The Ultimates is a name which carries heavy expectations. Just as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight redefined the character of Batman for thirty years since (in large part for leading to Year One, upon which Batman Begins had its foundation, and more recently being the main influence behind Dawn of Justice and the DC Cinematic Universe going forth), so too were Mark Miller and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2 the seminal reimagining of the Avengers, quickly inspiring the meta-plot in the 616 which began in Avengers Disassembled, and more importantly serving as the primary source, more so than even The Infinity Gauntlet or the works of Lee, behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Simply put, Miller and Hitch’s twenty-six issue run on The Ultimates is among the most important and consequential creative endeavors of the twenty-first century.
To say that Ewing and Rocafort have their work cut out for them given the legacy they’re being asked to live up to is an understatement. And while I firmly believe that there are no great characters, only great creative teams, the cast which Ewing has to work with ranges from obscure (e.g. America Chavez) to unlikeable (Carol Danvers). The one exception is T’Challa, whose arc over the course of Hickman’s New Avengers, particularly his rivalry with Namor, formed much of the book’s emotional core; yet Ewing mostly ignores those developments, not needing the crutch, all of his characters standing on his own writing.
Given my love of the original Ultimates and my unfamiliarity or dislike for most of the team members, I came to this new volume of The Ultimates with no expectations of quality whatsoever. I did the same with this week’s Avengers #1, and that still managed to disappoint, just as most of All-New, All Different Marvel Now.
Within the first few pages any misgivings I came to the book with were entirely dispelled. Better than any fight scene involving spandex-clad musclemen senselessly beating the daylights out of each other, the issue starts off with an extensive expository monolog by Blue Marvel that’s a glorious amalgam of wildly inaccurate pseudoscience and metaphysical mussing that winkingly double as metafictional. (Though I was initially slightly annoyed by Ewing’s appropriation of the real scientific term Neutronium, which is a superdense state of matter composed entirely of neutrons, not a transdimensional substance comprising the latest incarnation of the cosmic cubes or the infinity gems.)
Accompanying Ewing’s nonsensical technobabble (and I use that term lovingly) are superstar Kenneth Rocafort’s pencils and Dan Brown’s strikingly vivid colors. The writing is wonderful throughout, but the art is absolutely the selling point. True, Rocafort commits his signature sin of random shaped panels and overly elaborate border designs, wasting swarths of valuable page space on expanses of empty white. Looking past such, however, the parts of the page he actually draws on are the envy of most other artists in the industry. His faces are beautiful and expressive without ever degenerating into caricatures; his figure work dynamic, powerful, and anatomically accurate all at once. His backgrounds, though few and far between, are so inviting as to be practically inhabitable.
What ultimately makes The Ultimates work though is a single idea that both Ewing’s writing and Rocafort’s art both work in tandem to capture: scale. These are heroes whose power-levels are only outmatched by their own curiosity and the challenges they’re up against. At one point, Blue Marvel states “We can’t just be another Illuminati,” (referring to the group depicted in Hickman’s New Avengers). Carol Danvers replies, “I wouldn’t be here if that was what this was.” Given the cosmocidal atrocities committed by some of its members, her objection is understandable. But given the personalities of certain team members, the ambition of the group’s mission, the unfathomable scope of it all, it’s an apt comparison for the reader to draw.
Creatively, Hickman’s New Avengers usurped Miller and Hitch’s Ultimates as the definitive Avengers story. If, instead of suffering for sharing the same name as the later, Ewing and Rocafort can garnish comparison to the former, they’re off to a promising start indeed. It’s far from perfect, but they’ve brought me from almost not buying the first issue to definitely purchasing the second.
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