Biff’s Picks Volume 3

People have been recommending this one to me since the moment I picked up a comic book again. Boy, was I happy they did. I bought it immediately but it sat in a stack of other comics for months until last week. As soon as I picked it up, I couldn’t stop reading it.

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The Ultimates was written by Mark Millar, who I had a decent first encounter with and drawn by Bryan Hitch. We are focusing on Volume 1 which ran for 13 issues between 2002-2004. It was released as part of the Ultimate Universe which is an alternate and revamped Marvel Universe where the Ultimates basically fill the role of The Avengers. This generally serves as a great jumping on point to people who don’t want to sift through decades of storylines, retconns and an open Wikipedia page to get through an issue in the regular Marvel U. It’s fresh, it’s clean and uncluttered and it was perfect for me.

Due to its constantly changing rotation and different branches, The Avengers is one of the most notoriously confusing comics. Yet, I’ve always been interested in them especially being one of Marvel’s premiere teams. I never knew where to jump in. Start from the beginning you say? Well, I considered it, but beyond the historical value I find 1960’s comics very hard to get through. My criteria was that I wanted a small group to focus on and one where I already was somewhat familiar with the featured characters. The Ultimates fit that role.

Our main players are Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Giant Man, The Wasp, Nick Fury and to a lesser extent Hawkeye and Black Widow. If you’ve seen the Avengers movie then you are more or less familiar with these characters or a least this iteration of them since a lot of the movie was directly lifted from the pages of this book. Hell, way before a movie had being discussed they acquired the rights to Samuel L. Jackson to use his likeness as Nick Fury in this book.

Nick-Fury

The story is masterfully told in 2 arcs. The first involves the team coming together piece by piece, member by member and the second shows the team finding its footing. Unlike (I’d wager) the majority of superhero movie fans I almost always prefer the first half of the movie. I enjoy the origin story over the climactic battle. I need my heroes humanized so I can find out why they tick, not just blowing shit up. The Ultimates does a great job with this. There’s something I love about seeing a group or team formed with one person at a time. Call it Fellowship fever if you must, but I got it bad.

It begins with a prelude of sorts. Super solider, Captain America is kicking some serious Nazi ass in the heart of WWII. He halts their master plan and falls into the Arctic and presumed dead. Meanwhile, in the present day Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been given the task of assembling a superhero defense team that is sponsored by the government. Before the book picks up, we find out that Iron Man has already signed on as well as married scientist couple, Hank and Janet Pym. Hank has invented a way to change sizes at will, becoming a maximum of 12 feet tall and dubbing himself, Giant Man. His wife Janet, known as the Wasp can turn herself into a very small size and fly.

Scientist, Bruce Banner has been recruited specifically to replicate the super solider serum that was used to create Captain America. Everyone is doubtful about Banner, it’s revealed that previously in attempts to duplicate the serum Banner turned himself into the Incredible Hulk. Despite being able to be turned back to a human, mentally he has become a broken man. He has to live with the horror he created and the destruction he has caused. Worse yet, he still hasn’t been able to duplicate the serum. Not to mention his recent flame, Betty Ross took a job as communications director of S.H.I.E.L.D and wants nothing to do with him. Professionally, and personally the other team of scientists, the Pym’s think he’s a hack and a loser.

ult hulk

Everyone’s luck changes when Captain America is found perfectly preserved in a block of ice. This pays homage to the classic Avengers issue #4 from 1963 (Side note: I always thought this was a stroke of genius on Marvel’s part to bring back a popular character from the 40’s into the 60’s and recapitalize on his success). Once Cap is back action things begin to fall into place. Thor turns down their initial invitation (but shows up in their time of need) when something goes awry that puts the team into their first trial together. It only gets crazier from there. Confusion, betrayal, spousal abuse (!) and invasion really heat things up in the second arc. I don’t want to give away too much to lessen the impact of your first read through.

But Biff, don’t you have anything negative to say? Well of course I do, but not much this time around. I truly didn’t like the characterization of Thor in this book. He was a played off as a pacifist nut job (spent time in asylum) that could harness lightning and claimed to be the son of Odin. Making you unsure of whether he was truly insane or more real than people are ready for. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch were kind of useless too, they were involved from the second arc onward but weren’t necessary to the story. Speaking of pointless, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were also shoehorned into this, both appearing in whopping 4 or so panels. I’m not sure why Millar felt it necessary (beyond fan service) to involve them. Perhaps, more will be revealed in Ultimates 2?

I wasn’t familiar with Hitch’s art prior to this, but I was very pleased. He used an interesting muted feel for his color palette making things feel a little more dark and damp. His drawings were top notch too, rendered in the realistic style that I enjoy so much. I’m also a big fan of his Iron Man armor redesign. Millar’s story concepts and writing are good, but as per usual his dialogue can sometimes border on parody. There are two instances in this book where Cap calls somebody a meatball. That’s right two.

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When you boil it down, The Ultimates is really a book about relationships. The time displaced Captain America and the new world he has to adjust to. Tony Stark reconciling as the hero vs. Tony Stark as himself. Nick Fury and the general public’s perception of his team. Hank Pym and Janet’s crumbling marriage. Bruce and coming to terms with himself as the Hulk and also the other scientists. Thor and his morals after aiding the team. It’s very heavy-handed, but done in a way where it doesn’t seem or read that way. If you’re only here for the action, there’s plenty of that too. You get to see a massive Hulk rampage that almost an entire issue is dedicated to and most of the second arc is an all-out battle (similar to the Avengers movie).

It’s a refreshing look at the Avengers myth that pays homage to what came before it but also blazes a new trail that updates it to more modern sensibilities. It’s what Marvel was going for in the 90’s with the Heroes Reborn project, but this time done right and well received. I can’t recommend this enough. Anyone interested in where the Avengers movie came from (it’s very telling that there is a forward in the Ultimate edition by Joss Whedon from 2004) or that’s looking for a well told superhero story, do yourself a favor and pick this up.

ultimates-homeland-security-panel-bryan-hitch

All images and characters depicted are copyright of their respective owners.

About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on January 20, 2013, in Biff's Picks, COMICS!, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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