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Ultimate Comics: Divided We Fall, United We Stand – Ultimates (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

There was a time when Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was the place to be. Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates were among the best-reviewed and best-selling books published at Marvel in the early part of the last decade, offering a fresh new take on classic comic book characters, and offering readers an opportunity to engage with a continuity-free world just as the super-hero movie craze took off. I’ll always be fond of the Ultimate Universe, because without The Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man, I simply wouldn’t be a comic book fan today.

However, in the last number of years, for any number of reasons, the line has wavered a little bit. Despite attracting Mark Millar back to write Ultimate Comics: Avengers, and Brian Michael Bendis generating massive headlines by writing The Death of Spider-Man, it seemed like the publishing brand was fading a bit. There have been several attempts to re-energise the line. Divided We Fall is just the most recent one, a crossover between the three books currently making up the Ultimate imprint.

The story of America falling apart, told from three different perspectives, it’s certainly timely. And, as crossovers go, shrewdly constructed. While Divided We Fall suffers a bit from the fact that Marvel is no longer consistently collecting the books leading into it, it is still an interesting comic book story, and one that takes advantage of the Ultimate Universe setting to tell a story that would be impossible in the mainstream Marvel brand.

President Cap...

President Cap…

It is worth conceding that the purpose of the Ultimate Universe has shifted in the years since it was originally created. It was originally intended to offer a jumping-on points for people scared away by fifty years of shared history surrounding iconic characters like Spider-Man. After all, mainstream comics can often feel like the reader is joining a story in the middle, and certain prevailing attitudes towards established continuity can mean that comics reference stories and events that may have been written before the reader was even born.

This was great, and it was part of how I got into comics. Mark Millar wrote The Ultimates as an origin story for the Avengers, for the modern day. It was a major influence, both on mainstream comics and on the film adaptations of these iconic heroes. Brian Bendis crafted a compelling life story for Peter Parker, from his first adventure as Spider-Man through to his death in the line of duty, a story that can be read on its own terms. However, the Ultimate Universe has sort of drifted away from this initial purpose, for several reasons.

Dropping the hammer...

Dropping the hammer…

The most obvious is the fact that any serialised story told over ten years is going to build up some sense of continuity. It is now arguably just as hard to jump into Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man as it is to pick up Dan Slott’s The Amazing Spider-Man. However, there’s more to it than that. Mark Millar has conceded that mainstream comics have begun to get a bit more experimental, more of the hip vibe that the Ultimate Universe had once had. “We’d all moved into the Marvel Universe proper,” he’d stated, “and that seemed to be the cool place to be.”

Indeed, in the past decade or so, the mainstream universe has begun to incorporate similar ideas and approaches. Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers feels like an attempt to update the Avengers franchise to bring it into line with The Ultimates. The character Nick Fury Jr. has been introduced to capitalise on Samuel L. Jackson’s success in the role, which is rooted in The Ultimates. Writers like Brian Bendis and Jonathan Hickman have been transitioned from key roles in the Ultimate Universe to key roles on Marvel’s main publishing line.

Of course it's an illusion. Nobody gets to be THAT happy in an Ultimates comic...

Of course it’s an illusion. Nobody gets to be THAT happy in an Ultimates comic…

Naturally, this approach makes the Ultimate Universe rather redundant. There’s a conscious effort to make the mainstream universe accessible to new readers (all those shiny #1 issues as part of Marvel NOW), and also to incorporate a lot of the approach that had made the Ultimate line so popular and fresh. Coupled with the build-up of continuity within the Ultimate line itself, a new approach was needed. And Divided We Fall offers a demonstration of that new approach in action.

The fact that the Ultimate Universe is a secondary comic book universe has been used quite well. It means that writers can kill off characters, and have them stay dead. It means that there was no initial continuity backlog. It means that authors can tell stories they would never get away with in the regular line. For example, Brian Michael Bendis could turn Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards into a psychopathic villain in Ultimate Comics: Doomsday. It also means, as is explored in Divided We Fall, the Ultimate Universe doesn’t have to be anchored to reality.

Man of action...

Man of action…

Mainstream continuity will always reflect the real world. Reed Richards can’t build flying cars and Tony Stark can’t colonise the moon, because readers need to be able to identify with the world contained within these stories. However, it seems like the latest change in direction of the Ultimate Universe seems to embrace the freedom to depart from reality, to push the fictional universe firmly away from our own, to craft a legitimately alternate world, one radically different from the one that we inhabit.

The most obvious difference, the one declared most loudly and proudly, is the one printed on the cover the trade collection. Captain America can be made President in Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, despite the fact that Barrack Obama is the real President. (And Obama has been appearing in main continuity Marvel events like Siege or Avengers vs. X-Men.) It’s a rather bold way of breaking from reality. We could imagine Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers, or the Hulk fighting the military, but a head of state in that outfit, with those powers? That is a massive shift.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

I really like the idea, to be honest, even if I concede that it will ultimately make the Ultimate Universe more and more niche. After all, the line’s original appeal was rooted in how accessible it was, so making it a whole alternate universe with Captain America as President has a massive impact on that. At the same time, given how the main publishing line has cannibalised that aspect of the Ultimate Universe’s success, it seems like the most logical choice. Given the radical change in circumstance, embrace the opportunities presented.

