Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ultimates vol. 1

As much as I enjoy the superhero genres I’ve devoted myself to one small fraction aka the X-Men titles. Beyond that field, my knowledge is quite limited. To remedy this most unfortunate I decided to pick something hot off the superhero grid [I count a series hot prior to hitting that crucial fiftieth issue]. I have heard of The Ultimates, but never joined in the party, so volume one was added to my reading spree.

I more often than not pay attention to the writer, when I am about to write a review, so Mark Millar didn’t ring that much a bell [a travesty, I know], but he wrote and still is writing some of the titles I am positively addicted to: Kick Ass, Ultimate X-Men and Wolverine. Then we have many other Ultimate titles like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, but I’ve yet to pick a copy. With all the dots connected, I deduced that I would love this series. I did not quite get there, but I had a blast reading it.

The Ultimates is according to the Internet a modern reimagining of America’s favorite super hero ensemble the Avengers. After reading the first volume, I have to say that this is a gritty reboot to a franchise that needs to get hip again. The 00’s have been marked with the need to go bad. Music has been slutted up, movies push the limits of how much gore the human mind can handle and popular culture craves the gritty, the rough and the tough. It all has to be dark and scowling. And the Avengers seem a bit too squeaky clean for this shift in attitude, so the Ultimates is the Avengers minus the nobility, plus the cynicism and with that super-size blood sprayed battle plan. I haven’t read the actual Avengers to say how much the Ultimates differ from the original characters, but the difference is definitely there. I mean Captain America has never been as blood thirsty during combat as he is in the Ultimates and I’ve spotted a few cameo appearances.

Volume one centers on the team’s establishment and maiden voyage so to say, which has a lot to do with a massive alien invasion. The Ultimates is an offspring of SHIELD and under Nick Fury we have Doctor Banner issued to develop a brand new Captain America to the world and the Pyms are working on a giant formula. Tony Stark simply volunteers and the real Captain America has been salvaged from an ice block found near Iceland. Black Widow and Hawkeye along with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are the Black Ops, while Thor’s still being recruited and things on that front are not fruitful.

There are a number of fail starts, the whole operation is close to having its plug pulled and it’s all about PR it would seem. Because of PR the team is not publically hiring mutants and not considering the Fantastic Four, which are in a tight spot themselves. To emphasize the whole PR thing we have famous TV spokespersons make cameos like Larry King and later on in the following volumes Oprah and Leno. In charge of this department is none other than Bethy Ross, Banner’s ex, who has been turned into an ice queen supreme. No Liv Tyler; it’s all I can say.

The shockers that might surprise you from this volume include Banner, who supposedly has been cured of the Hulk cells, jamming super soldier serum and Hulk cells into him to give the Ultimates something to fight. Mind you, I am not talking about the ‘Hulk, Smash!’ repertoire, but something along the lines ‘Hulk, Horny!’ and other interesting profanities. Then we have the Wasp distracting the Hulk with cleavage, domestic violence between Pym and Janet that goes way out of hand, when superpowers are involved and Thor agreeing to aid these heroes, when the US government doubles its International Aid Budget. With all these warm-ups I had no problems handling the full force of the Skrull invasion and the blood that spilled.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the Avengers as you have known them; this is their I-mean-business hardcore alter ego. I know it sounds repetitive, but I’m still processing the ‘ultimate’ version, where all stakes are off, everybody has their own agenda and being above the level of any ordinary human is a lethal skill, willing to be used to get a point across. Maybe if we were to mix the Avengers with Sin City, this would be the result. Babbling aside, what I am trying to say is that we have a brand new angle to look at beloved characters and it’s awesome. As with all superhero ensembles the focus falls on the action and the team member’s interaction, since the devil is in the details. It’s the small moments chained together around the big ones that either satisfy the reader or not.

Before I conclude the review I’d like to mention Bryan Hitch. Because comics are based on the symbiosis between writer and artist, there have to be a few words about the penciller. I’m with mixed opinions about his lines. On one extreme I’ve devoted adoration for his sceneries, which I find engulfing, atmospheric and beautiful. The lines quality is certainly enhanced by the colors applied; so kudos to the colorists on the team. Hitch knows how to draw his battle scenes and the human body is especially dynamic and fluid in its movement. I expected the figures to leap out from the pages. I even loved how he got the human body as proportions and shape, but the man couldn’t win me over with his faces. His technique didn't impress me much as far as faces are concerned and I am afraid that it's a touch and go between me and his faces.

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