Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Superb Heroes: Ultimate Comics Ultimates

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

NOTE: What I am discussing here begins and ends with the Jonathan Hickman/Esad Ribic/Dean White era of the Ultimates (issues 1-9). I realize that within those issues there were several guest artists and colorists, but for simplicity's sake I'm only talking about the three primary creators.

To me, superheroes are all about stakes. Because they have such incredible powers, they get to deal with problems far beyond the capabilities of regular people. Yes, there are many excellent superhero tales which focus on characters dealing with things of a more personal, even mundane nature, but generally speaking, what makes superheroes so much fun (and part of the reason, I'm sure, they became so popular in the first place) is that more often than not they are fighting on such a grand scale. They save the entire city, the world, the universe, or even the very fabric of existence. And at their best, superhero stories reflect humanity's real-world potential and problems even while relating these fantastic adventures.Ultimate Comics Ultimates (henceforth referred to as "Ultimates") wholeheartedly embraces this philosophy, telling a high-stakes, high-powered narrative which simultaneously holds a mirror up to the modern world. These days, we all seem to be worried about which threat will wipe us out first: nuclear war, the Large Hadron Collider, the Mayan gods, a random asteroid, etc. Elevate this fear of the end to a superhuman level, along with the threats which might bring that end about, and what you get is Ultimates.
     The first time I read Ultimates #1, when I that saw pages two and three were both devoted to nothing but an action-movie-style title card, I remember mentally scoffing at the spectacle of it and the waste of space. But had I known then what I know now, I would've realized the title card was a perfect introduction to the what would follow. The bombastic, blockbuster story promised by those two pages is delivered before the first issue ends, and the series has never let up or slowed down since. Right off the bat, several giant shits hit an even bigger fan: a nuclear device goes off in South America, the citizens of the SEAR gain superpowers and assemble the floating kingdom of Tian, and most terrifying of all, The City arrives and starts to mercilessly and efficiently gobble up Germany. These are epic threats, even for a superhero book, as evidenced by the fact that we have yet to see our heroes truly claim a victory for themselves. They strike out against their opponents with everything they've got, but with each passing moment the good guys lose more footing, control, and hope. They become fractured and scattered, yet every one of them keeps the fight alive. Losing repeatedly on multiple fronts, the Ultimates still refuse to accept defeat, even when we as readers would probably forgive them for doing so. If this bravery in the face of the unbeatable isn't classic superherosim, I don't know what is.
     There's actually a whole mess of classic ideas, plot points, and character moments contained within Ultimates. The hero who loses his family, making the conflict personal (Thor). The depowered hero who keeps fighting in spite of his loss (Thor). The martyr who attempts to sacrifice himself in order to defeat the villains once and for all (Thor again, also Zorn). The hero manipulated by the villains and tricked into helping them (not Thor this time, but Iron Man and Hulk). This list goes on indefinitely, and it's true on the bad guy side of things as well. Reed Richards is the mad scientist, world conqueror, and thinks-he-is-really-the-misunderstood-good-guy archetypes all rolled into one glorious megalomaniac. Each of these elements of his character is heightened and made more extreme because of the others, which is why he is such a frightening and convincing foe. There are scenes, even entire issues, where the reader is practically rooting for Reed and The City. What he says often makes a lot of sense, even when he's arguing in favor of humanity's extinction, and that makes him one of the most compelling and dangerous supervillains around.
     Richards is also, in many ways, a template for the entire book: concepts that've been used and reused countless times in the superhero genre (and other places) being pushed to their extremes. This is, I guess, the supposed goal of the entirety of Marvel's Ultimate line of comics, but Ultimates does an especially excellent job of it. When an assault on Asgard goes down in this series, the corpses of former gods rain from the sky. The President isn't just assassinated, he's eviscerated, along with a significant chunk of the rest of the U.S. government. Whatever we expect to see next, we get the biggest, most intense version of it.Ultimates is a series of constant escalation. Even though the stakes were set remarkably high from the get go, writer Jonathan Hickman keeps finding new ways to expand and exacerbate the situation, steadily ratcheting up the levels of power and danger in the story. And still, in spite of it all, our heroes valiantly keep at it. As Tony Stark points out in issue #8, during times like these there are only a select few who are both willing and able to save the day. The Ultimates know that if they aren't up to the task, no one will be, and so their desperate, noble sturggle continues.
     I've mostly been discussing the narrative strategies that Hickman brings to Ultimates, but I'd be ever so remiss if I didn't take time to point out Esad Ribic and Dean White's excellent artwork as well. Because all the insane villainy and selfless heroism and superpowered excitement in the world doesn't mean jack for a comicbook if the art lets it down. Luckily, Ribic's drawings perfectly capture the scale of this series. He's at his strongest when drawing The City itself, like the breathtaking double-page spread in issue #3, but Ribic does a great job across the board. His designs for The City's Children of Tomorrow mix scary futuristic technology with just the right amount of a strange kind of innocence. Yes, they are the primary villains of the title, but aside from their leader Reed Richards, there's not a lot of hate or even really evil motivating them. Instead, what they posses is curiosity and a genuine desire to find new opportunities for growth, and their external appearance expresses this. But of course, Ribic's impressiveness doesn't end with the Children. His Thor is every bit the hardened warrior, his Iron Man a perfect blend of smug and thoughtful. And Nick Fury, the real star of Ultimates, exudes all the intelligence and anger you want in a general, barking orders when needed but equally capable of a careful, reflective pause. I mention these three because we see the most of them, but honestly Ribic nails the entire cast. His Hulk-Richards scenes underline the differences between those men beautifully, and for the few moments we've seen him Captain Britain has projected an entertaining swagger and arrogance. As for women in the cast, only really Black Widow gets any significant stage time, but her directness, confidence, and strength all come through, and for a nice change of pace in the superhero realm, she has a realistic build and outfit. Ribic has put together an intimidating, formidable cast, which makes all the intimidating, formidable events in their lives that much meatier and more fun.
     While Ribic highlights the larger-than-life elements, Dean White's colors act as a sort of counterbalance, adding a soft richness to the title that helps to bring it a step or two back down to Earth. Ribic may build the cast and set pieces, but it is White who transforms them into a cohesive world, adding a consistent tone and texture to everything. When appropriate, White can amplify things, too, able to make his palette pop or explode if needed. Whenever Thor uses his hammer, for example, there is a brilliant wash of blue light involved. Generally, however, what White offers is a touch of realism in an otherwise fantastic tale. Because Hickman and Ribic both move so forcefully in the other direction, White's colors are the perfect final component, enlivening the art and enriching the narrative, both.
     It's a damn fine comicbook, Ultimates, and an especially fine superhero one, set on a stage that covers the globe and telling a story about the fight for humanity's future. It's the kind of narrative the very concept of superhero yearns for, and with the Ribic-White combination, it utilizes the comicbook medium to the fullest. Hickman, Ribic, and White have all either left the title or will be departing shortly, which is a real shame, because during their run they set the bar incredibly high.

Ultimates Comics Ultimates #1-9 were published by Marvel Comics and are dated October 2011-June 2012

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