Monday, January 9, 2012

GN Review -- The Ultimates, v. 1: Super-Human / Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, and Andrew Currie

After being exposed to the Ultimate Marvel universe through the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man some years ago, I was pretty excited to get my hands on The Ultimates books.  The blending and re-imagining of familiar elements from the original universe into a more modern and edgier narrative made me wonder just what stops they would be pulling for the reworking of Marvel's premier super-hero team, the Avengers.  How would they come together?  How would they interact?  What would be different?  What wouldn't be?

Plenty of all, as it happens.

These Ultimates, like their Avengers counterparts, had been brought together by circumstances beyond each individual.  But these guys are a hell of a lot darker: Bruce Banner is berated by his colleagues and wife, and harbors a starkly psychopathic Hulk; Iron Man drinks to deal with the reality of his brain tumor; Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne beat the crap out of each other when they argue, and have no qualms about using their powers on one another.  Thor is either the real deal or, more likely, a homeless guy with delusions of grandeur, and Captain America, while definitely the real deal, suffers several forms of shell shock from having woken up decades after his proper time.

In addition to being an interesting spin on a familiar team, it's a lot of fun to see some of the more modernized elements of the narrative, mostly in the form of cameos that will undoubtedly date this story in the years to come.  Shannon Elizabeth, George W. Bush, and Freddie Prinze, Jr. are just a few of the names and/or faces that place this story squarely in the early 2000s.  It's a bold step to take for a comic book, where readers are mostly treated to an elastic and blithely imprecise timeline that preserves the heroes' agelessness and timeliness. Time will tell if this particular formula holds up, but you have to give Mark Millar credit for being willing to draw such a line in the sand.

I know this series was plagued by delays for a long time, so I have to admit I'm glad I got to read it long after its publication, because I was chomping at the bit to get my hands on the second volume at the end of this one. This volume ends after a major victory--the Ultimates triumphing over a crazed Hulk rampage--but there's plenty of fallout looming, and things take a turn for the vicious in the domestic arena when some of the team members lose their tempers with each other.  It not only sets up a couple of sub-plots nicely for further reading, but makes you wonder why, with all the flaws in these iterations of the Avengers, you can't help but want to read more and more.

Art-wise, Super-Human looks every bit as good as it's intended to be.  I can't claim to be familiar with much of Bryan Hitch's work, but his pencils set the tone (and a high bar) for the story, taking the narrative to the visual heights and scope demanded by the script.  The Hulk looks creepy and wildly menacing, Banner looks nebbish and pathetic, Janet looks cute and Rogers looks studly... and the scenery is accurate, well-drawn, and its own vision to behold.  The close-ups of various characters look especially realistic, and the overall style is well-suited to a modern epic of heroic proportions.

This was an undeniably entertaining read.  It did a good job of re-envisioning the Avengers myth, and made the people in it feel more realistic, even if they felt a whole lot uglier in places because of it.  The writing was well-paced, the dialog was witty, and we get to see a big freaking battle with the Hulk.  I'd say it's worth a read if you haven't checked it out before.  Highly recommended.

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