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Marvel Runs in Review: Ultimates, by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Wallace



"Joe Quesada called and said, 'Hey, the lunatics are running the asylum over here, want to join the party?'" – Bryan Hitch. [1]


In 2001, Marvel Comics launched the new “Ultimate Marvel” imprint, the brainchild of Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada and Marvel President Bill Jemas. The creation of this new brand was motivated by one major concern, which had both financial and creative implications: the Marvel Universe simply wasn't as young as it used to be. In creative terms, the weight of decades of continuity was making it harder and harder to write an original story which was easy to follow for readers who didn't have prior knowledge of the characters involved, but which didn't include long passages of exposition which would be redundant for longtime fans. This was giving many Marvel comics a certain inaccessibility to new readers, and - combined with the continuing dropoff in the numbers of newcomers who were being turned on to the medium - it suggested that the days of Marvel Comics could be numbered. Quesada and Jemas knew that they had to do something to appeal to a new generation of readers, and to this end, a continuity-light, baggage-free "new universe" was created. Soon, an Englishman and a Scot were recruited by Joe Quesada to re-imagine the decidedly American concept of the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, providing a fresh new take on Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, et al, which would make them accessible and acceptable for a young, modern audience - and which, along with Brian Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man and Millar's own Ultimate X-Men, would set the tone for Marvel's nascent Ultimate Universe.

Before all that though, came a book which would provide the opportunity for both Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch to fine-tune their abilities before applying them to Marvel's reinvention of the Avengers. The Authority, published by DC (under the "Wildstorm" imprint), was a modern superhero team book which redefined the genre for the 21st century, and which certainly provided a template (if not a wholesale blueprint) for Marvel's Ultimates. The two books' shared "widescreen" sensibilities, moral shades of grey and more realistic take on how a group of super-powered individuals might act are evident, and you can even see specific story beats from Millar's Authority run reproduced in his later Ultimates work. Despite both Millar and Hitch both making their name on the book, however, they never worked together in its pages: Hitch was paired with Warren Ellis for the first three arcs, with Millar's subsequent stories illustrated by Frank Quitely (among others). Whereas Ellis' 12 issues dealt with alien invasions and global-level threats (culminating in a story arc which was essentially the Authority vs. God), Mark Millar chose to focus on the more character-based elements, concentrating on the more personal conflicts which would lead the team to disintegrate later on in his run. Both approaches proved to be important influences on the Ultimates, with Millar's somewhat cynical take on superheroes (in which he ironically foreshadowed his Ultimates work with the inclusion of sinister, corrupted analogues of the Avengers in his first Authority arc) meshing with Hitch's larger-than-life yet highly realistic and detailed visual style to bring the Ultimate incarnation of the Avengers to life. In retrospect, the two creators couldn't have had a better opportunity to hone their individual talents before joining forces for the Ultimates - but at the time, no-one would have predicted that such a rough and realistic approach would soon be so successfully applied to the colourful world of the Avengers.

"We had to get to the core of who these people were and build outwards, so Cap was a soldier, Thor is either a nut case or a messiah (maybe both, today we would treat them same way: a cult following and a spell in the loony house), Banner an insecure genius, and Fury the king of cool." – Bryan Hitch [2]


Ultimates was the fourth major Ultimate title to launch after Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up and Ultimate X-Men. Whereas those books felt more like cosmetic updates of old Marvel stories for a contemporary audience (and that's not to diminish the achievement of Bendis and Millar in making those 40-year-old ideas feel fresh again), Ultimates was a true ground-up reinvention of the Avengers which made some major changes to the characters. Quesada doubtless saw the potential for the two Authority alumni to work their magic on a group of Marvel heroes that had a certain amount of mainstream recognition but whose mainstream Marvel Universe book was flailing (this was some time before Bendis revitalised the franchise with his New Avengers). Applying the Authority formula of putting realistically flawed people in the costumes, rather than the clean-cut, whiter-than-white heroes of the Silver Age, Millar brought the characters up to date in unique ways - making his Ultimates a very different group to the classic Avengers.

