Art by Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary
Published by Marvel Comics
Mark Millar’s run on The Authority created a group of heroes based on the Avengers to challenge the Authority. His depiction of those hallowed icons ran him afoul of Marvel. Until they asked him to work for them and do to the Avengers what he did with The Authority. The Authority brought a event movie style to comic books with its larger than life characters, big stories, and big concepts. Keeping the same creative team, that influence is seen here. With The Ultimates, the Ultimate lines’ version of the Avengers, Millar’s come full circle.
Hitch and Neary continue to impress with their detailed splash pages and landscapes, bringing a cinematic eye to their art while still being nuanced enough to make two people enjoying a cup of coffee interesting. These are super-heroes who live in a grown up world, a realism forged in today’s global political climate, and are thus darker and, frankly, not as likeable. The Ultimates retain Millar’s trademark humor and spot on dialogue, but he has crafted a harder edged vision of the Avengers.
A trend in today’s comics is to do story runs as “seasons”. The first season of The Ultimates had the group only participating in two battles, one against the Hulk and another against and alien invasion. Season two picks up in the aftermath of those events with enough sub-plots to put soap operas to shame. However, many of the sub-plots fall naturally from the consequences of their missions and the characters’ actions.
The Ultimates triumphs have made them the focus of media frenzy and they have risen to the heights of celebrity popularity. Even in the best of circumstances, given our society’s need to build people up only to tear them down, you know that it is only a matter of time before they are knocked off their pedestal. We know that their fall from grace will come sooner rather than later because Millar has been exploring these flawed heroes. Captain America, icon for America and also the natural leader of any group of super-heroes, is a strongly moral-centered man who has rationalized his violent job (including his willingness to kill). Yet he manages to retain a certain yesteryear charm and innocence. Hank Pym, so desperate for a place of belonging, has experienced the most fascinating fall from grace, denied his wife (due to his abuse) and his job (due to his continuing embarrassing stumblings). And we know (for anyone familiar with the debacle that was his creation, Ultron) that it will only get worse.
This sort of character exploration might make for a dull book if the creative team couldn’t also stage the grand slugfest, such as when the Ultimates had to battle one of their own, the (possibly) deluded Thor. The reader doesn’t know if Thor is the figure from Norse mythology (as his Marvel universe counterpart is) or a mad man with good intentions. Thor, as the book’s voice of social conscience, has some Cassandra-like pronouncements about not only the group, but on the nature of America’s military imperialism. He sees America as the new Rome. The heroes under government jurisdiction, seem blinded or unconcerned at their treatment as military assets (persons of mass destruction being a particularly clever appellation).
The Ultimates show the dangers of how easy it is for good people to lose their way. They get caught up in their individual missions and can spout the reasons why they do things, but they seem blind or conveniently oblivious to the big picture of where they fit in society. Such a myopic view would be fine if their deeds were the end in and of themselves, but there is a context for those deeds. Something is off when the group replicates itself for its own ends, as if the point of the deed was to build the group, not to do the missional work of the reason the group was established. And along the path that they find themselves, they may wake up and wonder when exactly they became the bad guys or at least the kind of people they were formed to fight against.
The comic book also serves as a reminder to question where our allegiances lie, with our personal agendas (as individuals), our group’s image (whatever that set apart group may be), the national agenda (as the empire), or perhaps some larger missional work (God’s kingdom). Building on Thor’s thought, Christ’s admonishment ring in our ears to "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." We need to remember to be about the mission first, which may not always line up with the interests of the empire. Plus, The Ultimates know how to bring the Jerry Bruckenheimer-esque “big bang” to comics.