Marvel is relaunching its Ultimates universe with a series of books that take place several years after they stopped writing about this universe. I recently spent half-a-month at the beach with a stack of Ultimates books, so I feel qualified to review Millar’s runs on The Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men. Before doing so, let me get a few caveats and side comments out of the way.
First, for the uninitiated, The Ultimates was an imprint line launched by Marvel Comics to allow a modern re-telling of the same stories that the Marvel Universe has been kicking around for half a century. Comics fans know that every series reimagines itself, or at least retells origin stories, every couple of years. D.C. did it effectively with John Byrne’s Superman line and the All Star Superman and Batman books. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, however, was an attempt to do something different. The entire universe, reimagined, with similar-but-different takes on the characters. Colossus is now a homosexual. Gambit gets killed. Hawkeye is basically Bullseye with a bow. Hawkeye’s whole family gets brutally murdered. Jarvis dies. Actually, lots of people get killed. That’s part of what makes the Ultimate U so exciting—you’re reading what you think is going to be yet another version of the same old story, until it isn’t.
Second, Ultimate Spider Man is a perfectly serviceable series, but other than Peter dating Kitty Pryde it doesn’t break much new ground. Which is the whole point of the Ultimates. I know a lot of people are huge fans of Bendis’ writing on this book, and I’d never tell someone not to get it—it is a good read—but it’s not the ultimate Spider Man. It’s just the Ultimate Spider Man. If you get what I mean. The ultimate run on Spider-Man was Roger Stern/Tom DeFalco and John Romita, Jr. That’s the gold standard.
Third, Ultimate Fantastic Four is also not worth your time. In fact, other than a brief run in the 1980s, with John Byrne at the helm, F4 is generally a pretty dull book.
And my final prefatory note: The Ultimates “ended” with the Ultimatum series (and some worthless “requiems” to Ultimatum), which killed basically everybody. I’m not talking about Ultimatum and I’m not talking about Ultimates 3, which was written by Jeph Loeb and not by Mark Millar, because both series are generally vilified (especially U3).
Okay, so why should you care? The Ultimates 1 and 2, written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Bryan Hitch, and featuring some of the coloring I have ever seen, is available in a huge, heavy hardcover for about $100.00, and it is worth every penny. Yeah, I know that’s a lot of money. But Millar takes familiar characters and turns them upside down, and weaves familiar stories in new and exciting ways. The series tells the origin of the Avengers, without calling them that (they’re “The Ultimates”) until the very end. So naturally, it starts with the origin of Captain America and then brings Cap into the 2000s, introducing him to Nick Fury (now African American) and SHIELD’s superspies (Black Widow, Hawkeye, etc.) and superscientists (Bruce Banner and Hank Pym, naturally). It reads like a movie, with fast pacing and thrilling artwork. The relationships between the egomaniacal heroes are always tense, sometimes incestuous, sometimes brutal, and never, ever boring. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that it treats the Hulk—a military experiment gone awry—with a level of complexity and humor that I’ve never seen before; shows the embarrassing problems associated with growing and shrinking (including having your genitals be eight feet tall and on the front page of the Daily Bugle); establishes a creepy relationship between brother and sister Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch; and shows, realistically, how an inspiring supersoldier like Captain American is basically a bully and a meathead in any situation other than a military operation. Oh, and Thor might be a God, but he might just be a crazy hippie environmentalist. Ultimates 1 has a lot of groundwork to establish and lacks any really big supervillain, but I didn’t miss that aspect of the story until I saw how incredible Ultimates 2 was when Millar mixed in Abomination.
