Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Bryan Hitch (p), Paul Neary & Andrew Currie (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
For the most part, comic book readers today can choose to follow their favorite title by buying every issue on a month-to-month basis or just wait until a story arc is collected into a trade paperback (completists, obviously, will do both). For the most part, I favor buying comics on a month-to-month basis. Comic books, like television soap operas, are serials. Well-written titles end each issue with an incentive to buy the next issue: a cliff-hanger dilemma, a character revelation, a turning-point moment. Part of the joy of reading comics, in my view, is having to wait a month to see the resolution of the dilemma, the impact of the revelation, the continuation of the moment. I enjoy speculating what will happen next. However, when I’m reading a trade paperback, I can’t speculate because the answers to my questions are revealed when I turn the page and begin the next “chapter.” So, again, the serial aspect of super-hero comics favors a month-to-month reading. I’ll gladly sacrifice superior paper quality for the pleasure of anticipating the resolution of a cliff-hanger any day.
However, I’ll have to make an exception for The Ultimates.
The first issue collected in The Ultimates Vol. 2: Homeland Security was released in July 2002. The final issue collected here was released in March 2004, which means Marvel took nearly two years to release seven issues of The Ultimates. Even if Marvel intended the title to come out quarterly, it still was behind schedule. Less interesting than assigning blame for the tardiness of publication is gauging the reaction of the readers who bought this title issue by issue. Was the delay between issues redeemed by what Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch produced? And what about those readers who didn’t read The Ultimates issue by issue in lieu of purchasing the trade paperback collection? Without being distracted by the length of time it took Marvel to publish seven issues, will these readers enjoy the story?
In Homeland Security the Ultimates learn an alien race has infiltrated Earth and disguised themselves as humans (you remember the Skrulls, right?). Captain America even opposed these aliens during World War II when they allied themselves with Adolph Hitler. Now, in order to synchronize the universe, the Skrulls plan to subjugate Earth by eliminating our ability to think independently. The Ultimates, of course, stand in their way.
The confrontation is quite a spectacle with Thor and Iron Man taking on the alien fleet in the sky, Cap, Hawkeye, Nick Fury and The Hulk duking it out on the ground, and Black Widow and the Wasp figuring out how to disable the aliens’ doomsday weapon. As usual, Hitch’s work is remarkably expressive and detailed here. Double splash pages adorn every chapter, emphasizing, among other things, the enormity of the alien fleet and the fury of Thor’s hammer blows.
Therefore, the action in this book doesn’t disappoint. However, the cheerless tone of the story and the dysfunctional camaraderie between the characters left a sour taste in my mouth. Because of how the characters are portrayed and how they act toward one another, this isn’t a particularly fun book to read:
The marriage between Giant Man and Wasp has become horribly abusive.
Cap smacks Giant Man around in order to punish him for his treatment of the Wasp.
Thor and Nick Fury get on each other’s nerves.
Bruce Banner is perceived not as a person, but as a useful last-resort weapon.
And these are the heroes we’re meant to root for and idolize? Yes, I understand that part of the goal of The Ultimates is to knock super-heroes off their pedestals and give them blemished personalities, but I don’t have to agree with or admire this depiction. And I also understand that some dysfunction is always necessary in a super-hero team book (for example, I’m very fond of the playful dysfunction of the late 1980s/early 1990s Justice League International), but this book demonstrates no genuine camaraderie or teamwork amongst the heroes. Hawkeye screams at Wasp during the conflict with the aliens, and Iron Man is perplexed by Thor’s actions on the battlefield.
Some readers will call this depiction “realistic” or “a fresh approach.” I have two responses. First, considering the character portrayals found in Watchmen, The Ultimates isn’t “fresh” (and by the way, Watchmen has an infinitely more complex narrative structure and presents infinitely more complicated themes). Second, all super-hero comic books are INHERENTLY unrealistic. As I see it, the attempt to infuse “realism” (a slippery term to begin with) into a literary genre that is, by definition, fantastic is to make the book at odds with itself.
Just about every character here is cast in a pretty bad light. Giant Man is self-absorbed and pathetically self-pitying. Cap is a socially confused, politically incorrect soldier out of his era (although he does make an absolutely hysterical comment about France). Betty Ross is sexually stimulated by Hulk’s cannibalism. Hawkeye, rather than being the crass, cocky, fun-loving swash-buckler we all love in the “regular” Marvel universe is presented as a no-nonsense worry-wart in this “ultimate” Marvel universe (although I don’t really blame his moment of panic at the end of the conflict; given his situation, I’d probably wet my pants too).
The Ultimates, ultimately, presents a story full of grandeur but stripped of super-heroic nobility. It is injected with a negativity that doesn’t fascinate me and makes the reading experience a real downer. One moment in particular really gets under my skin. During the battle Iron Man has to save the city of Phoenix from a mammoth alien ship that has been felled by Thor. He exhausts his suit’s power but accomplishes a typical super-heroic act. Afterwards though, Tony Stark is psychologically spent, overwhelmed by the enormous odds against them. Assistance from some nameless infantry recharges not only his suit, but his will to re-enter the fray. When he’s ready to get back into combat, a nearby boy flashes him a thumbs-up. Iron Man reciprocates the gesture, and off he goes to face the alien fleet again. It is an unabashedly poignant super-hero moment… that is deliberately ruined when the soldiers ridicule Iron Man’s actions and then inexplicably push the boy to ground. Okay, I get it. The book’s point is that super-hero moments like these are sappy and deserve to be mocked. Well, moments like these attracted me to comics when I was a boy in the first place, and moments like these keep me reading comic books. If I wanted to immerse myself in degradation, I’d keep myself glued to the television set and absorb myself in the details about American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners and terrorists beheading American civilians. Comic books gladly distract me from the scary mess that this world has become.
So in the end, I appreciate the visual magnificence of The Ultimates Vol. 2: Homeland Security, am disheartened by the book’s tone and cynicism, and am SO glad I didn’t buy this title issue by issue.
What did you think of this book?
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