“The Axis of Evil”
Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Bryan Hitch (p), Paul Neary & Bryan Hitch (i), Laura Martin (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Mark J. Hayman
Due to the somewhat guerrilla nature of the local comic book distribution system, I tend not to get new books until the following Monday (a small price to pay for living beyond the mania of Toronto). On the one hand, this means that I can’t contribute my two cents in a (relatively) timely manner; on the other hand, it makes the savour of an anticipated book that much more sweet. So it is with The Ultimates.
Without bothering to consult the calendar, it seems as though this issue comes hard on the heels of the last, whereas there’s usually a frustrating amount of lag time. I’m tempted to bump the rating on this basis, but normalcy is a thing to be accepted with grace, not rewarded.
This is a transitional chapter, filling in most of the gaps that led to Grand Theft America, principally through exposition, and updating the status of the (previously) MIA Ultimates. Pages and pages of talking heads and static characters can too often be a painful grind. Thanks to Hitch’s standard visual splendour (with the usual nods to Neary and Martin) and Millar’s economic dialogue, the story speeds along at a near perfect pace.
The only genuine surprise for me was the origin of the lightsabre wielding Colonel. The first, last, and only time we saw the unnamed Arab boy, I assumed he was Loki in another one of his guises. In retrospect, apart from his serpentine appearance in Thor’s cell, Loki has always been portrayed in exactly the same way, leaving no real basis for my assumption apart from a physical similarity. That said, the miracle of young Abdul’s response to the super-soldier serum bears the odour of the trickster at work.
Hawkeye’s fate wasn’t a shock in itself, though the grisly means of his (potential) escape caught me off guard, and I’m having some difficulty in expunging those images from my mind. We’re again reminded that Hawkeye is one of the deadliest men alive; now that he’s being driven by vengeance, I wouldn’t want to be Hank Pym - or anyone else standing in his way.
Tony turning the table on Natasha was another clever rabbit pulled from a seemingly bottomless hat. Jarvis might have been a pain in the neck, but Tony wouldn’t have kept him around without some mutual affection, and Tony did love Natasha, making her betrayal all the more bitter; though Tony is typically an unnervingly calm guy, expect to see a hefty dose of Iron Rage the minute he suits up.
The “Liberators” make a point of denigrating the Wasp to the very end. You’d think that they’d have done their homework and had an inkling as to her resourcefulness, strength of character, and vital role in the Ultimates’ early missions. Jan makes the right choice, as usual, and aims to free Cap. It took an entire regiment, augmented by Super Soldiers, Rocketmen, and tranquilizers by the tanker-full, to bring him to heel the first time, while Cap’s resistance appeared half-hearted; it’s a safe bet that he’s going to be a whole lot harder to leash this time.
My only real quibble is Millar’s reference to the “Super-Terror Trials.” These people are portrayed from top to bottom as something other than terrorists, and while their shock tactics would certainly produce terror, it’s a war of resistance that they’re fighting - on an epic scale - not setting car bombs or hijacking an airplane. Either way, “terrorist” is a label employed by their victims and opponents; not, generally, by those who deal in terrorist tactics.
Thor remains the wildcard. Jan’s record notwithstanding, it’s likely that he’ll be needed to face the Abomination, Perun (I’m gambling that he isn't really a reincarnated Slavic god), the thousands of super-soldiers (it’s never made clear if they know the consequences of wearing the super suits; if they do, that’s an awful lot of Martyrs, if not, we might see a timely revolt) and, of course, Loki. When he gets a look at New York, Thor isn’t likely to go easy on his half-brother.
The next issue will probably be more set-up with, among other things, the Ultimates coming together to plan their moves. So long as Millar can maintain this edge and Hitch phones in another near masterpiece, that’s fine by me.
Plot: America has fallen to a foreign invasion of super-beings created by China, the Middle East, Korea, Russia and France. Nick Fury and Hawkeye are injured and captive. But don’t count America out yet.
Comments: I didn’t think Millar could keep it up, and I certainly never expected to be blown away by the depth of his writing. Ultimates Vol. 1 was an entertaining pastime with a few egregious missteps (rapist cannibal Hulk) and some otherwise grand wide-angle battles (Thor vs. the Dire Skrulls). Hitch got his wish (the one denied him by his sub-par run with Waid on JLA) as both channeled the Ellis-written Authority successfully from within the Marvel environs.
But Vol. 2 has been an altogether different sort of Beast. The missteps have been bigger (a thuddingly unfunny Defenders parody; the snuff-film executions of Clint’s family), but the bombast has been augmented by something more than scale or style: focused satire. Millar, the European from America’s stalwart ally Scotland, is using the toys at his command (humans capable of being walking WMDs) to critique the current political clime. It’s about the cleverest way I’ve read to imagine that unforeseen circuit of horrors, a non-Civil war within national boundaries. We’re not just getting defeated abroad for interfering where we don’t belong. We’re getting wiped out systematically by a smack down of (righteously?) angry, or at least long-terrified, world powers. In this case, it’s because Fury was using the Ultimates to further American policies in other lands (i.e. being a huge bully). It’s not a big step to imagine a litany of real-world references on Millar’s part.
