December marks the month of much celebration for people from different walks of life, but for comic book fans, they have a different reason to celebrate: the release of Marvel Comics' "Ultimates 2." The sequel to last year's smash 13-issue maxi-series returns with writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch, ready to present their new version of the Avengers to the world once more and probably shock a few readers. Millar spoke with CBR News about "Ultimates 2" and introduced the main concept to those unfamiliar with the series.
"The Ultimates are a military strategy, devised by SHIELD, as a means of keeping America safe from 21st century threats," explained Millar to CBR News. "Even in the real world, a vast military force isn't much use against a suitcase nuke or a dirty bomb planted in a subway station and The Ultimates were put together for these kind of real-world emergencies plus threats from the emerging post-human population in this new Marvel Universe. The traditional MU has around 4,700 super-powered characters that have names and costumes. The Ultimate universe has less than 100. Maybe even less than fifty or sixty and so this threat and these dangers are all very new. The team was put together under General Nick Fury, head of SHIELD, and is comprised of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Wasp. Bruce Banner hoped to have some involvement in the team, but ended up as their first menace. Giant Man was involved initially, but has since been relegated to freelance lab-work after a domestic with his wife. There's also a covert, black ops team that's being brought further into the mix in volume two and these guys are Black Widow, Hawkete, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The primary team are all idealists and scientists whereas the emerging black ops people are all hardened SHIELD vets. As for how different they are from the MU versions, I'll leave that up to people to decide. We've just tried to take the core essence of what makes these characters work and apply them to a modern setting, kind of like you would if you were doing a movie."
Of course, the mission statement for this series is clear, as Millar states, "We wanted this to be better. Otherwise, what's the point?"
This sequel series promises to re-imagine characters like the Defenders and Captain Britain, who may seem B-list to some, but don't expect that this means we'll see the Ultimate versions of lesser known characters, such as Triathalon for example. "Not a chance," answers the scribe. "No disrespect to people who like the character, but there will be no Ultimate Jack of Hearts, etc, either because they're just not iconic enough. From the beginning, we knew we really wanted to make this the big players. The founding fathers of the Marvel Universe. We're really only in year two of the book (even though we've been running a little longer) and so throwing in every character from 40 years of Avengers history just doesn't sit right with me. I'm not introducing any new characters to the team in the sequel, just exploring the guys we have a little further. They're interesting enough anyway. I honestly think it's hard to find the space for Captain America alone. These guys are such interesting characters."
The first "Ultimates" series balanced delicately between character driven moments and all out action, something Millar admits isn't easy and says he can be criticized for if he goes too much one way. "It's really a balance. We always laugh when we hear people say it's just a noisy summer blockbuster because, for the first half of the original, people were saying we didn't have enough action. The thirteen issues that comprise the original has five fights. Seriously, five fights. There's a WW2 action scene, the fight with the Hulk, a short domestic struggle, retribution for the short domestic struggle and a big fight with the bad guys at the end. We've taken the same approach with the sequel, starting very small and realistically and gradually building up to the action. The original had a three-issue fight scene as the conclusion and so we wanted to go as far from this as possible when starting the sequel. There's a nice, little action opener, but we spend a lot of time re-establishing the characters and showing everything that's happened to them in the year between 'Ultimates 1' and 'Ultimates 2.' I don't want to give any spoilers here, but issues two and three has very little action at all (just like issues two and three of the original series)."
The series has also been accused of being "shocking" or existing solely for "shock value," in regards to certain actions by the re-imagined Hulk or the brutal marital bout in issue #6, but Millar doesn't quite understand the claims of bad "shock." "It never ceases to amaze me when people talk about shock in a negative sense. Are the nerves of these softies really so weak that even a gentle shock can upset them to that degree? The original had maybe two or three 'shocks' over thirteen issues, one of which was Hank Pym beating his wife and being subsequently ass-thumped for it by Captain America. I nicked this exact set-up from the episode of "er" where Kovacs kicks the ass of the violent neighbour who beat up Abby, but I didn't read a single review of that episode where anyone said the writers were going for cheap shocks. To me, that kind of thing is drama. I like having the reader unaware of what to expect and I think that brings a certain danger to the work. Overall, that's probably the most popular scene we had in the original. We had a huge positive response to that stuff, but it did strike me as odd seeing some people say that.
"The tone for the sequel will be close to the original, the only difference being that the book gets a little more political given that we live in more political times. This series, and most of the stuff I do, hopefully reflects the world around it and I think this is why the book has such a broad mainstream appeal. We're living in a very charged climate right now and the idea of super-soldiers being dropped into an explosive situation in the Middle East seems quite logical in their world. However, I'm not taking sides here. I'm quite left of centre, but it just seems cheap and obvious to do something that's overtly a Bush-bash. I just want to look at the situation where your country is under threat, you have the means to defend it (perhaps pre-emptively) and your superiors are telling you that they need you to help. Each of the characters have very distinctive political views. Cap is a soldier, Iron Man is a utopian, Thor is a pacifist and so this leads to some interesting developments. This isn't the main story in the first arc, but it's an under-current leading into the final arc (Grand Theft America)."