Ultimate X-Men is not as great as The Ultimates, and the entire run (reprinted in a series of trade paperbacks that sell for about $16) alternates writers. Any part not written by Millar is just not as good, although Brian Vaughn is a suitable substitute. The art is also up and down, depending on who is doing a particular story arc. But the fun part is seeing Chris Claremont’s brilliant creations and storylines retold in a more slimmed down, 21st Century style. I’ve never been a huge Claremont fan—he uses too many words and doesn’t allow his artists to participate in the storytelling. (But I will say that his new book, X-Men Forever, is pretty darn good.) But as a creator and a plotter, he’s brilliant. He created some of the most adored characters and stories in superhero history: Giant-Size X-Men #1; the Wolverine series with Frank Miller; Corsair and the Starjammers; the death of Phoenix . . . He’s a lot like Stan Lee for me: Great mind, not a great executor. Some of Millar’s great touches: The mysteries behind who funds Professor X’s gadgets; the question whether his being the world’s greatest telepath means that he has eliminated the possibility of free will, controlling his X-Men’s thoughts and desires; Nightcrawler’s homophobia vs. Colossus’ homosexuality; Storm and Wolvie’s (ahem) stormy romance; and the constant sex between the teens who are locked in a mansion together. All great stuff.
SPOILERS AHEAD: THE BACK STORY FOR THE NEW ULTIMATE AVENGERS BOOK BY MARK MILLAR
Just to get you up to date, so you can jump into Ultimate Avengers (and the other Ulti books coming out this month), I’ll spoil the Ultimates for you. But I still think you should read it. What you need to know before starting the new series includes a brief recap of Ultimates 1-3. Cap is revived by SHIELD. Fury assembles The Ultimates, a superteam led by the American military, to repel skrull-like aliens who have been around since (and fought Cap during) WW2. They succeed, but only by using The Hulk, who also commits all kinds of damage and death. Hulk is put on trial and executed via nuclear explosion. Meanwhile, Thor is working with The Ultimates but only because he likes Tony Stark, the genius alcoholic with a malignant tumor who creates all kinds of cool armor and weaponry. Hank Pym betrays the team, just like in the regular Avengers book, and works with an international team of superpeople who resent the fact that the U.S. (and Great Britain) control The Ultimates. This leads to an invasion of America, which ends with Captain American declaring that the Ultimates need to be independent of any governmental affiliation. Tony Stark’s obscene wealth makes this possible. Oh, and Hulk wasn’t really dead (duh!). In Ultimates 3, which is not included in the $100 hardcover and which does not receive my endorsement, Hank Pym is imprisoned for his treachery, and does some nasty things that distract The Ultimates from the fact that Magneto (who was supposedly killed by Professor X in Ultimate X-Men, but the Prof is a manipulative lying bastard) has stolen the dead body of Scarlet Witch, who was his daughter, and who was killed by Ultron, one of Pym’s creations. Ultron creates android versions of The Ultimates, which are destroyed by the real McCoys, and then Pym is inexplicably asked to re-join the Ultimates. Turns out Doc Doom was behind Ultron’s betray. These events are as stupid as they sound, which is why everyone hated U3.
This brings us to Ultimatum, which is also generally abhorred by fans of the Ultimate Universe. (It’s really sad that Marvel did such a bad job with an otherwise terrific idea.) Ultimatum was supposed to be an end to the Ultimate Universe—I guess because Millar started getting more involved with his Hollywood projects like Wanted and Kick Ass. In it, all the Ultimates serieses (Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate Fantastic Four) joined up with The Ultimates themselves. A quick sum-up is that Magneto wants revenge for the deaths of Scarlet Witch (described above) and Quicksilver (shot by Hawkeye accidentally), so he steals Thor’s hammer and makes all kinds of weather problems. Doc Doom is also involved. By the time the tale ends, the body count includes . . . (draws breath, speaks very quickly) . . . Angel, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Valkyrie, Beast, Doc Doom, Dazzler (no great loss, even if she is a lot better in the Ultimate U), Hank Pym, Wolverine, Thor, Wasp, and many, many others.
With that, the Ultimate Universe came to a crashing stop in July of this year. I know taking a break from July to August isn’t really a break—they retired The Ultimates for about as long as Jay-Z retired before doing “Dear Summer.” But Marvel promises that the reboot this month will bring Millar back (yay!) and Bendis on Spider Man (good), and will pick up where everything left off. It should be relatively easy to pick the books up and follow the stories without needing more info than what I’ve just given you.
Just a friendly service. You’re welcome. Now, go spend $100 on The Ultimates book.