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Ultimate Galactus Trilogy (Review/Retrospective)

After spending the tail end of last year looking at the tangled inter-continuity crossovers at Marvel, I thought I’d spend January looking at some of the looser “out of continuity” tales at the major companies.

What does a continuity-lite crossover look like? I mean, a relatively self-contained comic book event that isn’t based upon years and years of events? Marvel famously launched their Ultimate line a decade ago to offer a chance to “reimagine” their classic stories – the Avengers became The Ultimates, and monthly issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were available on the stands. The goal was to offer tales that would allow new readers to jump on board without having to worry about the weight of half-a-century (or more) worth of back story for the characters. Despite some minor crossover between the books – Mark Millar writing the Ultimates into his Ultimate X-Men run or Ultimate Spider-Man occasionally paying a short visit to the Baxter building – the line largely steered clear of the sort of bombastic big events that Marvel seems to love churning out month-on-month. So, what does an actual “big crossover event” look like when written for these characters? A bit like the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, I suppose.

He's got the world in the palm of his hand...

To be honest, the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy was somewhat distinct from mainstream Marvel crossovers live Civil War or Secret Invasion because it allowed all the regular books to tell their own stories while it was being published, rather than disrupting the existing titles. You could read Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four without even knowing that this was happening – which was, to be honest, great. Let those writers tell their own story, for crying out loud. However, there was another reason that the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy stands distinct from other big crossover events: its author, Warren Ellis.

Comic book events are typically written by the “big name” creators, who churn out a lot of ridiculously popular books. Brian Michael Bendis – the author of Daredevil, Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, New Avengers and Mighty Avengers – was the man behind events like House of M or Siege. Mark Millar – the author of Ultimate X-Men, Fantastic Four, Wolverine and The Ultimates – was the man behind Civil War. Over at DC, Geoff Johns – the writer of Green Lantern, Flash, Superman and JSA - was the architect of Blackest Night and Infinite Crisis. In fact, Mark Millar was originally intended to write this gigantic crossover featuring a selection of iconic characters, but he fell ill. So the job went to Warren Ellis.

Winging it...

While Ellis has flirted with recognisable titles like Ultimate Fantastic Four or Astonishing X-Men, he’s a creator best known for his original work like Transmetropolitan, Planetary, The Authority or Red. So he seems an outside choice for the event, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s often, while admittedly divisive, somewhat refreshing to see a quirky creator given the opportunity to pull the strings on a big “no stops” event book. While I don’t think Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis was a complete success, it was far more thought-provoking and rewarding than any other similar crossover I can think of.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s essentially a retelling of the Galactus Trilogy, famously written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during their legendary run on the original Fantastic Four. It was an attempt to offer something a bit different from the “superhero against supervillain” routine, and grew out of the pair’s attempts to stretch their wings. Imagining an antagonist on a god-like scale, Kirby and Lee came up with the now iconic “Galactus: Devourer of Worlds” – a creation that is instantly recognisable to any comic book fan and would probably seem familiar to a large number of non-comic book fans. For the time, the concept of a planet-consuming force of nature and his “heralds” was radical – something new and bold. He’s gone on to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the Marvel universe.

Spaced out...

The original story of Galactus coming to earth was just a Fantastic Four story – his plan to feed off the planet was thwarted solely by the Richards family in three issues. These days, his arrival would draw the attention of every Marvel title under the sun, would run for a full year, and would feature a variety of tie-in issues. In a way, the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy is an attempt to tell a modernised version of the myth. After all, Kirby and Lee’s original is one of the legends of the comic book industry and superhero comics – like all myths – it is constantly reinvented, reiterated and retold. Ellis himself is one of the proponents of such a view, which makes him a great choice here.

So Warren Ellis retells the story for the modern age. While we’ll discuss the content in a second, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on the format for a moment. In Kirby and Lee’s original, the “trilogy” referred to the three issues over which the story played out. Here the term refers to three miniseries (Ultimate Nightmare, Ultimate Secret and Ultimate Extinction), each running multiple issues. It perhaps says a lot about the differences between the comic book market then and now that a three-issue storyline starring the Fantastic Four becomes a fourteen-issue (fifteen if you count the Ultimate Vision one-shot), three-miniseries crossover starring the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Ultimates.

"Do you think this A on my head stands for Russia?"

Still, it allows Ellis a much wider canvas to work with than he would normally get. And he uses it to tell a story far more ambitious than the average big event – perhaps the reason why this saga has been so divisive (it’s pretty love-it or hate-it). Although there are action sequences peppered throughout the story, the threat is ultimately resolved not through a series of pointless knockdown brawls, but through the application of science. It has been stated that Ellis adapted a lot of the story from a project he pitched to Marvel about a decade previous, End of Days, and it’s apparent that the series plays to a lot of Ellis’ strengths and interests.

The series is dripping with all sorts of nerdy scientific and high concept ideas. The Tunguska mystery forms the backbone of the first part of Ellis’ story, Ultimate Nightmare. He shows us Reed Richards playing with the Drake Equation – and eventually figuring out that Gah Lak Tus is the cause of the Fermi Paradox. Even cloning makes an appearance. “Here comes the science,” warns Phil Lawson warns at one point, and he’s right – one of the most engaging aspects of Ellis’ mainstream comics work like this or Extremis is the way that he throws high concepts around like candy.

On silver wings...

However, what’s really unique about the way that Ellis handles the religious aspect of events – one of his more cosmetic changes include giving the Silver Surfer wings so as to resemble an angel, but it’s also subtle. The most iconic cover of the collection (above) features the Surfer reaching towards the heaven as mere mortals try to grab at him from below. The series dwells upon the religious orientation of the characters – with Mahr Vehl espousing a humanist philosophy learnt from a Kree prophet (echoes of Jesus, much?), Nick Fury challenging God and Steve having a quiet conversation about his belief in a higher power. Even the idea of an invasion force “seeding” doomsday cults in a civilisation they are planning to destroy is intriguing (albeit relatively under-developed).

