Yes, it’s time to look at Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s paean to superhero excess!
Published by Marvel, 13 issues (#1-13), cover dated March 2002 – April 2004.
SPOILERS ahead, I guess, but, I mean, it’s a superhero book. Bad guys are bad, good guys punch them. It’s not hard!
“You think this letter on me heard stands for France?” In issue #12 of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s ridiculous overwrought superhero epic, Captain America yells this to a Nazi/Skrull who tells him to surrender (as you can plainly see above). It is a beautifully drawn full-page spread of Cap, bloodied but not beaten, and it is, perhaps, one of the worst pages in mainstream American superhero comics ever published. It ignores the history of the character, who would have known, presumably, that the French lost over 4% of their population in World War I (the Americans lost .13%) and were still suffering from a nation-wide shell shock in 1940 and a character who, presumably, fought alongside many, many French who resisted the Nazis during World War II. It ignores the idea that the United States has never suffered a devastating invasion in its history and therefore doesn’t understand the trauma of it, and it also does not take into consideration that Cap himself was frozen during the World War and was only recently revived, so he would have no idea of the more recent meme that the French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys (to quote Groundskeeper Willie). It’s Mark Millar inserting his own prejudices and sense of humor into a comic, and it’s not even a true “Fuck Yeah!” moment, because the Nazi/Skrull who tells Cap to surrender even tells him that the world is about to end, so what good would it do Cap to surrender at this moment? It the entire world is going to end, why not go down fighting? You surrender when you have hope that you might live on. If you don’t have that, what good does surrender do?
It’s just one page, of course, but it shows the fine line Millar always walks with regard to his writing. He wants to be cheeky, and he can be very good at it, but he also wants to be daring, and those results are mixed. When they work, he can be a great writer. When they don’t, you get Captain America completely missing the point. That this comes toward the end of the first volume of The Ultimates, which is quite possibly the most influential comic of the 21st century, is unfortunate, because The Ultimates, as you can deduce from the fact that I’m writing a post about it, is not only influential, it’s pretty damned great.
Millar, of course, didn’t invent “wide-screen” comics, as Warren Ellis, at least, was doing them (with Hitch, though) in The Authority a few years before The Ultimates came along. But that was on a WildStorm book, and while it was part of DC, it didn’t quite have the impact Millar and Hitch’s Avengers book did. Millar also didn’t invent the idea of superheroes in the real world, as that has been a conceit for decades, but his particular spin, which he first wrote about following Ellis on The Authority, was that superheroes would be rock stars, with all the bad behavior that goes with it. Millar is a strong proponent of “superheroes-as-dicks,” which helps explain that Captain America page and should, by all accounts, make his comics unreadable. Some of them are, but with The Ultimates, it made it feel bigger and bolder than your standard superhero fare. There had always been arrogant superheroes, after all, so it wasn’t too big a leap for readers. Millar simply moved them into a far more recognizable world and ratcheted up the dickishness, which made them seem more like actual celebrities. He then introduced actual celebrities into the book, from Shannon Elizabeth, who goes into space with Tony Stark, to Freddie Prinze Jr., who famously goes on a date with Betty Ross. He turns their lives into a reality show, which means incidents like Hank Pym beating on his wife (which, naturally, defines Hank no matter what else he ever does) become big news stories rather than an event which doesn’t have much of an impact on Hank’s status as a hero. Superheroes always had some issues getting along with each other, too, and Millar amped that up as well. In the past, there would be the standard “heroes fight before because of misunderstandings,” and of course Lee and Kirby made the Fantastic Four occasionally get feisty with each other, but the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League might have been the first book to show superheroes actively disliking each other (in a humorous manner, of course). No matter what came first, Millar took all of those conceits and turned them up to 11, so that we get very strong, very distinct personalities in The Ultimates, and they’re not always going to get along on a fundamental level. Tony Stark is an asshole, and Millar really leans into his alcoholism (to the point that it’s almost unbelievable that nobody calls him out during this volume), Steve Rogers is decent but trapped in the past (his fight with Hank Pym brings this to the fore, as it’s a very 1940s thing to do, defending Jan’s honor when no one asked him to), Jarvis is a dick because he’s been working for Stark for too long, Nick Fury is a megalomaniac, Bruce Banner is a simpering weakling who yearns for Betty Ross but thinks he has to be a “man” like Stark to get her, Thor is a hippie, Hank Pym has an inferiority complex when compared even to Bruce – they’re all messes, but they’re domineering messes (for the most part), so everyone overlooks their obvious weaknesses. Millar gets into those weaknesses in volume 2, but it’s fascinating how he brings them up here and lets them marinate. Into this he injects heart-breaking moments, such as Steve meeting Bucky again after over 50 years of separation, and Millar does nice work showing how out of time Steve really is. That’s the most obvious moment, but even though the actions of the other characters aren’t necessarily admirable, Millar does a fine job showing why they do them, and the tragedy of their insecurities is why this comic is a better than a regular superhero slugfest. The Ultimates aren’t necessarily good people, but the ways in which they aren’t good are fascinating.
