Thursday, 24 January 2013

Books: The Ultimates


The Ultimates
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Bryan Hitch

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I first wrote about The Ultimates on this here blog all the way back in the January of 2011 [1]. Of course since that time we've come a long way - I discovered that it was possible to write more than just one paragraph at a time when taking about a particular series (and - wow - what a breakthrough that was) as well as the never-ending joy of footnotes [3] and the rest of the world caught up on how much fun watching Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury etc beating up bad guys (and - most importantly - arguing amongst themselves) could be. Which - if we follow everyone else's lead - is mainly down to the efforts of one man: Joseph Hill "Joss" Whedon.

Frankly (at this point) Joss Whedon isn't a guy who needs an introduction. Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Firefly. The Cabin in the Woods. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (which I actually have never seen - is it any good? Worth watching?) and - yes (of course) the Avengers: that kids film with all the superhero buddies who come together to defeat an evil intergalactic threat by - erm - smashing up New York and then using an atomic bomb to somehow magically fix everything (it's the American way or something [4]) that - against all the odds - managed to become of the most profitable movies of all goddamn time [5]: Joss is - well - he's basically the nerd Jesus and the man that fans of other series daydream about coming to rescue their franchise of choice (Talking to my friend the other day about the Judge Dredd film I got this: "You know what would work really well? A Judge Dredd television series! And you know who would be the perfect person to do it right? - Joss Whedon!" Because - duh - obviously - right now there's nothing that man can't do. Need someone to direct the new Star Wars films? Get Joss Whedon! [6] There's a cat stuck up a tree! We need Joss Whedon! Failing marriage? Has anyone got Joss Whedon's phone number? and etc).

A lot of the plaudits The Avengers got was how it managed to reinvent and refresh the idea of how a superhero team could work on the big screen (or is that just something I'm making up? Whatever...) as it proudly continued the trend of other 21st Century superhero films (I'm looking at you particularly Spider-Man and Iron Man: yes - stop messing around at the back and pay attention please) by making all the non-superhero action explosion stuff the best bit. That bit in the middle of The Avengers when they all start squabbling with each other and the camera does a 180 degree flip? I'll take that over that muddled final battle scene (that did nothing much more than to make me feel fatigued) any day of the week please please please. Robert Downey Jr doing his flamboyant acting thingie where it looks like he's just making up his lines as he goes along [7] and Mark Ruffalo finally giving the world a Dr Banner it could believe in [8]: well - that's the stuff that I go to movies for thank you very much.

But - hell - you ask any serious comic book fan worth their salt and they'll tell you that none of this movie magic / money-making would ever have happened without Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's The Ultimates [9]: it's like how everyone always talks about Christmas is really "all about Jesus" when - if you just do a quick google - wow: it turns out that there's loads of stuff out there about Saturnalia and pagan festivals celebrating the end of the dark and stuff like that [10]. Or - in other words: even tho Joss Whedon is the face on the label the formulae was actually first distilled to (some form of) perfection by these guys: they did it first and they did it best: with the ideal and optimal amounts of sugar, chocolate, glucose syrup and wire wool: they  concocted a recipe for 21st Century superheroes comics (or movies - whatever) that - really - has yet to be bettered (am I building this up too much? Oh well...).

Of course - in a shocking twist - the introduction to the big fat collected edition of The Ultimates you can see in that picture up the top there [11] was written by (can you guess who it is yet? no? come on - who do you think?) - yep: that's right - Mr Joss Whedon himself (gasp!). Written all the back in July 2004 (so that's after Firefly but just before Serenity - and still that point in time when he was known as the Buffy guy) it basically means that he can't plead ignorance and all the various things that his Avengers movie well - steals - from the comic can't just be put down to cosmic coincidence or whatever [12]: nah - The Ultimates comic is more like a dry-run of just how to make all the Avengers characters not just work: but also snap (!), crackle (!!) and pop (!!!) in the most entertaining ways possible.

Of course - the irony is (and I guess this is because The Ultimates is pretty much the work of only two men who - seeing as they were creating an alternative universe version of The Avengers [13] - didn't have to worry too much about upsetting the status quo (in fact - I'm guessing that in an effort to distinguish The Ultimate characters from their mainstream Marvel counterparts - the orders probably included the orders to upset the apple cart as much as possible) - as opposed to Mr Whedon who - (I guess) as he had his hand on the wheel of a multi-billion dollar franchise was probably under strict instructions not to cause any undue stress or damage [14]) that the comic book is actually most sophisticated and even (dare I say it?) grown-up than the film. I mean - yeah - both are about people in brightly coloured costumes going around hitting things: but if you've never read The Ultimates before you might be surprised by how much stuff there is of people not hitting things and (when they finally get around to it) the type of stuff they actually get around to hitting....

