I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much going into this. Though writer Jonathan Hickman has amassed a strong body of work over these past few years, there were reasons to be wary about this. Its critical reception could best be described as “muted,” sales were lackluster compared to previous volumes, and as the teasers for his run were hitting paperback in “Ultimate Fallout” it was reported that he would no longer be writing the title. So by all rights this volume should’ve read like a lame duck.
However... it felt GOOD to be that wrong! It may not have the widescreen spectacle of the Millar/Hitch run, but this is still a gripping story of a world on the precipice of destruction. “Ulitimates” not only bears the writer’s distinctive stamp, but it also turns something I’ve been banging on about for a while -- the inevitable destruction of the Ultimate Universe due to low sales -- into a compelling read.
The book starts off on what can best be described as a typical day for Nick Fury. Twenty-four global hotspots with a “yellow” threat classification, three more with “orange,” and one as “red.” Just about all of these are predictable conflicts, such as the Captain Britain Corps getting into a tussle with the Asgardians, the Southeast Asian Republic is experiencing “civil unrest,” and Uruguay and Argentine forces are about to start a war in South America. This is all par for the course. What finally tips the scales into “Oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die!” territory is the appearance of a mysterious dome in Northern Germany and the futuristic army that starts streaming from it. Unknowable. Unstoppable. They proclaim that the outside world is theirs, and no one, man or god, can stand up to them.
From there, it’s a sharp downward spiral through the first four issues as the Ultimates realize that they are utterly outclassed here. We’re also presented with a world on the brink of collapse as these new assaults throw society into chaos with little hope for the future. What keeps this from becoming depressing is its remarkably swift pace. Hickman manages to give the reader enough context to care about the people involved (assuming you’ve been reading these stories for years; and let’s face it, why would you be reading this if you haven’t) and then yanks the rug right out from under them. You don’t have time to dwell on what has happened before something even worse goes wrong and there’s this sick thrill that comes with seeing how bad things are going to get. All this may curbstomp the concept of the Marvel Universe being the “world right outside your window,” but since that hasn’t been true of the main universe for years it’s great to see them playing that up to its fullest extent here.
As with “Fantastic Four” Hickman benefits from having established characters to work with here as he plays off their established personalities well. He even manages some interesting wrinkles as we get to see a Nick Fury who for once in his life does not know what to do. Tony Stark also finds that his desire to change the world may have led him into some territory that is too morally ambiguous even for him. As for Thor... he finds out that even when it looks like you’ve lost everything, you’re never truly alone. The story also bears his distinctive big ideas, even if they are grafted on to a relatively familiar concept. With the main threat being a group of humans who have developed for a millenium inside a closed space, he’s recycling not only The World from Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men” (and more recently seen in “Uncanny X-Force”) but also Mike Carey’s Children of the Vault from his run. At least Hickman gives the inhabitants of his City a creepy sterility and a tone that’s more in line with his creator-owned work to distinguish things.
More dubious is the choice of antagonist for this volume. I don’t know what Hickman was thinking by having keeping his identity a secret from most of us since it was pretty clearly given away in “Ultimate Fallout.” Out of respect for the man, I’ll refrain from giving the secret away here, but if you’ve read that volume, or the teaser in the first volume of the new “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man,” you’ll know that it’s the same hero-turned-villain who is out to prove his superiority to those around him. Though his conversion has always felt a bit forced to me, he’s used well here. The man may commit some monstrous acts over the course of the volume, but his plan ultimately involves the evolution of mankind. Granted, you can’t feel entirely safe when he’s talking about “managing the extinction spiral of humanity” but even though his plan is that of a true supervillain the fact that he’s portrayed in such a calm and rational manner makes it feel anything but.
Esad Ribic provides the art for the first four issues and the City sections of the last two. He’s good with the action sequences, and with the sci-fi tech designs as well. The man also proves surprisingly capable with the more dialogue-driven scenes as you’d think that his painterly style would render these characters stiff and unexpressive. Though their literal “wide-eyed” sense of surprise is distracting, this turns out to not be the case. His work doesn’t really leap off the page, which is surprising considering the epic nature of the material, but it gets the job done. The same goes for Brandon Peterson’s work in the last two issues, which is all character and virtually no action. It’s not bad, but it’s not as distinctive as Ribic’s.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this volume as much as I did, but even now I’m hovering over the page for volume two on Amazon and wondering if I really do want to shell out for the hardcover now. The next softcover volume arrives in February, and here I am debating with myself about whether or not I can hold out that long. I’m sure I will -- I’ve got plenty of other stuff to read and re-read in that time -- but I’m utterly invested in the fate of the Ultimate Universe again. Yes, Hickman will be gone after this next volume, but I’m hoping that the transition will be smooth as his replacement, up-and-coming writer Sam Humphries, co-wrote the final issues of his run. Bad times may be ahead for the Ultimates, but as is true with so many things in fiction, their suffering turns out to be thoroughly satisfying entertainment.