We can probably blame Brian Michael Bendis for “decompressed” comics, but this run is extremely decompressed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was only frustrating during the publication run because it took two years for 13 issues to come out, and early on they came out pretty regularly before dropping off at the end. So reading it “monthly” was annoying, but when read together, the decompression – Millar taking a long time to get to the action – is part of what he’s trying to say, and it’s interesting. He begins the run with a bang, as Captain America fights Nazis in 1945, which leads to his icy entombment and also sets the stage for the Chitauri story arc, which doesn’t really begin until issue #8. Then we get three full issues of table-setting until the Hulk attacks Manhattan in issue #5. This might seem excessive, but Millar does a good job with them. We get Steve Rogers waking up in the 21st century and having some culture shock, as well as reconnecting with Bucky Barnes, who of course married Cap’s old girlfriend. We get the introduction of Thor, the hippies’ hippie, who’s somewhat coy about being a god and acts as the left-wing conscience of the comic, and we get the increasingly disturbed mindset of Bruce Banner, who doesn’t handle the way the team belittles him all that well. In the scene in which Nick Fury casts Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the movie (which, of course, directly led to Samuel L. Jackson being cast as Nick Fury; it’s something that Millar seems to like doing, as he cast Eminem in Wanted at about this time), Millar does a terrific job writing the team not exactly belittling Banner, but which he could easily take that way, while in these issues Hitch does a great job showing how disheveled and downbeat Banner is becoming. As noted, Millar shows the team not only being in conflict with each other, but actively disliking some members, and the psychological trauma that Banner suffers in these issues – mostly because he doesn’t conform to the warped idea of masculinity embodied by patronizing Captain America and womanizing Tony Stark, and even wisecracking Hank Pym – is gripping to read. When he decides to give the Ultimates a foe to fight and becomes the Hulk, it’s partly because he wants them to be able to justify their budget, but a large part of it is because he’s grappling with masculine ideals that are outmoded at best and toxic at worst. Banner is a beta, sure, and he’s ridiculously jealous (the Hulk, remember, is pissed that Betty is out to dinner with Freddie Prinze Jr.), but he’s also stuck in a world where his best attributes aren’t appreciated as much as the best attributes of others. It’s not surprising he’d snap and “Hulk out,” even in so literal a manner. Millar does a good job setting the Hulk’s rampage up, because it needs to be as justified as possible because of all the carnage the Hulk causes. It’s not surprising that issue #5 ends with Cap kicking a defenseless Banner in the face to knock him out. The Hulk is horrible and Banner is stupid for letting him out, but Cap thinks all problems can be solved with violence. Luckily for him, he’s in a comic where that’s okay.
The other way the decompression works is in the way Millar introduces the bad guys. The idea of superheroes creating supervillains has long been both subtext and actual text, but Millar takes it very seriously in the first arc, as he points out that the Ultimates, as a government-sponsored supergroup, are using taxpayer money to sustain themselves, which comes up early in the series. Larry King asks Stark about it in issue #4, when he points out there’s only been one notable supervillain attack in American history. Stark points out that’s like refusing to get medical insurance because you’ve never been sick, which is a valid argument, but King’s argument is still valid, as well. King also asks about the rumor that Stark’s media interests stirred up the idea of a supervillain threat to get some fat government contracts, which, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks and the new emphasis among some groups on “false flag” operations, is all too trenchant an observation to make (I don’t know how much lead time Millar had on this book, but the only issue that could have conceivably written before 9/11 is #1). Banner is feeling inadequate because he can’t replicate the super-soldier serum (and Betty never lets him forget it), so he becomes the Hulk again, and Millar ties the two threads of his arc together nicely – he wants to give the group something to fight, but he also says he’s missed being “big.” Millar has never been the most subtle writer, but prior to Banner turning into the Hulk, his sexual inadequacies aren’t front and center, and it’s only when he becomes the Hulk that his masculinity becomes his defining trait. He tells Betty how horny he is, he gets distracted when Janet Pym flashes her breasts at him, and Thor’s hammer only makes him horny for Betty again. He’s still pathetic, though, as he just doesn’t want Betty to leave him. Millar actually does a nice job turning him into one of these sad boy-men who don’t handle rejection and whine about how they “deserve” a woman without being too blatant about it. In issue #13, Cap gets the Hulk to fight the Chitauri by telling him that their leader was hooking up with Betty, which of course sets the Hulk off (Cap, perhaps, knows that this will make the Hulk angry because he himself tried to defend Jan’s honor after Hank beat her up and learned a hard lesson about 21st-century chivalry and the notion that men shouldn’t assume that they can defend a woman’s honor), and he later tells the Hulk that the other Chitauri were questioning his sexuality. All of this is done well, as Millar doesn’t go after these kinds of men directly, but in a nice roundabout way, so we reach the conclusion that Banner/Hulk is kind of pathetic on our own, without Millar beating us over the head with it. Millar also does an interesting subversion of this at the end, because all of the Hulk’s rage actually turns Betty on. The Ultimates is more complex than we might think it is on a first reading. After issue #5, we once again slow down, as Millar brings Hank’s domestic abuse to the fore in issue #6 and Cap’s beatdown of Hank in issue #9. In issue #8, we get the first fighting against the Chitauri, which leads into the second big arc. Issues #10-13 are almost non-stop fighting, but because Millar has taken a good long time to set it all up, it works very well. We see the strategies of the Chitauri, we see how smart the Ultimates are, and we see the Hulk go nuts again. It’s good old-fashioned superhero action, on a much grander scale than readers were used to before. Millar’s slow burn paid off very nicely, even if it was torture reading these issues as they came out. Now, reading them all at once is a treat.