And also: well - yeah - it's more fun and more exciting because it takes more risks and screws with your expectations in ways that you wouldn't really expect: I mean - seeing how everyone in The Avengers has their own separate parallel film series (I mean apart from that bow and arrow guy and Scarlett Johansson - but everyone knows that they don't count anyway seeing how they don't have any real powers apart from - erm - having a bow and arrow and being Scarlett Johansson) it's not really possible to play up anyone's negative characteristics - I mean: they all have to be upstanding moral citizens right? With a complete lack of any interesting moral blemishes or anything else that could be considered "untoward." Thankfully (and praise the lord) this is a comic book that doesn't suffer from that problem. Freed from the obligation to steer present it's heroes in a hero-like glow (as this was way back when the only other Ultimate character with his own book was Ultimate Spider-Man) The Ultimates gets down-right nasty - especially especially with everyone's favourite gamma radiation scientist who is recast as less a brooding and troubled Dr Jekyll type and more as - well - the only word that really fits would be "dweeb." (sorry Bruce). But (and this makes a change to the usual Millar antics) it doesn't feel like meanness for meannesses [15] sake: rather everything is there to push forward the story into the kind of places that you wouldn't quite expect (like - I just wanna blab and list all the stuff that happens - but I figure that there might still be a few people out there that haven't had a chance to read this yet - so will keep my synopsises to myself). And (another thing!) without the extra weight of those other films where each character has to the star - things just feel a lot more - I dunno - joined and together. I mean - I guess you'd think it'd be a hindrance each character wasn't introduced elsewhere - but instead: well - it kinda feels like a gorgeous little intimate mixtape where you're only getting the best bits of each (does that make sense?).

And yeah: ok - I know that I do go on about story story story a lot on here: but - man - I can't help it: there's something about a good story well told that sparks a part of my brain in a way that not much else comes close to - and from the very first panel of the book ("The North Atlantic 1945") with that fleet of airplanes marching through the sky: drawn with such attention to detail that you hear the low buzzing drone of their engines this is a comic that just feels - I dunno - assured with the story it's telling. From it's use stock cliché's just to lightly hammer home what you already know you already know [16] and the way it makes the idea of a superhero team seem somehow - (I dunno) inevitable (""Crime is becoming super-crime. Terrorism is becoming super-terrorism.") not to mention the way it keeps raising the stakes to bigger and better heights... So that by the time you get to the end it's like taking your first step on to solid ground after riding the world's biggest and fastest roller-coaster.

Of course - there is a chance that I'm building this up too much. And - yeah - well: a few years back I shoved a copy under my literary flatmate's face and demanded that he read it and (after a few weeks of guilt-tripping) he returned it to me and said it was "nothing special." Obviously he's lucky that I didn't throttle him on the spot - but I guess the lesson there is that maybe you have to be immersed in the state of superhero comics a little to realise just what a breath of fresh air The Ultimates is and to be aware of the stock types and genre conventions it makes mincemeat of: ok - yeah - it's not Watchmen but like Watchmen it does help to get a sense of the terrain in order to appreciate just how skilfully it navigates it. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for bombastic blockbuster comic books done with just the right hint of malevolence (and - oh - I don't really notice this sort of thing: but isn't it great how Bryan Hitch tends to draw everyone (at certain points at least) just a little bit from underneath? So that you're always just slightly looking up at the heroes: that's cool).

This is a book that I would happily recommend to everyone everywhere and that shows no sign of dating anytime soon (although there is a chance that younger readers may ask: who exactly is this Freddie James Prinze, Jr. guy?) - I  mean - it's got pretty much everything you could want: there's hopeful uplift (" "I guess I just hit a point in my life when I wondered what things could be like if all the billionaires and government spooks tried to save the world instead of bleeding it dry."), a strange smattering of politic references (George Bush and "a democrat in Texas") to keep things - I dunno - grounded? Plus action and giggles and a - how's this for synchronicity? - a nice little reference to Robert Downy Junior (and that's before we get to the point where everyone sits around and guesses who's going to play in them in the movie version of their lives [17]... Which again is kinda spooky by how spot on it gets [18]).

I mean - what else can I say?

"What are you waiting for ladies? Christmas?"

[1] Which (for any of you curious to see how much I've developed in the past two years) went a little something like this: "Sometimes you just want a comic that's going to entertain you. Forget questioning the meaning of human existence and pondering the multi-dimensional narratives that explore the nature of time, space and everything - where's the best place to go when you want to see super-people have fights and have stuff go boom? The Ultimate is a back-to-basics reboot of the Classic Avengers series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - featuring the Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury etc (don't worry if you don't know who most of them are - it doesn't really matter that much). Part of the 'Ultimate Marvel' series (all new origin stories that free all the characters from the from their massively convoluted back-histories - ideal jumping on point for new readers etc) it takes everything right from the start and includes all the context you need - so there's no worry about stuff not making sense. With careful laying up of threats and a team that spends most of it's time fighting each other - it's storytelling that provides the explosions and cool one-liners but doesn't skimp on things like characterisation and actually trying to make you care. Bryan Hitch's artwork is detailed and realistic enough so that you can easily make-believe that this is stuff that could happen - so you can winch at the impacts and gawp at the immense devastation. In the simplest terms: it's the best big-budget widescreen superhero action film that's never been made - built by people that know exactly all of the right buttons to push. Best enjoyed with a large bucket of popcorn and refreshing beverage. Top tip: don't read The Ultimates 3 - different creative team and practically unreadable, but do try Ultimate Comics: Avengers - also my Mark Millar [2] - which is pretty much a sequel in all but name."

