Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Bryan Hitch (p) Paul Neary (i)
This issue begins where the last left off: Bruce Banner’s secret is out, and the public are calling for his head over the Hulk’s murder of 852 innocent civilians. There’s suspicion that Thor may be leaking top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. files to the media and there are even question marks over his sanity, as the gung-ho Captain America bundles into his nightclub looking for a fight. As pseudo-incestuous couple Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are called in early from their holiday in Italy, wife-beater Hank Pym is still hanging around the Triskelion compound to provide company for Banner, stoking his fears that the original team is being eroded to make way for an Ultimates team comprised of “weirdos and psychopaths”. All in all, our heroes are beginning to look like a very damaged group of people…
Despite such apparent liberties being taken with the characters of the original Avengers, Millar’s conception of the team is still a winning formula for me, as he manages to give each character an individual voice without making them simple stereotypes. All are rounded characters with their own tics and neuroses – and this arc looks like it’s going to explore exactly how our powerful heroes deal with their pretty serious issues. Whilst there might be the occasional mis-step in the writing (I don’t know what’s going on with Jarvis), Millar pulls off the personal relationships in the title very well, and the interaction and conflict between the members of the fracturing team definitely make for interesting reading. However, there’s a more global and politically-aware approach to the topic of super-powered “persons of mass destruction” here too. Whilst the broad political strokes play on the cagey and self-interested nature of conservative American (and, this issue, European) foreign policy, there’s some balance to be found here too, as Captain America’s visit to Thor’s nightclub hangout shows just how simple-minded and idiotic the anti-administration movement can be at times. It’s shades of grey like this which make the book more fun to read than just a generic superhero team title, with characters like Nick Fury coming off one one hand as sympathetic - with a job hanging in the balance and the threat of losing a team member permanently – and on the other, ruthlessly efficient and warmongering, with the final few panels suggesting a dark edge to the character which is yet to fully manifest.
As for the art: well, it’s easy to take Bryan Hitch’s artwork for granted when he’s as consistently good as this, but his work is again so outstanding that it deserves special mention. Whilst many people see the devil in Hitch’s detail – and it’s impossible to deny the expert craftsmanship which goes into rendering a Venetian Canal or Times Square with an almost photo-realistic quality – it’s the facial expressiveness and anatomical accuracy he brings to the main players which really win me over. Hitch’s characters don’t look like cartoon characters or impossible superhumans – they’re living, breathing, real people, and this goes a long way to establish the title’s grounded tone. That’s not to say that there aren’t larger-than-life aspects at play here: Iron Man’s submarine adventure is a wonderfully rendered large-scale international rescue, and Thor’s powers, though used sparingly, are effectively conveyed. But the artwork really ties the whole concept into a world we can relate to, making it feel closer to home than most comics and as such immensely relatable. Finally, the innovative cover deserves a mention too, as whilst the dual-layer effect doesn’t quite come off – the whole thing feels a little muddled – it’s nice to see a comic book cover which conveys the psychological conflicts within the issue so effectively, instead of yet another pin-up.
Whilst some may take issue with the apparent slowness in the progression of the storyline (this issue is almost all talk, with very little action) the title has proved in the past that its slow-burn approach to storytelling really pays off when the proverbial shit hits the fan in later issues. The densely packed pages of dialogue drop tantalizing hints about what may be to come in the title (the trial of the Incredible Hulk? A visit from Loki?), enriching the characters’ universe and paving the way for another great character-driven yet spectacular arc for the Ultimates. Another great issue.
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