In 2002, following the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, Marvel sought to expand its Ultimate line with an Ultimate Avengers title. As writer, the company tapped Mark Millar, who had launched (and was still writing) Ultimate X-Men. Millar had catapulted to star status with a run on The Authority, in which he had introduced perverse analogues of the Avengers in his first storyline — something he claimed help get him the job. As penciler, Marvel tapped Byran Hitch, who had illustrated Warren Ellis’s hit run on The Authority (which immediately preceded Millar’s) and was just coming off of an abortive run on DC’s JLA.
Millar’s take on the Avengers hearkened back to his original, rejected idea for Ultimate X-Men: to have the U.S. government create the team. This concern for politics had also dominated his work on The Authority. Marvel turned down this idea for Ultimate X-Men, but that title’s success led to Millar being given more leeway on his Ultimate Avengers title.
Millar went further, however, rejecting the Avengers name in favor of “the Ultimates,” a neat way of avoiding “Ultimate” as a prefix for the new title. His initial line-up of characters would still be the same as the initial line-up of the Avengers, however. Millar brought a contemporary, decompressed style of comics storytelling to this new version of the Avengers, letting the first issue consist mostly of a flashback to Captain America’s days in World War II, then allowing the new team to slowly build itself over his first five or six issues. While decompression wasn’t new, Millar went further with it than had generally been seen. And while stories were allowed room to breathe, they still seemed remarkably tight and filled with memorable sequences and pithy dialogue. Millar’s treatment of Captain America, revived in the present as a man out of time, proved a particular high note of his early issues.
Hitch’s artwork, while realistic, never reduced the super-hero, who remained majestic and glorious. This combined well with Millar’s sense of super-hero drama, and it served to keep the cynical, realistic world in which the Ultimates operated from feeling oppressive. His redesigns of the characters would also have lasting impact.
The Ultimates proved a fantastic hit, both critically and commercially. Some detractors called it a riff on The Authority, although set in the Marvel Universe — or a version thereof. There’s truth to this, but Marvel incorporating such innovations into its still-new Ultimate line was still a radical gesture.
Unfortunately, after its sixth issue, The Ultimates began running increasingly late. This didn’t hurt sales, because as long as Millar and Hitch retained the quality of their work, anticipation only grew in the gaps between issues. This did begin to become difficult for readers trying to figure out the Ultimate line’s continuity, however, because the Ultimate’s appearances in other titles had to be worked around the single, continuing story Millar and Hitch were telling. The Ultimates concluded with issue #13, published over two years after issue #1, although Millar and Hitch promised to return soon for Ultimates 2.
Ultimates 2 debuted most of a year later. Instead of building the new team up in its first six issues, as The Ultimates had, Ultimates 2 tore the team down. This would lead, in the title’s next seven issues, to the team’s being vindicated and achieving its greatest victory. If anything, Ultimates 2 would be more political than the first series, playing off the U.S.’s largely unilateral invasion of Iraq at the time. Unfortunately, Ultimates 2 followed the same pattern as its predecessor, becoming increasingly late as time went on. It also concluded with issue #13, also published about two years following issue #1.
These delays were somewhat ameliorated by the fact that several issues ran additional pages in length, which helped make the series feel special. In addition, two issues of Ultimates Annual were published alongside Ultimates 2, the first written by Millar (although illustrated by Steve Dillon, rather than Bryan Hitch).
The legacy of The Ultimates and Ultimates 2 continues to be felt, and the stories hold up remarkably well. They would especially influence Marvel’s cinematic universe, begun in 2008, which adopted a Nick Fury resembling the version from The Ultimates, elements of Hitch’s designs, and even key sequences, such as Bruce Banner being dropped from an aircraft.
A few months after the belated conclusion of The Ultimates, Marvel began a five-issue mini-series titled Ultimate Nightmare, which concluded around the time of Ultimates 2‘s debut. Writer Warren Ellis, who had just signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, was tapped to write the mini-series. It was supposed to set up the coming of the Ultimate version of the villain Galactus, which Mark Millar planned on writing as an Ultimate-line event. Millar was struggling with lingering health problems, which had played a part in delays on the Ultimates. Joe Quesada, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief at the time, came up with the idea of doing the story as a trilogy of mini-series, written entirely by Ellis.
