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Jonathan Hickman’s Run on Ultimate Comics: Ultimates (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

There’s something to be said for keeping Marvel’s Ultimate Universe as a “do anything you want” sandbox for up-and-coming creators, a chance for writers and artists to demonstrate their ability to tell comic book stories without worrying too much about the status quo or putting everything back in something resembling the way they found it. After all, the Ultimate Universe provided a fertile starting point for creators like Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughn to demonstrate they could tell big bombastic superhero stories, with Millar and Bendis going on to radically shape  the mainstream Marvel continuity.

As such, Jonathan Hickman’s run on the awkwardly-titled Ultimate Comics: Ultimates feels like an audition. It’s very clearly a weird alternate-universe take on many of the ideas that he would carry over to his run on Avengers and New Avengers when he succeeded creator Brian Michael Bendis. Hickman’s Ultimates is bristling with big ideas, and an exciting willingness to tear down and build up without any hesitation. The only real problem is that it feels like a story sorely missing an ending.

Thor smash!

Thor smash!

The story details are obviously very different, but you can see the obvious seeds of Hickman’s Avengers run here. To be fair, a lot of these are common across the majority of Hickman’s work – the desire to literally build a better tomorrow, transhumanism, evolution, advancement, etc. However, there are also certain similarities that carry across more directly. For example, there’s focus on Tony Stark’s desire to make a better world using the team as his means of doing so.

There’s also the heavy influence of Jack Kirby on Hickman’s writing. Kirby’s Celestials were a major part of Hickman’s first Avengers arc, and here he makes a point to bring “the Eternals” and “the Celestials” to the Ultimate Universe, albeit in a form radically different from what came before. There’s also an incredibly global sense of scale to Hickman’s work. In Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, Reed Richards’ City pretty much consumes most of Eastern Europe, while forced evolution leads to the demolition of the fictional South-East Asian Republic; in his Avengers, the attempt to evolve life on Earth causes massive casualties around the globe.

Hulk enjoy fine tea...

Hulk enjoy fine tea…

There are also structural parallels. Hickman’s Ultimates is the result of some long-term build-up and planning. Prior to launching Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, the author wrote Ultimate Comics: Thor and worked as part of the writing team on Ultimate Comics Fallout. However, the first story-arc of his his Ultimates run plays out in parallel to the writer’s Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye miniseries, both titles offering a full view of the events shaping and distorting the fictional world. It’s a storytelling tool that Hickman is quite fond of – his Fantastic Four and Future Foundation were told side-by-side, and his Avengers and New Avengers also cover common ground.

(Being honest, I wouldn’t mind a nice “Ultimates by Jonathan Hickman” omnibus collection including his Ultimate Comics: Thor and Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye miniseries as well. There are twenty issues of material there, enough for a reasonably sized (and hopefully moderately priced) volume. Besides, it would be nice to get more Esad Ribić artwork in oversized dimensions.)

... but Hulk also smash...

… but Hulk also smash…

Still, Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates feels a bit less constrained than his work on Avengers, and that’s probably down to the freedom inherent in working in the Ultimate Universe. The mainstream Marvel continuity has to be anchored in something approaching the real world – the goal is that a hypothetical casual reader could pick up a book and see their own world reflected in the pages. So the President (even if not identified by name) will almost always reference the person currently in office. The United States will – barring the occasional alternate universe or crappy future story – always exist. There are understandable restrictions.

Perhaps due to the declining sales across the line, editorial seems a lot more willing to allow writers in the Ultimate Universe to shake things up. Hickman is able to destroy most of Eastern Europe without missing a beat. He is able to write about a super-human coup in South-East Asia. Although he makes up a country, the location is explicit. This isn’t Magneto’s fictional island of Genosha. This is a real place turned into something hyper-real. Hickman doesn’t limit his storytelling to the far side of the world, either. His Ultimate Comics: Ultimates really radically shakes up the status quo of the United States.

Leaping before he looks...

Leaping before he looks…

And I quite like this. I can understand the need for the regular Marvel comics to remain in something approaching the real world, but it’s also fun to imagine how the existence of superheroes might reshape and warp our world. After all, one of the main appeals of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates was the decision to anchor the story in something approximating the real world, with celebrity references and cameos from George W. Bush and geo-politics. Using superheroes as a nuclear metaphor in the post-9/11 age, The Ultimates remains one of the single greatest superhero stories ever written.

