Sunday, 16 February 2014

Ultimate Avengers: Next Generation

Both series of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates were well received by those who read them. They reworked the origins of Marvel’s premier superteam for a modern audience and told mature episodic stories. They are amongst the best comics written since the turn of the millennium. Not even the horrible misfire that was Jeph Loeb’s Ultimates 3 could ruin them.

In 2008 Marvel decided to shake up their Ultimate line with a big crossover apocalypse event dubbed Ultimatum. The line’s credibility had already taken a battering with the Ultimate Power story but Ultimatum was worse. It was designed as a reboot of the whole line. It achieved that goal, with all ongoing titles either being cancelled or rebranded with new numbering, but also delivered an incredibly boring story that insulted fans and made no sense to new readers.

One good thing did come out of the reboot though: Mark Millar returned to write more stories using some of the characters he’d used in The Ultimates. Confusingly this new book was dubbed Ultimate Comics: The Avengers. The Ultimates were an Ultimate universe version of the Avengers, whilst the Ultimate universe’s Avengers were a black-ops S.H.I.E.L.D. team. It’s a minor detail and what that doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things but, well, it’s always seemed like Marvel made a choice with the name.

Poor choice of title aside it was a promising start. Millar had proven skilled at spinning compelling modern day superhero yarns that fused politics, history and pseudo-science with traditional superheroic action. With access to all the characters he’d written so well and a promise that he would be using ideas he’d originally planned for further Ultimate series it looked like Marvel were on to a winner.

The first six issue series, subtitled Next Generation, saw Nick Fury rehired by S.H.I.E.L.D. (after some time spent in an alternate universe he’d been involved in trying to destroy) and tasked with bringing in a rogue Captain America. Aside from those two the only other established character in the series is Hawkeye. He still sports the strange redesign insisted on by Jeph Loeb (it makes him look more serious, allegedly) but is written well again. He’s no longer the strange suicide-obsessed killing machine he became in Ultimates 3.

The new characters are Codename: Nerd Hulk, a good natured guy with Hulk’s body and Bruce Banner’s mind; Fury’s ex-wife Monica Chang as a new Black Widow; Insect Queen from the villainous Liberators team the Ultimates battled in the Grand Theft America arc, here renamed Red Wasp; Colonel Rhodes, who has the most advanced Iron Man suit on the planet; and Gregory Stark, the tee total, amoral brother of Tony who regards his brother as a feeble-minded disappointment. Written here it just seems like a list of ideas, continuity references and inverted regulars. Millar writes them with humour and makes them as believable as any Marvel character needs to be.

Even though he’s on the run Cap is at the centre of the story. The opening issue shows him discovering that he has a son. And not just any son. A son who is just as physically, mentally and tactically gifted as him. It’s the Red Skull.

Ultimate Red Skull is not a superhuman created during the Third Reich. He’s an American born to Cap’s girlfriend Betty and taken to a US military base as a baby. His escape at the age of seventeen, during which he slaughtered hundreds of employees, is shown, establishing how formidable an opponent Skull is.

The success of the book lies in the way Millar melds his ideas with a compelling plot. His naturalistic dialogue doesn’t hurt either. By the end of issue six you know what everyone’s motivations are and what they hope to gain from their black-ops work. Well, mostly. Gregory Stark is left a distant and shifty enigma. And the Spider-man sitting inside a glass tank inside S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Triskelion HQ is a complete mystery.

Artist Carlos Pacheco is excellent. It’s disappointing he didn’t get to return to work on any of the other three volumes of Ultimate Avengers. His knack for drawing action sequences was a boon for the series. With Next Generation Ultimate Avengers gets off to a strong start and shows that Mark Millar is still the best thing to have happened to Marvel’s Ultimate line. Definitely recommended reading.