“Sex, Lies & DVD”
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artists: Joe Madureira, Christian Lightner (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Plot: Someone is intent on taking the Ultimates down. First, embarrassingly intimate videos are released, then Venom is unleashed, and then the campaign is continued by means of drugs and assassin’s bullets.
Comments: Wasn’t Ultimate Wasp Asian? Isn’t that as basic a detail as one could possibly notice? Was that a visual decision by Hitch that no one ever approved or something? Because no one else bothers to draw her with anything other than her 616 racial features. Land gives her bigger boobs, and Madureira here seems to be keeping to that profile of sexing her up and dumbing her down. It’s confusing, and with his slick and stylized pencils and paints, the look of the book couldn’t be further from Hitch’s nuanced realism.
Subtle might not be a term often used for Millar’s writing, but his political commentary in Ultimates 2 especially was more complex than that usually taken on by comic books, and he managed to filter those observations through the experiences of neurotic characters like Hank and Jan, misunderstood characters like Thor and Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and displaced characters like the anachronistic Captain America.
What Loeb provides us with is a dysfunctional family of highly strung adolescents. All somehow both more and less like their 616 counterparts than ever before. Cap is prudishly judging the female members on their revealing clothes; Tony’s hitting the bottle harder than ever; Hawkeye, having had his family assassinated, has become the brooding dark bitter anti-hero stereotype. Gone are the oddball moments of frank conversation, or the other glimpses into how the Avengers might break down in a world where their powers were real (and often government-induced).
We see everyone this issue, but we don’t really get to know them. Vision and Scarlet Witch have the most distinct personalities, but they’re just trotted out as sacrificial victims on the road to the team’s confrontation with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (the dual covers give that away; Magneto is behind it all). The new painted pencils style is still as dark and murky as most other comic book painting (it may be fun for the artists to do, but I don’t think paint ever transfers as well as good old inked linework), making it even harder to get a grip on how the characters have changed, not to mention why.
The only fresh aspect that reaches out to me is the debut of a new Valkyrie, as I think the Marvel universe has been without one for far too long. This one seems to be the Thor groupie from the ersatz Defenders of Ultimates 2, only she’s somehow gained real powers. I’m curious to see how that happened, and if the deaths that occur this issue are meant to last … but there’s little use pretending this is a continuation of the successful series thus far. It’s a radical reboot, and it leaves the team more like their 616 counterparts than ever. Loeb’s challenge is going to be to make a case for this team when we’ve already got Mighty (big events) and New (dysfunctional squabblers).
Now we’re going back 20+ years here, so my details might be a little off, but this is how I remember it: After Howard Chaykin left American Flagg! – and don’t you dare call yourself a comics fan if you haven’t read the first 25-or-so issues of that amazing book – the first writer to take the reins of that comic for any amount of time was J. M. DeMatteis.
I was about 13 the first time I read the DeMatteis run – about 2 or 3 years after it was written – and had only been picking up back issues of Flagg! as masturbatory fodder. The DeMatteis run was, I was sad to discover, not really useful to that end. But…
There was something about it I liked, although I couldn’t at the time articulate it. Years later…
Yes, yes, I’m getting to The Ultimates 3. Be patient, and count yourself lucky that I’m not making lame jokes about my ex-best-friend.
Anyway, years later I looked back on Flagg! as a whole, and the DeMatteis run in particular, and figured out what had appealed to me about the latter You see, Chaykin’s run was brilliant, a high-water mark in comics, and the mistake some of his successors made, both before and after DeMatteis, was trying to play in the sandbox Chaykin had built. Chaykin was – is – a genius, and no one was going to look very good trying to do what he had done.
DeMatteis, on the other hand, took the core cast out of Chicago and set them on a whole new path. He provided logical explanations for changes in their motivations and goals, essentially changing the book while keeping it true to the one that Chaykin had created.
This led me to formulate a rule I apply to judge any new creative team that has to follow a long running, highly successful book: In order for such a team to be successful, they have to work within the sandbox their predecessors built, but they must also mine territory that was more or less ignored by the older team. Simultaneously, they have to expand the sandbox, adding on their own playpen.
It’s a little early to tell, but it appears the team behind Ultimates 3 #1 will meet that standard.
See? I told you this was about Ultimates 3.
First, let’s see how they worked within the established terrain of the sandbox, while simultaneously taking it in new directions:
- No more pussyfooting around – Pietro and Wanda are lovers. Millar et al. obviously laid the groundwork for this, and hinted at it plenty, but Loeb leaves nothing to be guessed at. This plot point is consistent with the book he inherited but moves it into new territory.
- Hawkeye has a death wish. Yeah, that was only a logical extrapolation based on what Millar had done to him – naturally he would want to die after that – but that’s the goal for this half of the evaluation – can you take what has been done and add to it logically? Loeb also gives Hawkeye some anger management issues – again, a logical extension of established stories.
- Intra-team tensions continue to abound – a key to any good team book. Read Peter David’s excellent Writing for Comics for a great analysis of this vital component of superhero team comics, or go right to the source and read the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four. And, again, don’t you dare call yourself a comics fan if you haven’t read them.
