Collecting every issue of Ultimate Nightmare, Ultimate Secret, Ultimate Extinction, and Ultimate Vision #0.
Writer: Warren Ellis, (Mark Millar - Ultimate Vision #0)
Artists: Trevor Hairsine, Steve Epting, Steve McNiven, Tom Raney, John Romita Jr., Brandon Peterson, various inkers and colourists
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The coming of Galactus is one of Marvel's most seminal stories, and it was only a matter of time before somebody reprised it in the Ultimate Universe. However, rather than rehashing it as a straight Ultimate Fantastic Four arc, Warren Ellis conceives the story as a sci-fi epic which involves all of the Ultimate heroes (except Spider-Man) and takes place across three distinct acts: Nightmare, Secret, and Extinction.
Ultimate Nightmare is perhaps the most successful of the three miniseries collected here, initially released before Marvel had even announced that the trilogy was going to introduce Galactus to the Ultimate Universe and feeling less constrained by the need to continually build up the tension for his arrival as a result. This allows Ellis to cut loose with a story which mixes science fiction, horror, and Cold War paranoia as the Ultimates and the X-Men are sent to investigate a mysterious underground bunker in Tunguska, Russia, from which horrific psychic transmissions have begun to emanate. The opening visions of death and destruction which are transmitted around the world (leading to mass suicides) set the tone for the series as a dark, disturbing and claustrophobic adventure as the two teams of heroes trawl through the underground facility - each unaware of the presence of the other - before meeting up for a brief, one-sided fight and a revelatory discovery which sets the stage for the arrival of Gah Lak Tus.
Nightmare is given real character by the artwork of Trevor Hairsine and Steve Epting, and despite the changeover midway through the story, there's never a jarring disconnect between the artists' styles. The colouring of Frank D'Armata keeps things spookily dark without ever being murky or indistinct, and Hairsine and Epting excel in bringing the sinister, mutated inhabitants of the base to life - including a deliciously twisted bizarro take on Captain America (the Ultimate Red Guardian?) who has to be seen to be believed. As ever with Ellis, there's a wealth of fun science fiction ideas to be found - many of which are thrown away as mere details, as Ellis has other things on his mind here: the presence of the Black Widow at the dilapidated Soviet bunker allows him a mouthpiece to explore the fall of post-communist Russia, and the introduction of Sam Wilson (the Ultimate Falcon) and the Ultimate incarnation of the Vision sees him round out his cast with fully-formed characters who lend themselves better to his sci-fi approach to superheroes.
With Ultimate Secret, we get more introductions to new characters - including the Ultimate incarnations of Captain Marvel and Carol Danvers - but a story which isn't quite as strong as that of the previous act. Philip Lawson is Mahr Vehl, a Kree agent on earth who rebels against his leaders when he refuses to take action to strand the human race on Earth in the face of possible extinction at the hands of Gah Lak Tus. Eventually, Nick Fury's Ultimates and the Fantastic Four team up with Mahr Vehl to break into one of his own ships and steal the Kree information on the "great uncreator" which might give the planet a fighting chance. However, even though there is a point to all the running around and fighting - and it looks pretty good thanks to a combination of Tom Raney and Civil War's Steve McNiven on pencils (McNiven's transformation of Captain Marvel is a fantastic piece of sequential superhero art - and it isn't even a fight sequence) - there's a nagging sense that the whole thing is a bit of a wild goose chase which saps the momentum of the overall story rather than adding to it.
Considering the big reveal of Nightmare's ending, it would have been nice to see Ellis use Secret to ratchet up the tension - but instead he seems happy to put the imminent arrival Galactus on the backburner, leaving the closing chapter, Extinction, with everything to do in terms of build-up and climax. So, the writer's strong knack for characterisation is ultimately left to carry the story - and happily, it's just about up to the task. It's impossible not to find Captain Marvel likeable (a Kree warrior who has fallen in love with the human race to such an extent that he'd rather eat donuts and watch new episodes of LOST than to continue to serve the Kree empire), and the hilarity of Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm's reaction to Thor's jovial offers of beer never gets old. This is a story which makes me wish that Ellis had had longer to establish himself on Ultimate Fantastic Four, as the fusion of over-the-top superheroics, well-thought out science fiction, and enjoyable characterisation would fit that book to a tee; it's just that, in the context of this trilogy, this middle chapter could have done with being a little more direct and immediate.
After a brief interlude which sees Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. collaborate on Ultimate Vision #0 (a fairly disposable bridge between the Vision's appearance in Nightmare and her new look, which is unremarkable stuff - and only notable for its inclusion here because Marvel promised it would never be reprinted!), it's left to Ultimate Extinction to provide the big finish. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite pull it off. It's a shame, because Extinction sees Ellis pull together his entire cast and some of the best ideas in the series yet - the trouble is, it feels like he's trying to do too much. A plot thread involving multiple Sliver Surfers as mystical cult leaders who are inspiring their followers to commit suicide in order to 'soften up' the planet is inspired, but we never get enough of a look at what he's doing, with the story committing the cardinal sin of telling us what's happening all over the world, rather than showing it. Subplots involving a hastily-introduced Misty Knight and an army of Moondragon clones feel half-baked and superfluous, and only serve to eat up space that could be used to better build tension for the arrival of Gah Lak Tus, or give us a longer look at him when he finally does appear.
It feels like the story never gets the chance to breathe in the way that it should, and the final few issues feel cramped and rushed, when they should be epic and conclusive. That said, some elements of the book do work very well - particularly the re-imagining of Galactus as a gigantic hive mind of space-bound mechanical insectoids (with the writer perhaps wisely deducing that a giant man in a pink-and-blue outfit with a tuning fork on his head might look somewhat out-of-place in the Ultimate Universe) and Ellis' use of elements of his own previous run on Ultimate Fantastic Four in order to come up with a weapon that the Ultimate heroes can use against the devourer of worlds. I also enjoyed the heartfelt conversation between Captain America and Nick Fury about the existence of God, and the way in which Professor X and Jean Grey are employed makes inventive use of their talents without them ever feeling shoe-horned into the plot.
Art-wise, Brandon Peterson brings a very different look to the book with some visuals which are computer-generated (at least in part), leading to a smoothness of lines and textures which sets it apart from the previous chapters of the trilogy, but suits the sleek, militaristic environment of the Triskelion reasonably well. Still, there are a couple of hiccups - the character designs feel a little off, and Peterson employs a heavy, computerised shading technique which was experimental (and only partly successful by the artists' own admission) - and there are also some occasional technical errors with the way the book has been put together (including more than one example of confusingly misattributed word balloons) which take the shine off proceedings slightly. The book's extras include a few concept designs from each miniseries, but there's not much more to them than that.
If Ultimate Extinction had delivered on the promise of Gah Lak Tus' arrival, this book could go down as one of the best "Ultimisations" yet in Marvel's young new universe. As it is, it's a lot of fairly successful build-up to a rushed anticlimax which deserved more space to give the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy the send-off it deserved. Warren Ellis is always worth reading even when he's not at his best, and there's enough here in terms of attractive art and enjoyable superheroics that fans of the Ultimate line should be satisfied. However, you can't escape the feeling that it could have been more.
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