Ultimo Vol. 1
by Stan Lee, Hiroyuki Takei, Daigo and Bob
Viz, 216 pages, $9.99
Why is it that — especially in most shonen manga — whenever there’s some big story about the ultimate good going up against the ultimate evil, the good side of the equation is always represented in the blandest, dullest terms possible? Are basic human decency and kindness really that boring as attributes? Or is it that most artists and writers are stymied when forced to portray these qualities in any sort of dramatic or otherwise interesting terms and end up resorting to cardboard cut-outs?
Sorry, I got sidetracked there for a moment. Where was I? Oh yes, Ultimo Vol. 1, the first entry in the much ballyhooed collaboration between renowned Marvel impresario Stan Lee and Shamen King manga-ka Hiroyuki Takei. When the announcement of their pairing was first made, I hoped that, if nothing else, the end result would offer some interesting friction between the eastern and western methods of sequential art making.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Ultimo is certainly competent enough — it’s well drawn, hits all the proper beats and there’s never any confusion about what’s going on or who’s saying what — but there’s nothing that particularity stands out about it either, beyond a queasy sub-dom relationship between the main characters that I’ll touch on in a minute. It’s just your standard time-waster action manga, with nothing more to recommend it than it will fill in the time while you’re sitting in your dentist’s waiting room.
It might make you cringe though. The one aspect of Ultimo that didn’t sit so easily with me is the way the title character — an androgynous robot representing “pure goodness” that’s drawn to look like a underfed sixth grader — is so willingly subservient to his “owner,” a typical clueless shonen hero. The former prostrates himself before the latter to such a degree that there’s a real distasteful, sexual undercurrent going on between them that seriously hampered my ability to enjoy the story, mainly because I know (or rather, I strongly suspect) Lee and Takei won’t really explore or confront this aspect of the story but leave it lying uncomfortably on the surface and pretend it isn’t there. It is, and it’s icky.