On short notice, Ellis had to come up with a credible second installment to the trilogy, bridging the gap between Ultimate Nightmare and the coming of Galactus. The result was the four-issue Ultimate Secret, which debuted shortly into Ultimates 2. Unfortunately, this mini-series also ran into delays, and its artistic team was completely replaced halfway through. By the time of its conclusion, Ultimates 2 was over halfway done, although Ultimate Secret explicitly took place before Ultimates 2.
Millar was able to contribute to the trilogy, penning a special story than ran as four-page back-ups, added at no additional cost to six issues in the Ultimate line. The story, penciled by John Romita, Jr., took place between the second and third mini-series and told the backstory of Ultimate Galactus. It was simply excellent sci-fi material, a creative high point in the history of the Ultimate line.
The trilogy’s conclusion, in the five-issue Ultimate Extinction (originally planned to be six issues), avoided the artistic inconsistencies of the previous two mini-series by being entirely illustrated by Brandon Peterson. In a masterstroke, Ellis, known for his use of real scientific theories in his work, managed to use Ultimate Galactus to as the Ultimate universe’s explanation to the Fermi paradox. While the conclusion felt rushed, it remained excellent and — largely due to Ellis’s use of scientific concepts — managed to avoid feeling cheap, despite the seeming insurmountably of the menace facing the world. Its final issue was released around the time of Ultimates 2 #11, although the entire trilogy clearly took place before that series.
The trilogy proved successful enough that, six months later, Marvel offered Ultimate Vision, a six-issue mini-series begun with a special issue #0 that collected the previous back-up stories by Millar and Romita, Jr. The five new issues that followed (#1-5) continued directly from Ultimate Extinction, offering a sort of epilogue to the trilogy. Mike Carey wrote these five issues, which were illustrated by Ultimate Extinction‘s Brandon Peterson. The series ran late and concluded about half a year after Ultimates 2 ended, although taking place beforehand.
All of this material properly belongs with the Ultimates. It prominently featured the team, especially Nick Fury. Moreover, Mark Millar told sweeping stories in The Ultimates and especially Ultimates 2, involving other Ultimate characters and effectively making the Ultimates the home for that universe’s large-scale events.
During and shortly after Ultimates 2, two Ultimates novels were produced, one in 2006 and the other in 2007, as part of a deal between Simon & Schuster and Marvel Comics (which also produced other novels starring Marvel characters, such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, and the X-Men). The two Ultimates novels did not incorporate events from Ultimates 2, making them best set after the Ultimate Galactus material but before Ultimates 2. This is an uneasy fit, however, and discrepancies do exist between them and the comics. They may be regarded as out-of-continuity, should readers wish, and the comics seem to treat them as such. But some comics stories (e.g. the Fantastic Four that appeared in Ultimate Team-Up) pose larger problems for continuity, and few would consider ignoring those stories. The novels are included here both for the sake of completion and because of their historic place during this early portion of Ultimates history.
In late 2010, three years after Ultimates 2 concluded, Marvel began the four-issue Ultimate Thor (prior to Thor’s 2011 movie debut). The series, penciled by Carlos Pacheco, was written by Jonathan Hickman, who would soon take over as writer of the Ultimates. Ultimate Thor was a frustrating read because it featured three separate storylines, set in three separate times, and it was hard to date the one set in the present, which had echoes of Ultimates 2, in which Thor was incarcerated and thought insane. The final issue, however, retold events from The Ultimates #3-5, clearly indicating when the mini-series was set: before and during the first Ultimates storyline.
But Ultimate Thor clearly showed that Thor was a god, a matter that was a central question in Ultimates 2. Thus, despite the mini-series being set before and during the first half of The Ultimates, it would be wrong to read the mini-series prior to Ultimates 2, since that would ruin part of Ultimates 2‘s effect. In fact, Ultimate Thor may best be seen as a coda to Ultimates 2, following up on that series’s revelations by honoring what Thor had been through there. In this placement, Ultimate Thor may also be seen as tying together Millar and Hitch’s work, by echoing their first few issues.