Ultimates was the fourth major Ultimate title to launch after Ultimate SpiderMan, Ultimate Marvel TeamUp and Ultimate XMen. In retrospect, the stakes were fairly high as Marvel took real chances with some very valuable properties, risking the ire of those fans who saw meddling with such iconic characters as bordering on treason. Would readers respond well to a Captain America with a truly reckless side and the occasionally violent mentality of a soldier? Would Thor fans welcome his depiction as a potentially deranged ex-nurse who has had a nervous breakdown and now believes himself to be a God? Would it be acceptable to portray the Hulk as a murderous, cannibalistic monster, whose rampage through the streets of New York leaves hundreds of innocent civilians dead? They were radical changes, but Millar made them work, respecting most of the core aspects of his heroes' original characterisation but giving each of them a sly twist, generally making the characters far more complex and interesting than their regular-MU counterparts.

Other modifications were more subtle: Stark himself was returned to the status of an alcoholic billionaire womaniser, with a life-threatening brain tumour instead of a heart defect; the Wasp was made Asian rather than Caucasian (although some subsequent artists who have worked on the character have done their best to make her look as white as possible); Hank Pym's personality flaws and violent, abusive tendencies were magnified to an even more unsettling degree; and Tony Stark's butler, Jarvis, was characterised as catty, queeny, and camp.

However, it was with the re-imagining of Nick Fury that Millar really made his mark. Not only was the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. a coldly calculating, politically enlightened and untrustworthy manipulator, but he was also modeled on perhaps the only man who could match the cool, slick, James-Bond-esque appeal of the original 1960s version: Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson himself liked the idea so much that he bought some of Hitch's original pages featuring the character; and in a case of life-imitating-art-imitating-life, Jackson is rumoured to be taking on the role of Fury in the upcoming Iron Man movie.

The manner in which Ultimates was written was just as modern as Millar's new takes on these established characters. After the opening action-packed prologue issue (the equivalent of a movie blockbuster's pre-credits sequence) which riffs on the Silver Age Cap's World War II origin story, Millar slows things down, embracing a fashionably decompressed approach to storytelling in order to fully flesh out the book's universe and establish his characters. It's telling that the plot of the first six issues was originally intended to form the basis of one single extra-sized opener, but Millar seemed so in love with the details of the Ultimates world - their billion-dollar Triskelion base, the machinations of their PR department, and their complex web of inter-personal relationships - that he couldn't help but expand the story of the team's formation to an entire story arc. Over the course of the two 13-issue series, the Ultimates fight surprisingly few villains (there are "ultimisations" of the Skrulls in the first volume, and appearances from Loki and the Masters of Evil in the second), but there's more than enough drama in the soap-opera of their lives to keep the book interesting. Hank Pym's vicious attack on his wife, the emotional relationship between Cap and a Bucky (still alive and married to Steve's former sweetheart, a living reminder of Cap's status as a man-out-of-time), and the later drama of a traitor in the Ultimates' midst all make the book a compelling read from issue to issue, with the colour coming from the characters as much as it did their costumes.

Some may cite the novelty of Millar's new characterisations or of the in-fighting between such established superheroes as the reason for the Ultimates success, but it's telling that the book still stands up to re-reading long after the initial surprises have lost their effect (and after the heroes vs. heroes idea has been done to death in Civil War). Other readers have decried Millar's contemporary pop-culture references and celebrity cameos as gimmicks which will date the book for future generations, but it's equally possible to see these elements as a return to the hip, contemporary cultural awareness that made the earliest Marvel Comics such a big hit with their readers. However, for many fans, the appeal of Ultimates went further than that, with Millar adding a political angle which cast the entire story in a highly relevant and thought-provoking light.