That said, there’s an element of suspension of disbelief there. Although The Ultimates unfolds early in the history of super-powered human beings, it seems weird that the world is still so familiar. After all, introducing living weapons of mass destruction into the political status quo would radically upset the balance. It would change things up. It would screw up the equilibrium and produce some fairly radical results. Even a year or two down the line, one would assume that a world which had looked like the real world before Thor arrived would no longer look anything like the real world – in one of those great comic book ironies, keeping it realistic is unrealistic.

Reed all about it...

Reed all about it…

Hickman takes that idea, and runs with it – confronting Nick Fury and the Ultimates with the world that they have helped create. Witnessing an horrific spectacle of destruction and carnage, Nick wonders, “What is this? It is the world in which we live. And what has it become? Exactly what we have made.” This is the bleak climax of the “superheroes as a political weapon” ideology that really became a fixture of the late nineties and early naughties thanks to Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch and The Authority.

With the bulk of the art coming from artist Esad Ribić, the run looks eerily and hauntingly beautiful. It’s grotesque and haunting and disturbing, but in the best possible way. Ribić is perfectly able to keep up with Hickman’s ideas and high-concepts, ably capturing the futuristic look and feel of this brave new world that Hickman is crafting for the Ultimates and the Ultimate Comics line. There are some the best-looking Avengers comics ever published and – had Ribić been the artist for the entirety of the run – I have no doubt that it could stand alongside Hitch’s Ultimates work.

Ironing out their problems...

Ironing out their problems…

And yet, despite the cynicism of the set up, and the somewhat bleak tone of the twelve-issue story arc, it’s clear that Hickman has a deep and abiding love for superhero comics. For one thing, he is sure to incorporate as many references and in-jokes as possible, trying to craft “the same yet different” mirror versions of familiar Marvel concepts. To be fair to Hickman, most of these references fit the story rather well. While the use of the term “Runaways” or the discovery of plans for “a secret West Coast team of Ultimates” (or “Wackos”) feel a little on the nose, most are somewhat elegant.

Playing off the confusion in the wake of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, for example, we get two different versions of “Xorn”“Xorn” and “Zorn.” However, it’s more than just a clever way of acknowledging how deeply Marvel botched the aftermath of Morrison’s run. Hickman casts Xorn as a living sun and Zorn as an all-consuming black-hole. They are yin and yang, opposites fitting perfectly, arguably a sly acknowledgement of the character’s difficult life – the breakout “star” of Morrison’s run, and the continuity black hole in its aftermath.

Brothers at arms...

Brothers at arms…

There are a rake of other clever ideas as well, as Hickman draws on half-a-century of Marvel comics for inspiration. Positing “no more mutants” as a genetically-engineered plague seems a like a very smart development in the era of “superpowers as nuclear weapons”, and arguably makes a great deal more sense than the contrived retcon at the end of House of M. (It’s interesting how so many of the radically revised ideas in Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates run are rooted in how shabbily Marvel treated Morrison’s superb New X-Men.)

Hickman’s enthusiasm for comics can arguably be seen in the way that he chooses to portray his heroes. In The Ultimates, Mark Millar made the team an instrument of aggressive American foreign policy, unwitting tools of a military-industrial complex acting out of misplaced idealism. Hickman gives his characters more credit, actively manoeuvring the team against American foreign policy. When the President starts playing on the global stage, Nick Fury refuses to support a play that is going to cause more harm than good.

Dropping the hammer...

Dropping the hammer…

“He’s going to get us all killed,” Fury confides in Hawkeye, and the comic sees Fury and his team trying to prevent the mutually-assured destruction of the entire planet. Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates is just as cynical about US foreign policy as Millar’s Ultimates was – “you should have listened, brother,” Zorn argues at one point, “now we have unwillingly been drawn into yet another American war” – but it’s more romantic about the heroes.

After all, Tony resolves the threat by listening to the child-like Anthony, his brain tumour who he bonds with by building toys. The villain of the piece is Reed Richards, the bitter and cynical former super-hero. When Tony manages to gain the upper-hand, Reed dismisses it as an impossibility. “Impossible, Richards?” Stark taunts. “Or merely fantastic?” To Hickman, superhero comics are meant to be the home of the impossible or the fantastic. Reed Richards, the former head of the Fantastic Four, becomes a villain when he allows himself to forget that.

New world ordered...

