Many mini-series set in the Ultimate Universe are known for being odd ducks indeed. Ultimate Adventures was created to be a parody of the Batman and Robin motif and was part of the very strange “U-Decide” campaign which allowed fans to vote between three series in order to determine which would continue. Ultimate Iron Man was written by sci-fi veteran Orson Scott Card and significantly changed Tony Stark’s origin, but has been completely ignored by all other writers in the Ultimate Universe. Then, of course, there is the infamous Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk written by Lost‘s Damon Lindelof which took nearly four years for six issues to be released.
While Ultimate Thor was never fueled by the controversy that these other minis were known for, it is certainly an odd mini-series due to the fractured nature of its narrative and its strange place in the Ultimate Universe timeline.
Instead of one linear story or even a story that features a flashback, Ultimate Thor has three separate Thor stories going on at one time that connect with one another. Chronologically, the first takes place “Eons ago” and it revolves around Thor’s relationship with his adoptive brother, Loki. The second takes place in 1939 as Loki (in the disguise of Baron Zemo) recruits frost giants and Nazis to lead an army against Asgard. Finally, in the time of “now” we have Thor under psychiatric evaluation from Dr. Donald Blake as part of the European Ultimates Initiative.
But, it’s not really “Now” at all.
The fourth issue in the mini-series completely drops the “Eons ago” and “1939″ timelines and focuses on the “Now” but once it is revealed that this story is a prequel to Mark Millar’s Ultimates. In fact, the last page of the series connects directly to the battle with the Hulk in issue 5. It isn’t until the very end of Ultimate Thor that the reader realizes that it was a mini-series that served to act as a “behind the scenes” of Mark Millar’s Ultimates.
Therefore, the “Now” timeline is a bit of a misnomer in that it isn’t “now” at all, but in fact a few years ago. I had been reading the mini-series under the assumption that it was a story about Thor that took place after Ultimatum and so I was intrigued that he was considered insane once more and that he was undergoing analysis. Once the fourth issue hit, I admittedly felt foolish, but going back and rereading the mini-series, I realize that I shouldn’t have. There’s nothing in the narrative that shows that it is a prequel to Millar’s Ultimates at all until the fourth issue.
The only way of knowing for sure that it was a prequel story was to look at the solicitation for the first issue which read:
Exploding from the pages of the Ultimates, comes Ultimate Thor! Don’t miss the superstar team-up of JONATHAN HICKMAN and CARLOS PACHECO as they go back to the beginning and tell the origin of Thor, Loki and the rest of Asgard! Ragnorak has descended and Asgard sits at the edge of the end. What will become of Thor and the Warriors Three? And what exactly does Baron Zemo, mysterious commander for the Nazis, have to do with it all? Ultimate Comics Thor brings you the untold story of Thor’s thunderous debut!
While my chronological confusion over Ultimate Thor might seem like a small problem, it actually strikes at one of the bigger problems facing the industry today - accessibility. It seems that with industry news being spoiled more and more often, publishers seem to assume that everyone knows what a story is about before going into it. There is almost an assumption that readers have read every panel discussion from every convention prior to reading comics and therefore, it is somehow unnecessary to make a clear narrative because everyone knows what is going to happen anyway. And while fandom has reached a point where everyone knows the basic elements of story before an issue is released, it shouldn’t be necessary to read the solicitation in order to understand the basic timeline of the story.
To be fair, DC is no better in this regard. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics clearly looks different than George Perez’s Superman, but there is nothing in the actual narrative that shows readers that the story occurs prior to the current DC timeline. Furthermore, the Geoff Johns and Jim Lee Justice League takes place some time in the past, but after Action Comics. While this seems apparent, I can’t help but wonder how many new readers are confused by the timeline. Of course, their confusion clearly hasn’t diminished the sales on either title, so perhaps none of that matters.
The point is when readers are required to bring a little too much outside knowledge when going into the reading of a comic, then the narrative isn’t doing it’s basic function of telling a coherent story.
The real problem with Hickman’s Ultimate Thor isn’t just this lack of specificity on the part of the plot, however. Unlike Jason Aaron’s Ultimate Captain America which enhanced the richness of the Ultimate Universe, Ultimate Thor oddly takes away the magic of the character once the origin is revealed. It is so mired in continuity and so meticulous in detailing where Thor was when that it takes away from what made the Ultimate version of Thor so intriguing – his sense of mystery.
When Mark Millar debuted Thor, other characters considered him to be insane. The majority of the second series revolved around the idea that Thor really was insane, but despite his apparent insanity, he was the only pure, altruistic hero of the Ultimate Universe. Of course at the end of Millar’s tenure, it was revealed that Thor wasn’t insane as Loki is the villain, but this idea that the gods were walking amongst men and that there was a cosmic war just underneath the surface of the every day was intriguing. What if the gods looked just like us and were toying with us for their amusement? What if Thor were a peace-loving hippie and Loki were the head of a military industry? What would the mundane lives of the other gods look like?
Jonathan Hickman wasn’t the first to travel down the road of making Ultimate Thor into a more traditional Marvel hero – Jeph Loeb had already done so in Ultimates 3, Ultimatum, and New Ultimates – but by expanding the origin of the character, he effectively eviscerated the mystery.
All in all, the narrative is relatively easy to follow despite all three narratives occurring simultaneously. The fractured nature of the story is reminiscent of films like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead where it would have been a bland narrative if it were told in a linear manner, but because it was jumbled up, the reader is left wondering where the story is going.
Ultimate Captain America could have taken place at any time in the Ultimate timeline. Ultimate Thor could have only taken place at one time which makes it subject to extreme continuity scrutiny. As I stated last week, continuity “is a tool to help create importance, but when it becomes the object of importance itself, then stories lose their meaning.” Ultimate Thor wasn’t a story that used continuity to deeply enhance story; it used the questions behind continuity as a basis for it’s narrative which leaves it open to pick apart for all the things it does wrong.