it seemed obvious the series would ultimately build towards the requisite “big crazy finish”. What wasn’t so obvious was that the battle would be so huge that it would take two oversized issues to properly deliver. Trying to pick a single moment from the giant brawl here is impossible, but every single character gets a moment to shine, and a few cool lines of dialogue on top of all that. Again though, if this weren’t drawn by Hitch, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, because let’s face it…no one does death and widescreen destruction quite like he does.
What it lacks in the perfect choreography of the Hulk fight, it makes up for in sheer scale and spectacle. The Hulk is slamming his way across panels, Thor is trashing dozens of alien ships simultaneously, and Cap is in the fight of his life with a guy that doesn’t die until the Hulk rips his head off and starts eating him. The most frightening thing about all this is that in the next volume, Hitch surpasses the artwork done here and makes it look easy. Great, exciting finish as this crew of dysfunctional personalities finally become superheroes.
This series on a whole does hold up fantastically well and really lays the groundwork for its sequel The Ultimates 2, which is a work that is much more politicized and (dare I even use the word) thoughtful in how it explores the idea of superheroes in the 21st century. But it's clear that none of it would even be possible without the events that happen in this first batch of great stories. Next week we'll discuss that idea and many other bits of possible interest in a companion piece that dives into The Ultimates 2. Until then, folks…
The Ultimates, by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch---this is why I love comics.
Comments and additional thoughts below, if you feel inspired. Thanks.