- Ultimates 3 amps up the adult factor. Let’s face it, Ultimates was never a kid-friendly book, with its subplots of spousal abuse, co-dependent relationships, and rampaging, mass-murdering scientists. Well, from the very first page – no, the very first panel – Loeb and Madureira maintain and expand upon that notion with what has to be the single most explicit sex scene I’ve encountered in a mainstream title.
Panel 1 shows Natasha being the Back Widow, which is naughty enough, but then in panel 2 Tony shows how he earned the name Iron Man, two siblings making out, and a superhero getting drunk off his ass.
A little over-the-top? Maybe, especially when we get to panel 4 and Tony gives Natasha a hand at giving him head, but I appreciate what the creators were going for: Start with, pardon the pun, a bang, and let everyone know a new team is in town.
Back to The Ultimates 3. Loeb takes existing tension, like the break-up between Janet and Steve, and gives it a new twist. Now Janet would like to extend the olive branch, to talk to Steve and help him adjust to his Vulgar New World, and Steve is the one reluctant – refusing – to communicate. A minor change? Sure, but a change nonetheless.
We also get a hint at the conflict between Steve and some of his younger, hipper teammates, and more than a few hints that Tony’s drinking – something Millar also laid the groundwork for but never fully explored – is going to be a sore spot for his partners. This is not a happy family, and, again, that’s essential to a team title.
The short answer: not bad. Let’s start with the bad, because there isn’t much of it.
- First, the action in the double splash on pages 2-3 is confusing; it’s not clear at first that Thor has been knocked through the wall rather than knocked down by the supervillain breaking in, and I had to look through page one a few times to be sure that Thor wasn’t somewhere in the background and I had missed him.
- One flightless character appears to be flying in a panel, and it’s not clear if he has acquired some new power or if this is no-prize territory.
- It appears the major plot for this first story arc will be that one of the team members is framed for having committed a heinous betrayal, territory Millar has already covered. That’s such an old cliché – “We thought we could trust him!” “We should have known we could trust him!” – that it was a bit of a pain the first time around, one of the few low points in Millar and Hitch’s work – so it’s even more tedious to think we might be dealing with it again. Making matters worse is… well… I can’t possibly talk about that without entering into a spoiler, so forget I said anything.
- The Scarlet Witch, with all of her power, has trouble with a simple frikking projectile? I don’t care if the thing can change directions and move super fast and whatever else it can do, that just didn’t strike me as plausible. Still… cool scene… wait until you see it.
Now let’s look at the good.
First, nearly all of the characters get a subplot, all within the confines of a 22-page story. That’s another of the must-haves for a good team book: The overall story must be advanced, but all the characters must also have their own conflicts to deal with. Loeb and Madureira handle this brilliantly, giving us plenty of action as well as two double-splashes and two splashes, but also taking the time to give each character a personal conflict. Jan has to deal with both being team leader and Hank, Hank’s baggage now comes in pill form, Thor has a new girlfriend, Tony is drinking more and more and dealing with a sex scandal, Cap is all alone in a strange world, Hawkeye is suicidal, and Wanda and Pietro have a whole mess of issues to deal with. Really, the only character who doesn’t get some kind of motivation is the Black Panther, which is kind of a shame; all these decades later, and he is still a token I guess. Still. I’m sure Loeb will get around to addressing that.
Action, action and more action. Hey, I’m all for the Bendis-style of superhero storytelling, but this is still the superhero genre we’re talking about here. Instead of an issue – or two, or three, or four – of setup, as seems to be the norm now, Ultimates 3 hits the ground running. I already mentioned it starts with a bang, but it ends with one too. A real fun read.
Loeb’s dialogue is sharp, with the noteworthy, clunk exception of the doctor’s lines on panel 5, page 20.
Madureira’s art, with the aforementioned exception of the confusing action in the first double splash is terrific, cartoony enough not to be a distraction but detailed and dark enough to fit the feel of the book. I know this will be heresy to some, but I’m not going to miss Hitch at all if this is what we’re going to get.
I got into a heated discussion just the other day with a friend of mine over Ultimates. He maintained it would be long-remembered as one of the great superhero books. I told him it was very good, even great, but it was most certainly not one of THE great superhero books, and that it will not be remembered in hushed tones by fanboys of future decades.
But even if I’m right – even if Ultimates was only very good – Ultimates 3 is off to a very, very good start. Will I think of this book fondly twenty years down the line? I don’t know, but I just might, and that is a real rarity.
