Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Ultimates 2

Ultimates (a review of which can be found here) boasted a pretty impressive creative combo. Mark Millar on scripts and Bryan Hitch on pencils. There was never any question that one or both parties would be switched out for Ultimates 2. It was always theirs to work on if they wanted. Considering the first series had upped both men’s profiles considerably they naturally wanted to write more.

Ultimates 2 is not a radical departure from what made the first book a success. It is essentially more of the same but with new threats and a handful of new characters given a global scale. Part of what had made the first series work was the emphasis placed on character, something that has since become unusual in a Millar work (he prefers to write what could be described as fleshed out caricatures these days). He didn’t drop the habit before Ultimates 2 though.

The regulars of series one return, retaining the healthy modern twists they were given there and staying true to the larger history of their regular Marvel counterparts (Ultimates is set in a separate continuity from regular Marvel tales remember). Character developments are what drives the story forward. Whether it’s Bruce Banner being outed as the Hulk and then being sentenced to death, the rocky marriage of Hank and Janet Pym, or the continued mystery of Thor’s true nature (is he really a god or just a nutter?) the plot spins off of the characters, rather than the other way around.

The first portion of the series is very hard on the regulars, putting them through the grind so that they can make a triumphant comeback in the second half. The Ultimate version of Loki is introduced, and he naturally targets Thor for the first several issues. Once the thunder god’s out of the way Loki introduces his own team of superheroes, who lead a super-powered war against the United States using troops from a variety of anti-US nations.

This group, dubbed the Liberators, are analogues of the regular Ultimates. They’re led by The Colonel, a young boy from the Middle East who has been subjected to a strain of the Super Soldier serum that created Captain America. For some never explained reason he’s equipped with a lightsaber. I imagine it’s simply that Millar thinks Jedi toys are cool.

To my mind the war on the US storyline is the best thing Millar wrote under the Ultimates banner. It’s perfectly plotted and runs on an impressively large scale. The focus was on telling a realistic story using familiar characters, nothing else. Since this series wrapped up in 2007 the Ultimate imprint as a whole has taken a nosedive in quality as other writers have forgotten or overlooked what made the Ultimate line popular in the first place.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Millar and Hitch were painfully slow when working on the two series they did together but they provided the line with creative leadership. While Millar would do more work in the Ultimate Universe it wasn’t with Hitch, and he had his own creator-owned projects on the go at the same time, which meant he had less time to dedicate to the larger world building that he’d done throughout the first six years of the Ultimate line’s life.

The twenty-six regular issues that make up Ultimates and Ultimates 2 are essentially one long story. They’re broken up with a number partly because of the delays that plagued issue releases. Ultimates 2 cannot be appreciated or made full sense of without having read the first series. I recommend doing so. It’s one of the best superhero comics ever written and is (amazingly) self-contained. More Ultimates comics would come later, but you can easily put down the final issue of Ultimates 2, never pick up any of the follow-ons and remain content.

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