Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: Greg Land (p), Jay Leisten (i), Justin Ponsor (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The latest issue of Ultimate Power arrives, and it's very much a case of déjà vu all over again. Yes, we're still embroiled in the free-for-all that is the Ultimate Universe vs. the Squadron Supreme Universe, and all the flashiness in the world can't disguise the static, stagnant nature of the plot. Granted, there's some fun to be had here, with JMS writing a smart showdown between Reed Richards and Emil Burbank and some amusing banter between Tony Stark and Doc Spectrum, but a couple of good scenes does not a great story make. Whole subplots and characters are forgotten about (where on earth are Thor and Hyperion, or Johnny and Sue Storm?), the action is repetitive and uninspired, the narration is clunky and cliché, and the development of the core storyline and characters is so minimal that casual readers could be forgiven for thinking that Marvel have accidentally reprinted the last issue in a new cover.
Actually, that's not quite true, because the final pages of the book reveal a surprising addition to the book's cast that Straczynski somehow manages to keep under wraps for the majority of the issue, despite him playing a fairly important role in proceedings. Granted, it's a bit clumsily done, but JMS acknowledges the game he's playing with the reader in some fun dialogue from Spider-Man - and the decision to keep the revelation back for the final page enables the issue to end on something of a high. Here, I'll have to admit to some personal bias making me warm to the story more than I would do if I was approaching it completely "objectively," as the villain is one of my favourite regular-MU Marvel characters, and one that I didn't expect to see return to the Ultimate Universe so soon. His appearance could cast the story so far in a completely new light, and even if I feel that it's a bit unlikely that Nick Fury would have been so foolish as to collaborate with him (cynical world-weariness or not), the reveal makes me keen to see whether Loeb can make a success of the final three instalments.
The issue appears to have been intentionally written for the purposes of providing some cool art, and we do at least get some showy splash pages and fight sequences courtesy of Greg Land. The posed, poised action shots are what we've come to expect from the artist, and he makes a good show of the various powers of the Ultimate Marvel and Squadron Supreme characters - particularly the rainbow beams of Doc Spectrum, or the gloriously over-the-top nature of the tooled-up Nick Fury. However, the familiar problems of inconsistency and heavy photo-reference again detract from the look of the book; Ultimate Cap appears to be African-American, Scarlet Witch looks like every one of Land's other female characters (Wanda, Sue Storm, Arcanna and Princess Zarda are virtually interchangeable except for their costumes), and a cavalcade of - ahem - glamour models adorns the front page for no apparent reason other than to attract male readers who might be too embarrassed to reach for the top shelf of their newsagents. There's also a virtually complete lack of backgrounds to his panels (one sequence even uses a photo of some scrubland to fill in the gap), making the art appear rushed and incomplete.
That said, it does appear that Land is striving to improve his craft, mixing the more obviously "lifted" stuff with some flatter, more cartoony renderings which are reminiscent of his earlier comics work, before he started going crazy with the photo-references. The trouble is, the two styles are a mismatch, leading to bizarrely elongated torsos and disproportionate, flat legs for the otherwise perfectly-proportioned Arcanna and Scarlet Witch, and making the characters look like disturbingly "adult" versions of Stretch Armstrong. Still, other character designs are a little more solid: I was a fan of Land's work on Ultimate Fantastic Four, and Reed Richards and Ben Grimm both look just as good here as they did in those twelve issues. Ironically, they're the least "realistic" looking of the lot: perhaps Land should learn to trust his own freehand penciling a little more, because some of his stylistic choices are seriously detracting from the work of an otherwise obviously talented artist.
This issue certainly won't win anyone over who isn't enjoying the series so far, and if it wasn't for the neat reveal of the mystery villain who appears on the final page of the issue, I'd probably rate it even lower than I have done. I can see why Marvel thought this was such a good idea for a crossover series, but the potential of the concept has only shone through very occasionally, leaving a bloated story which is unable to justify its extended length and which is surviving solely on spectacle - and on readers' faith that this is all going somewhere. Maybe Jeph Loeb's final three issues will rescue the book, but this is starting to look like one of the Ultimate Universe's first major mis-steps.
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