"[Ultimates] is an exploration of what happens when a bunch of ordinary people are turned into super-soldiers and being groomed to fight the real-life war on terror." – Mark Millar [3]


The decision to filter Avengers-style superheroics through such a fiercely militaristic lens couldn't have been more timely in terms of world events. With the first issue of Ultimates published in March 2002, the attacks of September 11th 2001 were still fresh in the mind of most readers, and fans of superhero comics were starting to view "super-villains" in more complex terms than the cliché, cackling menaces of tradition. The unprecedented display of domestic terrorism showed that America had some very real enemies who were far scarier than an alien invasion or a brotherhood of evil mutants, and the prospect of huge-scale explosive fighting and massive property damage simply didn't seem as entertaining as it used to. Crucially, readers were also starting to become more politically aware, questioning America's place on the world stage - and having been confronted with the unpleasant reality of an attack on home soil (and the possibility of military retaliation in foreign countries), they were ready for comics to address the more complex moral issues of international relations, global politics, and the "might is right" mentality of warfare.

For all the surface sheen of Ultimates, there's a highly politicised undercurrent which gives the book an edge that's lacking from most contemporary superhero stories. The more obvious metaphor of the Ultimates as "Persons of Mass Destruction" is supported by a variety of details which show that Millar has considered the possible details of superheroes as military weapons, whether it's the establishment of a black ops division for a superhero group, the development of a European union of super-soldiers, or the eventual emergence of a super-powered international "axis of evil." Millar couldn't help but be influenced by the state of world politics and the War On Terror, whether in the U.S. or in Iraq, and it led to some of the series' most memorable moments. At the start of volume 2, Captain America is deployed in Iran (contrary to Nick Fury's earlier promises), kicking off a series of events which ultimately leads to the invasion of America in issue #9 by an international team of antagonists known as the Liberators. It's a shocking moment and a deft twist, but one which is even more disturbing for the nagging, inescapable feeling that they somehow had it coming.

It's always satisfying when fantastical comics can also say something about the real world, and although Ultimates might not quite have the substance of a more politically pointed book like V For Vendetta or Watchmen, it does make for some interesting reading matter. Most pleasingly, there's an ambiguity and even-handedness evident here which makes it hard to believe that Millar is the same writer who crafted the far more heavy-handed political allegory of Civil War. It's also impossible to claim that Ultimates is biased towards either a liberal or conservative point of view: it's testament to Millar's skill as a writer that it can be read both ways, and it's telling that the reactions of readers to the political elements often say more about their own political standpoint than Millar's personal views.

Yet for all the seriousness of Ultimates, it was never po-faced or pretentious. The character-based humour that Millar inserted into the book was a welcome release from the more serious subject matter, culminating in the humourous and highly entertaining sixth issue of the second volume, featuring the Ultimate Defenders. Marvel also showed that they didn't feel that the book was beyond parody, lampooning it in the pages of their own Wha... Huh? issue in 2005. These kind of tongue-in-cheek moments helped to alleviate some of the tension, and ensured that the Ultimates maintained a fun edge despite its sometimes heavy subject matter.

"We just set out with the basic idea: What would we do if we had to make The Avengers as a movie?" – Bryan Hitch [4]


Of course, there's a second half of the Ultimates equation which has barely been mentioned so far, and that's the peerless artwork of English artist Bryan Hitch. A big part of the appeal of Ultimates was in seeing classic Marvel characters updated in a modern way, and that extends to the visual elements of the book, too. Hitch's character designs for the Ultimates mirrored Millar's reinventions in that they retained the most recognisable core attributes of the originals, but brought them into the modern age: in Hitch's case, via the use of fashionable textiles (ie. a lot of ribbed leather), a more practical approach to the characters' costumes, and an almost photo-realistic quality to their depiction which rooted them firmly in a more relatable world. Even gaudy Kirby creations like Thor were given a 21st-century sheen without sacrificing key design elements. The redesigns were so successful that Hitch has subsequently been called upon to design several other Ultimate characters (most notably the Ultimate Fantastic Four and the new characters who appeared in the Ultimate Avengers animated DVD releases), and his stylistic influence has even spread to the regular Marvel Universe (particularly in the case of Captain America).

