Review: Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

While Marvel's Ultimate line had some strong years, its downfall in the coming months has been long overdue. The Ultimatum event gutted the imprint through excessive character death without giving much back in return, forcing numerous relaunches. The books since then have played with the shrinking line as if their world itself is slowly ending, which sometimes feels a bit too on the nose. To this end, rarely has a good comic been let down by a terrible name as much as Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates. It's especially baffling since during the relaunch before this one, the Ultimates title was changed to Ultimate Comics: Avengers. The brand acknowledgement of The Ultimates couldn't have been strong enough to overwhelm the silly redundancy of the title they went with.

To be honest, the main reason I'm reviewing Ultimates isn't because of its universe, but because of Jonathan Hickman. This run has been touted as a key component of the upcoming Secret Wars and is part of that story's foundation. The Ultimate Universe's role in Secret Wars came as a huge shock to me in the pages of "Time Runs Out" and it really bolstered the event's scope. I almost wish Marvel would have kept the secret out of the solicits for the Road to Secret Wars trade . . . but they do have to sell the books, and there's a very good reason why Ultimates is part of the lead-up. While I'm a bit skeptica; about how long Marvel has really been planning for Secret Wars, it's clear that Hickman started setting up for it as soon as he started writing for Marvel.

The main plot of Ultimates is fairly straightforward: a mysterious new villain has become a massive threat that the Ultimates can't take on, especially with their numbers reduced. With Captain America retired and the Hulk a last-resort weapon, the team is primarily Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Spider-Woman, the Falcon, the new Black Widow, and Captain Britain. (The latter is Jamie Braddock, which is really weird if you're a fan of the 616 Captain Britain and know their twisted history.) With the way the team faces off against multiple threats at once and uses a flying carrier, it feels more like a Stormwatch or Authority comic than an Avengers book.

Thor gets a lot of individual focus as the villainous Children of Tomorrow execute what I'd have to call Ultimate Ragnarok. Odin, Loki, and the rest of the gods fall in this last stand . . . or so it seems. Even in death, Thor can see his fallen pantheon, and it's clear that they have plans to get their vengeance. Some of the subplots are a little more obtuse, including some war profiteering that Tony Stark addresses and some pages used to tie this book into the "Ultimate Comics" imprint titles. I'm still not sure why Spider-Woman freaks out over a picture or how multiple Xorns took command of a chunk of Asia, and I didn't know that Nick Fury and Black Widow II had a kid until the last page. While I admire Hickman's effort to keep these books intertwined, it would have been better to just dedicate Ultimates to its main plot.

I've danced around the main villain's identity for a while now -- mostly because the book does so for a couple of issues -- but here's the big spoiler: The creator and leader of the Children of Tomorrow is Ultimate Reed Richards, scarred from a past battle and perceived dead. He has created The World, a universe-in-a-building akin to one used by Weapon Plus, and is dead-set on advancing humanity no matter what. Thanks to time dilation within the world, he has technology one thousand years ahead of our own. He's also aware of the Incursions and the imploding nature of the universe; this information comes more in retrospect but Hickman was setting it up this way.

What really intrigues me is how this reminds me of the Zebra-Children from Avengers and the High Evolutionary's attempt to use them for his own means. It feels like it's the same concept filtered through different timelines, a technique that Hickman uses a lot, such as with Thorr and the evil Avengers or with the origin of Hyperion. Even weirder, many of these concepts were used by Warren Ellis in the unfortunately short newuniversal. His reboot of the New Universe used beings similar to the Builders and Mapmakers and it may be a canonical prequel to Secret Wars. In the pages of "Time Runs Out," Ultimate Reed is ready to destroy Earth-616, while "our" Reed works against him. Even more clues are present in Hickman's Fantastic Four, which I'll get to shortly.

The other major Secret Wars/Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates connection is artist Esad Ribic. I'm so used to his painted covers that I forgot he was the penciler; he does an excellent job here in conjunction with Brandon Peterson. Their art helps convey some of the trickier parts of the story since one of Hickman's weaknesses is an occasional tendency to tell instead of show. I wasn't thrilled enough by Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates to seek out the later volumes, especially since I already knew the big spoiler going in, but it's certainly not a bad title. If you're a big fan of the Ultimate Universe, you'll probably get much more enjoyment from it.

Next week, and I assure you that this is completely truthful: After having a run-in with Valeria Richards' Uncle Doom, Loki turns into a unicorn.
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  1. So I was really excited when I saw your post last week, because I only saw the words "The Ultimates" and assumed that you would be reviewing the Millar-Hitch series. I was ready to call Millar a bunch of bad names and say things like, "People say that they don't like Millar's more recent work, but they did like The Ultimates. Are you kidding me? Every bad Millar trope is in The Ultimates!"

    Needless to say, through no fault of your own, this review was a bit of a let-down. That said, even as someone who was never much into the Ultimate Universe, this did sound reasonably intriguing, although it likewise sounds somewhat impenetrable to anyone who hasn't closely followed the Ultimate universe. Or is it actually new-ish reader-friendly?

  2. I liked this one, but I have been following the ultimate universe since the start and am mostly familiar with the history.

    Btw before this Hickman did a 4 issue Ultimate Hawkeye mini to do with the Xorns.

    1. If Hickman's the one who came up with the Xorn situation then I may have to check that out... I thought it might've been forced on him by the X-books.