And Divided We Fall makes the most of those opportunities. Indeed, the chapters all open with maps of the United States, to bring the reader up to speed on the current state of the Union. It’s like something from a fantasy novel, and it’s a nice touch. It creates the sense that the world has been so radically altered that we need a map to navigate it, which suggests that a great deal of thought went into writing, planning and plotting this story.

Breaking down barriers...

Breaking down barriers…

However, this brings us to the first real problem with the lovely Divided We Fall collection. We join media res. This is the story about the United States falling apart, but it has already fallen apart by the time we read the first issue. The first issue collected here is the first issue written completely by Sam Humphries, which makes a bit of sense. However, Humphries had been working on a number of issues beforehand, writing with Jonathan Hickman. Hickman’s entire twelve-issue story feeds into the background of Divided We Fall.

It is a little essential to the story being told here, and it provides a footing that really helps Humphries’ rapid-fire pacing to hit home. Marvel had, in the past, been quite good about realising nice oversized hardcovers collecting about twelve issues of their Ultimate Universe series. I own all of Bendis’ first Ultimate Spider-Man series in the format, and it’s a joy to read. I also have the complete collections of the first volumes of Ultimate X-Men and even Ultimate Fantastic Four.

World (Tree) apart...

World (Tree) apart…

It would be nice if Marvel would continue the format for the relaunch, to provide an accessible means of following the line. This is also the case with the two other on-going series tying into Divided We Fall, which build off their own internal plot points from previous stories that aren’t available in a similar format hardcover. Hickman is currently a massive name at Marvel. Throw in his Ultimate Comics: Thor and Ultimates Comics: Hawkeye miniseries and you could even make a small omnibus out of it all.

Ah well, we have what we have. Divided We Fall is a crossover that connects across each of the three Ultimate Universe titles, Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, Ultimate Comics: X-Men and Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. I’ve never been too fond of big comic book events that tend to de-rail on-going series. Writers typically spend a great deal of time building momentum, so forcing a book to tie into some universe-spanning “event” can just sap that energy completely. So I was pleasantly surprised that Divided We Fall should be so shrewdly constructed.

No Tex-ation without representation...

No Tex-ation without representation…

All eighteen issues read well together, but they can be read and understood in the context of their own series just as well. It’s really more of a connective theme than a shared event. Reading all three is not necessary, and each comic going into the event is more concerned with its own plot threads and themes than servicing the event itself, which is – I’d argue – the best way to write a crossover. The Ultimates, written by Humphries, is mainly about the return of Captain America, following his retirement at the end of The Death of Spider-Man, and his assumption of the White House as the country falls to pieces.

Humphries does a great job here. What’s really remarkable about Humphries’ writing is how efficient and compressed it is. Decompression has become a watchword of comic book criticism. I don’t hate the concept of expanded storytelling, but Humphries does an excellent job telling a tightly-packed narrative. There’s not fat here, no padding. Each chapter moves the story forward in a very appreciable way. More than that, though, each chapter tells its own story – each single issue has its own carefully-planned structure.

Where is the Secret Service when you need them?

Where is the Secret Service when you need them?

Things move fast. No sooner are the “big name” trio back together than a nuke is launched that they have to stop. There’s always another problem. Indeed, without the twelve-issue lead-in, maybe Divided We Fall moves too fast. Plot beats come in so rapidly that they almost trip over one another. Most tellingly, the story features two separate fake-out twists in the opening four pages of the final chapter. They makes sense, and they work well, but there’s a sense that Humphries is moving at lightening speed.

Indeed, you could almost read Divided We Fall as a hyper-compressed tribute to Mark Millar’s twenty-seven issue run. It’s very clear that Humphries considers Millar a major influence, perhaps most obvious in his characterisation of Tony Stark. Millar’s Stark is one of the aspects that arguably dates The Ultimates, making pop culture references that are already a little stale. Humphries continues that tradition of namedropping celebrities who will probably have faded from the spotlight in another decade. “How do you feel?” Jarvis asks. “Tougher than Jay-Z and prettier than Beyonce,” Stark responds. It’s an exchange that Millar could have written.

(D)roid rage...

(D)roid rage…

Some of the script’s more powerful moments work best as ironic call-backs to that first definitive Millar run. “The Ultimates have invaded a nuclear-armed nation,” one reporter announces, conjuring up memories of the second volume of The Ultimates, where Captain America became a tool of American foreign policy. Here, the statement stings because he’s disarming a nation that used to be part of America. Indeed, The Ultimates ended with an attempt to humble America, one arguably continued  and developed here.

“Feels like a different world now,” Cap muses. “Mass murder, extinction camps… all on U.S. soil?” Given how the America of Millar’s Ultimates had sought to leverage the emergence of super-powered beings into political clout, this collapse seems all the more potent – a grand tragedy playing out on a large scale, offering a solid development of Millar’s key themes. It’s not quite as insightful and quite as powerful, if only because these observations aren’t as potent as they were in the years of the Bush administration.