New world ordered…

(And Hickman’s optimism ultimately wins out, despite the surrounding cynicism. Reed Richards appears to be a generic mad scientist, a bitter manchild trying to make the world suffer for what it has done to him, but Hickman stresses that advancement itself is not inherently evil. Indeed, Richards’ own Children of Tomorrow ultimately overthrow him, realising that advancement must mean peace. “War is counter-evolutionary,” the City declares, as it turns on its creator.)

Of course, Hickman does more than just carry over references and in-jokes from the main Marvel universe. He introduces a slew of his own clever high concepts as well, often throwing them out with incredible frequency – so much that the finer details can get lost between the panels. Hickman throws out ideas like “sentient zeitgeist” and “worldmind” with a remarkably casual air.

Things heat up...

Things heat up…

At one point, Reed Richards even meditates on the nature of ideas themselves. When one of his subjects claims that he never had a name, Reed corrects him. “Yes, you have, but it was hidden from you… for in giving voice to an idea, you bring that very thing into existence.” Revealing that the subject is named “Death”, Reed explains, “And, after all this, I am ready to speak truth, and bring such a thing into being…” It’s a wonderful philosophical idea, much like the suggestion that any truly advanced society must be peaceful, and it gives Hickman’s writing a lot of depth and nuance.

The only real problem with Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates is that it just ends. While the consequences continue into Sam Humphries run on the title – and directly into the crossover Divided We Fall – there’s a sense that the main plot threads are all finally wrapping up because Hickman is being moved off the book to focus on bigger and more important things. While the run seems remarkably well-planned across the first nine issues, the last few issues seem to introduce quite a number of new elements rather quickly in order to make it a bit easier to tidy everything up in time for Hickman’s departure.

Xorn apart...

Xorn apart…

So Reed Richards is handled in the space of a single issue with surprising ease, with a handy flashback in the pages of the same issue explaining how Tony is going to turn the tables on the bitter boy genius. After all the build-up and all the tension, it almost feels like an anticlimax, a last-minute sprint to get across the finish line in time for Humphries to pick up his own story arcs for the characters. To be fair, I like Humphries’ Ultimate Comics: Ultimates more than most, but I still feel like it’s a shame that Hickman didn’t remain on the title for another twelve issues.

Given a bit more space, and the freedom to properly explore the (literal and metaphorical) fallout from this story, I suspect that Hickman could have produced a gigantic superhero epic that might have measured well against Millar’s definitive Ultimates epic. As it stands, it feels like the first half of an absolutely brilliant superhero comic that is forced to wrap up a little bit too quickly in order to get everything else sorted. Given this is the best run on these characters since Millar’s first run, it feels a little disappointing.

Hulk expectorate!

Hulk expectorate!

There are also problems arising from Hickman’s writing style. Put simply, Hickman is a writer who tends to work well with teams. His best Marvel comics – most notably Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four – are based around teams. He handles the individuals within those teams well, but there’s always a sense that Hickman is much stronger at high concepts than small character moments. As a result, some of the smaller beats feel a little off. The largest of these is the addition of Agent Flumm, Nick Fury’s evil replacement. Flumm is never really defined or characterised. He’s an obstacle because the plot needs an obstacle, rather than a character with his own motivation or agenda.

Still, these are minor problems. Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates is a great read, and well worth a look for anyone looking for some clever well-written superhero drama.

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

4 Responses

  1. I just hated Humphries’ Ultimates so much that I think it retroactively soured me on Hickman’s run. It’s the same as Straczynski’s Thor – sure, set-up is great, but you need at least some pay-off, even with the perpetual second act of major American comic books.

    Although, I am kinda digging Hickman’s Avengers, if it can figure out what it wants to be. Infinity is weird – I’m sure if I love it or hate it. Will you be covering it?

    • I’m a collected editions man myself. When Marvel gets around to releasing a nice oversized hardcover, I’m sure I’ll jump on board. I have, however, read his first arc in comixology, and I like the direction it’s heading, even if it seemed hyper compressed. That said, you might argue that’s just what the Avengers franchise needs after years of Bendis’ decompression.

      (And I say that as somebody who likes Bendis’ New Avengers.)

  2. A little late to the party on this but I just read both volumes of Hickman’s run for the first time this week and when confronted with Flumm, He struck me as the Ultimate Universe version of Dirk Anger from N.E.X.T.W.A.V.E. There are a couple of panels in the latter issues where Flumm looks exactly like Dirk shouting madly on the bridge of his Aeromarine. Intentional? I hope so!

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