Saturday, 19 May 2012

Why Should I Read... The Ultimates?

I hate Captain America. There, I said it.

I'm a lifetime comic nut and I have watched all the classic good guys and bad guys waging war through the eons with each other. But there's no villain, no matter how disturbed or vile, in fact no other character that I detest more than Captain America. I have never been one to enjoy the mainstream, let alone embrace the American dream. The idea of this star spangled moron running around in spandex being everything that Americans should stand for - and bleating about how much better things were a few years back - is just so stomach-churningly irritating. Anyone who's encountered me on this subject knows that my staple response to this insipid super soldier is that he's a whining pussy liberal. He's a throwback to the Golden Age of comics, when villains were laughable and the realism that draws us in and allows us to believe the unbelievable was just plain absent.

This is why I was never big on the Avengers. I didn't really get behind a lot of the headline heroes from yesteryears. After a few years without comics, I returned to the stores and steered clear of both the big universes, and went for the kind of the things I have written about in previous articles. So when my erstwhile comic retailer suggested the Ultimates (One and Two) for reading on a business trip, it's safe to say I baulked at the idea. Then he flipped to the page where Captain America is smashing some guy's face until he died. Oh, and he cracked a terrible joke about the French while he did it.

So I bought Ultimates One and Two.

The Ultimate universe is based on a wonderful comic staple; what if? Where events and individuals are changed to show alternate outcomes. Ultimates is actually one of the best examples of this I've read. The changes they make aren't drastic. Some of them aren't even significant - Nick Fury can be a grizzled old black guy who smokes cigars and is missing an eye, or a grizzled old white guy who is missing an eye and smokes cigars. It doesn't make a whole heap of difference, unless you're a casting agent.

What is wonderful about the Ultimates is that a lot of the stark truth (no pun intended) of stories you may have already come to know is brought to the forefront. The veneer of the Golden Age of comics is stripped away, and the very harsh reality of everything that's only been hinted at for our group of heroes is shown, often in a very intense way. I don't know if you realise this, but on discovering your have abilities beyond the norm, the regular response is not "Right, I need a spandex suit and a lawyer, I'm about to go assault people!" even if a guy who looks suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson tells you it's OK. If a person decides to do that, even in the Marvel Universe, they better have either a damn good reason, or a damn good therapist.

Ultimates takes this premise and runs riot with it, highlighting all the issues that before may have only been approached tongue-in-cheek, or passed over entirely. Subjects such as addiction, depression and spousal abuse are covered, and although not the central focus, they are covered well. These aren't new premises for the as-was Avengers, but it could put off those readers who are loyal to the original team. It shouldn't, nothing is being dishonoured here, just remoulded for a modern age.

There are touches to the action, too. The Hulk is my favourite example. Back in the day, our big green wrecking machine threw things and punched stuff, but ultimately left with a body count no worse than an original A-Team episode. But stop and think for a moment. If a scientific accident causes a man to become a monster with no rational thought and immense strength, do you really think that there won't be a casualty or two? Ultimates doesn't. It's this conceptualisation which epitomises the Ultimates for me. I feel like I'm being told the adult version of the history I've learned as a child. This lack of propaganda appeals to me, in a way that the Avengers never did.

These articles aren't meant to be a review. There is enough of those. I want to persuade you to pick up the books, and enjoy them in the same way I have. The Ultimates is damned good reading, especially if you're familiar with the 'regular' Marvel Universe. This is apparent with the new range of movies, as much of the story and character backgrounds are from Ultimates - including this universe's S.H.I.E.L.D. and it's most famous agents. So ultimately, it comes down to this; how can Samuel L. Jackson be wrong?

Chris Boyle will warn you away from Ultimates 3. Yuck. Jeph Loeb, get out!

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