The Ultimates Volume 1 #1-6
As a fledgling comic book reader, I took notice of the New Avengers only because of the writer attached to it, Brian Michael Bendis. I remember reading the Disassembled arc and being blown away by all the history the Avengers have. In the last few months however, things haven’t been too friendly in the Avengers’ camp—with Captain America and Iron Man facing off against each other. So when one is longing for the good old days of the Avengers, you don’t have to look too far, just pick up the Ultimates, and enjoy a great read.
The Ultimates opens up over the North Atlantic, circa 1945. Morale is low among the soldiers after finding out the Germans are building a super weapon that can flatten a city in seconds. Achtung baby indeed. But the Allies have a weapon of their own: Captain America. Cap isn’t like other soldiers though; he’s got a super serum coursing through his veins. That’ll come in handy later. Subsequent pages look like the comic book version of Saving Private Ryan—soldiers dying, cries for a medic. The Allies storm a German base and uncover their other master plan. Cap’s army buddy Bucky comments on where the Germans got their hands on such advanced technology. It wasn’t Doc Brown, that’s for sure. Cap tells Bucky that there are “more sides fighting in this war than anyone will ever know.” Cryptic words that will come to fruit in future issues. The Germans are under siege now, and they launch their weapon prematurely. Cap takes the initiative and jumps onto it. Apparently riding a prototype hydrogen bomb is like riding a bike. Cap detonates a grenade and sends the missile off its course, taking him with it. His reward is a plunge into the ocean waters.
Fast-forward to the year 2002. Tony Stark, CEO of Stark International, is busy climbing Mt. Everest. Having accomplished that, he hints at starting a new chapter in the life of his business. Speaking of chapters this is where the first issue of Ultimates ends. Kind of a head-scratcher here, were these few pages necessary?
Issue two opens up with Nick Fury, a dead-ringer for Samuel L. Jackson, having lunch with Doctor Bruce Banner. In a flashback panel, the reader learns that Banner’s alter ego, the Hulk, went on a rampage. The good doctor admits there hasn’t been a trace of Hulk cells for months now. That’s great says Fury, I just cashed my birthday check from Uncle Sam and I want to invest in the Super Soldier program. Recreating the formula was a tough task since Captain America took a dip in the North Atlantic. Fury’s reason for bringing the program back is simple: The times, they are a-changing.
Subsequent pages introduce us to Hank and Janet Pym, and a brand spanking new vision of the Iron Man armor. After reading these pages many times through, I am still blown away by the design of this costume. Hasbro is releasing an Ultimate Iron Man in its Marvel Legends line and I definitely plan on buying it. Nick Fury chooses these three for obvious reasons: Hank can grow into Giant Man, Janet turns into a tiny wasp, and Tony Stark—not just for all his money (he’s getting millions from the government), but for Iron Man. Why wouldn’t you want Iron Man on the team, his armor is like a Swiss Army knife; there are just so many things it can do.
When Bruce Banner can’t crack the code for the Super Soldier formula—it’s not like those Suduku puzzles you see in the paper—Fury informs him of his latest find: the frozen corpse of Captain America, ration pack still edible for eating, although I wouldn’t recommend eating it. However, once Cap is thawed out, he goes ape and flees from the hospital, only to get stuck under the hand of Giant Man as he makes his escape. Cap moves pretty fast for a guy who has been frozen for half a century, he literally manhandles all the security personnel around him, cutting through them like a hot knife through butter.
After everyone’s temper has cooled, except for the guy who owns the jeep that was crushed by Hank Pym’s giant paw, Fury takes Cap to reunite with his old army mate, Bucky Barnes. I like the “Winter Soldier” storyline in the regular Marvel U., but it’s nice to see Bucky aging gracefully. As Captain America is told about his family, all of whom have passed away, he questions Fury’s choice to thaw him out. Fury points to the Stars and Stripes in a beautifully drawn panel by Bryan Hitch. Later, at a fancy gala, Fury introduces the new Captain America to the President, who is drawn a lot like the guy who plays President Bush on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—just watch it once and you’ll see the uncanny resemblance.
