You wouldn't think it to look at the imprint now but when Marvel first launched its Ultimate line it was considered one of the greatest things the company had done in years. Ultimate Spider-Man launched the line in 2000 and was followed by Ultimate X-Men in 2001. Both titles reimagined their titular characters in a more contemporary, (slightly) more realistic world than the regular Marvel Universe, allowing for origin stories updated to suit the 21st century.
As successful as both books were both pale in comparison to The Ultimates. To this day the original 28 issue (26 regular issues and two annuals) run by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch remains one of the line's greatest hits. It’s a stylish, exciting comic that helped Ultimate Marvel to flourish.
The first thirteen issue series opens with a first instalment flashing back to World War Two to detail the origin of Captain America, after which we're gradually introduced to the rest of the team. Hank and Janet Pym are biologists working on the advancement of superpowers. Tony Stark is the billionaire playboy we've seen emerge in the films.
The greatest recreation is Thor. As the story begins he is either the genuine God of Thunder or an environmentalist lunatic with some very special powers. The way this is introduced is superb and answers that are teased across multiple arcs is incredibly rewarding.
What makes the series work is Millar's understanding of the characters at his disposal. He knows what tweaks to make and never goes overboard, meaning the cast remains recognisable but still capable of surprising us. The pacing is quick and the balance between action and plot is perfect. Hitch handles everything required of him perfectly.
The first twelve issues are split into two stories. The first details the recruitment and formation of the team and a rampaging rogue troubling New York. The second arc shows the Ultimates' clash with the Chitari, an alien race that had been allied with Hitler during the war.
The action, pacing and characterisation are all perfect and there's not a bad line of dialogue throughout the entire run. It’s an essential read for anyone who wants a modern take on superheroes done correctly. Millar and Hitch introduce a sense of wonder that mainstream comics, generally speaking, lack today. Very impressive when you consider how well known the characters at their disposal are.