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.
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.
Daredevil has a lot going against him. A terrible superhero name, lame powers and one of the worst marvel comic movies ever made. I had approximately 0% interest in him my entire life. 6 months ago that all changed for me. I kept reading about Frank Miller’s formative run on the series in the late 1970’s and early 80’s where he transformed at third tier comic book on the verge of cancellation to one of the top-selling books. They same keywords keep reoccurring in everything I read, “dark”, “gritty”, “film noir”. Film Noir? Was I reading that right? I knew Frank Miller was known for his Sin City series dwelling in the heart of Film Noir, but I had never thought about it in the context of a super hero comic book. What better character than Daredevil? He’s in the depths of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC and all things considered he’s much more human than most heroes (with the exception of say Batman) he was the perfect fit. So I decided to pick up the Trade Paper Back called Daredevil Visionaries Volume 2: Frank Miller which covered issues #168-182 and included Daredevil’s first meeting with Kingpin as well as the entire Elektra Saga.
What can I say? Reading it, I was floored. I connected with it right off the bat. Miller was able to move the main story from issue to issue and subtly weave subplot into the series. This is something I miss in the trade paperback society we live in now, the story never feels claustrophobic or self-contained. It feels like a small part of a larger whole. He does a great job revealing more about Matt Murdock’s origin as we find out about his old mentor Stick, Elektra becomes the Kingpin’s top assassin and the Ninja clan the Hand also starts showing up. The themes and culture all feel familiar in an unfamiliar way, it’s classic.
As I launch into this series, I thought it would be appropriate to give some background of where I’m coming from. When I was a young boy I followed comics from roughly 1991-1996, mostly marvel and mostly X-men related books. I started right around when X-Men launched their adjectiveless book and dropped out during the Onslaught/Heroes Reborn saga. I had just moved on to other interests. Not too long ago my curiosity in comic books and super heroes had been rekindled and I started ravenously consuming a lot of what was considered “classics”. You know, the real stand out runs & stories, crossovers, graphic novels, etc. So, I figured I would present my findings to you as an (old) noob with fresh perspectives.
The first book I chose to discuss was 1994’s “Marvels” by Kurt Busiek and art by Alex Ross. This wasn’t the first book I read upon my return to comics or necessarily the best, but it’s the latest and freshest in my mind. To me “Marvels” is fascinating. It presents a human side to all of the super hero activity in the classic Marvel universe. This is of particular interest to me due to my love of the early days of the Marvel universe mythology, but I hate the writing style that is usually associated with it. “Marvels” allowed me to enjoy the stories of yesteryear with a fresh “modern” take.
The art direction by Alex Ross is of course hand painted and gorgeous. This is one of the few books where he actually painted all the interior panels. It adds a sense of realism that accentuates the human perspective and helps ground those over the top scenarios.
The first book focuses on two of the first 1940’s Marvel Universe “heroes”. The pre-Johnny Storm, Human Torch (that’s actually a robot gone wrong) and the infamous Namor, The Sub-Mariner while surveying human’s fear of the unknown. Our main protagonist throughout the series is freelance photographer Phil Sheldon, we see everything through his eyes and lens. We follow his rise in the newspaper business, but the details of his story are almost inconsequential. It’s his perceptions of those around him and their relationship to these super heroes that make up the meat and potatoes of these issues.
The second book catches us up to the 1960s where the public has embraced these super heroes’ thanks in part to the Avengers and Fantastic Four and the knowledge that they are humans beneath those masks. The X-Men and Mutants in general are the subject to the general public’s cowardice and hatred. The book does an incredible job detailing the hysteria, confusion and bloodlust that clouds the weak, racist minds amongst us.
In book three, New York City deals with the unexpected coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer as they prepare Earth for consumption. The fourth book might be the most effecting as we see the death of Gwen Stacy at the hands of the Green Goblin from a much more grounded perspective (literally). It goes on to show how Spiderman’s inability to save her plays out within the rest of the human community. Painting us a flawed portrait of the humans that heroes sometimes are.
Marvels is recommended for new fans and old alike. It rewards older readers who know the history of the Marvel universe inside and out but also works as a great introduction to new readers who can survey some pivotal early events without digging back that far. It does an incredible job weaving these events in a strong sense of continuity. (There is even a reference list in the back of the trade paperback that tells you which comic book and what issue each event referenced was taken from). It’s smartly written, beautifully illustrated book that lays out the flaws of human nature. We constantly chastise these heroes for the menace and destruction they can represent but in a moment of crisis we unflinchingly expect them to save us.
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