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The Ultimates volume 1: Super-Human
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch
Marvel graphic novel £9.50

The Ultimates volume 2: Homeland Security
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch
Marvel graphic novel £11.99

reviews by J.C. Hartley

The 'problem' of comics is maintaining continuity, and the big two of Marvel and DC have approached it in different ways, DC with its various 'Crises', merging worlds and sacrificing heroes, and Marvel by re-imagining and modernising the origins of its heroes. Some years ago, I remember a correspondent in the letters pages of a Marvel comic asking the editors to give the ages of some of Marvel's chief characters, the result was a set of figures that would have shamed the most birth-certificate manipulating Hollywood actor. Marvel makes use of a nifty device known as 'elastic chronology', which means that whatever happened in the early 1960s is never more than ten years before whatever the date is now, but the fact remains that comics started in the 1950s and 1960s and all the main characters flying around today are older than me, and I'm 50 next January (yes thanks, I know I don't look it). While we're aware that mutant powers, and super powers generally, may retard the ageing process, and time-travel and space flight and dimension hopping, like that old SF chestnut, faster-than-light travel, may play havoc with ageing as well, these heroes have been around since before most of their audience were born. Marvel felt that the youthful audience for their books may be alienated by complicated and ancient origin myths, or the fact that they weren't around on The Day Gwen Stacey Died; Marvel's answer was to update their super hero line with new origins and contemporary settings. Ultimate Spider-Man was the first, followed by Ultimate X-Men, this latter also written by Mark Millar, who then turned his attention to recreating Marvel's flagship superhero team The Avengers as The Ultimates.

Millar, along with Bryan Hitch, Warren Ellis, Jock, Andy Diggle et al, is part of the British creative colonisation of the American comic book industry, and while at first sight Millar and the rest do not seem as counter-cultural and iconoclastic as earlier colonists such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, what they all share is an absorption into the mythology of comics, and in many ways working from within the traditions of the titles concerned their influence has been just as radical.

The Ultimates begins with an American raid on a Nazi atomic bomb facility in the last days of WWII. Ironically the Nazis have made great technological leaps thanks to alien intervention just as the USA was to benefit from the scientific expertise of Werner von Braun in our own version of reality. The raid is led by Captain America, a 'super soldier' created by pioneering use of drugs and surgery, preventing an atomic bomb attack on Washington the Captain is last seen sinking into the icy depths of the North Atlantic.

In the present day scientist Dr Bruce Banner's attempts to synthesise a super-soldier serum have resulted in the creation of a monstrous alter-ego The Hulk; Banner is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. whose commander, General Nick Fury, is putting together a team of super-powered individuals to police the world. The new team, which is to be the public relations face of S.H.I.E.L.D's covert operations worldwide, will comprise Iron Man, the armoured battle-suit containing hedonistic thrill-seeker Tony Stark, and husband and wife team Henry and Janet Pym, who as Giant Man and The Wasp have utilised insect hormones to control physical growth. Banner is jealous of the Pym's high profile success (pun alert), but they are hiding the real secret behind their research. In the midst of the scientific infighting a team of marine biologists discover the perfectly preserved form of Captain America who is subsequently revived to lead the new team. Fury's attempts to get the Nordic mystical guru known as Thor to join the team fails due to the latter's antagonism towards the USA's military-industrial complex.

Against a background of continuing failure to create a new super-soldier serum, and with no super-villains to combat, the new team is becoming a PR disaster when Banner takes matters into his own hands by dosing himself with a massive amount of his own serum and unleashing The Hulk once more. The Ultimates, joined by Thor, manage to restrain The Hulk, and as the general public are not aware that The Hulk and Banner are one in the same, the super-group become national media heroes. Tensions within the group remain and Henry Pym, jealous of what he sees as a burgeoning romance between his wife and Captain America, turns on her in a furious attack that leaves her hospitalised.

This first volume of The Ultimates suffers only slightly through the necessity of scene-setting, and Millar incorporates character origins seamlessly within his narrative, in any event some of us enjoy good writing and backstory as much as action. There are plenty of nods towards the originals in characterisation; Tony Stark has a brain tumour rather than a dickey heart, and his boozing and womanising is more in the nature of a 'live now' philosophy rather than the creation of social armour as in his own comic book narrative, and in the old Marvel universe Hank and Janet Pym's relationship did indeed founder on the rock of domestic abuse. Captain America is more hard-bitten here than the whiter than white Steve Rogers of old and all the better for that. Banner's squeeze Betty Ross is reborn as S.H.I.E.L.D's PR guru and is all the more real for her hard manipulative edges. There is some self-indulgent stuff, particularly in the 'what movie star should play you' sequence, where play is made of Nick Fury's blatant modelling on Samuel L. Jackson, done with permission apparently and to the extent that Mrs Jackson bought her husband some of Hitch's original art.

In the second volume more room is given to balls-out action, as Captain America's alien Nazi adversaries crawl back out from under their stones where, as the universe's antibodies, they will make humanity conform or destroy the world in the process. Hitch's art, inked by Andrew Currie and Hitch's old mentor and Brit comic pioneer Paul Neary, reaches new heights with splash pages and beautifully toned sequences. There are nice cameos from Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Black Widow. Hitch's Hulk owes more than a little to Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's Edward Hyde, even in his culinary habits, although Peter David's Hulk was also known to 'chow down' on his victims.

All in all this is a fantastic series that manages to recreate some of the magic that comics originally wove to lure me in to the Marvel universe. It is certainly more successful than Millar's stint with Ultimate X-Men, perhaps because the latter, with film versions and alternative realities, feel like they have already been redone to death. Further volumes, Gods & Monsters and Grand Theft America continue to expand upon the original Avengers mythology but in the execution Millar and Hitch have succeeded in creating something quite unique.
Ultimates vol.1

Ultimates vol.2

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