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Ultimate Origins #1

Posted: Tuesday, June 3, 2008
By: Mark J. Hayman/David Wallace

Brian Michael Bendis
Butch Guice, Justin Ponsor (colours)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Ultimate Origins #1 arrives in stores Wednesday, June 4.

"Part 1"

Mark J. Hayman: 2.5 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 2.5 Bullets




Mark J. Hayman 2.5 Bullets

Well, how about that. Not only was Steve Rogers not the first super soldier, it seems that "Project Rebirth" went through forty-one test subjects between August 1942 and 1943. Apparently #22 had been the "largest success" up until #41, but the project was still without a "breakthrough." Since words like "success" and "breakthrough" would surely apply to Captain America, that gives the experiment less than a year before Operation Overlord (back in the inaugural issue of The Ultimates, Cap was sarcastically referred to as the "patron saint of Omaha Beach," so June '44 marked his first noted appearance). If you've ever wondered about Nick Fury's exceptional physical and tactical proclivities, I have one word for you, and that word is a number: forty-one.

Fury preceeding Cap as America's first viable super soldier (we're not told the fate of #22) is but slightly peculiar relative to the origin of the mutant gene. It would be far too great a spoiler to get into the details; let's just say that James Howlett, a.k.a. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, is probably a little, and perhaps a lot, younger than you might have believed. Tying his origin into that of Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and every other "spontaneous" mutation is so far over the top, however, that the nervous tick in my left eyelid has suddenly returned, and I find myself frequently shaking a fist at the empty air and muttering "Ben-DIS!" It's all a bit... much.

So far as an overview goes, the story begins "six months ago" with what is presumably Spider-Man's initial encounter with the Hulk from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up. Therefore, just six months have passed since more than a hundred issues of Spider-Man stories and nearly a hundred issues of X-Men, to say nothing of the Gah Lak Tus trilogy, the entire "Grand Theft America" arc in The Ultimates, and the extended time between Ultimates 2 & 3. These Ultimate heroes are very busy people. Ultimately busy!

After Bruce Banner's bizarre ravings about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, then Hulking-out upon the arrival of a squad of unidentified soldiers (we're meant to infer that they're a S.H.I.E.L.D. taskforce), we leave Spidey alone and confused in the aftermath. Bendis then holds down the rewind button until we get to Guadalcanal and a national embarrassment that results in FDR mandating the creation of a "real" super soldier. Fast forward to Sicily and a motley trio of troops enjoying some quality pillage time. Motley but familiar. Fury and Howlett are given over to scientific experiments, while the fate of the third, identified as "Fisk" (and how many Fisks are there, I ask you?), remains to be seen; something to do with bulking-up and turning to crime, I expect.

The overall goofiness of the story, particularly the mutant aspect, nearly sunk my rating into negative digits. Butch Guice's art succeeded in reclaiming it from the swamp. If not for the over-use of the panel within a panel technique (let's call it "postcarding"), the final verdict might well have swung toward above average. I've always sort of considered Guice to be "Michael Golden Lite," which is perhaps unfair. He has a distinct style and has been given ample time to bring his full game. Heavy on detail, with every one of the many, many characters distinctly and meticulously rendered, we're given a lot to love.

Among the chief functions of Ultimate Origins is to act as a bridge between the imprint as a whole and the impending "Ultimatum" micro-event. Unlike Origins, which is a discrete series, "Ultimatum" is scheduled to be published in a way similar to the "Ultimate Vision" story, with chapters included as addenda to regular Ultimate titles. Here we get to see what was and why before the coming deconstruction. You'll note that I didn't say "destruction," as I find it unlikely that Marvel is preparing to cancel the entire Ultimate line, unless sales of Spider-Man, X-Men, and FF have finally slipped beneath the critical mass required to keep them financially viable. Whatever the case, I'll have to settle for third-party information as I don't have any immediate plans to add those titles to my pull list. Of course if the imprint were to be nuked, I wouldn't have to use the term "Ultimate" nearly so often.

That's me, folks, always seeing the bright side.




