The Ultimates #6 both opens and closes with narration recounting the myth of Sisyphus, the Corinthian king condemned to roll a boulder up some gods-forsaken hill without rest or reprieve for endless eternity. Writer Al Ewing intends such as a commentary on the character of Galactus, referring both to his Sisyphean drive to accomplish his purpose – whether as the Devourer of Worlds or currently as Lifebringer – as well as to the existentialist spite he demonstrates in contemptful conversations with the various aspects of Reality itself. Albert Camus would be proud.
But the picture painted of Sisyphus heroically toiling in Tartarus, turning tortuous labor into a grand statement on life, begets ill compare for the current state of the comics industry. It’s treated as a Sisyphean task for a creator – particularly a penciller – to remain on a series for a significant length of time without a fill-in. Yet too many historical counter-examples exist for such a statement to be anything more than a myth – and not the Greek kind but a plain and simple falsehood. Kirby and Bagley each illustrated Spider-man for over a hundred consecutive issues. J.H. Williams III is responsible for all thirty-two issues of the highly detailed and impossibly gorgeous Promethea. And with the first volume of The Ultimates, Bryan Hitch drew all twenty-six issues, departing only once the story had reached its natural conclusion.
As such, it is entirely unacceptable that after a mere five issues a fill-in has taken over the artistic duties on behalf of Kenneth Rocafort. The superstar artist was the selling point that first brought the readership onto the current volume, and while writer Al Ewing’s scripts have proven themselves every bit equal to the series’ vivid visuals, that makes it all the worst when an indispensable issue such as #6 not merely lacks Rocafort’s pencils but also is utterly ruined by the replacement. Such is the case with “special guest” Christian Ward of ODY-C fame – who not only fails to hit the high standard set for the series, but delivers superlatively ugly pencils (he has definite skill as a colorist, but such in no way translates to the rest of his art).
A famous adage states “Never judge a book by its cover.” Such is a double edged sword with respect to comics. When the cover artist is also responsible for the interiors (as should always be the case), the reader actually has a good indication as to the expected quality of the work; after all, comics are a visual medium, and the artwork is not merely as important but more so than the writing. However, when the cover artist differs from the interior – as is the case here with issue #6 – then the cover not only is non-indicative, it is outright deceptive, making a promise which is broken on the first panel of the first page.
Poor artwork has been problematic in the past, for as long as comics have been a medium, but here it’s truly tragic because Ewing, whose work has been superb since the series’ start, is only now truly hitting his stride, delivering a story as cerebral as any from the mind of Morrison or Moore. Galactus engages with metaphysical beings on a metaphorical level, defeating such by deconstructing their conceptual framework. Were the dialog perhaps a pinch pithier, the script would read very much like an issue of Gaiman’s Sandman.
Moreover, the plot of the series takes a significant leap forward, with Ewing introducing what sounds to be the central question which the title will set out to answer: What, ontologically, is the omniverse? It’s been stated since the first issue that the omniverse is in its eighth incarnation, but this issue questions that orthodoxy, raising the possibility that the seventh never really ended, or ought not to have. Even on the surface level, it’s a fascinating subject. Owen Reece approaches it teleologically, asking not what existence is, but rather what it ought to be. Given the nature of his abilities and the part he played in ending existence and remaking reality in Secret Wars, it’s an altogether appropriate question for him to contemplate. Galactus, as aforementioned, takes an existentialist approach; he neither cares what the omniverse is or what it ought to be, but responds rather, “I am as I wish to be.”
However, beyond merely the metaphysical musings there very well might be metatextual ones as well. The previous omniverse is clearly the Marvel multiverse as it existed prior the end of Hickman’s Secret Wars, and as such could be read as representing Marvel’s publishing history from 1939 (when it was still known as Timely) up through circa 2015. If that is indeed the case, Owen Reece’s words take on additional meaning:
“They want it all back to normal – which means you back in the purple… Is that where [the rock is] meant to be, do you think? At the bottom of the mountain? I mean, according to tradition and gravity and the will of the gods, that’s where it’s going. But does that really mean it’s where it’s meant to be?”
Comics have a tendency to revert to the status quo. Spider-man reverts from being Otto Octavius back to Peter Parker. Captain America reverts from being Bucky back to Steve Rogers. Batman reverts from being Jean Paul Valley or Dick Grayson or Jim Gordon always back to Bruce Wayne. Every time a write moves the bolder of character progression and plot development up the mountain of continuity, tradition and gravity and the will of the fans roll it right back down the hill. But is that where it’s meant to be? Is Galactus’ change to Lifebringer inevitably going to revert to the status quo of Devourer? Almost certainly. But even knowing the futility, Ewing seems determined to roll that rock as far up the mountain as he possibly can.
Accompanying Sisyphus in Tartarus was Tantalus, who stood in a river pristine and potable, parched with thirst, but unable to drink a drop, its waters receding so soon as he stooped to sip; who stood starving beneath a tree bearing fruits of fig, pear, and pomegranate, but whose branches would blow out of reach as he outstretched his arm. Rarely has there ever been so great a disparity between the outstanding quality of a comic’s writing and the abject awfulness of its art. Marvel ought to refund the issue and reprint it with all new art. The prospect of seeing Kenneth Rocafort’s rendition of Ewing’s best script in the series so far is truly tantalizing. Yet like those stygian waters and that chthonic fruit, such an imaginary issue will remain forever out of reach, leaving readers with nothing but painful pangs, disappointed desires, and the piece of trash that is the actual Ultimates #6.