Writer: Mark Millar Pencils: Bryan Hitch Inks: Andrew Currie and Paul Neary
The Ultimates takes everything we thought we knew our superhero comics and the precepts of the genre and looks at it through the lens of September 11. What Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have created isn’t an ironic Authority-esque deconstruction of superheroes but rather a humanistic look both at the heroes themselves and at the price of living in a world where these “persons of mass destruction” operate. Human life isn’t tossed aside carelessly, property damage isn’t just a nifty visual with no real consequence. The Ultimates isn’t the first book that tried to present what “real life plus superheroes” would be like but it very well might be the best to date.
The members of the Ultimates are, for the most part, presented as real people who choose to thrust themselves into the role of superhero–for most of these characters, this life is one that they chose rather than one that has befallen them because of circumstance. These modernized updates of the classic Avengers stay true to the core of the original characters but with the mircoscope trained a little more closely on the human foibles. The costumes are less important than the people inside them (for the main cast, anyway–some of the B-level Ultimates get no real fleshing at all yet, though I’m sure that will come later in Volume 2).
In this context, for instance, Giant Man’s not a trained superhero; instead, he’s simply a scientist who’s developed the ability to grow his body to a height of sixty feet. But having that power and knowing how to wield it effectively aren’t the same–he’s not a fighter, as is demonstrated repeatedly. Hank Pym in The Ultimates takes credit for the work that’s not his, suffers violent mood swings, and has a tremendously ironic case of Little Man Syndrome–all of which make him a very compelling, very human character. I’d like to note here that none of this is new to the character–this isn’t Millar sullying a long-standing character just for the sake of casting him in a more modern (read: “scandalous”) light. All of the characteristics Millar ascribes to Pym have long been there in the “standard” Marvel Universe, though they’ve seldom been given this level of importance. (The same can’t be said of Iron Man’s alcoholism–that’s been fodder for several stories over the years.)
Not all of the characters stay rooted to the original interpretations, though the best of the “remixes” has to be casting Thor as an environmental activist who might be the Norse God of Thunder and might be a complete nutjob. Don’t let all of this talk about characterization fool you into thinking that The Ultimates is a dialogue-heavy human interest piece, though, because it really, really isn’t. All of the action sequences–from the flashbacks to Captain America in World War II to the Hulk’s rampage through Manhattan to the Black Widow’s Matrix-style assault on an office tower to the massive alien invasion in act three–are big, loud set pieces that would make Roland Emmerich shudder with delight. Millar and Hitch nail the immense “widescreen” action sequences, producing several truly “oh, shit” moments of wonder.
And there’s no way for me to heap praise on The Ultimates without dumping a large helping of it on the artwork of Bryan Hitch. This book was notoriously late and irregular coming out, but hot damn was it worth it. If Hitch needed extra time to be able to produce work of this quality then that’s fine by me. His art is just fantastic, and I mean that in more ways than one. As beautiful as the artwork was in the monthlies, it’s even moreso in the oversized hardcover–several of the full-page spreads in this book could easily be turned into posters (and some probably have). Breathtaking stuff.
(I’d also like to mention that The Ultimates also features the single best Captain America line ever. Not gonna tell you which one–you’ll just have to read it for yourself.)
[UPDATE: More discussion of The Ultimates from something of a more scholarly perspective. Go look!]