Writer: Warren Ellis
Artists: Steve McNiven (p), Mark Morales (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
This week finds two Warren Ellis–penned comic books on the shelves—the penultimate chapter of Ellis’s Ocean and the first issue of Marvel’s Ultimate Secret. Each is rooted firmly in the science-fiction genre, Ellis’s forte, and each reflects his sensibilities with regard to character: Both Ocean’s Nathan Kane and Secret ’s Philip Lawson are skilled professionals who define themselves by articulating their specialized knowledge to laymen with wit and energy. With Station Commander Fadia Aziz and a freshly “Ultimatized” Captain Carol Danvers, both comics feature strong women in positions of authority. And, as is so often the case in his work, Ellis takes great pleasure in crafting plausible, pseudo-scientific explanations as center pieces of his plots. In Ocean, the reader is treated to “corporate humans” whose “personality is shut off for the duration of the work contract.” Secret boasts “the zero point zone,” a method of propulsion resulting from “energy exist[ing] in a vacuum at a temperature of zero degrees. Particles and waves of power that spontaneously appear out of nowhere.”
Yet with all of these similarities of tone and content, the experience of reading each of these comics differs significantly. Where Ocean exhibits a sense of openness and a spark of originality, Ultimate Secret #1 is permeated with a vague atmosphere of restraint. Though the latter book is certainly enjoyable, it feels as though Warren Ellis is following someone else’s playbook.
In contrast with Ultimate Nightmare, which did not reveal itself to be a vehicle for the introduction of Ultimate Galactus until its final issue, Secret tips its hand from the beginning. Within a few pages, the future Ms. Marvel, Captain Mahr-Vehl, and the Kree all make appearances. Most notable is the new Mahr-Vehl, Dr. Philip Lawson. His briefing on the propulsion system for the ASIS project, which will make space travel practical for humans, is excellently handled. Lawson is a charismatic nerd who, unlike other technologically knowledgeable but socially inept characters, such as Marshall Flinkman on ABC’s Alias or the young Reed Richards of Ultimate Fantastic Four, is a captivating salesman whose confident body language energizes the dullest of technical exegesis. Credit is due to the distinctive pencil work of Steve McNiven, for bringing the young scientist to life. McNiven’s style is reminiscent of Tony Harris’s current work on Ex Machina. One suspects that, like Harris, McNiven utilized live models as a way of injecting dynamics into four pages, with little visual action to propel them. In certain panels, Lawson looks suspiciously like Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto.
A quarter of the way into the book, trouble commences for the ASIS project, as the launch pad comes under attack by an unseen force. Ellis gets out of the way and lets McNiven shine in the wordless action scenes. A four-panel sequence depicting the enormous mechanical footprints of the invisible foe, making their way through soldiers’ burning bodies and across the charred battle field, uses a cinematic perspective to perfectly capture the ominous procession. Realizing the nature of the threat, Dr. Lawson slips away from the group of generals and scientists to transform into Mahr-Vehl, his Kree alter ego. The design for this Ultimate incarnation of the character is a perfect fusion of old and new. The process of transformation is pure twenty-first-century digital effects, as green-tinted lenses slip down over his eyes and fragments of metal and crackling lines of energy emerge from Lawson’s wrist watch (recalling the regular universe Captain Marvel’s “nega-bands”) to cover his naked human body. The result, however, is a Golden Age spaceman with a ringed-planet emblem on his chest and a Roman Centurion/1930s Flash Gordon–style helmet, the latter familiar from other incarnations of the character.
The climax of the issue is Marvel’s confrontation with the Kree “Kill form” sent to destroy the ASIS project. Ellis’s just-barely comprehensible Kree-speak exudes strangeness by means of altered spellings and a foreign sense of syntax:
Mahr-Vehl: Unikode Halahand Heavenchair: stand ready to receive break kode.
Killform: Unikode confirm: rankstate.
Mahr-Vehl: Pluskommander Geheneris HalaSon Mahr Vehl.
If the mission of Marvel’s Ultimate line is to create a point of entry for new readers unfamiliar with the decades long history of the venerable 616, the dialogue between these two Kree warriors is an odd way to welcome the neophyte. Peppered with references to “Halahand,” and “Yahn Rgg,” this scene seems designed to appeal to the fanboy/girl with a passion for Marvel history. The interest for most comics readers in the undertaking of the current trilogy of Ultimate Nightmare, Ultimate Secret, and the forthcoming Ultimate Arrival is in how these classic stories are adapted. Nonetheless, the arresting weirdness of both the appearance and the speech of the part-organic, part-mechanical Killform and the retro-future humanoid is entertaining even for those unwilling to spend hours on Internet research in order to understand it.
