Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Ultimates

Giant Man to Son of Satan: “Are you really Satan’s son?”

The reply: “Are you on crack?”

I was delighted to find my stack of The Ultimates, series 1 and 2, just last week. While it’s true that after you move three times in 18 months you’re happy to relocate anything recognizable, I discovered these stories still packed their initial power.

Marvel Comics broke ground in its early days by setting its superheroes in the real world. What if people with super powers didn’t really get along? What if Spider-Man had to earn a living? Who covered the rent at the Baxter Building? What writer Mark Millar and illustrator Bryan Hitch did next, first with The Authority, then with The Ultimates, was take that notion and color it post-9/11.

Before, the Fantastic Four fought giant monsters in deserted districts of Manhattan (if there even ever were such areas). In The Ultimates, whole chunks of that heavily populated city — as well as LA, Chicago, Phoenix and the nation’s capitol — could be decimated.

Along with these grim times, and the pages’ black borders, anyone could be betrayed, maimed, tortured or killed in this Avengers updating. Giant Man a wife-beater? The Black Widow a traitor? Thor a deluded paranoid only imagines he’s the god of thunder? Yet Millar and Hitch (who also did the redesign of the TARDIS for the re-launch of Doctor Who, in 2005) pulled it all off with great panache and wit.

A bound Bruce Banner being thrown out of an airborne SHIELD helicopter so he’ll turn into the Hulk. Super-marksman Hawkeye dispatching armed villains with only his bloody, ripped-off fingernails as deadly projectiles. The Scarlet Witch taunting Loki by “increasing the odds of someone showing up to kick your ass” — then a cascade of lightning heralding the appearance of the god of mischief’s half-brother, Thor: “Looking for trouble, Loki?”

And, in the final panel of issue 13, at the end of series 2, a flashback to 1942: Sunny Steve Rogers, before he ships off for the Super Soldier project that turns him into dreary Captain America, gathers his girlfriend, Gail, into his arms and kisses her. A close-enough re-imagining of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life Magazine photo taken on V-E Day in Times Square.

Wonderful stuff.

Quicksilver to his sister, the Scarlet Witch: “Wanda, were you just flirting with that machine?”

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