Back in the early 2000s, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates was one of my very favorite comics. It reinvented the Avengers for the 21st Century, emphasizing the characters’ cinematic potential while also exploring how awful people with that much power could be. Its Captain America was a critique of American jingoism post-9/11, its Bruce Banner a repressed nerd who used the Hulk to express his darkest desires. As a teenager, it was everything I wanted from a superhero comic.
The Al Ewing-written The Ultimates -- first relaunched by Marvel in 2015 with Kenneth Rocafort, who passed art duties to Travel Foreman last year when the series evolved into Ultimates² -- is one of my very favorite comics being published right now. And all that it shares with the original Ultimates is the title.
Rather than Ultimized versions of familiar Marvel heroes, Ewing’s cast is a little more inclusive: Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel), T’Challa (Black Panther), Monica Rambeau (Spectrum), Adam Brashear (Blue Marvel) and America Chavez (America Chavez). The names are considerably less household, and the faces considerably more diverse -- the team’s token white guy is Galactus, turned to the side of the angels. Instead of the original’s realism, it leans cosmic. Instead of cynicism, it embraces optimism.
With all that in mind, the choice to renumber this issue, jumping from last month’s #9 to #100, is an odd one. That centenary count includes eight different series, six of them published in a different imprint set in a different universe.
Ewing squares this circle by pitting today’s Ultimates against the Ultimates of 2002. Foreman perfectly channels Hitch’s designs, clearly differentiating the Ultimate Hulk, for example, from the one we’re more used to seeing. Their voices are spot-on too, and not just because Joe Sabino gives their speech balloons the trademark lower-case letters of the Ultimate Universe.
Ewing highlights the nastiness of these versions of the characters -- playing up the self-regarding "Nice Guy™" nature of Ultimate Bruce Banner, for example -- and offsets it against the progressiveness of his Ultimates team. When Captain America breaks out his infamous “this ‘A’ doesn’t stand for France” line, America Chavez answers it with her own version.
The comic doesn’t dismiss its guest characters, though. They all get a moment to shine, and Cap even gets to redeem himself a little. After all, we don’t need a Steve Rogers that embodies the worst parts of the US right now -- the Marvel Universe has already got one of those.
All of this might make this issue sound like the perfect jumping-on point for fans of Millar and Hitch’s book, but unfortunately #100 is also the final issue. Besides, the Ultimates vs Ultimates gimmick is only half the story -- literally. This is an extra-size issue, and it’s really two stories in one.
The other half wraps up the overarching narrative of Ewing’s run, dealing with cosmic entities like Eternity, Order and Chaos in a realm where, as Black Panther puts it, “combat is metaphor”. It’s heady stuff and, while enjoyable, feels a little at odds with the other story.
If a separate issue had been dedicated to each, the two halves might have had more room to breathe. This particularly shows through in the issue’s epilogue, with three pages drawn by Marco Lorenzana & Scott Hanna. Their style is markedly different from what came before, and it sticks out all the more because there’s no story justification for the shift.
I understand, though, that would have ruined the neat #100 numbering -- and it is undeniably cool to see the stories of both these Ultimates and their predecessors wrapped up all in one issue. The book maintains its optimistic spirit to the end, suggesting a brighter future for the Marvel Universe. Here in 2017, that’s something we could definitely do with more of.