Ultimate Secret #1 is a good comic. It contains interesting characters and ideas that create situations straddling the line between the possible and the utterly fantastic in the way that great science fiction always does. Both the writer and the art team handle their material expertly, managing the reader’s experience panel by panel. Yet despite this success, something about the story feels off. Perhaps it is the “many rules and limitations” Grant Morrison spoke of at an appearance this weekend when asked about his run on New X-Men. Maybe it is the sense that Ellis is “play[ing] with someone else’s toys,” as Matt Fraction put it when describing his first experience writing for a Marvel title. Or perhaps it is simply this reviewer’s knowledge that the writer is telling someone else’s story. Whatever the case may be, Ocean’s outer space tale is free of any such inhibitions, thus suggesting that Marvel might better use Warren Ellis to create new comics instead of “versioning” old ones.
The zero point zone exists in a vacuum at zero degrees. Particles and waves of power spontaneously appear out of this zone. This is the cause of inertia. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, scientists have discovered the means to draw upon this power. A nuclear-electric device is built to draw upon this power for a spaceship. Zero point energy can propel a ship up to ¼ the speed of light. This makes exploration of space a reality. S.H.I.E.L.D. has constructed the first spaceship to use this energy. Carol Danvers oversaw the project. Contributing is Dr. Philip Lawson, who’s doing quite well after his car accident.
When the ship is attacked by an invisible robot, Lawson is forced to reveal himself as “Pluskommander Geheneris Halason Mahr Vehl.” The robot was sent by his people to prevent humans from leaving Earth. When Mahr Vehl can’t sop the robot, he destroys the spaceship. Or so it seems.
Nick Fury, Iron Man, Thor, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman do not appear in this book. They’re on the cover, but not in the story. That’s a big no-no. And why is Ms. Storm leaning back like a bored supermodel, or a bratty pop star?
My favorite thing about Ellis’s writing is the hard science behind it. It’s a rare author who takes scientific theory, extrapolates to a fantastic degree, and makes it sound plausible. Even better, Ellis makes it easy to understand. He brings a much-needed dose of science fiction into comics.
Steve McNiven draws beautiful people and truly alien technology. Mark Morales’s inking is thin and understated. For a book that’s mostly talking heads, it’s a delight to look at.
So we got aliens trying to stop humans from leaving the Earth. We’ve just learned in Ultimate Nightmare that a hideous creature is coming to kill the planet. Our space opera has officially gone to the next level. Ellis is building something big, and every brick looks good.
Plot: First contact interruptus, as Earth prepares a deep space probe (on a base under the guardianship of Captain Carol Danvers) and alien parties object strenuously.
Comments: Ellis gets by on a certain chic frisson sometimes. His characters are almost always poised; they leech ironic cool the way Superman bleeds goodness, or Batman bleeds menace. His protagonists especially have a way with words, and he’s never better than when he’s writing people with names like Winter and Midnighter and Hawksmoor, men or women who kick ass for fun, yet can tell the bad guys from the good. Here we get Phil Lawson (cause he’s sort of an interstellar cop, right?), a.k.a. Ultimate Captain Marvel.
Lawson resembles Hawksmoor, and has a similar way of exuding confidence, as he seems privy to a lot the humans he’s dealing with don’t know. His explanations of rocketship theory niftily lift this sequel to Ultimate Nightmare from horror to sci-fi, and McNiven provides a brightly lit, crisp and geometric sheen to this military base that could give Sprouse (teaming just as
successfully with Ellis right now in Wildstorm’s Ocean mini set in orbit around
Saturn) a run for his money. He also does a great job with the cloaked aliens, homaging a great menace from the classic Forbidden Planet. We get a nice set-up of the stakes (space travel and possible Mars colonization for humans), and then a nifty battle when a cloaked alien war-machine arrives to prevent the launch. Those are all reasons to enjoy the story. But my principal one is a strange kind of nostalgia for something I never
I know about Carol Danvers’s early life, how she’d risen in the military only to be disgraced by Captain Marvel’s conflicts on her watch. But I wasn’t old enough to read those issues, and she’s become Warbird (forever changed by her exposure to Kree culture) and her Captain Mar-Vell is long dead. Now I get to relive that seminal first contact in the Ultimate Universe, with updated sci-tech and all-fresh versions of characters freed from the history of our world. The cover promises many more players (most of the Ultimates we’ve met save for the X-men and Spidey apparently), but at least in this installment, Ellis has achieved something unexpected: a fresh update on some timeworn ideas.