Galactus, as reimagined by Ellis (as “Gah Lak Tus”), is described as an “antigod” or the “Un-Creator” – descriptions which doesn’t even need to work in a religious context, but a more generic spiritual one. It is the anthesis of the human soul – which finds expression in so many forms, be it science or creativity or any of an infinite number of ways. Gah Lak Tus seeks to destroy not out of some strange cosmic “balance” (which has been used by writers such as John Byrne to justify the continued existence of the mainstream Galactus), but because it finds life inherently offensive. Gah Lak Tus isn’t a giant guy in purple pants, it is a force that “decreates intelligent life”, leaving behind “a world that is utterly uninhabitable.” It’s so alien that Professor Xavier “desecrates” it “just by touching it.”

At least he has a versatile wardrobe...

Speaking of Galactus, the nature and the appearance of the creature represents one of the more major redesigns for the Ultimate line. All too often, characters are ported over with a minor cosmetic changes. Wolverine is just a little more of a horrible person. Reed Richards is a bit younger. Spider-Man was bitten by a genetically-engineered spider rather than a radioactive one. However, Ellis’ Galactus is a fundamentally different creature. Despite how controversial the change it, I have to admit that a giant man in a purple outfit with a big hat simply wouldn’t have worked with the story that Ellis is telling. Galactus needs to be something almost completely alien – something that is utterly horrifying and incomprehensible. If it is recognisable – with a face and some arms and a great hat – it becomes less menacing and less terrifying.

However, more than offering Ellis a chance to play with Galactus, it’s also interesting to see Ellis writing. Ellis himself has been relatively critical of the superhero genre, and a bit of that shines through. I can’t help but get the feeling that I’m reading a big event comic that isn’t really interested in heroes. Lamenting the small-minded focus of the X-Men, Sam Wilson is very critical of how they just barged into a complicated situation. “I bet you didn’t even stop to turn on a TV to see if anything else was going on,” he suggests. Indeed, even Hawkeye – the former black ops specialist – finds working with superheroes a bit exhausting. “No showboating, no ‘you think this A stands for France’, no overgrown kids getting into their battle armour drunk,” he whines to the Black Widow. “The bigger and weirder this gets, the less professional it becomes.” Ellis even has Jean Grey call out Wolverine on his dickish behaviour during Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men run (“You’re the guy who confesses to being hired to kill the Professor — after I let you go to bed with me,” she warns him as he expresses concern, “So, really, shut up with anything that sounds like you care. Because you don’t.”), perhaps suggesting that these aren’t the kind of people who should be saving the world.

There's some Thing going on here...

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note how much of a reaction that ‘you think this A stands for France’ line has drawn from other writers on the character. Early in his run on Captain America, Ed Brubaker went out of his way to have Steve Rogers share his anecdotes about the bravery of the French resistance as a none-too-subtle jab at Mark Millar. Here Ellis goes out of his way to not only ridicule the line, but also drafts his version of Captain America as perhaps a bit more mature than Millar’s iteration of the same character. “I knew Russian soldiers during the war,” he explains to a Russian supersoldier, “They were good and decent men, and they made horrible sacrifices to defend their people.”

To Ellis, Captain America isn’t a superhero, despite what the colourful costume might fool you into thinking. When his Russian counterpart suggests that there is some sort of magical quality to their confrontation (“There is music in this,” his foe suggests, “Great music”), Steve dismisses the romanticism with cold pragmatism. Fighting isn’t about showing off, as Steve explains, “Fighting’s about winning.”

Better Red than dead?

The Ultimate iteration of the character has always been a little louder and more boistrous than his mainstream counterpart – Millar suggesting that he’s a product of a different time. Ellis, however, offers something of a more nuanced portrayal. This is a character who watched the world change while he was frozen – he never even saw the atomic bomb drop. He’s trapped in a world with concepts that to him are utterly terrifying in scope, but there are things that haven’t changed. Ready to leap into action rather than pondering the enormity of it all, he explains to Nick Fury, “Terrorism I can hit.” Hitting things is the one thing he is still very good at and hasn’t changed – perhaps that’s why he clings to it.

Ellis makes a pretty fascinating writer for an event he never planned to write. In fact, the strongest section of the trilogy is Ultimate Nightmare, the opening act which deals with a lot of his core ideas in a very articulate and atmospheric way. The opening story features all manner of grim and gothic technological nightmares and the notion of our past actions coming back to harm us in the present. Ultimate Secret is grand and entertaining, even if it isn’t spectacular. I have a soft spot for the finale, Ultimate Extinction, even if it’s a bit of a mess – there’s a lot of great ideas thrown in there, even if there’s a bit too much going on (the introduction of Misty Knight, for example).

Phil-ing us in...

Perhaps the greatest indication of how different and quirky this story is comes from the manner in which Ellis presents the conclusion. Any other event writer would show us heroes far too eager to unleash destructive force in the face of a foe like Gah Lak Tus. However, Reed Richards comprehends the enormity of what he’s doing and is utterly horrified by the consequences of his actions. It isn’t the sort of knockout victory that you might expect at the end of the event, nor does it feature any forced melodrama, but it shows that – despite the sheer scale – Ellis was attempting to craft a more introspective comic book event.

And that is perhaps the most appealing aspect of all this. The fact that it feels distinct and different rather than “more of the same”. It’s not perfect (far from it), but it’s an interesting attempt to tell a different type of comic book crossover.

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