Following the release of "Ultimate X," which many saw as a return to form for Jeph Loeb, many readers may be tempted to give his take on the Ultimates another shot with the release of "Ultimate Comics New Ultimates #1." After all, he is paired with incoming artist Frank Cho, and whatever Loeb's weaknesses as a writer may be, one of his undeniable strengths is his ability to tailor his style around his collaborators.
Sadly, despite a strong opening sequence, the series is still plagued by the kind of weak plotting and tired attempts at "edgy" writing that ruined "Ultimates v3" and "Ultimatum" for so many of us. In this case, gratuitous violence gives way to gratuitous sexual displays. At least this time, the story isn't simply flitting from shock reveal to shock reveal, and indeed, the narrative spine of Tony Stark's sustained, issue-long monologue holds the chapter together rather well, in its own way -- although those that recognize the references to Loeb's personal life may find them a somewhat jarring addition. If nothing else, the issue does a good job of re-establishing the post-Ultimatum status quo for the team, which includes the addition of characters like Zarda, Ka-Zar and Shanna to the title, as well as the appearance of a few new potential threats.
Despite that, there are wider problems with the team's status quo. Despite this being a new issue #1, there's not really any indication as to how and why the Ultimates are intending to regroup in the aftermath of Ultimatum, nor any attempt made to deal with the events of "Ultimate Avengers," which features several of the characters that appear in this issue. Although it may be established later what role the Ultimates play in the post-Ultimatum Ultimate-verse, it feels like a major omission in what is, essentially, a series relaunch.
Characterization is another area where Loeb has tweaked his approach. Characters like Hawkeye and Captain America are still a little one-note, but there's a new internal logic to their actions, and they no longer speak purely in "kewl" slogans. Unfortunately, though, the same weakness for writing female characters as naught but sexual objects permeates every page of "New Ultimates," just as it did "Ultimates 3". Undeniably, Frank Cho's famously buxom artwork heightens this impression, but it wouldn't have been difficult for Loeb to temper it if he desired. For a writer of his standing, it seems like an adolescent attitude in all the worst ways.
Artistically, the book has improved leaps and bounds over Madureira's murky pencils and Finch's bombastic but substanceless art. Cho works wonders with the material he has, with masses of detail and consideration poured into every page. His character designs, while gratuitous, are well-realised, with subtle body language and detailed costumes. There's a clarity and boldness that makes his artwork a fantastic fit for superhero comics in general, and although his pace has been known to slow him down, Cho's artwork is always worth the wait.
"Ultimate Comics New Ultimates #1," then, isn't quite as good as it could be, or perhaps should have been. But it is generally an improvement over the last Ultimates series. That, at least, we can be thankful for.