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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Ultimates is a great comic book. It's just damn good reading.

I've been a fan of Marvel's Ultimate line of comics since its inception. It began with a little title called Ultimate Spider-Man by the popular writer Brian Michael Bendis. It was well written, beautifully drawn, and extremely entertaining. The idea of the Ultimate line was to take old, established characters and throw away their continuity, allowing writers to start their stories over from scratch. So in Ultimate Spider-Man, we have a young high-school aged Peter Parker trying to learn how to be a hero for the first time. Since the line began, we've been introduced to Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four, and what should be called Ultimate Avengers but has been renamed The Ultimates.

In traditional Marvel continuity, the Avengers is a super-hero group consisting of some of Marvel's heavy hitters, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor (I'm speaking traditionally, folks, there's a NEW Avengers running around out there with a different line-up). The Ultimates takes these characters and others and spins them in an entirely new and fascinating way. First off, the Ultimates is not just you average, self-managed team of superheroes. They are part of S.H.E.I.L.D., a government intelligence agency, and are under the command of General Nick Fury. The government has been trying to develop a "super-soldiers" program with little success. Back in World War II, there was a similar program, and there was only one success... Captain America. Through an accident, Cap was frozen in a block of ice, surviving in a state of suspended animation until modern times. He was found and thawed out, becoming part of the modern super-soldier initiative. Others in the program include Iron Man, genius billionaire industrialist Tony Stark in super armor of his own design; Thor, who may be a Norse thunder god or just a nut-ball with stolen hardware; Black Widow, ex soviet super-spy; Hawkeye, military crackshot who likes bows and arrows better than anything else; Giant-Man (or Ant-Man, if he feels like being small), scientist Hank Pym who is working on the super-soldier program and, unfortunately, cracks under the pressure; and Janet Pym, Hank's wife, also a scientest and a mutant known as the Wasp. Also working on the project is one Robert Bruce Banner, who ends up testing an unperfected serum on himself, which transforms him into a nightmarish, murderous Hulk.

In volume one, which ran for thirteen issues, The Ultimates have to take down one of their own. The Hulk goes on a rampage through New York, and it takes the full power of the rest of the group to stop him. This is their first mission, and through this initial success they gain the love of the public. Of course, if the public were to find out the Hulk is actually a scientist on the Ultimate's payroll, public perception would be quite different, so S.H.E.I.L.D. covers it up.

Later in volume one, we learn that aliens have infiltrated humanity. They have been here for many years, and Nick Fury and S.H.E.I.L.D. have known about it for quite some time. Fury decides the time has come to take them down, and he sends the Ultimates. The team manages to defeat the invaders, but is only able to do so with the assistance of their first opponent, the Hulk.

The plot thickens as volume two begins. We learn there is a traitor amongst the group as someone leaks the secret of the Hulk's identity to the press. Immediate suspicion falls on Thor, who has left the group for political reasons. Dr. Banner is put on trial for the murders he commited during his initial rampage as the Hulk, and he's condemned to death. Thor denies being the traitor, but the group discovers he may not be everything he claims. A European scientist says that Thor is his brother. He claims Thor was a nurse, and later a mental patient, who has stolen equiptment (a belt and a hammer) that give him his powers. His recent actions seem to be getting reckless and dangerous, and The Ultimates are again sent to take down one of their own.

The Hulk and Thor are out of the picture, and later even Captain America is discredited and taken into custody. By issue nine, with the most powerful of the Ultimates out of the way, the true traitor is reveiled and an attack on America the like of which has never been seen is begun.

This is true dramatic, almost cinematic, entertainment from writer Mark Millar. Long gone are the days of the "funny book" when comics were considered juvinile trash. These comics aren't for kids (teens would dig 'em, sure, but the 8-12 crowd, I don't think so). The heroes are flawed, and topical moral questions are raised. For example, if we had actual superheroes employed by the government, should they be used to solve domestic problems only, or should they be sent to deal with America's enemies? Fury sends the heroes to deal with enemies in the middle-east (Iraq is even mentioned). Thor leaves due to these actions. The government, personified by Nick Fury, covers up things they don't want citizens to know, spys on everyone, and generally tries to police and control the world. Is this America's rightful role in the world as its last and greatest superpower, or have we gone too far? This book raises a lot of questions and makes you think, but it manages to be wildly entertaining as it does so.

The Ultimates is vastly different from The Avengers, the comic on which it is based. Fans of the original might not like this take. Being more of a DC man myself, I wasn't very interested in Marvel characters, so this shake-up doesn't bother me (unlike the horrifying All-Star Batman and Robin comic DC is publishing right now). I started picking up this book because I was impressed with the rest of the Ultimate line, and I am tremendously glad I did. I don't think you could ask for a better written and drawn book than this. Check out the Ultimates... you can thank me later.

Until later,
JNB

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