The cast of Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” may feature Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk, but readers shouldn’t mistake them for the Avengers. The team known as the Ultimates resides in a universe that’s similar to but distinctly different from the Marvel Universe. In the Ultimate Universe, the Ultimates take on massive threats to the security of the United States and the globe and the tumultuous nature of their world makes it an extremely perilous job. Team members can and do die on missions, and even if the Ultimates accomplish their missions there are no guarantee the world will ever return to the way it previously was.
In recent issue the United States’ role as a global super power has been eclipsed by two new nations: the country gobbling mega metropolis known as the City, home to the futuristic Children of Tomorrow; and the South East Asian Republic, a mutant sanctuary ruled by two immensely powerful brothers. Writer Jonathan Hickman is currently establishing this status quo, and in May up and coming writer Sam Humphries will help him explore it further when he becomes Hickman’s co-writer on the book. CBR News spoke with Humphries about his plans for “Ultimate Comics Ultimates.”
CBR News: Sam, you’re known for your self published independent work like “Our Love is Real” and “Sacrifice.” Plus you’re working on an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Gods of Mars” for Marvel, the recently launched “Fanboys Vs. Zombies” from BOOM! Studios and you’ve got the ongoing “Higher Earth” series also coming from BOOM! in May. One thing all these stories have in common is that they’re all science fiction tales that thrust their protagonists into strange, frightening, and uncomfortable places. What is about the science fiction genre and this scenario in particular that you find so compelling?
Sam Humphries: I grew up with science fiction so I have that connection to it. I also like science fiction because it’s an unlimited genre. It’s a genre where, if you extend the lines of logic as far as it can go, it can literally encompass anything you want it to and you can address any kind of issue you want to. Plus science fiction is just a lot of fun. It’s time travel and parallel worlds. It asks questions about identity, society, relationships, and all that good stuff.
Then I guess what you’re getting is the stranger in a strange land kind of vibe? That’s a classic story that gets repeated over and over again because it works so well. As a storyteller you get the dual advantages of having this exotic environment or circumstances to thrust the reader into, but you also have an easily identifiable main character who is your introduction to this world; a reader identification character that can ask all the right questions and investigate all the cool elements of this world. Plus, I think that’s something everybody can relate to. Everybody at some point in their lives has been a stranger in a strange land, even if the strange land isn’t as exotic as Mars or the Aztec Empire. At some point everyone has felt simultaneously alone and exhilarated by new circumstances.
Science Fiction and strange lands abound in the Ultimate Universe. Which areas and elements of it are you especially interested in exploring?
I love the Ultimate Universe because it’s all the main, big, awesome characters. You’ve got Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Nick Fury, and the Hulk, but you’ve got them on a much different stage. It’s almost the stranger in a strange land scenario again because you’ve got these characters that you know and identify with, but you have them in new circumstances in a new universe. You have them in an environment and world where the same rules don’t apply.
It’s kind of like these characters are getting the HBO original series treatment because you can put them in much more extreme and unfamiliar circumstances where the morality is a little stickier, where the characters are a little more free to be bastards to one another. Mostly though, it gives you the freedom to shake these characters up in new ways. It gives you the freedom to pull the rug out from under these characters in ways that you can’t in the normal books, movies, or cartoons. When you can pull the rug out from under characters in new ways you can get to know them in new ways.
Since we’re on the topic of them, let’s talk about characters. You’re dealing with a pretty huge cast in “Ultimate Comics Ultimates.” Which characters do you find most intriguing?
That’s such a difficult question because the characters are one of my favorite things about this book. You’ve got characters that are extremely high powered like Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man, but at the same time they’re also wild cards. You have somebody like Tony Stark who is successful, but also very reckless and unpredictable, and you have him piloting the most advanced weapons system in the world. I don’t know if you would feel safer or more at risk if you’re a normal citizen! [Laughs]. Then you’ve got people like Nick Fury, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye. They’re the more military minded S.H.I.E.L.D. members who have to keep the Ultimates together and keep them focused on global security.
So all the characters are incredibly interesting to me, but the character that has taken me most by surprise was Monica Chang, the Black Widow. I didn’t know much about this incarnation of the character, who is actually the second Black Widow in the Ultimate Universe, but the more I read about her and the more I started writing her, the more I really got into her head. So I’m really looking forward to working with her in the book.
We talked earlier about reader identification and point of view characters. Will Monica play that role in “Ultimate Comics Ultimates?”
