Marvel Comics' Ultimate line of books may star some familiar faces, but these heroes operate in a drastically different reality than that of their Marvel Universe counterparts. In the Ultimate Universe, for instance, the world's premiere super team is known as the Ultimates rather than the Avengers, and even more differently, it isn't a band of crime-fighting super heroes. Rather, they're highly-trained super-powered soldiers and espionage agents who undertake missions for the U.S. Government as part of S.H.I.E.L.D., General Nick Fury's peacekeeping force.
Being part of an elite super-powered fighting unit puts the members of the Ultimates on the front line of many dangerous conflicts, the latest of which has pitted them against a seemingly unstoppable foe; The Children of Tomorrow, a mysterious, high tech organization which has been gobbling up nations and assimilating them into a vast futuristic compound known as "The City." In the process of attaining their ultimate goal, the Children have obliterated Asgard and its many gods, leaving Ultimates member Thor to wrestle with some crippling grief and survivor's guilt. Complicating things even further is the fact that the Ultimates have been operating without one of their most important team members, Steve Rogers, who gave up his Captain America identity...and then disappeared.
Hope, however, is not lost. In "Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates" #5, two new members joined the team, with one of them voicing a plan to gain valuable intelligence on the Children of Tomorrow. Plus, Nick Fury has found Steve Rogers. Will these developments help the Ultimates gain the upper hand in their battle with the Children of Tomorrow? Or do the Children still have a few dangerous tricks up their sleeves? For the answer to these questions and more, we spoke with "Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates" writer Jonathan Hickman about his plans for the book.
When he accepted the assignment to write "The Ultimates," Hickman knew he would be writing the adventures of some pretty powerful characters, so the writer wanted foes that could test the mettle of these formidable heroes. To that end, he created the Children of Tomorrow, a race of humans who, thanks to high technology, have evolved several centuries in the span of less than a year. The developer of that technology and leader of the Children is the Ultimate Universe's incarnation of Reed Richards, who recently decided that he's going to solve the world's problems regardless of who gets killed or destroyed in the process.
Hickman, who writes the monthly Marvel Universe adventures of Reed Richards in "Fantastic Four" and "FF," welcomed the chance to pen his villainous, teenaged Ultimate Universe counterpart in "The Ultimates." "He kind of exists as the logical extension of, 'What if Reed made completely non-empathic decisions?' So what if they were bad for the rabble? He's a fascinating character," Hickman told CBR News. "Brian Bendis introduced the idea of a villainous Reed in his 'Ultimate Doom' trilogy, and I thought it was perfect. The first thing I said to [Brian] was, 'You're not going to kill him, right?' He told me he wasn't, and the end of 'Ultimate Doom' worked out perfectly because we were able to use it to set up our 'Ultimates' relaunch.
"I think Ultimate Reed is a fantastic character," Hickman continued. "The Children in general are a good Ultimatization of what was a really great Mike Carey idea, The Children of the Vault, introduced in his 'Super Novas' arc of 'X-Men.' I think he, and they, make for a different kind of villain than what we've seen, in that Reed and his followers are essentially, completely, utterly and totally correct. They do not see these as evil decisions. They just happen to be bad for the apes that are left on the planet," Hickman said with a laugh. "They're centuries more advanced than every one else. Just look how far the human race has come in the last 20 years compared to the 60 before, then to the 100 before that. And, in parallel with that, you can see that we're rapidly evolving culturally, as well, even though it doesn't feel like it some days. Reed and the Children represent that to a ridiculous degree, and it's just a whole lot of fun."
One of the Children's earliest offensives was devastating attack against Asgard, wiping the city's entire mythical population out except for Thor. Currently, the thunder god has been seeing visions of the specters of his fallen brethren, and it's unclear whether these visions are indeed the fallen Asgardians or products of the Thunder God's imagination. Of course, isn't the first time readers have been left with questions about Ultimate Thor's sanity. In the original "Ultimates" series, writer Mark Millar led readers along, wondering if Thor was truly a god or just a delusional man with some very powerful weaponry.
"I loved Mark Millar's first two volumes of 'The Ultimates,' and the character I loved more than any of the others, and I thought had the freshest take, was Thor. I thought it would be a complete and utter ripoff, though, just to ignore the stuff that had come after with the character, so I used my 'Ultimate Thor' miniseries to set up where I wanted to go," Hickman explained. "I knew I was going to write 'The Ultimates' afterwards, and the project allowed me to set the table to do all this. I think that was the right decision. I think it's good that the characters are different from their mainstream, 616 Marvel counterparts. I think that can only help differentiate the product in what is a crowded Avengers marketplace."
Hickman also plans maintaining the distinct tone of "The Ultimates" by populating the team with characters whose traditional Marvel Universe counterparts don't always play central roles in "Avengers" storylines. In "The Ultimates" #5, for example, he brought back the Ultimate Universe's version of the Falcon.
