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The Ultimates, Series Volume One
posted January 17, 2006
 

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Creators: Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $12.99/$17.99, 2002/2004
Ordering Numbers: 0785109609 (ISBN); 078511078X (ISBN)

The scene I like best in the first "season" of Mark Millar's popular The Ultimates series comes near the halfway point, where the Marvel superheroes Thor, Captain America and Iron Man sit around in their civilian clothes and have dinner. Captain America even gets to wear a goofy-looking Army uniform as if on the way home he's planning to stop by the local airplane hangar for a nostalgia dance. The original Marvel alpha males, these three heroes get on famously in an encounter that lasts a generous nine pages, and except for a dramatic soap opera plot twist announcement made by Iron Man that feels like a very special moment in a 1980s television sitcom, very little happens. In some ways this scene is merely the extended happy ending in which a lot of popular art traffics: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker receiving their medals, the kids in Harry Potter winning the House Cup, and so on. One half expects the three heroes in The Ultimates to turn and wave to the reader, or for someone to make a corny joke after which everyone laughs over the end credits.

In another sense, the dinner scene plays on a very specific, very noteworthy element of the 1960s Marvel comic books. It's not just that the early Marvel characters had the appearance of personal lives beyond the fistfights that made up the majority of every issue. Because such scenes were never very long, or only hinted at, they became in a way much more desirable for the kid deeply immersed in them. Marvel's scenes of domesticity were the adults staying up late at the summer cottage to drink wine and gossip about the neighbors while you sat on the stairway; parsing them was like trying to guess the background of favorite characters on a police procedural through casual clues dropped in a detective's off-hand remarks. Through the technique of extended scene work popular in the majority of superhero comics today, what fans call “decompression,�? writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch (and any editors actively involved) are able to indulge multiple generations of Marvel fanboys by giving them the backstage equivalent of Superman pounding crap out of the Incredible Hulk. For the new reader, one imagines the scene plays as a variation on the original appeal such moments had, a break from fantasy fight scenes of appropriate size for the modern approach to pacing.

Comics like The Ultimates, a re-do of the old super-team The Avengers in Marvel's updated “ultimate�? version of the original Marvel Universe (stay with me), work on those two levels most of the time. The differences may intrigue older fans who can compare and contrast which elements work best for what reasons: Thor the Thunder God or Thor the New Age Guru? Nerdy Bruce Banner and the Gamma Bomb or henpecked Bruce Banner and the Super-Soldier formula? Millionaire playboy munitions dealer Tony Stark or billionaire research and development super-mogul Tony Stark? Unlike the changes that come with a revamping of a character within an established series, the core of the Ultimate Universe is the frequently strong pulp of writers and artists like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby and Don Heck. This allows the creative team to pick and choose from a 40-year-buffet, with emphasis on the meat at the beginning of the line, in a way that favors what best works about such concepts at their core. The differences between the Ultimate Universe and previous efforts in the re-launch department by mainstream comic book companies is first, as discussed above the updating extends to the way the stories are presented, and second, Marvel uses a good portion of their best talent on these books to see that they are as strongly crafted as possible. If the creative process sounds familiar, think of it like this: Marvel is essentially letting its talent do big-budget paper movie out of its core licenses.

The irony here is that what makes these concepts work in the short-term will eventually stab it in the balls. The regular Marvel books diminished in potency over the years because of accrued continuity and because decades of publication exhausts the natural lifespan for fictional characters; the Ultimate Universe material, because it is a series of high notes, by definition promises to get to the same exact point, only sooner. Much has been made about gradual storytelling as a stylistic quirk, but it may be best to think of it as a narrative survival tool. Even in the longest-running arguably high quality superhero entertainment that began in the 1960s -- I would say that's Marvel's first 150 issues or so of Amazing Spider-Man -- there are only enough worthwhile story moments for a few dozen issues, unless every single plot point is slowly teased out at almost excruciating length. Standard comics have in the past mitigated the distance between current comic and core concept through selective amnesia and a series of convenient returns to status quo. But even the tightest circular patterns tend to widen over time: wrists gets tired, pen points become dull, and the paper may even wear through. Marvel's Ultimate Universe strategy will almost certainly end in as complete a state of exhaustion as the regular line.

In the meantime, creative teams like Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch get to have fun rehashing the core Marvel elements in slightly ramped up fashion, like Michael Bay and Doug Liman getting to re-film Sean Connery's James Bond movies. Millar's dialogue work is uneven, particularly when he veers off into humor -- the Incredible Hulk's pursuit of Freddy Prinze, Jr. (don't ask) makes me cringe just thinking of it -- but he enjoys a distinct advantage over his peers in not being equally fond of every character. Lacking the fanboy mandate that's strangled other writers in their conceptual cribs, Millar can build up some of his heroes at the expense of others. His Captain America is a decent man given to occasional bursts of anger, and exudes a poignant, on-edge quality that never becomes morose. The series funniest moment to date was in a later issue that ends with Captain America screaming an insult about the French; its most satisfying moment, also found in Homeland Security, was Captain America beating up an ostensibly more powerful teammate for doing something repugnant. On the other hand, Millar's version of Giant-Man introduces himself as half an ass and by the series' halfway point appends the second cheek. Millar and company don't have to pretend that the Wasp or Hawkeye has as compelling a pop pedigree as Mr. War Hero Recovered From an Ice Flow.

With Bryan Hitch providing art that combines meticulous detail work with action that clips along with a nice mix of long views and close-ups (end result: the action feels bigger than life), the two Ultimates volumes published thus far are well-crafted, occasionally pleasurable adventure stories that go absolutely nowhere and say almost nothing -- sort of like the 1963 Avengers series with sex jokes and a smidgeon of self-awareness. Future trades should get more complicated, moving further away from whatever power the original stories had and forced to stand on their own. Barring some extremely skillful reclamation work that finds unique riches in later-period Marvel Comics, material that mostly failed to distinguish itself the first time around, it is not likely The Ultimates will stand tall for very long. However, it should at least look great until that imminent collapse and subsequent whimper. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have returned the concept of the disposable comic book to corporate superheroes not by tweaking a few pop-cult universalities but by pushing the strengths of the original formula back to the forefront and feeling perfectly comfortable with such material's inherent sell-by date.