With Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2 trade paperback hitting the shops like a side-handled baton, Dave looks at his 21st century take on The Avengers: The Ultimates.
About thirteen years ago something very strange happened at Marvel: the lunatics were well and truly put in charge of the asylum.
Slumping sales in the late 90s had led Marvel to conduct a significant amount of market research into the tastes of comic buyers. They discovered that the new reader was being put off their titles by 30-40 years of backstory and often confusing continuity (remind me, how many times did Jean Gray die exactly?). So, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada decided on a risky reboot of some of Marvel’s flagship titles to attract new readers. This began with Ultimate Spider-Man as a trial run, and in another risky decision the company brought in indie comic writer Brian Michael Bendis to pen the series. Rather than follow the head office’s tenant of writing a series of one-shots, Bendis established Ultimate Spider-Man as a full-on saga telling us of Peter Parker’s life after the loss of his parents, genetically-modified spider bite and the death of Uncle Ben, tying it in with the creation of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.
The series was wildly successful when published in 2000 and Marvel decided to reboot the X-Men the following year. Mark Millar, a Scottish writer whose knowledge of the X-Men came solely from Bryan Singer’s film version, was hired for the reboot. Grounding his series even more in reality than Bendis did, Millar introduced a storyline of Magneto launching a terrorist attack on Washington DC and George W Bush in particular.
With Bendis moving on to his side-line of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up by having Spidey meet Iron Man, Daredevil, the Punisher and the Hulk, Millar turned his attention to The Avengers.
Millar’s take on Marvel’s all-star superhero team touched on themes rarely seen in mainstream comics, such as politics, domestic violence, alcoholism and mental illness. Tony Stark was recast from the usual booze-swilling playboy to a closeted, tortured soul suffering from terminal cancer who drank constantly to dull the pain. Thor was, depending on your point of view, either the Norse god of thunder or Thorlief Golmen, former mental health nurse and certified loony. Captain America, hauled out of the arctic ice after 57 years, was portrayed as a man lost in time, unable to fit in and function in any capacity apart from his job. Giant Man and the Wasp were painted as a couple with severe marital and psychological problems. The Avengers team were recast in the post-9/11 world as the Ultimates, part of SHIELD and America’s first line of defence against superhuman threats. They were under the charge of General Nick Fury, now remodelled on Samuel L. Jackson.
The first 13-issue Ultimates series sees Fury putting together a superhuman defence initiative in light of both 9/11 and Magneto’s attack on the White House. Bruce Banner, cured of being The Hulk, futilely works on recreating the Captain America super-soldier serum and is driven deeper and deeper into despair by his failure to deliver and mockery from other members of SHIELD. At his wits’ end, Banner mixes the Hulk’s blood with a blood sample from Cap and injects himself, creating a new grey Hulk who goes on a rampage through New York and kills over 800 people before the Ultimates bring him down. The team subsequently spearheads resistance against an attempt by the Chitauri to blow up the planet and become world famous as a result.
The 13-issue Ultimates 2 takes the title even deeper into dark political territory, embroiling Cap in the Iraq War, seeing Banner put on trial and (apparently) executed for the Hulk’s rampage through New York the previous year and ending with both the Ultimates and their European counterparts used in a pre-emptive strike to disarm Iran’s nuclear programme. Thor is ‘outed’ as a paranoid schizophrenic, the brother of a Norwegian engineer who was developing his hammer and armour for the European Defence Initiative only to see his crazy brother Thorlief steal the hardware. Finally, the forcibly-retired Giant Man is seen speaking with an unnamed conspirator who intends to sell out the Ultimates. The second half of the story shows Hawkeye’s wife and kids massacred by the same unnamed conspirator, Cap framed for said murders and a superhuman terrorist invasion of the United States in retaliation for America’s attack on Iran. Black Widow is revealed as the traitor (who’d have suspected an ex-KGB agent of not having America’s interests at heart?) and Loki as the mastermind behind the attacks, distorting reality to frame both Thor and Cap in order to get them out of the way. The story becomes two full-on superhuman brawls with the Ultimates destroying their terrorist counterparts and Loki’s demonic forces, with the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spidey even getting in on the action.
Yes the series wasn’t perfect, seeming especially rushed towards the end of Ultimates 2, but in all honesty it’s as close as anything Millar’s done so far. Further series were released without his contribution and weren’t anywhere near as good, but it’s a testament to how much of an impact the first two parts had on Marvel as a whole that Zak Penn and Joss Whedon have cited it as one of the major influences on the Avengers screenplay.
And anyway, where’d you think they came up with the name Chitauri?