Ultimate Comics Avengers #1
Mark Millar, writer
Carlos Pacheco, artist
Marvel, August 2009
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1
Brian Michael Bendis, writer
David LaFuente, artist
Marvel, August 2009
I’m sorry, but there’s simply no way Mark Millar could open his return to the Ultimate Universe with Nick Fury saying “What the %@#&? I disappear for ten minutes and the whole place goes to hell” without intending it as autobiography. After essentially establishing the superheroes-as-paramilitary-unit tone that mainstream comics–certainly Marvel Comics–would have for the decade in The Ultimates, Millar left the franchise in the hands of Jeph Loeb for two arcs, the first of which sold pretty good but made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look like Chinatown and had little if anything in common with the vibe and characterizations established by Millar, and the second of which never even came out. Instead, Loeb destroyed Manhattan in the event miniseries Ultimatum, then decamped for more buoyantly awful comic-making in the main Marvel line, leaving Millar and his fellow Ultimate-line pioneer Brian Bendis to pick up the pieces.
Of course, since establishing the Ultimate Universe, Millar and Bendis (who never left, though his Ultimate Spider-Man series has had arguably the lowest profile of any of his books over the past couple years) have been given free rein over the Marvel Universe proper, which as I’ve said before is probably a big reason why the Ultimate books lost their unique luster. So I imagine it’s a matter of pride for the pair to return to their rebooted books guns blazing, proving that what they can do here, they can’t do anyplace else.
Mission accomplished to an almost alarming degree, if you ask me. Ultimate Comics Avengers #1–retitled to capitalize on the still-stunning-to-me popularity of the main-line Marvel team upon which the book is based, said popularity owing to Bendis’s revamp of it and soon to lead to movie megastardom–reads like Millar is intent on doing everything he does best. So you have some of his irksome tics, like unnecessary commas between adjectives and Tony Stark holding forth while drunk and surrounded by strippers, but you also have the kind of rock-solid widescreen action that you’d think a decade of aping Hollywood blockbusters would have made more superhero writers better at by now. Honestly, Millar is aided immeasurably by the real star of the issue, Carlos Pacheco. I’ve long thought Pacheco could be a truly ideal superhero-slugfest artist–his layouts are dynamic and when he keeps them on-model, his squarejawed superheroes look like they’re just dying to pound the shit out of someone. Here, that’s exactly what they do, as Captain America gets his ass handed to him in midair by the Red Skull in panels so full-bleed they look like the edges were deliberately cropped–like the pages can’t handle combat this two-fisted. Pacheco did yeoman’s work as a Final Crisis fill-in, and he’s looked beautiful colored by Dave Stewart in Kurt Busiek collaborations like Arrowsmith and Superman, but this is so much better than anything I’ve seen from him before. It’s like the detail of Bryan Hitch combined with the oomph of John Romita Jr. It was gonna take a lot to get me back aboard the Ultimates bandwagon after Loeb, not to mention Millar’s own lackluster “second season” of the series, but hey how about this, I’m in. Amid all the superhero comics I’m reading because of their imaginative concepts or clever execution, surely there’s room for the equivalent of Invasion U.S.A..
Bendis didn’t have as tough an act to follow–he’s been writing Ultimate Spider-Man non-stop for, what, nine years, and his recent work with Stuart Immonen has been quite strong. But there’s always a risk of diminishing returns, and those did set in for a while in the late-double-digit issues. Plus, there was all that uncertainty over whether or not Ultimate Spidey would actually live be the star of his own book post-Ultimatum, though in the end his survival ended up revealed in a weird pair of “Requiem” issues that read more like a framing sequence surrounding inventory stories they needed to burn off. And no, this reboot issue isn’t entirely free of residual Ultimatum ickiness–it’s nice that the line has the freedom to kill everyone in Manhattan, but this isn’t the kind of franchise where the characters can adequately process a trauma of that magnitude or where the societal and economic ramifications of destroying the most important city on the planet can even be touched on, not by a longshot.
But that aside, this is prime Ultimate Spidey. And again, it’s a new artistic collaborator who really makes it shine. David LaFuente feels like a bionic Stuart Immonen–the character models are similar, particularly Peter Parker’s increasingly preposterous hair, but everything’s slicker, younger, shinier, at times looking like anime (not manga, anime). I’m not sure who’s responsible for the overall look, LaFuente or colorist Justin Ponsor, but I could really get used to it. There’s a moonlit make-out scene with a lovely looking Gwen Stacy that’s absolutely sumptuous. There’s a great opening splash page that twists into some comic business at a fast-food joint, there’s a USM-trademark scene where Spidey shows up late to a fight, and after yet another ludicrous explanation for how well-known murderer the Kingpin can come back to New York and carry on business-as-usual, someone kills him. (I hope it sticks!) I was entertained throughout and surprised at the end. Keep it coming.