Since the completion of the first "Ultimates" series fans have seen a breadth of material from Millar that covered a diversity of subjects, such as super-villains in the "real world" in "Wanted" and the quasi-religious book about the return of Jesus entitled "Chosen." Rest assured that "Ultimates 2," while still appealing to the fans of the original, will showcase the evolution of Millar's craft. "I've really changed my style quite a lot and this stuff is starting to come out now. If you look at what I was doing a year ago, it was all four panels a page, no captions and lots of spreads. This was very much in vogue from 1999-2002 and was absolutely appropriate to the time. However, just as Ditko's nine-panel grids of the early sixties gave way to the Kirby expansionism we saw towards the end of the decade, things seem to be shifting again and the books are becoming more content-heavy. This doesn't mean there was anything wrong with what came before. It's just a stylistic change and it'll all shift again towards the end of the decade as the artists become the real force in the industry again and the writers become absolutely subordinate. The style seems to be writers being the dominant force when there's nothing to lose, building everything up from scratch before passing it over to the artist and the artists taking the industry into the stratosphere for a few years before it all because unsustainable and unreadable completely collapses again. This has happened at last twice in the past and should happen again in less than five years. The books will be crap, but they'll look beautiful and sell like crazy until the big, big mega-collapse of 2012/13 when the industry gets decimated for another few years. In the meantime, however, enjoy those good comics. Has there ever been as many as there are right now? I think 05 will beat 1986. I was reading about ten books a month in 86, but look set to be reading twenty next year."Page 14
The events in "Ultimates 2" take place over a year after "Ultimates" #13 and Millar explains, "The second arc of the original took place over a very short period of time and took eighteen months to come out so this seemed a nice way of catching our breath again. I also like it when movies do this and you're keen to be re-introduced to everyone just to see where they are now. We've got Banner and Pym as friends in our opener, Cap dating Jan, Tony seeing Natasha and so on. Getting to write Jarvis again was probably my greatest guilty-pleasure. He's sitting playing strip-monopoly with a bunch of soldiers in issue two and Hitchy couldn't wait to draw him again. He always seemed like such a creepy fuck to me. Jarvis is what Alfred would have been like after forty years in a Turkish prison."
While it's en vogue to ridicule Marvel Comics for making each story a 6-issue arc, the same claims won't be made about "Ultimates 2," as Millar says he's taking a different approach to telling this Marvel story. "I've structured this quite differently from the usual Marvel books right now. The first six issues definitely form an arc, but it's comprised of an intro, a two-parter starring The Hulk, a two-parter detailing Thor's secret origin and then a single issue that wraps everything up, leads into the final arc and also has one of the Ultimates joining this low-budget team calling themselves The Defenders. I actually wrote this issue about eighteen months ago. I just couldn't wait to write issue six.
"'Grand Theft America' follows this and it's a big six-issue arc," continued Millar. "This is where the book gets bigger and more political, but I don't want to give any details on this until at least next Easter. We finish with twelve and that's twenty five issues in total. Four nice little trades and two sweet hardcovers for your bathroom of choice."
Though the solicitations may seem to indicate that this year of "Ultimates" will be full of guest stars on every page, Millar is quick to point out that isn't the case. "It's not bogged down with guest stars. Everyone always wants to see their favourite characters, but I don't want to distract myself from the main story. Matt Murdock makes a small appearance, we meet the European team led by Captain Britain and see The Defenders, but they don't have a huge amount of screen time. I could easily write a six-part Ultimate Defenders thing. I just found myself having so much to say about the characters. I don't know if I'll have time, but I'm definitely interested in doing this at some point. My plan for the next 12-18 months is 'Spider-Man,' 'Wolverine,' 'Ultimates 2' and two other short Marvel projects. After that, I'm taking a big chunk of time off and planning Millarworld Phase Two of 06 so I don't see the Defenders thing happening anytime soon."
There have been some delays in releasing "Ultimates 2" and while some of those are attributed to artist Bryan Hitch, Millar says fans shouldn't boo-hoo the artist delays. "Bryan could bring this out once a year and it would be worth it. He and JRJR are completely different artists and appeal to opposite sides of my brain, but they're the two best comic artists of the last thirty years. I love Bryan, but he knows this already and is such a fucking big-head I can say no more."
That said, Millar does empathize with those fans who felt annoyed with the lateness of "Ultimates." "It's a total pain in the arse," admitted Millar. "However, as we've stressed at length, Bryan draws the equivalent of fifteen issues (the original series with all the extra pages) over twenty six months. This suggests that, even when a crisis hits him, he's slightly faster than bi-monthly. Thus, our plan was to do what DC does with Jim Lee and have him secure six issues in the can before the first issue is published. This means that he's drawing issue seven when you're reading issue one unlike the first series where we started late and he was finishing issue two as you were reading issue one."
Though Millar has said he might not be back for an "Ultimates 3," he's sure that someone will continue the adventures of Earth's Mightiest Government Heroes. "It's pretty much Marvel's biggest money-spinner and, despite the delays, has stayed in the top five at all times since it was published so there's no way in Hell Marvel would stop this book after we're gone. I wouldn't want them to either. I came up with some good stuff for 'Ultimates 3.' It'll be hard to let something go that's been so good for us and people clearly love, but you have to stick to your principles. You only go back to your old glories when your career is in trouble so you'll probably see me pitching Ultimate Kang Versus The Ultimates a few years down the road. For now, I'd rather just love this for what it is and give someone else a turn at the bat in Summer 06 when we're gone. I think Milligan and Immonen would be a great choice for this, but there's nothing more depressing than seeing people speculate on the next creative team when you're only halfway through your run. It's like asking Sean Connery who's going to be the next James Bond just as he finishes Goldinger!!"
If you're on the fence about "Ultimates #2," Millar has a good reason for you to pick up all the issues. "Buy 'The Ultimates' because we try our best, Bryan draws some lovely pictures and he needs the royalties so he can have more babies."