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Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk

I’m on a bit of a Wolverine binge at the moment. I got the quite enjoyable Old Man Logan last week and am slowly working my way through the Wolverine Omnibus at the moment. I would have picked up Enemy of the State if it had a nice hardback version. But such is life. I figured I’d dip my toes into Marvel’s Ultimate line. Basically a shrewd marketing decision to launch all their titles from scratch – the hope being that the line could attract readers alienated by decades of continuity in mainstream comics. The experiment was a bit of a mixed success – Ultimate Spider-Man might be the most successful interpretation of the web-slinger this decade, but Ultimate X-Men left a lot to be desired. However, this continuity-free playground offered Marvel a chance to do two things: invite big-name film and television writers to handle their properties (such as allowing Lost scribe Brian K. Vaughan and Heroes writer Aron E. Coleite to work on Ultimate X-Men), but also to shameless release miniseries to capitalise on their big screen projects. Released between the big screen adaptations of The Incredible Hulk and X-Men Origins: Wolverine and featuring the work of Star Trek co-writer Damon Lindelof, this series attempts to do both. Does it succeed?

It's a game of two halves...

The miniseries has a bit of a history. Sufficed to say that there were… delays during production. A lot of delays. Perhaps this indicates a need to have film and television writers submit complete scripts for comic book projects before publishing begins (Kevin Smith and Michael J.Straczynski are two other big names synonymous with delays), but that’s a subject for another discussion. It took quite a bit of time for all six issues to appear, which somewhat overshadows the actual quality of the work – it also somewhat justifies my “wait-for-trade” attitude.

It’s hard to divorce the miniseries from those outside facts, but I’ve tried. There’s a notion that – in a monthly medium – a six-issue miniseries which takes years to finish should be a near-masterpiece. This is not a near-masterpiece. It’s good – and it’s hard not to feel that it is somewhat weighed down by the controversy.

For those unfamiliar with the basic premise (the title kinda gives it all away), it’s a reference to Wolverine’s first appearance. The yellow spandex-clad mutant first appeared as “Weapon X”, an assassin sent out to kill the Hulk. He was basically introduced as a Hulk bad guy, before finding himself drafted into Charles Xavier’s X-Men and then finding runaway success and becoming the beloved cultural icon he is today. Hell, from time to time he revisits his old big green friend for nostalgia’s sake. So, offering an “ultimate” version of his fateful battle with that not-so-jolly-green giant seems a no-brainer, it’s a concept begging to be updated and brought to modern times. Besides, Marvel likes selling these no-nonsense Hulk-brawls – Ultimate Hulk vs. Iron Man was released two years ago to capitalise on the release of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, Marvel’s first two big forays into self-produced movie-making.

She's a crowd...

So the whole point of the series is to be light and fluffy. Disposable. Warren Ellis gave Ultimate Hulk vs. Iron Man a neat little disposable charm – you knew it was just about the explosions and the witty remarks and the knocking of stuffing out of individuals. It made no bones about it – with it’s conscious widescreen style panels and straight-forward dialogue. However, Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk has its own particular objectives in mind.

It’s a smart miniseries. Lindelof clearly has a fixation on non-linear storytelling, given his work on Lost (and Star Trek even involves time-displacement), and here he fragments the storyline, offering countless different versions of the same scene, giving us pieces of a jigsaw one bit at a time. The problem isn’t that his writing is smart. It’s that it seems to want you to accept that it’s smart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of big ideas. I like them. I think that a straight-forward retelling of the original Hulk and Wolverine plot would be boring and pointless – there’s only so much excitement to be garnered from “Hulk! Smash!” style action. However, surely a miniseries which opens with Wolverine being torn in half by an enraged monster should be a bit more exciting? No?

In fairness, Lindelof’s script contains some lovely character work – particularly the second chapter, which brings us up to date from the Hulk’s execution in The Ultimates through to the miniseries. There’s a moment where Banner considers the consequences of his transformation in terms that the comics are (understandable) usually uncomfortable with dealing it. “I am responsible,” he begins, before realising that his clinical tone isn’t adequate, “no — I murdered sixty-two kids.” Yes, the concept is Millar’s (who made a key point of his run forcing Banner to take responsibility for his actions), but he never really states it as explicitly as Lindelof does here.

It's a snowdown for the ages...

There are some cool concepts at work here – and some nice pretentious stuff which I quite enjoyed (for example, “Part One: In Which Logan Pisses Off a Panda”). There’s a neat interrogation sequence with Nick Fury and Logan’s detached head (“You’re breathing through your skin,” Fury helpfully explains), which suggests that “maybe [his] mutation isn’t about healing at all. It’s about surviving.”

On the other hand, the constant jumping around timelines gets a little bit wearisome, even with Logan’s constantly dead-pan narration (“What happened to…?” (image of Hulk tearing off his legs) “Oh, right.”). The introduction of the ultimate incarnation of She-Hulk is, to be honest, completely unnecessary and more than slightly derails the story’s momentum. I’m sure that comething needed to be done with that particular character, but I’m not entirely sure this was it. There’s also the simple fact that there’s a bit of a drag towards the end – though we get a handy little moral dilemma at the end, I’m not sure that Forge’s appearance was entirely necessary for the miniseries and seems a little deus ex machina.

Not that there’s any real doubt about the ending at any point in the miniseries and the final image (and accompanying dialogue) is more than a little charming, but it’s all ultimately rather unfulfilling. Still, the artwork by Leinil Francis Yu is beautiful in its own murky sort of way (in a manner more conciously cartoonish than most of Marvel’s Ultimate work).

What’s astonishing is how the book attempts to straddle both high- and low-brow tastes. On one hand we had pretentious time-skipping, Buddhist philosophy, spirit guides, self-awar narration and meditations on personal responsibility and morality. On the other hand we have the Hulk’s sex den, big burly men literally tearing each other in twain and bad-ass one-liners. The book sits awkwardly between the two, never really sure which path to take. Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine isn’t essential reading, but it’s an interesting book which benefits from more ambition than most miniseries. That its accomplishments don’t quite match up with ambitions is a bit of a shame.

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