Welcome to “Trade Waiting,” a series where we wait till comic book arcs are collected in trade format so that we can study and analyze the story on a whole. We will focus on character arcs, plot points, thematic content and things along those lines. We will only look at the material collected in a trade and not take overall continuity into consideration.
Pearl Penalosa is Ultra, one of the most popular superheroes of Spring City and has been nominated for “Best Heroine of the Year.” She and her two best friends, both heroes, have a chance encounter with a mysterious fortune teller who prophesizes true love for Pearl within seven days.
As the seven days progress Pearl gets in fights with her friends and begins a new relationship. The relationship turns out to be a bust when the guy sells photos of him and Pearl to a tabloid.
Pearl then gets bombarded by the media, even more than she was and struggles emotionally to even make it through the day as a superhero. After losing the “Best Heroine of the Year” award and having her best friend try to make out with her, Pearl decides to give up the life of being a superhero.
First and foremost, Ultra is a character drama. The super-hero aspect of the story is more like a background or setting versus being the main plot. Technically speaking, you could pull out every plot piece related to being a superhero and substitute celebrities and the story would still hold up.
“We really wanted to make it accessible to anyone who didn’t grow up reading comics,” Joshua Luna said in an interview with Ugo.com. “We didn’t really grow up reading every issue from the ‘Big Two.’ We just wanted to do a story where she goes through trials that anyone can relate to even though she’s a celebrity.”
The Lunas made sure that the readers got to know the main characters as people first before even introducing the superhero aspects of the story. In the very first chapter of the trade collection (the first issue of the comic book), we do not even see the girls in costume. This gives the readers time to see each of the main characters personalities before realizing that they are heroes.
“We chose a woman’s perspective because females seem to show more range of emotions,” Jonathan Luna said on his message board.
Although Ultra is about the journeys made by the main characters, there is a large underlying theme involving the Lunas’ view on the media. The first image we ever see of Ultra — the character, is the cover of the comic book itself, which represents Ultra — the magazine. Then once we spend some time getting to know Pearl as a character there is a news report that truly introduces Ultra — the character.
The series shows that there are two worlds. There is the world of public perception and there is the real world. The covers, table of contents, and articles at the back of each issue were done to flesh out the world of Ultra. It was done to give the readers a sense of existence and to make it so the readers could relate the hero-celebrity appeal to real world celebrities. Plus it was funny.
“When I was working on the cover to Ultra,” Jonathan Luna said in an interview with Comicbooksetc.com, “I wanted to show that Pearl was this icon – everyone knew her. So, I used Time magazine. It’s such a great fit. Then, we said, “Why not do all the covers like this?”
There is also a judgment made about the media. Everything is done satirically but there is definitely a knock on the media and America’s obsession with celebrities.
“Basically,” Jonathan Luna said on his message board. “Our parodying comes from being normal audience members of all the media that surrounds us everyday: TV, magazines, movies, etc. And we bought a few magazines as reference. Personally, I spent a year, doing web/graphic design, so that might’ve helped a bit.”
One thing that was hinted at, but not really answered, was how much of what heroes were doing was being done for positive reasons and how much of it was being done simply to be famous?
In the first issue after a car crash, Liv’s first reaction is “That had bad publicity written all over it.” Instead of worrying about the driver or anyone else that may have been hurt.
This theme of “doing it for right/doing it to be famous” is hit upon with the whole Heroine Awards. Also look at the whole Olympus Corporation! A corporation formed by superheroes bent on making money, not being heroes. Ultimately, this was the real reason Pearl walked away form being Ultra.
The dialogue was well done. There weren’t voices that blended together or sounded alike. It also had a Daren Star feel to it. I mean obviously there were certain moments that just screamed “Sex and the City.” At one point, Liv gives a blow job to a man made of ice and gets a brain freeze. At another moment Pearl angrily throws a dildo out a window.
One of the supporting cast members that grew a lot was Will, Pearl’s agent. The character in general has a sexist vibe to him. He sits in an office and bosses around hot superheroes Charlie’s Angels-style. But in the very last three panels he appears, a new perspective is given on the character.
When Will sees the “Ultra” costume on his desk, it makes him smile. It was a really touching moment because it showed that there was a lot more to this guy and that he really cared about Pearl as a person versus her just being something to market.
Since “Ultra” is a love story, love plays a big role thematically in the plot. But it is not the plot itself. This wasn’t a romance story where two characters fell in love. It was a drama about a person searching for love. The concept of “love” was used as a catalyst to get the main story moving.
Pearl searching for love also makes her a more relatable character. Just about everyone has been in the position where they have been alone or have gone through a bad relationship.
“No one’s immune to the pitfalls of love, not even larger than life, celebrity superheroes,” Joshua Luna said on his message board.
Another interesting thing that was done with Pearl is that throughout the whole story she gets physically sick. This was a way to externalize her internal conflict. At one point, she even tells her mom on the phone “I’m a super hero I don’t get sick.” Which implies that her throwing up is something else.
When Pearl first gets sick in issue one, it’s left open to interpretation. She could be drunk or bulimic. But as a reader gets into the story and sees her get sick again and again, its clear there is more to it. By the end, it is made obvious that her getting sick is stress related.
This gives her character a whole new depth and only strengthens the ideal that she is a fully developed character instead of being a two dimensional superhero. It was like a real-world weakness, and she eventually solved it by giving up being Ultra.
“We definitely wanted Ultra to be somewhat grounded in reality,” Joshua Luna said in an interview with secondstringsanctuary.com. “So, we basically ran with that mindset and thought if superheroes were real, in our celebrity crazed culture, we’re guessing it wouldn’t be gorgeous movie stars, or pop tartlets gracing the front page of popular magazines. It’d be gorgeous people in capes.”