Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer

The Ultimates Vol. 1, by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch

Cover ImageAt Amazon

I recently watched Ultimate Avengers 2 with my son
Chandler.   We had a good time with the first direct-to-dvd movie, and we had a good time with the second.   The material is easy and fun to absorb, plenty of fights, lots of super-hero action, and the “blooper” reel on Ultimate Avengers 2 was hilarious.

But it reminded me of the comic book series by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch that started it all.   I bought the monthly (that was a joke for the comic buyers among you, because the series didn’t come out monthly, but that was only because Bryan Hitch was knocking himself out on the art) series and then picked up the hardcover edition because I really loved the story.   I thought, since the DVDs came out, that I might point readers to the original source material, and give a review of the hardcover.

In the beginning, there was a global altercation that became known as World War II, an altercation that plunged sons into a similar bloody chaos that had enveloped their fathers only twenty years ago.  During this second World War, though, a choice was made to create a new hero and wrap him in the red, white and blue of the flag of the United States-a living, breathing, battling embodiment of strong-willed freedom.

They named him Captain America, and he was every bit the symbol that those far-thinking men had hoped he would be.  Only one day they lost him.  The loss came as they had thought it would, in the heat of battle, warring against impossible odds for the highest stakes imaginable.  Even in tragedy, Captain America still succeeded. Years later, with the future of the world in question and stakes rising around the globe, another decision has been put into play regarding the invention of not one, but several super-powered beings-and all of these heroes would come together under the close-knit supervision of General Nicholas Fury, the one-eyed leader of S.H.I.E.L.D who was known for kicking butt and taking names later. 

Fury has talked the American government into reactivating the Super-Soldier program that created Captain America.  Unfortunately, under its first incarnation, Dr.  Bruce Banner created a rampaging entity that came to be known as the Hulk and all but got the program cancelled. Banner takes the number two spot on the new program, and the lead designer role goes to Dr.  Henry Pym, who has already begun experimenting with communication with ants and size-changing powers, calling himself first Ant-Man then Giant-Man.  His lovely wife Jan, hiding dark secrets of her own, is the Wasp.  Tony Stark, known throughout the world also as Iron Man, has also agreed to join the team for reasons of his own.

Even as the new Super-Soldier program goes on-line, Captain America turns up in suspended animation, a combination of the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean and the super-soldier drug in his system.  At the same time, General Fury opens negotiations with Thor, a self-proclaimed deity, environmental activist, and New Age guru, resides in Norway but has powers over the weather that no one can explain.

A considerable amount of political jockeying has to take place before the team of super-powered individuals begin to assemble-and that cohesion also takes the reappearance of the Hulk, bigger and badder than ever, and way past control.  If Fury’s Ultimates aren’t careful, they could only be singing the opening stanza of their swan song. Mark Millar, author of The Ultimates, has also written The Authority, Ultimate X-Men, The Flash, Superman Adventures, Vampirella, and The Column for Comic Book Resources.  Bryan Hitch has drawn for JLA, The Authority, Martian Manhunter, and WildCATS.

Their effort was subjected, unfairly I think, to comparison with Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, which has its own history with the Charlton Comics heroes.  I believe Millar and Hitch created a post-9/11 feel to comics by blending superheroes, politics, and the military.   This book isn’t for everyone, and definitely not for the younger set that enjoyed the Ultimate Avengers dvds.   Not until those kiddos are a little older.   Then they’ll love it.

Anyone who has read comics, especially Marvel Comics, is familiar with the genesis material for this Ultimate Marvel series.  The original Avengers (Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wondrous Wasp) gathered to defeat the menace of Thor’s evil half-brother Loki in the 1960s.

Comic books have never been the same since.  The Ultimates is clearly a 21st century relaunch on that comic.  Mark Millar brings darkness and a razor-edged thrill to the series.  All of the characters have been made over in his or her own image, but with new oddities and twists that increase long-time readers’ interest with a new look at favorite heroes, and offer an organic history of very real characters for the uninitiated.

In some ways, the flow of the story seems very familiar: the Hulk is a rampaging monster trapped inside weak Bruce Banner, Captain America is rescued from a frozen wasteland after being preserved in suspended animation, Hank and Janet Pym are married, Thor was an emergency medical technician till something changed him into a Norse god (or revealed that aspect of himself), and Tony Stark/Iron Man is a rich playboy.

But the spins that Millar brings to the characters and to the stories are unique and the stuff from which successful series spring from and run for years.  Bryan Hitch’s artwork is jaw-droppingly beautiful, panels and splash pages of action and character interplay that seizes the eye and just won’t let go.  Even after a reader has finished the graphic novel, he or she will probably find himself or herself wandering back through the pages just admiring the art.

The decision to set the first issue (first arc of the tale for those of you who are reading the hardback) back during World War II was dead-on.  Seeing Captain America in action, especially dressed in Hitch’s take on the familiar red, white and blue uniform (complete with pistol, ammo belt, and helmet) draws the reader into the story with the urgency of an all-or-nothing mission in the final days of the war.  The final couple pages showcasing Tony Stark atop a snow-covered mountain peak, knowing he is Iron Man, whets the appetite for the next issue.

Each of the issues of the monthly comic gathered in this graphic novel lends itself to the next, building on the action and sharp character byplay of the previous issue.  The Ultimates is recommended to regular Avengers fans and to anyone who is only now discovering the breathtaking world of the graphic novel.  Readers that have learned to enjoy the graphic novel medium can’t afford to pass up on a book that is definitely going to be an award contender.


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