There was once a time where a wild and modern re-visioning of the Avengers, primarily Captain America, was the hottest book on the market. It was a time before Civil War, before Crisis, hell it was even before Hal Jordan returned and the Avengers disassembled. At the time, I didn’t think there was a better book on the shelves, Mark Millar was still on top of my list and The Ultimates was without doubt, the best thing happening. Sure, there were a few questionable calls in reference to aliens and World War II, but Mark Millar’s re-vision of Captain “kick the nerd while he’s down” and “this ‘A’ doesn’t stand for France” America was breathtaking. Cap, my favorite Marvel character and one of my favorite fictional characters, truly felt like a man straight out of 1944. But then The Ultimates became the poster child for delayed books. After the first few delays towards the end of Ultimates and the rampant delays of Ultimates 2, both the series and Mark Millar began to lose a great deal of fan support. And now, Jeph Loeb has returned to Marvel, Joe Madureira has come out of retirement and Marvel is either preparing to save the Ultimate universe or give it the final Curtain Call. Either way, it would not be the same without the Ultimates, but neither Mark Millar nor Bryan Hitch are anywhere in sight. Jeph Loeb and Joe Mad bring readers this continuation/re-vision of arguably two of the most influential series of all time.
This is most definitely a different approach to the Ultimates. The opening scene is a testament to such as it feels like Jeph Loeb trying to capture a very Millar-style segment. In fact, the entire segment screams Millar, and the only explanation I can think of is that it is an attempt by Loeb to show readers that this is still the same universe. It will definitely intrigue some folks, and it will definitely put a few people off. I mean, it is really awkward to say the least. This awkwardness is suddenly broken up by Venom slamming Thor through the wall of the Stark building. Now this is where my first problem with this issue arises. Judging by the awkward scene in the beginning of the issue, this is taking place presumably a few months after Ultimates 2 ends. But there’s a massive gap.
All of a sudden Black Panther is a member of the Ultimates. He’s never even been mentioned previously in the Ultimates, and his only ultimate appearance is from the animated film. I don’t know if Loeb will have enough time and space during this mini-series to cover Ultimate T’Challa, but it’s obviously a key piece in the missing gap. There’s also Hawkeye. I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the preview for the cover months back, I honestly thought it was Bullseye. It took me a minute to put two and two together because he had his guns and the target in the middle of his forehead, a trademark made famous by Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Bullseye in Daredevil. But okay, I like the whole thing where Hawkeye doesn’t want to be called “Clint” but just Hawkeye. That’s cool, so I can let that slide. But just when I thought the gap was done, Valkyrie pops up. Do your best Tim Allen “Errrr?” impression and you’ve got my reaction to that one. Wasn’t she one of Hank Pym’s ill-fated ultimate Defenders? Even going back to Ultimates Saga, there’s no explanation why, but just a brief mention that she’s there and Tony needs to keep an eye on her. For a story like this, there needs to be gap filler explaining these things, not just rehashing the first two installments like Ultimates Saga does.
So aside from the strange involvement of Venom and the unexplained character appearances, the rest of this issue pretty much runs through the rest of the main characters. Mostly following the Wasp who appears to be the glue of the group, readers learn that Tony’s a drunk, Cap’s an anti-social poster child for being out of his time and Hank Pym is more or less the same. I’ve always loved the no-nonsense Ultimate Captain America. I’m not sure how I feel about his portrayal in this issue as he is now more of a loner. I kind of feel like Loeb is trying to turn up the “man out of time” idea a bit much. I’m curious to see where he’s going to go with Cap, especially since this is the only incarnation of Steve Rogers available right now. However, one thing I rather enjoyed about this issue was Hank Pym. Pym has always been painted as the loser of this series, and Loeb continues that trend here. Aside from the fact that Hank was locked up with Banner at the end of Ultimates 2, Loeb does a great job putting Hank in a very believable place following the last series.
Loeb also creates a bit more awkward tension in what still feels like an attempt to capture the same type of shock value as Mark Millar. While Millar suggested the idea, he never confirmed that Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch were romantically and sexually involved with one another. Sure, it is incestuously creepy and bizarre, but I think Millar deliberately left their relationship with an ambiguous quality so people could decide for themselves. The whole incest relationship seems a little bit unnecessary as Quicksilver can simply be portrayed as the overprotective brother and the entire angle works the same way. It also doesn’t add a whole lot to the surprise ending of this issue, because I don’t see Quicksilver concerned over a lover, but his sister.
Joe Mad’s artwork is pretty good. It’s definitely going to be hit or miss with readers, but for the most part I thought it was decent. It’s a little too dark, and there’s practically no background, but for the most part the characters look pretty good albeit a little exaggerated. While I enjoyed the art overall, there was a dark and almost “bland” or “mute” quality to the art. It was very dark, but the story itself didn’t really feel that dark, and I think it was supposed to.
I’ve come down fairly hard on this issue, mostly because of what came before it. Ultimates and Ultimates 2 were “ultimate genre defining;” they were once the hottest books on the market and inevitably, comparisons will be made to Ultimates 3. The bottom line is that Loeb is not Millar and Joe Mad is not Hitch, and this is not the Millar/Hitch Ultimates, but I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t curious to see where this story was going. Because it is the Ultimates, I will more than likely finish this series start to finish. Maybe once everything really gets going, this will turn out to be a great read. But for now, there are too many questions and too many situations that, like Ultimate Cap, feel out of place.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!