As noted above, Millar uses the extra time to give us characters who might not be exactly admirable, but who are still fascinating. Cap and Thor are probably the two most noble characters, but Thor doesn’t really get too much character development in this volume, so it’s Cap by default. He’s a decent guy who, naturally, has a 1940s mindset. In issue #4, he wonders whether Hank will mind that Jan has been showing him around New York and helping him buy clothes, and of course he attacks Hank later after finding out he beat on Jan. Millar writes him really well, from the sadness but stiff upper lip he displays when Nick Fury tells him what happened to his family to his attempts to reconnect with Bucky and Gail. He tries to stay in his old neighborhood even though it’s much more crime-ridden than it was in the 1940s, leading to his apartment getting burglarized and his new record collection getting destroyed. The best thing about the way Millar writes him is that Cap, like the others and even like Banner, is much more comfortable on the battlefield, but while Banner’s discomfort comes from his own personality, Steve’s comes from his situation. In social situations, especially with women, he seems a bit out of sorts. When he’s fighting, he can be himself, and Millar introduces this idea – which is a prevalent one in war stories – nicely, so that again, it’s a subtle way to show how difficult it is for Cap to live in the modern world. In issue #3, Millar brings this to the surface when Steve tells Fury he should have left him in the ice because everything he (Steve, that is) loved is gone, but it’s cleverly done as almost a moment of weakness in the character, even though Millar is letting us behind the curtain very briefly. Eventually, Cap integrates well, but Millar, using the space he’s been accorded, makes it a more difficult journey than we might expect.
Hitch helps make this a great comic, too, not surprisingly. This might not be Hitch’s greatest work, but it’s during his greatest period, after his early, occasionally awkward days and before his art became a bit slicker and looser. In The Ultimates, both Currie and Neary provide rougher inks, while Mounts’s coloring, while almost certainly digital, isn’t as slick as some early digital coloring, and it adds nice nuances to the line work. Hitch, as noted above, worked with Warren Ellis on The Authority, perhaps the first true “widescreen” comic, and his style works well for that kind of comic. He doesn’t do unusual stuff with page designs or panel layouts, telling the story as “simply” as possible, but what Hitch does well is immerse the reader in the world, as he uses amazingly precise details in every panel, never taking one off, even if what we’re seeing is relatively innocuous. He’s superb at blocking out a battle scene because he uses every inch of space and fills it with … stuff, for lack of a better word, making the battles seem crazy and chaotic and busy, so we can believe that these are large groups of people clashing over very important ideologies. He moves easily from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, as in issue #1, where we get a double-page spread of the Allies storming the Nazi fortifications and we are blown away by the sheer scale of it all, but then Hitch quickly moves to the human cost of war, as soldiers get gunned down with frightening efficiency. When the Hulk attacks Manhattan, not only does Hitch draw every building with incredible accuracy, giving us a wonderful sense of place as the team tries to take down Banner, but he also adds hundreds of spectators, because of course people would stop to watch instead of getting the hell out of there. This attention to detail also makes the fights that much more brutal, which is necessary in a world-altering story like this (world-altering in the Ultimate Universe, that is, not necessarily in ours). The brutality has to be part of the fighting, because Millar and Hitch want to get across how titanic these people are and how much it takes out of them to stop the villains. When the Ultimates are supposedly killed in the South Pacific, Hitch draws the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fleet and the skeletons on deck with precision. When they fight Kleiser, Tony shoots him in the head, and Hitch draws the gaping wound beautifully, so we see the carnage a close-range bullet can do (it doesn’t kill him, of course, because he’s an alien, but it still looks messy). He draws the Hulk’s rage in issue #13 powerfully, so when the Hulk finally kills Kleiser, we get the utter destruction the Hulk can wreak on a living creature, and it’s both amazing and horrifying. And of course, when Hank beats Jan up, the details of her ordeal, as Hank sics his ants on her, is absolutely disturbing because we can see all the wounds both he and the ants inflict on her. Hitch’s “destruction porn” doesn’t work in every comic, of course, but it works here, because Hitch gets the scale of the Ultimates’ operations across wonderfully with each piece of building that falls and each ruined girder that clutters each panel. Millar gives him the space to do so, but Hitch nails the intricacies of total destruction excellently.
