It's one-part '90s, two-parts '00s in 'Age of Ultron'

The first issue of Marvel's Age of Ultron is definitely shiny, but is it new? Not hardly.

It is relentlessly focused on the evocation of nostalgia, to a degree that's remarkable even among super-comics (a genre that's built out of nostalgia-evocation), but what is perhaps most interesting about the book is the particular frequency of nostalgia the publishers appears interested in.

Yes, this is a comic book seemingly about other comic books, a comic book like so many other Marvel comic books you've already read, but which Marvel comic books, and from which decade? That's what's unusual about this particular go-round.

It's hard to look at the cover and not think of the 1990s.

No longer content with variant-cover schemes, Marvel has upped the ante in its silly cover-gimmick arms race with DC Comics, and come up with an embossed gold-foil cover. There's a metallic shine to the wrap-around cover (the back of which is really an ad for the second issue), justified in-story by the fact that this is about a robot. That robot, Ultron, like the "AU" and "Marvel" logos, is embossed, so the comic feels special — not just metaphorically, but literally. Run your fingertips all over it with your eyes closed; yeah, this isn't your typical issue of Avengers!

There's also that title, which likely reminds any reader old enough of the mega-popular mid-'90s mutant crossover "Age of Apocalypse," in which the Marvel Universe was dramatically altered and villain Apocalypse came to rule. The title here is a pretty obvious riff, and although there's a lot of room for the storyline to shift into something wholly different, at the outset it definitely seems to be the Avengers version of "Age of Apocalypse."

While reading, however, I was thinking more of the '00s. The book opens with a two-page, long-shot splash of an altered New York City (the caption reading "Today"), with white borders suggesting the comic book version of the widescreen edition of a movie on DVD. That's followed by a two-page splash of a medium shot of highly detailed, hand-crampingly rendered rubble and a sci-fi structure above a ruined cityscape.

While the book is occasionally laid out with higher panel counts that read horizontally across both pages of the spread, the mode is very much Authority/Ultimates-era "wide-screen," and, driving the comparison home, the pencil art comes courtesy of Authority/Ultimates artist Bryan Hitch, with Paul Neary inking and Paul Mounts coloring.

The seriousness and Hollywood faux-realism of the story further stresses its Ultimates-ishness, with the current design of Hawkeye (which was inspired by the film Avengers, which was inspired by The Ultimates) putting arrows between the eyes of a dozen or so opponents. There are prostitutes. Drugs. Someone says "ass."

And killer robot and post-apocalyptic dystopia aside, it does have that early-Bendis, New Avengers street-level vibe going, with the first issue consisting almost entirely of Hawkeye killing his way to a captured and tortured Spider-Man, freeing him from gun-toting villains like Hammerhead and The Owl, and bringing him to a group of heroes including Iron Man, Captain America and Luke Cage.

If the Marvel NOW! rollout of the past few months suggested something new in the air at the publisher, a changing of the guard, with stalwarts like Bendis and Ed Brubaker leaving longtime projects like The Avengers and Captain America, and a new crop of writers taking characters in new, exciting directions, this particular comic seems like the publisher reneging on the bet.

It's the New Avengers writer and the Ultimates artists on a line-wide crossover, not unlike House of M, Secret Invasion, Siege and Avengers Vs. X-Men in scope and size, comics that Bendis wrote (or, in the case of AVX, co-wrote).

With that healthy dose of '90s and early '00s nostalgia blended into the mix, however, it's at least something different than the next in a line of big crossover event/stories. There definitely seems to be a break in continuity in premise and tone from the previous cycle of Marvel crossovers, even if it's a fairly simple shift from hero vs. hero over who gets to be Boss of the Super-Heroes to heroes vs. a villain over survival.

It should also be noted that, as these things go, it isn't a bad comic either.

There's nothing laughable or patently ridiculous in the first issue, none of the relatively few characters seem too out-of-character (if you allow for time travel and whatnot making Hawkeye more murderous), there are no clumsy, cowardly or reprehensible misreading or misuse of zeitgeist politics on display.

I'm not sure I've read the first issue of one of these sorts of Marvel series and not found anything objectionable before, with the possible exception of World War Hulk, which boasted a purity no other Marvel crossover -- or even story -- has been able to match (you know, Hulks Versus Everyone Because He's Really Had It This Time You Guys).

Of course, this is only the first issue, and Bendis has had dozens and dozens of opportunities over the past 10 years or so to demonstrate that he begins stories better than he ends them. There's still plenty of time for things to change, to do so for the worse.

But so far? So good. So good, in fact, that I only felt a little like a schmuck for buying a comic with a shiny gold cover like I was a teenager in 1992 again.

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