With the release of each new issue of Ultimate Comics Avengers 3, I would call up my friend Caleb (fellow contributor to Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide) and we would laugh about how far the mighty had fallen. This once great series that chronicled the logical, real-world application of super-heroes had devolved into a ridiculous parody of itself. On the surface, Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is about as far from the original concept of The Ultimages as can be imagined. Upon rereading these six issues, and rereading them once more, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe I misjudged Millar’s intent. After all, Mark Millar is by no means a stupid man, nor is he an amateur. He is a careful, intelligent, and thoughtful writer who has made a career of using super-hero comics as his medium of choice to share his various political and philosophical messages. Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is nothing like The Ultimates, but the world has changed since the original series and the political and philosophical ideologies that fueled the original series no longer apply to the industry today, so it should be only natural that the narrative must change in order to reflect the new world order.
The issue begins with Blade battling a cadre of vampires in a hotel room. After this ten page sequence, the narrative shifts to the origin of a brand-new Daredevil (Matt Murdock having been killed in the Jeph Loeb-penned disaster event Ultimatum). All of the familiar Daredevil elements remain for this new Daredevil — a kid is blinded in an accident and gains enhanced senses and is trained by a mysterious blind man named “Stick” — but Millar includes that Daredevil is being trained to be a defender against “ninjas, and the vampires, and the werewolves, and the voodoo masters.” This eleven page sequence ends with both Daredevil and Stick being transformed into vampires. In the first 21 pages of the comic, the only signs of the Ultimates team are a mysterious stranger in classic Iron Man armor watching Blade, and a vampire Hulk biting into Stick.
Nick Fury sums up everything the reader is thinking at this point with the line, “Okay. Now I wasn’t expecting that.” This meta-commentary not only reflects the shock readers receive due to the absence of the main characters in the series, but it is also a direct reaction to the establishment and immediate dismissal of Daredevil and Stick. Nearly half of the issue was dedicated to creating an origin (a relatively unbelievable one considering it is exactly Matt Murdock’s origin – leaving readers to wonder at the odds of two extraordinary situations playing out the exact same way) only for the relevance of the origin to be undermined with their transformation into vampires.
If this were an isolated incident within this series, then it would be curious and nonsensical, but it is just the first of four such incidents the total of which begins to make the reader wonder at what Millar’s point might be.
The second incident begins as a kind of prequel to the first issue. It revolves around the new Hulk (labeled “Nerd Hulk” in the first Ultimate Comics Avengers series) wanting to be accepted into the main team so that he can live a normal life. All he wants to do is visit Midtown comics and meet his favorite comic book writer (who us never named, but Nerd Hulk’s backpack of Trouble comics reveal it to be Mark Millar himself) but Captain America explains the PR nightmare that would result from a clone of Bruce Banner joining the main team. After Nerd Hulk leaps to Manhattan, he is attacked by vampires and is transformed into the vampire Hulk from the first issue. This 13 page sequence is enough to establish some sympathy for Nerd Hulk, and of course, that sympathy is gone once he has been transformed into a vampire.
The mysterious man in classic Iron Man armor is apparently the leader of the vampires and for the first three issues, Millar teases at a big reveal. In issue 2, after Blade acknowledges that he knows who is under the helmet, a vampire insists, “Then you know he means business.”
Issue 3 sees the Ultimate Avengers team facing off in the sewers against the Iron Man vampire and there is a sense that he is familiar to them as well. It’s worth noting that the conclusion of the fight is less than satisfactory as the vampires retreat from the battlefield for absolutely no good reason. They significantly outnumber and outpower the Avengers team, but some lame excuse is made and they leave.
Finally, in issue 4, the third strange incident of an overly explained backstory is revealed for the vampire leader and it is more than a little disappointing. His name is simply Anthony and he trained Blade, Stick, Stone, and Daredevil to be defenders of the night. Unlike the Nerd Hulk or new Daredevil origins, this is only three pages, but it is a total let down considering the mystery surrounding him in the previous issues. Anthony is further disappointing in this issue when his authority is challenged by Nerd Hulk and their fight lasts all of one splash page as the Hulk punches Anthony’s head off.
The final curious origin is Perun’s. Way back in The Ultimates 2, when the Liberators invaded America, Perun was the rip-off of Thor who carried a hammer and sickle and joined Nick Fury in the end. We learn that after his surrender, Fury and Gregory Stark have decided to reform Perun and make him into a soldier. As the vampire horde attacks the Triskelion, Perun heroically battles the vampires and seems to step into the mantle of Thor perfectly.
We are further treated to another flashback that shows that Perun joining the Ultimates was the back-up contingency plan if the Liberators were to fail. Still, he seems heroic and he appears to be the only chance the world has of defeating the vampires . . . until the vampire Nerd Hulk snaps his neck.
Four incidents of backgrounds being constructed only to have their significance taken away by death. I suppose the case could be made for the Nerd Hulk’s sympathetic moments to be significant considering he is the main antagonist and responsible for the deaths of the other three, but I would still argue that he isn’t a particularly compelling antagonist either way.
There are a number of ways to interpret these strange inclusions. Perhaps the most obvious interpretation is that Millar is taking the standard trope of vampire films and trying to show that behind every vampire, there is a sympathetic story and a real, living character underneath. Maybe Millar is trying to argue that the vampires in fiction have devolved into lifeless and soulless creations and perhaps this story was his attempt at bringing new life to the genre. After all, Millar’s opening to issue 4 shows us that Blade dreams of murdering analogues for Edward and Bella from Twilight and this seems to be pretty strong evidence that Millar is damning the way that vampires have been portrayed in recent years.
But Millar is more clever than this simplistic interpretation.
Millar had returned to the Ultimate Universe after Jeph Loeb had killed most of its main characters, so one could argue that Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is Millar’s message that the Marvel heroes cannot be replaced with second-class knockoffs. Again, this interpretation doesn’t seem to wash considering the Ultimate Universe itself is something of a knockoff.
I would argue that this series is (pardon the pun) ultimately about Millar’s complete disinterest in mainstream super-hero comics.
Vampires (the most tired and overdone concept in all of fiction today) serve as the main threat. It’s as if Millar is deliberately using them to criticize what is popular at the time. Once again, Millar is using a standard, familiar trope and subverting it to be critical of the industry. In The Ultimates, Millar was using the team as a metaphor for how super-heroes perpetuate their own myths by creating their own villains. In this series, he is using vampires with stories of their own (stories that are one-dimensional and echo other origins) to show how hollow the vampire narrative has become. In both cases, Millar is taking what is popular at the time, and lampooning them in a sense to prove a point about the industry.
The main characters are all substitute heroes that Millar goes out of his way to establish origins for only to show that they really don’t matter. The super-heroes being created today are only shadows, copycats of super-heroes that have been already established. Furthermore, the fact that these new knockoff characters and their copycat origins don’t work is evidence of Millar’s frustration with the broken universe that Loeb had left behind. Loeb was the proverbial neighborhood kid who came to Millar’s house, destroyed all of Millar’s toys and then went home for Millar to try and salvage the pieces. After two Ultimate Comics Avengers series, it was clear that Millar had enough and this series was the beginning of the end. This seems to be Millar’s last attempt at trying to have some fun with these characters and it is as if he comes to the conclusion that it’s not worth it anymore. Considering he announced that the next series would be his last, it seems evident that Millar was no longer interested in these characters any longer and he was ready to move on to his own work.
In a way, Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is in the same spirit of the original The Ultimates because it is so critical of the medium. In its own way, Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is actually quite brilliant.
The only problem is that it just isn’t any good.