There aren’t a lot of quiet moments in The Ultimates, but Hitch does a nice job with those, too. The overall mood of the heroes is “jaunty,” certainly, but not all of them fit into society all that well. Hitch nails Banner’s twitchy nervousness and insecurity, happy only when he’s working on something interesting, like waking Captain America up after thawing him out. Hitch gets Cap’s 1940s stoicism well, as there’s a nice panel when he realizes his apartment has been burglarized in which Hitch draws him with just the vaguest sense of disappointment and sadness on his face, even though he’s keeping his upper lip stiff. Betty is terrific as a fairly vile but effective PR person, and it’s easy to see why a milquetoast like Banner would want her, because she’s utterly domineering around him, and Hitch gives her mouth a good, sinister twist to it fairly often. The fight between Hank and Jan is harrowing partly because Hitch gets at the ugliness of their relationship through their facial expressions and body language. It’s an upsetting scene because Jan is just as awful as Hank, so when he finally turns on her, there’s the tiniest bit of satisfaction from the reader, until we realize the depths of his rage and pettiness. It makes a better point about domestic violence than if Jan had been a totally innocent victim, and Hitch does a lot of that work. That scene is intercut with the scene where Tony, Steve, and Thor have drinks and Tony reveals he has a brain tumor. Hitch gets his insouciant attitude toward life perfectly in the panel where he reveals it, as his charming smile never leaves his face. The fight between Cap and Hank, in which Hank grows until he’s Giant-Man, is more depressing than Hulk’s rampage through Manhattan, because Hulk’s pain is masked by his monstrous face. Hank’s shame and then unhinged rage as Cap goads him to changing size are sad because they’re all too human, as Hank is someone who genuinely feels shame for what he did but still can’t deal with his feelings of inadequacy. Hitch, not surprisingly, does the big expressions well, but in this book, he’s quite good at the quieter moments, too, which is why the Ultimates ultimately seem more human to the reader and therefore make their defeats and triumphs more relatable.
The Ultimates is a magnificent superhero comic, one that raised the stakes for the genre and influenced comics and the entire Marvel movie machine as well. Like a lot of influential comics, many creators took the wrong messages from the book, leading to abortions like Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, but that dreck shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Millar and Hitch (along with Currie, Neary, Mounts, and even Eliopoulos, whose lettering is well done) created a marvelous epic that took all the tropes of superhero fiction, twisted them just a bit, and ramped them all up to 11, and we get a beautiful and exciting comic that never lets go of your attention. It gave Millar the fame and cachet to allow him to take off for Image and make gobs of money by turning his books into movies. It moved Hitch to the A-list, certainly, although he was probably already there, and if so, it moved him to the A+-list, I guess. It remains a superhero benchmark, and if you have ever liked superhero comics, you owe it to yourself to give it a read.
There’s a giant collection of both The Ultimates volumes 1 and 2, both by Millar and Hitch, but I haven’t read volume 2 and I hear it’s just not as good. I’ve linked to it below, though, because it’s a pretty good bargain. It’s what, 26 issues for 23 dollars? Not bad at all. It appears the two trades collecting just this volume are out of print, unfortunately. But getting both is still a good bargain! I’m sure most of the people reading this have read The Ultimates – it’s not exactly obscure – but in case you haven’t, here’s your chance to rectify that!