Sunday 23 March 2014

Ultimate Avengers: Crime and Punishment

The bad news with second series of Ultimate Avengers is that artist Carlos Pacheco was not involved. It’s a great shame as he’d proven a worthy successor to Bryan Hitch, his style proving a much better fit for the series than Joe Madureira’s murky work had back with Ultimates 3. The good news is that he was replaced by Leinil Yu. His scratchy pencil work is a far cry from Pacheco’s smooth efforts but proves a good fit for what writer Mark Millar tosses into this story.

This is the book that introduces the Ultimate universe versions of Punisher and Ghost Rider. Punisher is written as an even less forgiving man than his regular continuity counterpart. We’re told he has no trouble executing kids and harmless henchmen and are shown him doing so in decidedly gruesome (for Marvel) ways. His motivations remain the same: he’s a vigilante dedicated to wiping wrongdoers off the streets using his own brand of morals and ethics, all spurred by the death of his family at the hands of gangsters.

Ghost Rider’s origin is fairly similar too. He remains a young motorbike enthusiast who’s sold his soul in exchange for the resurrection and ensured happiness of a loved one. It’s rare in a Marvel origin story in that it doesn’t feature weird science, although the soul-selling clearly marks it as something of the comics realm, obvs. Yu handles the task of pencilling an eerie, soulless flaming skull well. As much as I liked his work I’m not sure Pacheco would have done as good a job.

In addition to Punisher, who’s kitted out with a supersuit emblazoned with his skull emblem, the Avengers also recruit Tyron Cash. He’s a Cambridge professor turned gangland boss who was once Bruce Banner’s mentor but is now a crime lord. Something about the character seems forced. It could be his often excruciating dialogue (a rare example of Millar’s standard approach steering him wrong) or it could be that he’s blackmailed into joining the team with the threat of his current life being revealed to a wife and son who think him dead and that the sequence never feels especially believable. With Punisher and Ghost Rider having similar, and superior, things going on Cash feels like overkill.

The villain of the piece doesn’t become clear until a few issues have gone by. The first pages of issue one could lead someone to believe it’s going to be Punisher. For a while after that it looks like Ghost Rider. In the end we discover it’s Satan… or possibly a cabal of devil worshippers led by the Vice President of the United States. It depends on your perspective.

Something that could be overlooked with Ultimate Avengers’ second series is that a lot of what happens is being set up for use in the third and fourth volumes. Punisher goes on the run at the end of this volume but returns later. Nerd Hulk and Black Widow interact with The Spider (the Spider-man in a tank from the first volume) and it’s revealed he’s psychic, and implied that he, like Captain America, has a fondness for daytime TV. Nicky Fury and Gregory Stark are kept in the background, the implication being that they’re scheming away on their own personal plans. Which would again play into later volumes.

While this story doesn’t quite hit the heights of New Generation and comes nowhere near The Ultimates first or second series it’s still a very good action comic. Mark Millar has never been better than when writing for Marvel’s Ultimate line.

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