The two words that you'll probably hear used most often to describe Hitch's art are "widescreen" and "cinematic," but it's important to remember that comics aren't films, and there's a lot more to his craft than simply making the visuals look like a slick action movie. Hitch mixed well the grand military posturing of a Michael Bay film with a more intimate, personal tone which suited Millar's character-based story beats, and his command of pacing and ability to time his big reveals showed off his skill for imbuing a story with the kind of page-turning excitement that only comics can provide. Hitch struck the perfect balance between the out-and-out fantasy elements of the superhero genre and the kind of restrained approach that is usually the domain of more grounded science fiction, and there was a tightness to his choreography and a consistency to his facial models and environments which was necessitated by his drive to be as detailed and realistic as possible at all times.

When I talk about detail, I don't just mean the painstakingly rendered textures and backgrounds (although that's undeniably a big part of Hitch's appeal). There are also a lot of "easter eggs" secreted throughout Hitch's pages which reward keen-eyed readers, and often only reveal themselves the second or third time around. Examples include the early cameos of Loki which are scattered throughout early issues of volume 2 in advance of his official introduction, the multiple glimpses of Quicksilver which are inserted into the background of group fight scenes, the tiny image of Ultimate Nighthawk being knocked out during the battle royale in v.2 issue #12, or the subtle winks and nods to other comics properties which he manages to weave into his art (look out for cheeky cameos of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on the night of the Triskelion opening party, and a stray copy of the Daily Planet on Nick Fury's desk the next day).

Another reason that Hitch's art is so impressive is that he never took short cuts (such as opting for time-saving silhouettes, or using stark, background-free panels) in order to achieve his desired effect. This, combined with the level of detail, makes it easy to see why each page took so much more time and effort than the majority of comic book art. Of course, this time wasn't only taken up by the pencilling, but also by the inking which followed it, and the Ultimates saw Hitch reunite with his Authority collaborator Paul Neary, who handled the lion's share of the finishes. In many ways, Neary is the unsung hero of the Ultimates creative team, applying his delicate linework to Hitch's pencils to complement and enhance them. Although the pencils-only variant edition of Ultimates 2 #1 gave us the chance to see just how accomplished Hitch's bare lines were, it was also evidence of how the look of the book only truly came together after the final inking stage, and in this Neary was unmatched. You only have to look at the sixth issues of Ultimates 2 to see how a different inker (in this case, Hitch himself) can subtly change the look of the art, and how important Neary’s contribution was. Topping off the art team was Laura Martin on colours, an experienced artist who had already made her name on Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, and who brought an unparallelled talent for choosing exactly the right shades and colouring effects which were necessary to bring the book to life.

Throughout his run on Ultimates, Hitch created so many memorable visuals that it's impossible to list them all; however, the retro appeal of the tense, bloody WWII opening chapter, the raw power of the Hulk's rampage, and the Independence Day-esque spaceship battle which forms the action climax of the first volume are all high water marks which will remain in readers' memories for a long time. If Hitch dazzled readers in the first volume of Ultimates, he outdid himself in the second, dealing with an even larger cast of characters, a more challenging mixture of fantasy and realism (particularly with the eventual arrival of Asgard), and even more ambitious huge-scale battle sequences, culminating in the indulgent but no less impressive 8-page foldout spread of the battle in Washington, in the book's final issue. As time passes, the delays to the shipping schedule of Ultimates will be forgotten, but Hitch's superb art will remain.



"Bryan and me both agreed that we'd only even do Ultimates 2 if we were absolutely certain it was better than the first thirteen issues". – Mark Millar [5]


With the advent of Ultimates 2, all of the elements which made the original volume so appealing were reprised: the political angle (this time with a more global bent); the inter-personal conflicts (this time with added wrinkles, such as Captain America's relationship with the Wasp, or the trial of Bruce Banner for mass murder); and the amazing action sequences and large-scale conflict (with a climactic fight sequence which bettered anything yet seen in the series). Yet more aspects were added to the mix: the manipulative machinations of Loki, the emergence of a traitor in the Ultimates' ranks, and some out-and-out shocking moments which took the plot in unexpected new directions, such as the cold-blooded execution of Hawkeye's wife and children, or the all-out attack on America by foreign enemies on the book's final issues.