A straight arrow...

A straight arrow…

Still, Humphries does a great job honing in on fears that feel relevant to modern America. The collapse of America is discussed in terms that will very clearly resonate with modern readers. Stark is told that a lot of his financial value has been wiped out almost overnight, while he’s assured that gold continues to be the safest bet. The primary concern of an independent California isn’t terrorism or civil rights, but immigration, which is a risky proposition.

There are obviously still lingering aspects of the War on Terror, especially concerning the racial profiling of mutants as terrorists and questions about how much authority remains with the President of the United States as opposed to his military advisors and backers, but Humphries does an excellent job keeping Divided We Fall relevent to modern America, instead of merely anchoring it in post-9/11 paranoia.

Waving the flag...

Waving the flag…

Humphries also shrewdly acknowledges that he’s borrowing a few pages from Mark Millar’s take on The Ultimates. Even Thor concedes that the story told here seems a little overly familiar. “Captain,” Thor advises Captain America, “I have grave concerns about these developments. Strife, chaos, discord — all seemingly unconnected, yet somehow coordinated. I’ve seen this before.” Indeed, when the villain reveals himself – a rogue Asgardian – Thor identifies him as “brother”, clearly expecting Loki.

The reveal that Modi, Thor’s son, is behind this situation feels a little hallow when disconnected from all the lead-in and build-up, another casualty of the way that Marvel has chosen to collect this material. Humphries is building off Hickman’s run on The Ultimates here, and his fascination with the Asgardians as the embodiment of myth – an old mythology that is giving way to a more modern pop culture legend.

Testing Tony's metal...

Testing Tony’s metal…

“To fuel the birth of my new empire,” Modi boasts, “I require the dying flames of the old.” The irony, of course, is that Asgard has already died so that the superheroes can take their place as figures of legend. Modi’s attempts to restore Asgard – even his version of Asgard – are regressive rather than progressive. He isn’t a villain looking to reshape the world, he’s trying to roll back the clock – resisting inevitable change.

It’s an idea that doesn’t really get enough play here, as Humphries finds himself telling a story that is about so many things all at once. Not only is Steve stabilising the country and his advisors plotting against him, but Thor also has to deal with his young son. The whole arc feels compressed, and the notion that Asgard has died so that superheroes might become a form of twenty-first century mythology feels under-developed.

Capping it all off...

Capping it all off…

Still, it feels like a story well suited to the Ultimate Universe, which is itself something of a reimagining or reworking of the existing Marvel Universe. Much as various myths and legends get re-shaped and re-told across generations, the Ultimate Universe is a re-telling of America’s comic book mythology, a second iteration of the Marvel Universe. It’s the same characters, the same iconic elements, just updated and modernised – maybe even reinvented slightly. It’s an idea that isn’t quite handled as well as it might be, but it’s still fascinating, and it builds off one of the more interesting aspects of Captain America: The First Avenger, which pitted Cap’s modern American pop legend against old-fashioned European culture.

Of course, all of this is really secondary to the big selling point of Divided We Fall, the much publicised decision to make Captain America the Commander and Chief of this version of America. The notion of a superhero President is absolutely absurd (“America is my White House”), but absurd in a fun way. There’s an undeniably hokey charm about watching the President of the United States kick all kinds of ass, like a superhero twenty-first century version of Teddy Roosevelt.

Nice catch...

Nice catch…

It’s a nice hook, but – again – Divided We Fall doesn’t really do that much with it. With so much else going on, the hero’s time in office feels pushed to the background. An attempted coup is barely established before it is thwarted, and there’s not too much else here that Captain America does that he couldn’t have done without being “President Cap.” of course, this is an idea that has long-term possibilities and – while headline grabbing imagery is here, the idea will ultimately be judged by how Humphries handles the plot thread over the rest of his run.

Truth be told, I suspect that the temptation will be to play it in a relatively safe and generic sort of way, which is a shame. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America used the character to explore the political landscape of modern America, so it would be fun to see the character used that way here as well. It’s fun to watch the President kick ass, but what happens when he has to use his veto, or deal with abortion legislation. This is, after all, a President thawed out from the 1940s.

White House down...

White House down…

I’ll give Humphries the benefit of the doubt here. He does, after all, acknowledge the character’s roots in the Great Depression. Creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon invented the character to stand up for the little guy, and this could be a logical extension of those origins. “To the children,” Steve explains as he accepts the job, “I know what it is like to grow up in desperate times.”

So Divided We Fall works quite well, and it bodes well for the relaunch of the Ultimate line by Marvel. It doesn’t work nearly as well in context as it does in isolation, and it promises some great things to come from Humphries. It would be nice to see those lovely hardcover collections of the Ultimate Universe comics start up once again, so the crossover can be put in its proper context. Still, on its own merits, it does hint at bold new possibilities, and demonstrates that the Ultimate line is working hard to avoid becoming either stagnant or redundant.

You might be interested in our other Ultimates-related reviews:

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on MIDAS INSPIRATION and commented:
    united we stand;)))

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