Dave Wallace: 2.5 Bullets

There's an old rule of thumb in writing that tells you to enter the story at the last possible moment that you can, in order to make it as immediate and as free of superfluous flab as possible. In essence, this is what the Ultimate Universe did: we saw the Marvel Universe recreated by writers and artists who were free to learn from the mistakes and successes of their predecessors, and who could essentially come up with a more or less fully-formed version of the Marvel Universe that best served their storytelling needs, without spending years feeling their way or searching for the best take on a character. Ultimate Origins, however, chooses to start its story long before the appearance of the Ultimates, the X-Men, Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four, rewinding the Ultimate Universe all the way back to the 1940s and exposing hitherto unrevealed connections between the various Ultimate characters. By taking this step backwards and explaining everything, Bendis has implied that the story of the Ultimate Universe's history is not only one that's worth telling, but that it's one which will enhance and enrich the Ultimate Universe rather than detracting from it. On the strength of this first issue, though I'm not convinced that that's going to be the case.

Bendis is obviously having fun writing the "secret history of the Ultimate Universe" here, including several scenes that longtime fans of the Ultimate line of comics will appreciate. There's a recap of the scene from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #3, in which Bruce Banner first hinted to Spider-Man that there was a conspiracy underpinning the Ultimate Universe; there's a glimpse of the Captain America that appeared before Steve Rogers; we see a pre-Weapon-X Wolverine; and we see an earlier-than-expected outing for Nick Fury (or at least, a version of the character - personally, I'm not convinced that this is the same guy as the present-day Ultimate Universe version). To a certain extent, it's interesting to see these scenes that fill in the gaps of the Ultimate Universe's history, but I don't get the sense yet that this is important information, or that any of the scenes that are revealed here are going to really enhance or enrich our enjoyment of the present-day versions of the characters.

Part of the problem is that we already know about many of these connections: for example, it has already been established that the Hulk serum is a result of Bruce Banner's attempt to recreate Captain America's super-soldier formula - and so was Norman Osborn's "Oz" formula (that inadvertently gave birth to Spider-Man). As such, we already know how many of these story strands are going to play out, and the considered pacing of this first issue makes it feel as though we're being forced to wait for already-revealed pieces of the puzzle to drop into place. Yes, there are some new twists here, but they don't feel as natural as the connections that have already been established in the characters' own titles (with one plot point in particular - involving the Mutant Gene and "Mutant Zero" - feeling like it damages the Ultimate X-Men mythos far more than it enhances it).

Another problem with these kinds of stories (in which unexpected past connections between characters or concepts are revealed) is that they inevitably tend to have the side-effect of making their universes seem smaller. The Star Wars prequels are a good example of this: by revealing that Obi-Wan, C-3P0, R2-D2, Yoda, Chewbacca and Anakin all had adventures together as youngsters, it actually undermines the wonder and scale of the sprawling universe of the first three movies, rather than enhancing it. The same is true here: by revealing connections between several disparate characters, it makes the universe feel smaller and more parochial than it seemed before.

Despite my problems with the story, I can at least appreciate Butch Guice's artwork, which brings Bendis' script to life well. His realistic style that has worked so well in the pages of Captain America recently is an equally smooth fit for Marvel's Ultimate Universe, grounding the action in a real-world setting and providing a fairly high level of realistic detail without rejecting the more exaggerated qualities of comicbook art for the most dynamic sequences. There are some pages where the action is occasionally unclear (such as Wolverine's exit from the Weapon X containment tank, or the fight between Nick Fury and a group of soldiers), but for the most part, it's solid stuff. Justin Ponsor's colouring is atmospheric, displaying a marked shift in tone between the more garish opening sequence in the present day and the more muted scenes that are set in the past. It'll be interesting to see whether he continues this motif as the series progresses, gradually brightening his palette as the book gets closer and closer in time to the more colourful modern day Ultimate Universe.

My biggest criticism of Ultimate Origin #1 is that it doesn't feel like a story yet. At this point, the book is more of a loose web of interconnected events that underpin the Ultimate Universe, and there's nothing here to really make you care about how the events play out. Even though readers of this book will probably already be familiar with several of the characters featured in the series, it wouldn't hurt to be given some reason to invest in them here. Without that investment, there's no drama, and the book risks feeling more like a fictional history lesson than it does a good story. I can only hope that future issues of the series will tie the various events of the book into a more compelling story, because without that dramatic connection, it's going to be difficult to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book.






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