2002’s penULTIMATE column

The next two What Th--?s are going to be short. I’m trying to finish everything on my plate before Christmas. What Th--? will return to full size with the new year.
Although I don’t read as many comics as I think I should, when I do and I find something that surprises me, I feel I should say something about it. You’ll note I hardly ever discuss the bad comics I read, and believe me there are plenty. There’s always been bad comics, but since this isn’t a review column I figure there’s plenty of other people who can point out why this stinks or why that’s lousy. I’d rather mention the books that, after I read them, I go – “Whoa!” Now, I’m not doing a Keanu Reeves. I just want to see something I haven’t seen before.

So I was having a Saturday morning brunch a few months back with some ‘industry folk,’ as they call them out here, and a few of the guys started talking about one of Marvel’s books. Since Marvel doesn’t send me their books free, I don’t generally read them and if I don’t read them, the odds of a review are, well, you guess.
Anyway, they were talking about this Marvel comic. Fact is, they couldn’t stop talking about it. They said it was great. Different. Edgy. Yadda Yadda. I’ve heard that all before and when I pick up the book that gets rave reviews like that it usually turns out to be “The Green Team, Vol 2: The Heretic.”

But they wouldn’t stop. They looked at me and said I had to buy it because I would love this comic. They were challenging me. ME! To shut them up I said I’d actually fork over to Marvel some cold, hard cash (not the way I generally want cash to go between Marvel and me) and give it a try, but, that little voice in my head was going “Now Marvel owes me another 10 bucks plus.” I’m keeping a tab.

Also, having written probably a thousand super-hero stories, I didn’t think there was an idea I hadn’t written or at least seen before. Oh, the presentation may be different. The pacing. The craft. They may be a helluva lot better than what I would have done, but beneath the pretty façade I thought there’d be more rotted timber.
I was wrong. Very wrong. Marvel’s “The Ultimates” is an incredible comic. Beautifully drawn and wonderfully written. It dares to take the old standards and turn them on their heads, and yet, somehow, keep them absolutely recognizable. And that’s just the beginning. Writer Mark Millar actually found ways to write these old characters as if I’d never seen them before. And, with the possible exception of Hank Pym at the end, nobody was dumped on. Do you know the significance of that? How many characters are changed these days – often by writers who put “u” in color - only to have them turn out to be disgusting mockeries of the originals. I mean, I read enough comics written by people who don’t put ‘u’s in color to know we can trash our own characters without outside help, thank you.

But Captain America is Captain America. Completely different from anything I’d ever seen before. He is rough. He is caustic. He is sometimes miserable. He is, God help us, a soldier. A soldier with all the flaws of real people. And yet, he is completely patriotic. He is what Cap would probably be if you cast the role in the real world. No, I don’t completely like him, but I completely believe him. And even with the edge he is still a comic book hero. Just a comic book hero who exists today. In the year 2002. he is a hero who loves his country without question. And, without irony, by the way. Why did it take a Scotsman (if that’s what Mark is, I’m not sure – we spoke at Mid-Ohio Con for maybe fifteen seconds and I couldn’t understand a single word he said which makes me pretty certain he’s a Scot) to give us an American hero who acts like an American? He actually made me care about this character for the first time ever. I always thought Cap was useless. Great costume. Useless character. Is that sacrilegious? He never seemed to fit in our world, not even back in the 60s.

Now he does. Man, now he does.

That’s not all. I love Mark’s version of Bruce Banner. This is a man who is suffering, trying to fight himself and yet sinking deeper and deeper into the fact that in his other form he’s an uncontrollable monster. And, for the first time ever, he becomes a monster who kills. And yet, for some reason, it was written in a way that didn’t offend me. Face it, Bruce has always become an insane monster. Why shouldn’t he kill? Bruce is not a hero. Hulk’s not a hero. He’s just the protagonist. Yet, I’m sure in less capable hands I would have hated the idea of him killing because it wouldn’t have worked for the character. This defies my belief that comic book heroes don’t and should never kill, but him killing is what defines this new Bruce Banner. I can’t even describe why Bruce works when he should just piss us all off for being so damn creepy. Yet he doesn’t and I don’t know why he doesn’t.

Add to all this Mark’s interpretation of Thor. Man, he is a hoot and a half. This is a totally aware Jesus come back and walking 21st century Earth. Why didn’t anyone ever think of this before?

The only point I don’t like is the characterization of Hank Pym. I liked him until the end, but then what happens (and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read this yet) seems to come out of left field. But this is a small point because future stories may be able to explain what happened.

The story is fun. It’s straight forward comics fun, but it’s the characters who make this book so good.

Now, I know some professionals don’t care for The Ultimates because it changes the heroes we grew up with. But, you know, I started reading The Flash in 1956 with his first Showcase issue. I thought he was a great character. Of course I was a small kid and I never knew there was a different Flash whose comic died only 5 years before. Five years? Chris Claremont doesn’t even begin to wrap up story points for thirteen years. And I’m sure there may have been people who were bent out of shape because their Flash had been changed, but it didn’t bother me. I was getting a Flash meant for me. A kid in 1956.

Now, I know there’s a difference. Barry Allen was a new character. They didn’t suddenly change Jay Garrick into a completely different concept, but unlike, say, what was done to Hal Jordan, most of the changes made in The Ultimates work.
I’ve gone on record a million times (give or take) saying that each generation should have their own heroes designed for them. I don’t mind the changes here because they are so different and yet they still, in their own way, honor the originals. I much prefer this to something that technically changes less but forgets the spirit of creativity that Stan, Jack and Steve brought to the Marvel characters 40+ years ago.
Are the original heroes gone? No. For the purists, they’re over in Avengers. Would Stan or Jack or Steve like these? I don’t know. I’d like to think Jack would see that Millar and Hitch were not mimicking what he did but coming up with something new and different – and that was exactly what Jack always tried to do. Is it right to change what came before? Should all comics be killed once the original creators leave? I don’t know. Sometimes I think yes. Sometimes I’m sure no. I go back and forth. Guess it depends on the characters.

But all I know is this – I like The Ultimates a lot. Millar and Hitch got my attention and kept it through the entire collected story. If you want a good read and are willing to put continuity aside, take a look. You may hate it. You may love it. But you’ll have to admit what these guys did is something special.

See you in seven.
Marv Wolfman

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