When the Avengers are known as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” they should face off against something so powerful that it takes the combined might of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and others to be able to fend it off. And so, a writer on a major superteam book is in a uniquely difficult position of crafting a believable, significant threat for that could take on the entire superteam combined.
Years ago, Grant Morrison made the task seem effortless in the pages of DC’s JLA. The villains were unique, interesting, and he made it seem necessary for the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and nine other members to band together (well, except for the story arc with the Key, but that was still a cool story). And maybe I’m biased, but very few writers since that time have been able to create threats on par with the ones that Morrison crafted in the pages of JLA. After all, once the Justice League travels through time and space in search of the Philosopher Stone and then battles Darkseid at the end of the world, a team like the Royal Flush Gang just seems ridiculous.
However, Jonathan Hickman has proven that he can conceive of some sci-fi terrors that surpass anything that Morrison was able to conceive of in his JLA days.
In the first issue of the re-relaunch of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, Hickman and artist Esad Ribic began their run with an overworked Nick Fury. Between a nuclear bomb in Uruguay, the Asgardians liberating mead halls, the SEAR government needing assistance, and other world threats, the world threat for this alternate version of the Avengers seems the world itself. This first issue makes it clear just how difficult it would be for a truly global peace-keeping organization to keep the peace and if this theme alone were explored, then Hickman’s run would have been good enough on its own; however, not content to rest upon the idea that it’s a big damn world to protect, Hickman and Ribic jump light years ahead of any other team book by crafting the wildly powerful group known simply as “the City.”
After the events of Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Enemy event, Reed Richards has been revealed as a villain and now he has created his own society known as “the City.” Inside the City, nearly one thousand years pass (and only 5 minutes pass in the outside world) and this society built upon science loses individuality as the citizens of the City take the names of their jobs. Finally, they decide to spread beyond the dome of their city out into the world and their first act is to kill the gods of Asgard; surely a highly symbolic act as the ultimate scientific society completely eradicates deities in a matter of a few pages. And things don’t get any easier from there.
Nick Fury launches a full-scale assault on the City in issue 3 only to be defeated relatively easily. Issue 4 has Thor teleport into the City itself in hopes of causing destruction only to be beaten and told to deliver the message that the City is finished evolving and a truce is called for. By the end of issue 4, it is clear that Hickman had created a threat that was almost too good. In every conflict, the City has evolved to defend itself and without an ace up their sleeve, the Ultimates are forced into a truce with their enemies. It’s completely unlike any other superteam book that I’ve ever read because at every turn, Hickman does his best to make everything seem so hopeless (the Hulk’s alliance with the City being perhaps the most heart-breaking betrayal of all) and the tension never lets up.
As politicians scramble to determine the best course of action against the City, and the Ultimates send in the Falcon to spy on the enemy, the reader begins to wonder whether the City is as evil as they appear. Of course they have killed all of Asgard and eliminated part of Europe, but Reed Richards insists that it is part of the human evolutionary cycle. Therefore, to battle the City is somewhat of a futile effort because 1,000 years from now, our world would become what the City is today. To fight the City is to fight evolution and that fight seems unwinnable and foolish. Furthermore, the City has achieved what it has wished; it’s evolution is complete and now it simply wishes to exist and perhaps spread its message of scientific evolution to the world. This begs the question; how are they evil exactly?
Most comic book villains are classified as evil because of an ambition for more power or control over the world. But, if the City is mankind’s future made possible today, then by fighting the City, the Ultimates are delaying the future. If the Ultimates determine that the world shouldn’t change because of unnatural evolution, then shouldn’t the Ultimates themselves be defeated because they are as unnatural as the City? It seems that the City is only villainous because they disrupt the status quo and anything that isn’t accepted by the status quo is automatically demonized without questioning the benefits to society overall.
Not content with JUST the threat of the City, Hickman also introduces the nation of Tian and a race of metahumans known as the People. This nation was introduced in the pages of Ultimate Comics Hawkeye and it is another instance where the heroes couldn’t defeat the threat, so they had to choose to coexist rather than let their conflict escalate and destroy the world. Therefore, two paths of evolution are presented with the City representing pure science and the People representing a god-like evolution. So, which evolutionary path does America choose in this conflict? Given that the President launches a full nuclear strike upon the City, it appears that America chooses extinction over evolution.
Unfortunately, the conclusion of this complex conflict is a bit of a letdown, but that’s partly because it would be easy to dwell upon it for years to come and partly because Hickman left the comic so that he could write the re-re-relaunched Avengers as part of the Marvel Now! initiative where he is up to his old tricks of crafting villains that go beyond the norm. Ex Nihilo is some sort of alien god who has terraformed Mars along with his sister, Abyss, and what is essentially their robot mother, Aleph. Together, the three form a group known as the Garden. Now, Ex Nihilo is firing gene bombs to Earth in an attempt to create the “magnificent, more transcendent, creatures” by altering what it means to be human. So, while the City believed in evolving humanity as it was, the Garden wishes to fundamentally alter the genetic code of human beings which would completely change everything that we are. Both the City and the Garden believe they are doing what is best for humanity and one could even argue that the Garden is even less evil than the City because Ex Nihilo is motivated by preserving life so that Aleph won’t kill more.
This time, Hickman is using the Avengers as more than just the status quo-preserving heroes. Captain America and Iron Man work together in rebuilding the Avengers into a more efficient machine that will respond to any threat that is posed to Earth. Sure, this is a pretty standard plot for any superteam comic, but when compared to the Garden, it’s clear that the Avengers are meant to represent more. If the Garden wants to start humanity over, the Avengers want to take what they have and improve upon it. Steve and Tony don’t want to alter the human genome, they just want to build and grow organically. Though it is clear that Tony and Steve have some sort of master agenda, it is still unclear to readers as to what the exact end goal is right now, but it’s certainly exciting to see unfold.
Jonathan Hickman’s villains aren’t mustache-twirling madmen bent on world-domination. They are far more dangerous than that because they represent an evolutionary ideology. The City, the People, and now the Garden are quite literally the next evolution of villains because their ways might not necessarily be wrong. In most cases, humanity is interested in bettering itself, but these villains are evidence of evolution only on our own terms. And so, it pleases me to say that the days of Nazi villains like Baron Zemo or the Red Skull are gone; say goodbye to the yawn-inducing time traveling Kang the Conqueror; good riddance to the killer robot Ultron, the shallowest idea of all Avengers villains and prepare yourself for a glorious new dawn of villains. The future certainly looks bright.
Thanks for an interesting read. I’m largely unfamiliar with Hickman’s work apart from the Marvel Now! “Avengers,” which I’ve picked up the first couple issues of and found to be be pretty unimpressive (don’t care for all the waste-of-space title pages and the fact that essentially nothing happens in the book — but Ex Nihilo does strike me as being an intersting villain), and “The Manhattan Projects” which, conversely, I’m enjoying a whole heck of a lot. He’s doing some of the things in there with hisptorical figures that you draw attention to in your article vis a vis Marvel villains. I’m really split on how much I enjoy the quality of the guy’s work overall, given that I either seem to absolutely love or abolutely hate what he’s doing, but your piece has me curious to rummage through the back-issue bins and check out some more.
Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you like the article!
I agree that his Avengers has its flaws, but I love how Hickman constructs villains because this isn’t like the Masters of Evil or Dr. Doom. Ex Nihilo is so much more and Reed Richards was too.
I need to give Manhattan Projects a shot. I hear it’s great.