Each character brings their own point of view to the series and that’s what makes writing and reading them so fun. You’ve got this crazy universe where anything goes. Hickman has built up such an incredible status quo. It’s so different from the Marvel Universe, and really any universe in comics and entertainment. So all these characters are discovering it just the same way we are. I think part of the fun is being able to see this universe through the eyes of characters with such strong points of view.
You and your “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” co-writer Jonathan Hickman also have interesting and strong points of view on things. What’s it like working with Jonathan? How is the labor divided? Does one of you plot and the other script?
It’s very collaborative. I have to really give it up to Jonathan. It’s no secret that when he joins a book he’s got plans for the next decade, and I’m only exaggerating a little bit when I say that. [Laughs] Plus this has been his dream book for many years, and when he took over the book he had so many plans and ideas. What you see in issues #8 and #9 coming up really just scratches the surface of what he wanted to do on this book.
So when I came on to it he did a really generous thing and said, “Here’s where I wanted to go with this book. You can use these plans if you want, but you need to focus on what you want to write. Make this a book that you want to write. Find the characters that mean a lot to you.” Even though I came in and put things on a different path than he would have on his own, he’s been very supportive. He’s given me a lot of freedom to inject my own voice into the book, and for someone who’s put as much thought and planning into the book it was a very cool thing for him to do.
I think that comes from the fact that he was also an Indie creator who came into Marvel and co-wrote a book with an established creator when he did “Secret Warriors” with Brian [Michael] Bendis. So he’s been there. He understands. He’s been extremely generous with his knowledge and advice. So what you’ll see in these issues is going to be a blend of Humphries and Hickman together. We’re co-writing through issues #11 and #12 and then I take over solo with issue #13.
What can you tell us about the initial stories you have planned for “Ultimates?” We imagine that whatever they are they’re going to have to deal with the aftermath of the story lines that Jonathan set up involving the South East Asian Republic and the Children of Tomorrow?
It’s really hard to say because a lot of it spins out of developments in issues #8 and #9, which haven’t been released yet. So there’s not a whole lot I can say without spoilers. I’ve said this before though, issues #8 and #9 are excellent, and at the end of issue #9 Hickman really pushes the entire Ultimate Universe off a cliff, so to speak. That further destabilizes the status quo of the Ultimate Universe. Not just for the heroes in the book and the people that live in the Ultimate Universe, but also for readers of the Ultimate Universe.
What we’re doing, right off the bat on the first page of issue #10, is diving right into that destabilization; that new status quo. What happens is really going to affect each character in a different way. You’ll see them react in unique ways. How this new development shakes out for them is going to define these characters and their own personal status quo for the months and years to come.
Many of Jonathan’s stories involved geopolitical roles and the idea of nations as global super powers. Will those elements be part of your run?
Absolutely. Jonathan has created an intriguing and exciting sandbox, so to speak. He’s really taken full advantage of being in the Ultimate Universe and he’s done things that you’ll never see in the Marvel 616 Universe. He’s set up forces and factors that you’ll never see in a Marvel movie, and he’s gone deeper and more complex than what they can do in any of the cartoons. So we’re going to take full advantage of that. We’re going to take what Hickman built and run with it.
Going forward what types of stories are you interested in telling in “Ultimate Comics Ultimates?” It seems like whatever they may be they’ll have to be grand in both scope and scale.
I believe the term “Wide Screen Comics” was at least partially defined by the original Millar-Hitch run of “Ultimates.” That’s what makes this book so much fun. You really can go out there and do things on a big canvas and blow people’s minds. What really puts these events in perspective, and I think this is a thread that runs through every incarnation of the Ultimates, is that you see and experience these events through the characters in the book.
You have characters like Tony, Thor, Clint, Nick, and Bruce. You see how these characters respond and react to what happens on this grand scale and that’s what really makes the stories compelling as a reader and a writer. It’s what really drives them home. I’m looking forward to using each of these characters in this book. Not just using them as a lens for the events we’ve got planed, but really exploring who they are and how they got there and how this wild and crazy world has defined them.
Several of the characters you mentioned have suffered a great deal in “Ultimates.” The cost of super heroics is an important part of Marvel Comics, but it’s especially important in “Ultimates,” correct?
Absolutely. I think cost, consequence, and responsibility, are at the heart of almost any story. You can’t have victory without cost. If you do that victory is not emotionally resonant. It’s not exciting or thrilling. Nick Fury is a character who really rides that line a lot. He’s someone who’s dedicated his life to protecting global security, but that’s come at a great personal cost to him.