"Ultimate Falcon and 616 Falcon have similar costumes and some similar abilities, but beyond those pretty superficial things, they're not really that much alike. I'm a pretty big Warren Ellis fan and I thought he had a pretty cool take on the character," Hickman remarked. "So when I was going down the roster of characters I wanted in the book, he was an obvious choice. I think we're bringing him back in a very interesting way. In issue #6, we'll get another big chunk of his story, and he'll play a pretty prominent role in issue #7. Then he's part of the regular cast going forward."
Another hero joining the ranks of the Ultimates is Jamie Braddock, the new Ultimate incarnation of Captain Britain, who took over the role from his brother, Brian Braddock, when Hickman began his run on the book. "I always planned on taking Captain Britain in a different direction," Hickman said. "We haven't shown this in the book yet, but the British have pretty much been decimated. That's where the remnants of the EU's Super Soldier program made a stand against the Children of Tomorrow, so much of the country's infrastructure has pretty much been cratered.
"Jamie is basically a guy without a home, and he finds one in the Ultimates. He'll be a regular member of the team and he's a lot of fun to write," Hickman continued. "I think what you're going to see, going forward, is that the scale and the arena 'The Ultimates' is taking place in doesn't just involve Europe and the U.S. It's much larger than that. It's global, it's epic and Jamie plays a prominent role in it."
If Nick Fury has his way, Captain Britain won't be the only Captain on the Ultimates. In the first four issues of the series, Hickman showed what the team is missing now that Steve Rogers has given up the Captain America identity. And in issue #5 Fury set out to attempt to convince Rogers to pick up his shield again.
"I think you could make the argument for Captain America's importance as being that of a tactician, but I think overall, his importance is symbolic. That's his prime role," Hickman said. "We're talking about a team with Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain Britain and some other characters that will be revealed. It's not like he adds a lot of raw power compared to these other guys. And, of course, Fury is a tactical genius in his own right."
Fury believes the Ultimates need their symbol back, but persuading Steve Rogers to resume his position on the team will be no easy matter. "The way Brian Bendis and I wrote things is, Steve quit because he felt incredibly guilty and responsible for the death of Peter Parker. Relatively speaking, not much time has passed since Steve quit, but I think you can interpret him staying away from the team as him not being 'onboard' with where things are headed," Hickman said. "Maybe he'll be back at a later date? Or perhaps he'll come to stand for something symbolically different from what everybody else does? He's a real touchstone for the changes in the book; what is coming and where everything is headed. The thing to remember is, our mandate is to not be like the regular Marvel Universe. So if you expect Cap to pick up the shield and save the day, that would be unwise."
With or without Captain America, however, the Ultimates still have to find a way to stop Reed Richards and the Children of Tomorrow. In "Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates" #5, Hickman kicked off "The World," his second story arc on the title, with an issue that saw the Falcon devise a way to spy on the Children. In upcoming issues, the team will attempt to act upon the intelligence Falcon obtains.
"Issue #6 ends with what could be called a working plan that Hawkeye and Nick Fury devise," Hickman said. "Issues #7 marks the beginning of that plan. It will work in some ways, and it won't in others. I can promise that the world is going to get more dangerous before it gets more stable."
In upcoming issues, the chaotic and dangerous world of "The Ultimates" will be brought to life by two different artists. Issues #5 and issue#6 feature work by guest artist Brandon Peterson with five page sequences by regular series artist Esad Ribic.
"Esad drew the pages involving the Falcon," Hickman said. "The plan right now is Esad draws all of issues #7-9. I think we can assume his art is going to continue to be absolutely brilliant and probably more important than any of the writing I do in regard to creating the world and making it feel real and quite unique. It's clear that he's insanely talented and a fantastic world builder. I think he and Dean White have kind of hit the sweet spot of how his work should be colored. It's just almost perfect. I couldn't be happier with how the book looks. Esad and Dean are both fantastic. Obviously, it's going to be the writing that's going to be the death of this book," Hickman said, laughing.
Hickman is known for plotting long, intricate master plans for the books he works on, and while he couldn't divulge much of the future of the Ultimates for fear of spoilers, he was able to provide some hints and teases which suggest that 2012 is going to be an interesting and exciting year for fans of "Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates."
"We will see the world getting bigger and we'll see the Ultimates being less significant, but therefore more important, or 'valuable.' We'll see a really different external look at the United States - not some kind of predictable 'fall of the empire' thing. It's a fresh look at a place where the United States hasn't found itself in a really long time," The writer said. "We'll get further inside each of the characters' heads. The stuff with Thor is going to be really fascinating. The stuff with Iron Man is very, very interesting as he becomes more important because of his association with the other tastemakers and influence-peddlers in the Kratos Club. The Fury stuff is pretty interesting and Hawkeye continues to be pivotal. Plus, I think people will really get a kick out of our Hulk stuff."