Mark Millar is a controversial figure.
No one can doubt what he’s given to comics and, indeed, films. He changed the Marvel landscape with Civil War, gave us London’s Kapow! convention, and launched CLiNT magazine. Oh, and supplied us with possibly the most violent and swear-ridden comic known to man.
It’s been ten years now since the critically-acclaimed Ultimates hit the shelves, introducing warped versions of the familiar MU Avengers. And in Mark Millar’s latest omnibus collection, we’re introduced to warped versions of the warped versions.
Ultimate Avengers By Mark Millar Omnibus collects the first three volumes of the titular comic book (each comprising of six issues) and Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #1-6 in a beautiful white and gold/green exterior that won’t break your wrist unlike some other omnibuses. And with an RRP of £55.99, it’s pretty reasonably priced, considering that you can typically get a copy for about £35. As ever with the omnibus range, it’s wonderfully presented, with nice glossy finishes, a stand-out, white spine and a few ‘special features’ at the back, like variant covers, sketchbooks and cover ideas; it’s fleeting, but a welcome addition.
It begins three weeks after Ultimatum, an event generally considered as bad as comics get, and immediately sets up the premise of the whole book, even though this won’t become apparent until quite a way in. This first arc ushers in the return of Carlos Pacheco (Avengers Forever; Fantastic Four) to Marvel, and his stunning art echoes the widescreen-work of original Ultimates illustrator, Bryan Hitch. He’s a perfect choice for the book, and, coupled with colourist, Justin Ponsor and a plethora of inkers, gives the volume a fresh and exciting feel. The spreads and flowing layouts really help its pace, which has the feel of a blockbuster movie to it. And this is something Millar is often criticised for.
Ultimate Nick Fury sets out his agenda
I can see it both ways. Yes, comics are a medium of their own right; a medium that doesn’t have to be defined by or likened to others, particularly films. This is the reason Alan Moore doesn’t like to see V for Vendetta and Watchmen on the big screen. However, I also feel that as long as it sparks the imagination, it doesn’t really matter.
We also have to remember that many will be flocking to comics after seeing the big-hitters like Avengers Assemble and The Amazing Spider-Man in cinemas and on DVD, so these ‘widescreen,’ sweeping techniques are well suited as an introduction to the medium. As long as the characters are well-written, the dialogue is snappy, and the plot is interesting and relevant, does it really matter if an issue or storyline has the feel of a movie?
The Ultimate origin of the Red Skull…
And maybe this is an issue with Millar’s Ultimate Avengers. While much of the dialogue is good – “[Spider-Man] can drive a man to suicide in three or four exchanges,” someone remarks – and the characters involving, not all of them are particularly likeable. And this is surely a big problem with heroes you’re supposed to be rooting for. Indeed, some of the pointless deaths that occur hardly make an impact. Captain America and Hawkeye remain the most likeable, especially as the former is the personification of a one-man army, but many of the others are just there as replacements for the original Ultimates line-up. There’s a new Black Widow, a new Hulk (or two), and a new Iron Man (sort of) – and only the latter is remotely successful. In fact, I really hate what Millar’s done with the Hulk: the ‘original’ Hulk is a useless addition, while the ‘Nerd’ Hulk is ridiculous.
‘Nerd’ Hulk vs… Iron Man?
Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a new Captain America too. Even though the original’s still there, on the whole. And this new Captain is… uh, the Punisher. Maybe this is why the deaths are meaningless: you know another replacement will be along any minute.
The low point for the team comes in volume two, where they’re overshadowed by an amazing Ghost Rider, awesomely drawn by Leinil Francis Yu (Secret Invasion; Wolverine), as he goes up against Blackthorn. (In fact, his Ghost Rider might be the best rendition I’ve seen!) It’s not that strong a story, mainly due to a ragtag team of Avengers who you know won’t gel. With the original Avengers and Ultimates, there were many arguments and fisticuffs, but you just knew that, in the end, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor would get along. But here, there’s too little chemistry and heart.
Ultimate Ghost Rider. Wow.
However, this isn’t a terrible omnibus, as many expected. Actually there’s a lot to enjoy.
As previously stated, Captain America really kicks butt, particularly in the first arc, which heralds in the first and only appearance of the Ultimate Universe’s Red Skull. The twist on his origin isn’t that surprising, but it’s still pretty cool, and suitably gruesome. The death of Nikolai Laskov is particularly horrible – so naturally, there’s some mindless violence lingering on from Kick-Ass.
The third arc riffs off the huge vampire trend of late, something which Millar has come under criticism for. But it’s actually a great move. Keeping up with trends, and predicting the next ones, will always draw readers in, and it’s something that Marvel – and, indeed, every noteworthy company – has always done. Plus there’s a fantastic Twilight parody.
I was initially sceptical of Steve Dillon’s artistic contributions to the storyline that introduces us to Blade, but, actually, it’s very fitting. But Leinil Yu makes a welcome return in the final storyline, which pits the Ultimates against the Avengers. There are plenty of surprises throughout, but especially in this concluding tale, which starts off really strong. The addition of Spider-Man seems forced – as the Punisher aptly notes, “where the %&*# did HE come from?!” – but Frank’s guilt is great.
The ‘Hulked-out’ heroes in Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #5 is a bit too silly for my liking, but generally, Millar’s conclusions are really strong. The finale to the third arc is very visual and cinematic – clever too – as is the way the Red Skull is dealt with in the first storyline.
Yes, there are plenty of clichés thrown about, and character depth isn’t at its most fascinating, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Well worth thirty-odd quid.
If you want to see Mark Millar at his best, pick up The Ultimates. But if you want him in his “not-at-his-best-but-still-much-better-than-most” mode, order Ultimate Avengers now.