However, for some, there was perhaps a sense that Ultimates 2 didn't quite live up to the standard of the original volume. Major criticisms included the complaint that the book's overall plot was a virtual recycling of the first volume (sometimes almost issue-for-issue) with a few details changed, and that the shipping delays were worse than ever (which they were - even though Marvel allowed a long delay between volume 1 and volume 2 in order for Hitch to get ahead on the artwork in order to try and hit a monthly schedule). However, on an issue-to-issue basis, the response from readers was still positive, and the book remained one of Marvel's top sellers in every month that it appeared.

It's also important to bear in mind that Ultimates 2 could never hope to have the same fresh and innovative impact as the first volume of the book, lacking the element of surprise and the novelty of seeing such classic characters updated for a modern audience. Whilst the plot might have seemed like a mere imitation of the original, it was in fact far more complex and involved, with a much larger cast of characters, a far more immediate plot (with most of the character origin stories having been dealt with in the first volume), and a less straightforward political subtext. If volume one was a commentary on domestic terrorism, volume two was a response to the international situation that had developed out of the War on Terror, and the internal conflicts within the team soon became as political as they were personal. In many ways, this was more intelligent writing than we saw from Millar in volume 1, mixing the politics with the soap-opera more comprehensively and misdirecting the audience with the building up of a small internal threat to the team before turning things on their head with the emergence of Loki and the ultimate revelation of Asgard and Thor's true heritage in the book's final issue. The fact that it held up to comparison with the original 13 issues at all suggests that Millar and Hitch were actually improving their craft - but by the end of the second volume, it was clear that most of their creative juices had been expended in bringing the second volume to life.

"We had an idea for Ultimates 3, but it wasn't as good as Ultimates 2 and so we decided to move on. It's really that simple". – Mark Millar [6]


With the final issues of Ultimates 2, Millar and Hitch declared their run on the title complete. It would have been easy for the creators (and for Marvel) to sit back and take the easy route of writing an Ultimates 3, but with Millar admitting that his future ideas for the team just wouldn't be as good as the previous ones, and Hitch talking of the sheer exhaustion that he suffered whilst drawing the book's final couple of issues, a second sequel simply wasn't an option for the team. It remains to be seen whether Jeph Loeb and Joe Madueria can produce a story that’s on the same level of quality in their Ultimates 3 (although the signs aren’t good so far), but most readers at least seem to agree agree that a radical change in style was a wise move for Marvel, who may have risked diluting the appeal of the book if they had tried to bring in a writer/artist team with the aim of simply imitating what came before.

Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates is likely to stand as a milestone in the genre and a modern classic, and the book’s two volumes are so satisfyingly complete that they deserves to stand alone, unfettered by wider Ultimate Universe continuity and apart from the work of other creators. In fact, the only future Ultimates creators who might have a hope of equalling Millar and Hitch's first two volumes are Millar and Hitch themselves. Some recent comments from Millar suggest that a return to the book might be on the cards at some point in future, after the pair tackles Fantastic Four (and possibly the long-mooted collaboration on DC's Superman). Indeed, what started off as a half-joke now seems to have become a firm plan to return to the characters some years in the future:

"I’ve already started putting notes together for it. I look forward to coming back to it at some point. But I’d only do it with Bryan now.” – Mark Millar [7]


Ultimates fans wouldn’t have it any other way.




Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates ran for 26 issues from March 2002 to May 2007, in Ultimates #1-13 and Ultimates 2 #1-13.



References:
[1] "Bryan Hitch: The Ultimates Visionary"

[2] as per [1]

[3] www.popcultureshock.com interview with Mark Millar, 2004

[4] as per [1]

[5] "CIVIL WAR & PEACE OF MIND with MARK MILLAR (Part 2)"

[6] as per [5]

[7] "Our Final Story"

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