Issue four opens up with the new Ultimates on a little sabbatical, the calm before the storm. Tony Stark is in space with Shannon Elizabeth. Maybe her poor acting got her blasted off the planet, but as men, we tend to overlook that. As for Captain America, he spends his free time tracking down old vinyl records he once owned. He’s also moved into a swinging bachelor pad, well it’s not exactly swinging, it’s kind of dingy. Unfortunately it gets broken into by some punks and is vandalized. Then there’s Bruce Banner, who looks more like Woody Allen as the book progresses. Betty Ross is chewing him out for his failure to replicate the super soldier formula. Meanwhile Fury heads out to Norway to meet up with Thor, a self-help guru who leads people to believe he is the Son of Odin, the main god in Norse mythology. He’s Dr. Phil with long hair.
Back in Manhattan, Bruce Banner injects himself with Cap’s blood and the Hulk serum. He’s starving for attention, and this is a guy who should never be starved for any attention, because once he gets angry, you certainly won’t miss him—how could you not when he’s throwing cars in every direction. Unfortunately he did not read the label on the bottle and he finds himself on the way to the hospital. But one shock from the paddles is too many and Bruce turns into everyone’s favorite behemoth. When Nick Fury hears of this, it’s time to finally call in the Ultimates.
The Ultimates go on the hunt for the devastating Hulk, who is rampaging through Manhattan. I usually have a hard time following fight scenes in comic books, but Bryan Hitch makes this sequence flow smoothly. Every member of the Ultimates gets their chance to take down the Hulk. Iron Man stuns him with thought scramblers. “Thought scramblers?” I asked myself, “Who thinks of putting that in the suit?” Tony Stark does. Janet pulls a Mardi gras stunt and flashes the Hulk. I don’t think that phased him at all, but made him bigger, and not in the vertical sense. Captain America kicks him in the groin, a great shot of his boot meeting Hulk’s crotch. Hank was the only one to get his ass handed to him by the Hulk, an embarrassment that Giant Man will have a hard time living down.
If I were on the team, I would have tied Hulk’s shoes together. That would have brought him down pretty fast. Who needs to spend millions on thought scramblers when tying shoelaces together can do so much damage in so little time?
Finally with a bolt of lightening, Thor arrives on the scene. He slays the dragon with his hammer, while Betty Ross is used as bait to get Hulk’s attention. With Hulk distracted, Janet turns into the Wasp and flies into the Hulk’s bloodstream, Innerspace-style. The Hulk is brought down in a fight scene that has to be read and reread to truly appreciate the time and effort spent to bring this story to life. These epic battles are what make his book so good. The Hulk is placed in containment, and the Ultimates give interviews to all the media outlets as they bask in their first victory.
The trade ends on a much darker note. Every two pages jump between scenes at the Pym’s and a scene at Tony’s Park Avenue pad. Hank and Janet get into a marital spat while Tony tells Cap and Thor over drinks that he has an inoperable brain tumor. The fight with Hank and Janet gets ugly when Janet shrinks down to wasp size and Hank goes after her with wasp spray. The last page is truly foreboding with Hank sitting in his trashed laboratory, thinking he may have actually killed his own wife. This is some pretty heavy stuff.
While I love Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, reading Ultimates is a treat because it has such an epic feel to it. With so many characters, so many plot lines are laid throughout the book. True, the X-Men have a lot of characters, but they are mutants, looked down upon for a genetic defect. The Ultimates are human beings like the rest of us, with super serum flowing through their veins or a lot of money at their disposal. Anyone can be an Ultimate; just don’t expect it to be a walk in the park.
The script reads like a movie and it’s easy to see why they chose this book to translate into an animated feature. I haven’t seen it yet, but someday I will check it out. The art is amazing and the fight scenes really capture what is going on. However what makes the series so fresh and interesting to read is the realness of each character’s flaw. Bruce Banner can’t handle failure; Hank and Janet Pym have marital disputes, Thor is misunderstood, Captain America can’t adjust to living in present times (I still wish it were the 80s), and Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who gets to do whatever he wants—he’s the guy you love to hate but can’t because he’s so good. But put these people together and look what they accomplish.
I wrote my review of Ultimates Volume 1 sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore. I must have read and reread this trade a few times already. I didn’t return it to the shelf when I left. Instead I purchased it and now have it sitting on my own shelf, a testament on just how awesome this first volume was. Now after just reading issue #12, I can say that this series just gets better and better. If you’re looking to read a pulse-pounding adventure, look no further than Ultimates.
Next issue: Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 2: Learning Curve