[2] "Also my Mark Millar"? Really?

[3] Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

[4] It would probably be easier at this point to list the mainstream big budget film that don't end with a nuclear explosion (somehow) saving the day. But then - hey - I guess that's what gets them off across the pond (for all the obvious reasons...).

[5] I mean - seriously - think back to when people first started to notice those Samuel L Jackson wearing the eye patch post-credit sequences and how much of a fruitcake idea it seemed: a bunch of different superheroes from all - well - very tonally different worlds (Kenneth Branagh on the one side - Jon Favreau on the other) all in the same picture? Sounds like the perfect recipe for a big fat unwatchable mess. And for all those years (years) leading up to - everyone everywhere was basically looking forward to watching it flop. And then of course - well...

[6] Except - oops - he's doing the Avengers sequel - so maybe not.

[7] "An actor so versatile that he played Iron Man in three different movies." Tina Fey. 2013.


[9] Although - to be fair - most of the comic fans out there (at the time that The Avengers movie came out) where much more concerned about how it treated Jack Kirby. - see: this Slate article: Marvel Comics’ Troubling Origins Story Why I’m boycotting The Avengers and this Comics Alliance piece: The Ethical Rot Behind 'Before Watchmen' & 'The Avengers' [Opinion].

[10] I spent half a second looking for things and found this. Which is worth checking out if only for this lovely little sentence: "Many of the most popular Christmas customs – including Christmas trees, mistletoe, Christmas presents, and Santa Claus – are modern incarnations of the most depraved pagan rituals ever practiced on earth." So yeah.

[11] It also comes in two smaller editions: Vol 1: Super-Human and Vol 2: Homeland Security - but for me: whenever I think of The Ultimates I always think of the big fat hardback we have on the shelves at North Library - so that's what I'm going with here: it seems only right.

[12] I mean - back when I first started rereading The Ultimates I kinda knew that there were going to be some small cross-overs between comic and movie but - frankly - I was surprised by just how many little touches Whedon lifted (I'm gonna include some stuff from The Ultimates 2 here - hope that's ok?): The notion of Captain America Trading Cards? Iron Man being introduced doing cool stuff underwater? The Hulk's big moment at the end of the film? Big dramatic moments of people talking to people in big glass cages? And - most special of all well - check out The Black Widow and the Wasp dialogue with Iron Man in the big climatic scene at the end of the first Ultimates book: I mean - it's almost like Millar and Hitch saw the The Avengers film and then decided to take the mickey out of - and seeing how it wasn't going to made for another eight years is quite an achievement.

[13] This would be the bit where I point out that The Ultimates takes place in something called the Ultimate Marvel Universe that - keeping things simple here - rebooted all the Marvel characters so they weren't bogged down by all that tedious backstory stuff.

[14] And seeing how The Avengers had a budget of something like $220 million - I mean - it makes sense that they wouldn't want to take too many risks...

[15] Meannesses. A word that won't just let itself be written down - but begs for whoever reads it to say it out loud so that they can roll it against their teeth and their tongue like a ship crashing against the waves: go on: say it with me: meannesses. (Feels good doesn't it?).

[16] "C'mon live a little.""No, thank you. Got me a future, partner. I'm two days away from retirement, my daughter's graduating from college... " "Little Suzie's growing up."  "-- and as soon as we nail Mendoza, my old lady and I are gonna sail around the world like we always wanted." [He shows a picture of his boat -- the Live-4-Ever].

[17] They did miss a trick by not getting The League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton to play Jarvis tho - seeing how Bryan Hitch draws him so that they're particularly identical.

[18] Although I guess that's just confusing cause for effect.


All comments welcome.

1 comment:

Tam said...

Mark Millar did something very smart with The Ultimates which was borrowing very, very liberally from the 2000 AD strip Zenith by Steve Yeowell and Grant Morrison.

This was a good move anyway because it's a very entertaining story. But what elevates the pilfering to near genius is that Zenith is out of print (and likely to remain so for various boring contractual reasons) so the theft has been neatly concealed from the comic buying public.

If Grant Morrison hadn't shown such a complete lack of solidarity towards other comic books creators and spent a bit less time sucking up to media corporations, I'd actually feel a bit indignant on Morrison's behalf over this, but as it is, I think it's kind of funny