Within the Ulti-verse, this is the issue that follows the seeming obliteration of last issue: the one where our heroes fight back. So now Millar finds himself, as a critic of US policy, in the unusual situation of reifying it in the form of action movie slogans as our heroes rise from their graves, one by one, and this time they mean it.
Because the heroes are still the Ultimates, right? Right?
Sexism watch: Tony takes down Natasha in a way more clever and resigned than cruel (though Millar did fail in making their engagement look like more than besotted hormones), and the slimy Schizoid Man revels in brutalizing and insulting a seemingly overwhelmed Wasp. And Jarvis was apparently just “an irritating old queen.”
These details are grim, but things may get better soon. Steve and Clint are awake now.
Picking up where last issue’s revelatory events left off, this tenth issue of the second “season” of Mark Millar’s Ultimates fills in some backstory on exactly who the villains are who have invaded the United States of America with the purpose of “liberating” them. In retrospect, giving us the lowdown on who the bad guys are only after they’ve attacked is a very effective structural device, giving the reader the same sense of surprised-in-our-beds shock and awe at the villains’ attack as American citizens might have felt during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and forcing us to piece together the reasons for the strike only after the event. The issue isn’t all catch-up though, as we also look in on a few key players in the Ultimates as they begin to rebound from their defeat, all of which plays out like a nightmarish 9-11 scenario for the Ultimate Universe.
However, Millar’s writing is far more sophisticated than a simple reflection of America’s lowest ebb, evoking a sympathy for his villains’ cause which you wouldn’t find in a standard Western depiction of the enemies of Bush’s War On Terror. Millar dares to question what kind of hypocrites would close down Iran’s nuclear programme “when they have enough bombs to destroy the world a hundred times over” but doesn’t provide an easy answer – or at least, not a simple pat answer that would flatter the arrogant stance that many perceive as the current foreign policy of the U.S.A. The “Liberators” are shown to be very similar to the Ultimates themselves, just approaching the battle from a different political point of view, and this muddying of the good/evil hero/villain divide is a welcome departure from the black-and-white approach which so often characterises superhero comics. In fact, if anything Millar suggests that the enemy is of America’s own making, and in the same way as Nick Fury lured out his own assassin in the Ultimates annual a few months ago, the villainous attack which would seem to justify the team’s existence is arguably a result of Fury’s superhuman initiative in the first place.
Still, if you don’t want to read real-world allegory or political metaphor into the pages of Ultimates you can still enjoy the book for the exciting action movie of a comic that it is. Although this isn’t the most dynamic issue of the title, there are still a few cool moments to make you sit up and take notice – most notably a sequence which elevates Ultimate Hawkeye to the status of full-blown badass, proving that he’s virtually the anti-Bullseye of the Ultimate Universe as well as being able to spit out the cool dialogue with the best of them. There are also a couple of neat setups for next issue in the form of Tony Stark’s triumph over the Black Widow and the re-emergence of Captain America at the issue’s end, both of which bode well for an action-packed next issue. That said, even with (presumably) a climactic Battle Royale on the largest scale imaginable on his plate, Millar also still has some problems to deal with in the form of quite a few unresolved plot points (The allegiance of the European Captains? The nature of Thor and his powers? The whereabouts of the Hulk? The purpose of the Ultimate Defenders?) as well as the prospect of providing a fitting finale to his run on the book, which will end with issue #12. As such, I have a feeling that the final two issues of this title are going to test the writer more than ever before – but if he can pull it off, then the two volumes of Ultimates to date are surely going to stand as some of the most consistently well-executed and relevant comic runs of the decade.
The quality of Bryan Hitch’s artwork is so often taken for granted that very few people seem to shout about it any more. It’s true that it’s difficult to find a fresh way to describe just how consistently excellent his artwork is, and I don’t want to repeat myself with every review that I write, but the fact is that this book wouldn’t be half the success it is without his contribution. His cinematic sensibilities come to the fore this issue, as Hitch shows that he’s not only a master at rendering his scenes in terrific detail and with a near-perfect grasp of anatomy and body language, but also that he has an excellent eye for composition. The way that his shots are framed would do any big-budget action movie proud and there’s a sense of drama and energy on each page, which really helps to keep an issue which is mainly talking-heads ticking along. It’s also impossible to overlook the fantastic finish which is provided by Paul Neary’s inks and Laura Martin’s colours, as the kind of nuances of subtle lighting and fine linework which are evident in panels like the extreme close-up of Hawkeye’s face (painstakingly detailed five-o-clock-shadow et al) ensure that every scene drips with the necessary atmosphere.
On its own, this felt very much like an issue to deal with the aftermath of the last instalment and the set-up of the next, and with a lot of pieces to move around in preparation for the title’s big finale the result is a merely good issue for a series which is usually outstanding. That said, even a middling issue of Ultimates is better than most other comics on the stands, and if you’ve any interest at all in following what is bound to become one of the era’s most defining runs of comics, this is still essential reading. Roll on issue #11.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!