Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ultimates, Vol. 1 & 2

Top Ten Comic Series.

Playing with alternate versions of established characters is a common past time for comic writers. Marvel has What If?, DC has Elseworlds and various other ways for a particular writer to put his own stamp on a character.

Marvel's Ultimate line is probably the most successful re-imagining of an entire world I've ever come across (The MAX line might be better, but it does not re-create the whole Marvel world). The Ultimate line has done its best to place Marvel's primary characters into a realistic world. I think they've largely succeeded in this, with a list of caveats I won't bother to discuss.

Among the Ultimate line, the best was (emphasis past tense) The Ultimates, the new version of the Avengers. I think the redesign here is a brilliant triumph, and while the plotting and art in general are great, I`m going to focus here on the redesign itself.

The Ultimates are a military unit, the member's own claims occasionally to the contrary. They were developed by the U.S. government, for the sake of the U.S. government. And really, who else would have the funds or the ability to put together a real-life superhero group?

It is this intimate connection to the powers that be that provides a great foil for the re-creation of Thor. I've never really enjoyed the character of Thor; his speech has always annoyed me. Ultimate Thor is an entirely new beast - probably the character with the most radical changes. No longer does he speak in ye olde english; it's contemporary English for him now. No longer is he high and mighty; he's leftist activist, and for this reason, has no interest in joining a group of U.S. military lackeys.

Thor has a great story line early on in the series concerning his godhood. The Ultimate world, being a place that is only just now being introduced to superheroes and mutants, has no more experience with genuine magic than our world does. So, Thor's allies are rightfully skeptical about his claims to godhood.

This really highlights a difference between the Ultimate and the old school Marvel worlds. If a character shows up in the old school marvel world and claims to be a god, well, maybe he is; there are certainly enough of them around. In the Ultimate world, however, the government agency SHIELD has a file on Thor. It appears his real name is Thorlief Golmen, and that he was a nurse who suffered a complete mental breakdown and finally managed to steal super-soldier equipment. Liar, lunatic or lord?

Another character to recieve a great revamp was the Hulk. He's a one-note character in any universe, the the Ultimate line finally took what is in my opinion the obvious route and made him all about sexual frustration. Bruce Banner is a nice guy, in the worst possible way. He elicits the worst kind of hateful pity from both characters and readers. He knows this, too, but he's too pathetic to actually express any anger about it. And so the Hulk comes out, and suddenly Hulk goes from a one-note character (smashing) to a two-note character (raping and eating). Some great humour is pulled out of the Hulk's preference for cannibalism.

Captain America, another character I've always had a distaste for, receives only a minimal revamp. He's the same old highly competent, patrotic military officer. His highlights in this series are all the times he is obviously willing to fight dirty; if kicking a guy in the balls is the way to bring him down, then Cap will do it. His hard, violent pragmatism is a nice outgrowth of his nationalism. I think the main change with Cap is character design. Gone is that ridiculous chain mail and those retarded Robin Hood boots.

Iron Man's redesign is particularly fantastic. Even as a kid, I hated designs of Iron Man that actually displayed muscles like his abs and biceps. The guy wears a suit of armor, not tights. Ultimate Tony Stark himself is still identical to the core of the pre-fascist Marvel Tony Stark (Orson Scott Card`s prattling aside), but the armor is very, very different. Now he looks like a robot, or a jet that requires a great deal of time for pre-flight preparation. The armor isn`t quite as invincible as the classic armor, either. Visually, this is certainly my favorite character. Alas, in volume three, the armor is much closer in appearance to the classic armor.

Finally, we have a pair of characters that are, classically, a complete waste of panel space. Quicksilver has always been a transparent Flash rip-off, and the Scarlett Witch`s powers are nothing other than deus ex machina waiting to happen. The Ultimates, though, pull these characters off wonderfully. How? With strong suggestions of old-blood, Imperial Family Style incest. A pair of useless characters has been transformed into a creepy, hilariously obnoxious favorite duo.

As I`ve suggested, Volume Three of the Ultimates is excreble. A shame.

How long will it be before I get to number eight on the list...