Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
May 2008

Why Hulk so angry? Purple tights… not my color.

The Ultimates Hardcover

The collective fanboys of the world released their urine at once last month, staining theaters all over the globe.

If you stayed through the credits of Iron Man, you know what I'm talking about. If not, let's just say there's a special secret scene waiting for you if you can stand to watch all the rolling words. And of course, the first question off your lips will be "What the hell happens next?" Well, dear reader, I'll tell you.

(He's going to tell, he's going to tell, he's going to tell . . . sorry, reflex)

When Marvel first created the Ultimate line, the idea was to recreate their major heroes, not just as appealing creations for new readers, but as the same Marvel creations but just younger and more modernized. The books would remain mildly PG-13, and they would remain the same kinds of stories the titles had been telling for years. Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men followed that trend, though they pushed the PG-13 rating occasionally. So does Ultimate Iron Man, written by our own Great and Powerful Card.

The Ultimates, from its moment out the gate, was an unpredictable and far more interesting beast. Writer Mark Millar, who had previously cut his teeth on the high-rated superhero series The Authority, and artist Bryan Hitch, who began humbly on Transformers, made their intentions clear.

The Ultimates was to be the next Watchmen.

The comic opens with a scene out of a 1945 war movie. Allied planes are sweeping over an iron-strong Nazi war base on Iceland. Soldiers shout how it can't be done, how the fortress is impregnable, how the Germans have a bomb in there that will flatten them all -- and then a plane circles overhead, piloted by Captain America, who flies over the wall and crashes through the front door of the facility. In insanely detailed, dynamic panel after panel the soldiers fight on the beach, die, the plane flies through ranks of Nazi soldiers, and Captain America leaps out to attack the now launching hydrogen bomb armed only with grenades.

The Nazis surrender, having launched their missile, and Cap flies into the sky clinging to the bomb by his fingers. He rips off a panel from the missile, tosses some grenades in to derail the guidance system, and gets blown away from the hydrogen bomb.

For the first time, the action subsides as a poignant series of captions reads off Cap's last letter to his fiancé Gail while the screen darkens. "God is good, and even the most terrible of things happen for a reason, sweetheart." He falls into the North Atlantic.

We leap into the future, where a certain Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, occasionally known as the Incredible Hulk, have been brought on board to help with a superhero project being masterminded by a guy with an eyepatch named Nick Fury, who looks suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson. Ahhhh . . .

Most of the problems facing the team as it comes together are personality -- the Giant-Man and the Wasp team butts heads with their scientific rival Bruce Banner, and the New Age activist Thor, who says, "I am here to save the world, General Fury. Save it from people like you." That is, until a certain Captain shows up encased in ice, not having aged a day. Super-Soldier serum will apparently do that.

To know what comes next after the film Iron Man, you must read The Ultimates. In fact, if you're the type of person who likes movies over comics, The Ultimates is for you. If it isn't the cinematic art, it's the larger-than-life characters, or perhaps the unnatural resemblance to certain major actors. Sin City, 300, and the upcoming Watchmen were adapted straight from their parent comics, using the panels as storyboard. If Marvel knows their stuff, they'll do the same with The Ultimates for the upcoming Avengers movie.

(Don't ask me why they're Ultimates here and Avengers in the mainstream comics. Such questions are designed to drive men mad.)

It's almost a detriment to say that Bryan Hitch's art looks like "a movie." It looks better than most movies I've seen. It has a photorealism and individuality to the characters that is distinct and non-comicy. His battle scenes don't suffer from the inflexibility of miniatures or overly cartoony computer animation, but look entirely malleable and real. He draws real people fighting a real alien invasion. Hitch's art is up there with the detail and dynamism of Dave Gibbons on Watchmen, a rare feat, though Hitch is all widescreen and blown-open cinema to Gibbons' claustophobic paranoia.

Oh yeah, there's an alien invasion. Try to imagine how bad it could be. It's worse.

And there's two of the greatest lines in a comic ever, ever, ever. From Captain America: "Do you think this letter on my head stands for France?" And from the big green guy: "Hulk not sissy-boy! Hulk straight!"

Mark Millar's writing is, overall, a shining example of plot and character. And perhaps best of all, he inserts numerous questionable behaviors right under the reader's nose without calling too much attention to them. In one scene, two black ops officers slaughter a whole office building full of people, with little explanation. Only later do we learn that the office workers were shape-shifting aliens. The shock of the scene remains, as does the scene where Giant-Man viciously beats his wife the Wasp, and sends a horde of telepathically-controlled ants after her. It's clear that these "good guys" subscribe to a very ambiguous moral code, and that they might not be so much "good" as powerful. Nick Fury is rather willing to keep things shady and cover up stories like Bruce Banner's connection to the Hulk. Captain America's politics and personal behavior come straight out of 1945. Iron Man is constantly drowning in booze, and while Thor is a likeable dissident, the question of his sanity remains hanging.

The only problem with Millar's writing is his tendency to be wordy, which sometimes results in passages that recall the old science-fiction cliché of "As you know, Bob, there is a supernova in our vicinity that is going to explode shortly," and sometimes just leave you wondering, "How did they say all that in the middle of a battle?" It's a great line when Captain America wakes up in 2002 and punches Nick Fury saying, "Sorry, Fritz. The accent's flawless, but you really should have done your homework. The highest ranking black man in the US Army is a Brooklyn-born captain I grew up with." Funny, but who could have cranked all that out? And do people really say, "I hope that seeing Chelsea Pier doesn't bring the whole Hulk thing back for you," when Chelsea Pier and the man who is the Hulk are right there in front of you?

But the moral ambiguities, while they remain subtle at the close of this volume, only increase over the course of the sequel, Ultimates 2. It's even treated like a sequel. This is a comic where the heroes' consciences are constantly buried by politics, power plays, and personal flaws. Thankfully, the endings to both Ultimates are a little more hopeful than Watchmen.

So, see this movie. And read Ultimate Iron Man, too, or the Mighty Mighty Card will be displeased.

Next ish: Talking animals, magic swords, dragons and destinies and… three little cute creatures out of Pogo? Welcome to the world of Jeff Smith's Bone, the little funny animal comic that reinvented comic book fantasy.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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