Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Comic-Book Line-Wide Relaunch that's Not at DC

I'm enjoying the Ultimate Comics relaunch, although it's the line's second full relaunch in just under two years (the last was after Ultimatum). So far, only the first two of the four new Ultimate titles have come out, and they're surprisingly good. Not great, but good.

I have to admit that Marvel's Ultimate line continues to be a guilty pleasure. I've pretty much cured myself of any desire to follow either DC or Marvel, simply because I think I should or out of habit. But I've read every Ultimate comic ever published, the great and the awful. And I find it, at the very least, an exercise in line-building that's always interesting if only for this fact. The universe is still young, and even with Ultimatum, it hasn't yet built up nearly the convoluted and confused history of the regular Marvel Universe, nor DC's. It's also a universe that, while it's had rough spots, contains plenty of classic work, even if it's disproportionately weighted towards that universe's original launch.

Those of you who read Ultimate Fallout, which bridged the gap between the old Ultimate line and the relaunch, know that Jonathan Hickman's taking over the Ultimates, while Nick Spenser's taking over the X-Men, and Brian Michael Bendis is staying on Spider-Man. The addition of Hickman and Spenser has been read as Marvel turning over its Ultimate universe to a new generation of creators.

So far, only Hickman's two series have seen print: Ultimates Vol. 2 #1 (yes, that is its official title) and Ultimate Hawkeye #1, which begins a four-issue mini-series tying into the opening story arc in Ultimates.

How good are they? They're not instant classics, but they're solid entertainment. Hickman's intent on Ultimates Vol. 2 is to deconstruct the team by throwing everything at it, and that results in some chaos, because we have to understand -- and presumably care about -- all these events around the world. To Hickman's credit, they're not all super-villain related, which avoids the usual punch-'em-up solutions. True, we don't really care about Thor's drunken fight in Asgard (who could?), and some of the details are a bit confusing. But the point is obviously that the Ultimates are stretched thin, adding to Nick Fury's stress. Along the way, we get Tony Stark controlling Iron Man's armor from afar -- a nice touch that, while not unprecedented, does answer the question as to why he'd fly his armor himself, in a world in which unmanned drones are presumably old tech.

But the real saving grace here is Esad Ribic, who's art is really nice to look at and will almost certainly prove the best of the four new titles. That's appropriate, since it's a property launched by Bryan Hitch, so the standards are quite high in the art department.

Over in Ultimate Hawkeye, Hickman has the character dealing with one of the situations seen in Ultimates, and it's an interesting one. Essentially, a rogue state has developed its own super-soldier program, simultaneously neutralizing or lessening the West's super-soldiers. It's a clever plot, one that's informed by actual geopolitics. Yes, it echoes the first Authority storyline, with the idea of a rogue state controlling a legion of super-people. And yes, I still don't care about Hawkeye. But the issue's got enough going for it that it's an able addition to the new Ultimate line.

Are there storytelling problems? Sure. Ultimate Hawkeye in particular seems decompressed improperly, with several pages that deliver relatively little information. But we're used to that these days, and it's hard to blame a single comic for it (I didn't even hit Justice League #1 for it, in all my criticism). The Ultimates Vol. 2 could communicate what's happening better, since that's presumably pretty important to giving the reader the sense of a wordwide threat that's enough to bring Nick Fury to a standstill.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 comes out on September 14th, then Ultimate X-Men Vol. 2 on the 21st. We'll see how those fare. The former has the advantage of featuring a new Spider-Man, who's part black and part Hispanic, as the Drudge Report and others in the media have pointed out. I have to say, as stunts go, I'd rather see one in which a top-flight creator like Bendis invents a new, diverse character than, say, killing Captain America. As for Spenser's X-Men, we'll have to wait and see.

No, I wouldn't recommend them to non-comics readers. But unlike Justice League #1, they weren't billed as a perfect starting point for new readers. And for fans like me, they're thoroughly enjoyable.

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