It's telling that the relaunch of the Ultimate line begins with "The Ultimates" #1. While "Ultimate Spider-Man" is the steady heart and soul of the line, "The Ultimates" is the prestige book, the one that's meant to be a big deal. By beginning the new line with it and the creative team of Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic, and Dean White, the message is meant to be: this is big and new and must read comics. With the freedom and scope that comes with "The Ultimates," simply wondering what Hickman will do is enough to get many people so giddy with excitement that they'll say "Millar who?" when asked about the book. That's a lot of pressure for a first issue.
Hickman walks a fine balance between jumping right into plots that had their foundation laid in the shorts he contributed to in "Ultimate Fallout" and making sure that anyone who skipped that mini-series can follow along fine. For the most part, he pulls it off by rehashing the three big global threats that first popped up in "Ultimate Fallout" #5, albeit progressed by a day so it isn't a simple retread. At the heart of the issue is a simple plot: the world is falling apart around Nick Fury and he doesn't know what to do exactly. However, until the end of the issue, that may get a little lost under a lot of details, sadly.
There are some major details that aren't covered, or are, at best, alluded to, that were set up in "Ultimate Fallout" like the identity of the man in the helmet on the first page or the recent cuts to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s budget after orders to expand operations that add stress to Fury or even that the team is down one key member. One has to wonder how this issue would have been written without the "Ultimate Fallout" lead-in.
Despite some problems balancing the existing stories and the need to be new reader friendly, Hickman has a strong handle on these characters and their world. The idea of everything falling apart is a great way to start the series, almost the opposite of Millar's slow burn style of storytelling for the first two volumes. He also integrates the Asgardians into the world in a clever fashion that leads to an amusing scene involving a bear that drinks beer and the new Captain Britain offending Thor.
Esad Ribic is known mostly for his painted cover work for Marvel and the chance to see him do interiors is rare. He really wowed with his work on the "Dark Reign: The List: Wolverine" one-shot he did with Jason Aaron and, along with Dean White's phenomenal colors, wows again in this issue. His art isn't as expansive or realistic as Bryan Hitch's work, but he manages to get across the idea that this is a big blockbuster of a comic through smart page layouts and choosing the exact right pictures to draw. There are a good dozen panels that stop you dead, because they're so fantastic, including the final panel of the comic.
Ribic's work is strong enough that it's amazing to think he's been relegated to cover duty for so long when he's such a natural fit for interior art. The way he draws the brawl between the Asgardians and the European superhumans is lively and chaotic, while still maintaining a strong focus. He makes a fairly static centerpiece of the comic, Nick Fury in the 'war room' (or whatever you'd call it) monitoring the situations, visually exciting. Part of this is the slow visual unhinging of Fury as things get worse and worse.
It would help to have read Hickman's contributions to "Ultimate Fallout" before "The Ultimates" #1, though not essential. The comic is still exciting and sets up a large story that, right now, seems like it could easily end with the destruction of the team. A first issue that starts with its foot on the gas is exactly what's called for.