Fresh from the overdue conclusion of Ultimate Nightmare, writer Warren Ellis brings us the second in his planned three mini-series which deal with the Ultimate incarnations of some of the more off-the-wall and cosmically-themed of the classic Marvel characters. Whilst that last min-iseries introduced us to Ultimate Falcon, the Ultimate Red Guardian, and finally brought us a chilling conception of the Vision as the herald of Galactus, Ultimate Secret promises to introduce us to Ultimate Captain Marvel and show how his story plays into the over-arching whole. This first issue presents the current state of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s highest-tech designs for interstellar travel, and centres around the first test launch of a space shuttle which is powered by “zero point energy.” As hinted at in some of the dialogue in recent issues of Ellis’ Ultimate Fantastic Four, this top secret technology is way more advanced than anything yet seen in the Ultimate Universe, and although the comic book faux-science goes completely over my head at a certain point, it’s enjoyable to see Ellis mixing plausible scientific theory with larger-than life characters and situations to create an almost-believable piece of science-fiction fantasy. Ellis obviously enjoys writing scientific jargon, with the technical explanations of Zero Point Energy coming close to the point of saturation as Dr. Lawson animatedly explains the concept for his rocket to the rest of the scientific community which is present for the launch. However, an unexpected attack from an alien enemy threatens to place the launch in jeopardy, and Captain Marvel has to spring into action to try and avert a major catastrophe.
Ultimate Secret looks pretty good (if you can get past that ugly cover - I just think everyone looks a little… deformed…), and for this a lot of the credit has to lay with artist Steve McNiven. He’s embraced the realistic, grounded, military look which has characterized The Ultimates for the last couple of years, but gives it a slightly more cartoon-sci-fi spin. Although the first half of the issue is largely talking heads, he manages to inject a sense of character into proceedings (aided by Ellis’s fun writing, especially in the opening scene with the security guard) and makes the most of the splash pages which give us a look at the space shuttle Asis or the New Mexico military compound which houses the project. When the action kicks off, McNiven also manages to provide a great suiting-up sequence which sells the otherwordly cool of Captain Marvel perfectly, before launching into the explosive fight sequence which closes the issue. If there are any weak points with the art, they’re probably to be found here – but the fault isn’t entirely that of the penciller. His “invisibility” panels are effective (as we “see” two characters square up to each other only by their footprints in the dirt), and they probably work better without sound effects, but when the fighting begins in earnest, it would have been nice to have some kind of sonic punctuation to make the various explosions and space-rays feel a little more tangible.
I’ll admit that I was expecting the first issue of Ultimate Secret to be tied in a little more closely to the Ultimate Universe as we currently know it: the only character I’d seen before in Ultimate form was Dr. Storm in Ultimate Fantastic Four. However, this lack of links to established continuity actually frees Ellis up to get as much of the groundwork of his story complete at this early juncture before presumably bringing the FF and the Ultimates into the mix later. Ultimate Captain Mahr-Vehl is introduced swiftly, as well as the idea of the Kree (we’ve already met the Skrulls in Ultimates Vol.1) and the threat to human development that these alien races might pose. Whilst some of the dialogue and character motivation might be a little hard to follow for someone who’s a complete newcomer to Captain Marvel - I only have a smattering of knowledge of the character, so had to read his exchange with the Kree warrior more than once to grasp their conflict, and I’m still not quite sure which side Mahr-Vehl takes in the end – it’s still a comprehensible plotline overall, and where it goes next issue (especially after this issue’s explosive finale) is anybody’s guess.
If I had any criticism of the book, it’s that the lack of established personalities or any real depth for the character of Dr. Philip Lawson/Captain Marvel this issue leaves us with little attachment to any of the characters as of yet, and as such there’s no-one to really root for. I’m also eager to see the Galactus (or should I say “Gah-Lak-Tus”) storyline from Ultimate Nightmare expanded upon, and there was no direct continuation of that here. It’s also fair to say that the artwork could be a little clearer at times, notably when trying to sell the relationship between Mahr-Vell and the Kree, or the nature of that alien warrior’s power and the effect of his attacks. However, I’m confident that the outer-space sci-fi elements at play here should tie in to a suitably satisfying continuation of the “Ultimate Galactus” trilogy, and that Warren Ellis is a safe pair of hands to translate these classic cosmic Marvel characters into the more grounded setting of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe.
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