Then you have someone like Bruce Banner who is an incredibly brilliant scientist, but can’t quite seem to keep up with the Ultimate world the same way that Tony Stark can. Tony Stark has been able to make his way in this world, and achieved personal success and glory. Bruce Banner is someone who is constantly confused and manipulated by the world. Despite his smarts and his strength as the Hulk, he’s constantly used as a pawn by forces that are a little more adept at being “ultimate.”
We’ve talked a lot about heroes, let’s move on to villains. The Ultimates don’t really have a whole lot of reoccurring villains, because they’re soldiers and more often than not they end up killing their enemies. So what types of adversaries are you interested in pitting your cast against? What types of villains make the best foes for the Ultimates?
One of my favorite things about the Ultimate Universe is that you can really blur the lines that between someone who is villain and someone who is just really ambitious. You can blur the lines between someone who is a villain to some people, but a hero to others.
I think the brothers Zorn and Xorn, who are running the South East Asian Republic, are a great example of that. They are two incredibly powerful figures who are extremely difficult for the American Ultimates to understand. For America’s stability, and as a direct conflict to the Ultimates, these brothers could definitely be considered. But to their people they are leaders and heroes. And when it comes down to it, Xorn and Zorn are just doing what they believe to be the best, not only for their people, but for the evolution of all humanity. It comes down to a different point of view and how and far you’re willing to push your point of view. I think that’s an interesting dynamic to play with, and it’s something you can do quite effectively in the Ultimate Universe.
We’ve talked a lot about story. Let’s start to wrap things up by talking about art. Artist Luke Ross is bringing your initial stories for “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” to life. What do you feel he brings to this book as an artist?
Luke Ross is the artist on issues #10-12. There are a lot of things I love about his work, but I’ve been really blown away by two things in particular. One is his ability to really nail the big wide screen shots and the huge visions of the future; the technology and the armor. He’s great at all that fun stuff that blows your mind and makes “Ultimates” special.
On the other end of the spectrum, he’s really got a fantastic command of human emotion with every character. It’s not that he draws a good Tony or Thor. He draws great character emotions, period. It really brings home what makes “Ultimates” so breathtaking. He’s got the epic, world changing events and then there are the intimate one-to-one exchanges that really make you fall in love with these characters. When you put it all together and you mix it up, you’ve got a really enjoyable, affecting book.
Speaking of affecting, we understand there is going to be a larger emphasis on synching “Ultimates” up with the other two titles in the Ultimate line, “Ultimate Comics X-Men” and “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.” What’s it like working with new “Ultimate Comics X-Men” writer Brian Wood and long time “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” writer Brian Michael Bendis?
It’s been great. This is my first foray into super hero comics and shared universe comics, and the fact that we only have three books to coordinate has been a lot easier than if I jumped right in the 616. It’s also been a lot of fun, too. Bendis, Wood, and Hickman have a lot of experience with this. They’ve all been very welcoming and very cool. They’ve given me some great pieces of advice that save me from looking like a fool right off the bat. So I’m incredibly grateful to have them working with me and looking over my shoulder. Same with our editorial team of Mark Paniccia, Sana Amanat, and and Jon Moisan who have been fantastic in welcoming me aboard and making sure I don’t stub my toes too much.
So the cohesion between the three books is going to be a lot of fun and it’s something that we’re really going to focus on as we go through the spring and summer. What’s unique about this is we’ve got three books with very distinct points of view. You’ve got ‘The Ultimates,” which is the big wide scope book. You’ve got “Ultimate Comics X-Men” which is more of a ground level book. I hate to characterize it any more than that because I don’t want to spoil what Brian Wood has coming up. Than you have “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” which is all the things that Brian Wood and I introduce in the other two books seen through the eyes of someone who is essentially a child. Miles Morales is coming to terms with power and responsibility and all that great Spider-Man stuff in a world that is constantly being turned upside down over and over again. So we can examine the same events, issues, and themes from three very different perspectives. Figuring out how that all plays off against each other has been a blast. I can’t wait for this stuff to start coming out.
Your first issue, “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” #10, arrives in May. How does it feel to be one month away from the debut of your first Marvel super hero comic?
[Laughs] I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I’m so neck deep in scripts right now I haven’t really been able to reflect upon it too deeply, and that’s probably for the best. It does feel awesome. It feels fantastic. I’m really ready to get into the mix and show people what these characters are made of. I’m ready to surprise some people.
One of the surprises you’ll want to be on the look out for in “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” is some characters we haven’t seen in the Ultimate Universe for awhile. We’re going to bring them back and they’re going to be doing some spectacular things. I’m really looking forward to getting these characters back into focus.
“Ultimate Comics Ultimates” #10 by Sam Humphries, Jonathan Hickman and Luke Ross is on sale in May.