Author(s): Mark Miller and Bryan Hitch
As a book loving fiend with a predilection for television only when it involves terrible zombie B-movies, I came to the Marvel Universe quite late – as in several months ago. Brought to the television by my boyfriend, an avid fan of Marvel movies and (somewhat) of the associated comics, I sat through Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman, the Hulk, and even the most recent movie in theaters. I expected not to care much for it all, but was rather surprised by the mixture of humor with action and irresistible character stories. Yes, yes the fighting and punching doesn’t look real but does it bother me like I thought it would – no. As a matter of fact, all that mass destruction can get quite addictive, especially when portrayed on the big screen.
Enter my introduction to the comics, or rather the Ultimates which provide a reboot of the Avengers original assembly. I started here because this is what my boyfriend bought at a comic convention and what I subsequently pilfered from his bookshelf. It’s certainly not the best introduction for a newbie to the Marvel world in that it isn’t the traditional characters and that it accelerates through several key storylines. Also, the perfect paragon heroes with their charming, but not harmful foibles, are a lot crueler here, anti-heroes with complicated stories and pasts that the narrative rightly assumes the readers will already be aware of. Thus, the danger of starting just anywhere in this world.
The Ultimates Collection combines the Ultimates comics #1 through #13. There are three volumes in the Ultimates series, with this being the first as written by Mark Millar and illustrated dramatically by Bryan Hitch. The collection really combines four central stories: Bruce Banner Hulking out, the Wasp and Dr. Pym’s surprisingly violent marriage problems, Captain America dealing with loss and sudden new love, and Hydra very nearly destroying the world. Thor is just sort of there in a friendly eco-terrorist, crazed hippie sort of way. Ironman is witty and brilliant when he does appear, but sadly he isn’t central to the action. The patriotic Captain and the pathetic Bruce take up the main space, to my personal chagrin. Can we just, you know, spend all of the time with Iron Man, a limited focus on the Captain, and preferably forget Bruce Banner exists?
Recall the moment from the Avengers movie where Bruce Banner is thrown out of a helicopter, turns into Hulk, and rampages the city? That’s where we are going to end, and there may be an incident foreshadowing the full rampage earlier in the narrative when an amorous Hulk peruses his ex-girlfriend, treating the reader to some hilarious, although bizarre, dialogue. The whiney, nerdy scientist is as we expect, although exponentially more pathetic than usual and harshly mistreated by his fellow heroes. It soon becomes a chicken-or-the-egg situation: is Bruce such a pain-in-the ass because his friends mistreat him or do his friends mistreat him because he is such a pain-in-the-ass? It’s a difficult and oddly disturbing question, especially when we see characters we formerly liked and respected ganging up an obviously down-and-out man. It’s too harsh and tarnishes the reputation of the Avengers whom we have come to love.
On a bizarre, although oddly intriguing note, we have the Wasp story which intersects with Captain America’s need for a new love interest. Feisty and flirty on the exterior, Wasp is secretly battered by her husband, Dr. Pym. Eventually, one argument goes too far and the Wasp is left hospitalized. Captain American finds himself personally involved in the dispute, protecting the woman for whom he randomly has feelings. Several of the panels are brutal, the story intriguing in a car wreck kind of way, yet once again, the depressing nature of the theme and subject matter bring down the more inspiring nature of the Avengers and their familiar film representations.
Hydra appears fairly late in the comics, an afterthought piggybacking off of our knowledge of both Captain America’s backstory and Hydra’s machinations. It seems rushed, added on after all the squabbles and general characterization. Shouldn’t this threat have been introduced early on, plaguing the characters and inspiring the creation of the Avengers? Shouldn’t the arch-villains have more screenplay, more foreshadowing, more plot? In my opinion, yes, they should to all. Otherwise, the pacing is thrown off and becomes random, missing all the room where the story could be capitalizing on the high-stakes tension of the villain’s near success (no, that’s not a spoiler, you know the Avengers always win.)
The artwork is the real star of this particular series, and I do mean star. Sleek, high-end, glossy pages reveal detailed panel after detailed panel of full-color, expressive artwork. Hitch’s style is realistic while keeping within the bounds of what we expect and want to see from a comic book (i.e. the physically impossible and the really, really dramatic.) The Technicolor pages are just brilliant and breathtaking, the colors so vivid they practically bleed into your hands. Here, it’s the detail of this vibrant world that sucks readers into the tale more than the actual dialogue and text. As a matter of fact, the drawings cover a multitude of plot sins and the very dangerous idea of rebooting universally loved characters.
Overall, my limited knowledge tells me that there are better Marvel comics out there and certainly better introductions to the Avengers world in general, but I found reading the Ultimates an enjoyable distraction. Perfect eye candy with some intriguing twists and non-traditional hero themes. While everything is, ultimately predictable, the experience is still enjoyable and, most importantly, a visual feast.
– Frances Carden