Few of my friends are regular comics readers. The only time they’re likely to sit down with an issue or a trade is when I load such up on the tablet, hand it to them, and tell them I’ll be back in an hour. They’ll occasionally ask me why we need comics as a medium. Couldn’t the same stories be told in some other format?
I’ve had various responses over the years, none exhaustive, but the one I’ve been most satisfied with was the explanation that comics are by their format better at transmitting the best kinds of stories: epic, operatic fantasies. It is the nature of fantasies that each creature wears some aspect of its psychology on the outside. Comics’ have long perfected their visual shorthand for such; for example, through their use of primary color versus secondary color motifs to indicate heroism or villainy.
It is the nature of operas to capture the actual subjective experience of living; they are melodramatic because the emotions we personally experience necessarily feel aggrandized compared to our perception of others’. Operas make everything larger than life in order to seem most true to our own lives. Comics operate at a scale no other visual medium can yet achieve. Technology has allowed film, television, and video games to create set-pieces and worlds of incredible scope given dozens of creators, months of work, and millions of dollars, but comics are able to go so many more places of much grander scale in a single issue with nothing more than a writer, artist, inker, and colorist.
The long form storytelling of epics is particularly suited to comics’ serialized format. Whereas cinematic universes, television series, and even episodic games are subject to aging actors and contract disputes, a comic writer has the chance to send familiar characters on incredible adventures spanning a run of fifty to a hundred issues. It’d take another three phases of the Marvel movies to retell Hickman’s Avengers run, and a dozen movies or more to put to screen Morrison’s Batman run.
That’s not to say that all comics employ these elements, only to say that these are the artistic merits by which comics surpass other media, and that it’s not by happenstance that many of the most critically acclaimed graphic works (e.g. Miracleman, Promethea, Sandman) inhere all three. All of which is a preamble to the fact that Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort’s latest volume of The Ultimates thus far bears the same marks, seems destined, even at this early stage, for the same level in the canon of superhero fare occupied by the likes of Hickman’s Fantastic Four, Morrison’s X-Men, and Remender ’s Uncanny books.
While the first two issues were solid, full of promise and potential, issue three is the first to truly hint at Ewing’s ambition. He’s looking to take these scientist superheroes on explorations and adventures where not even the Marvel’s First Family have trod. In fact, in the absence of the Four from comic shelves, The Ultimates seems a deliberate spiritual successor, scratching the same itch. In that context, it’s no surprise that Galactus should have been so essential to the first two issues.
But neither Ewing nor The Ultimates treat Galactus as merely as a villain to be defeated, but rather as a problem to be solved. Modern fantasy though it may be, the struggle need not be one of good versus evil. But nor does that imply a story which is morally ambiguous or amoral. It’s a new kind of tale, like that of Nolan’s Interstellar, about the triumph of curiosity and scientific inquiry against ignorance and complacency. Interestingly, such instigation positions The Ultimates in the role traditionally reserved for the antagonist or villain. It’s refreshing to for a writer to depict proactivity as positive, preserving not the status quo, but rather laboring to construct something better.
Maybe. The Ultimates aren’t utopians. They’re not exploring the exo-space of the Neutral Zone because of known scientific applications it will yield. They’re going because no one’s ever done it before. They know the value of the purely theoretical sans any tangible technological benefits it may one day yield. Heady stuff for an issue’s whose most memorable line is “I need to fight a Chthulu.”
Rocofort continues to kill on art. His singular flaw of overwrought boarders and excess gutter space is greatly reduced in this issue. Instead, he fills those blank spaces with the best pencil work in a mainstream Marvel title today, from Oracle’s projection of Galactus, the anger on Gladiator’s face, or the gorgeous two-page spread of Blue Marvel explaining the fractured nature of time. It’s a shame he’s stuck depicting Carol Danvers via her redesign; I doubt I’ll ever get used to such, any more than Superman sans the red trunks. But one could hardly blame Rocafort; such is almost certainly an editorial mandate.
I’ve read a good deal of the All-New, All Different Marvel titles in the wake of Secret Wars. Of such, The Ultimates is far and away the true flagship series and the best candidate for becoming a classic run that will be remembered and reread for decades to come. Ewing and Rocafort have created something special here, taking the epic, operatic, and fantastical elements which comics excel at and infusing such with novel storytelling, modern mores, and phenomenal artwork.