Epic

This is a word that should not be bandied around lightly.

For such a small word, it can conjure up vast panoramas, lengthy tales of adventure and valour, struggle against over-whelming odds, the very majesty of life and nature itself.

Indeed, a word to be used with care.

What it does not stand for, and all too often does, is arse-numbing banality masquerading as intellectual probing, bloated doorstoppers that seem to grow into twenty volumes of the same thing or in fact, anything that twenty-first century broadsheet critics call “challenging”.

It’s also not a word that Katchoo uses a lot to describe something.

But it’s the word she used after reading the second volume of The Ultimates from Marvel.

Ultimate panel

© MArvel Comics

The Ultimates are the Ultimate Universe version of The Avengers. The Ultimate Universe was a device that Marvel started up to bring back younger readers who would find nearly fifty years of continuity hard to plough through. Characters like Spider-Man and The X-Men were taken back to their roots, put into a modern twenty-first century setting, made younger and given enough twist on their already told stories to make it all interesting. By rights it should have failed. The hardcore readers should have felt that the characters they had loved for years were being “kiddy-fied”. Stories which they had already seen and read in the regular Marvel Universe were just being retold. That kid’s today just didn’t read anymore, preferring instead to sit numbed in front of whatever EATSHITKILLDIE console game was greedily gobbled up by them.

But, the Ultimate Universe did succeed. To the point where its titles, which amazingly are only three regular monthlies (Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four), one quarterly (The Ultimates) and a few mini-series, plus only being in print for four years, now sell more in sales terms than three-quarters of the other titles in the Marvel stable.

This is mainly thanks to two men, writers Brian Bendis and Mark Millar. Together, with the help of E-I-C Joe Quesada, they have kept a tight reign on the Ultimate Universe. This means a few titles, not untold numbers of spin-offs, the continuity is kept as clean and co-ordinated as possible, the storytelling is exciting and fun, characters are given logical reasons for what happens to them and the world around them, their relationships are realistic and not false or pandering and that the artwork is some of the best and kinetically moving in the business.

Ultimate X-Men panel

Ultimate X-Men © Marcel Comics

Bendis takes care of the Spider-Man title, and with artist Mark Bagley has brought Spider-Man to newer heights. Peter and his friends are now back in high school, along with all the problems that entails. Aunt May is still a widow, but a feisty, independent member of the Woodstock generation. Mary-Jane is the love of Peter’s life and keeper of his secret identity, but the two sides have been made into a triangle with introduction of Gwen Stacey, now a cool rock chick with an attitude problem. Peter’s life is typical of a teenagers compounded by the fact that juggling life as Spider-Man is not as easy and glamorous as it sounds. Added to this is the fact that Spider-Man is one of the very few heroes in the Ultimate Universe who has a secret identity.

It’s public knowledge in the Ultimate Universe who every member of the Ultimates, X-Men, and Fantastic Four are. What is astounding (in the comic-book world at least) is how easy it is to find out who’s under the mask. Both the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus know Peter’s real face, plus S.H.E.I.L.D., plus the FF, plus Venom, plus the X-Men, plus both Mary-Jane (although Peter revealed it to her) and Gwen Stacey. Bendis and Millar show how easy it is to join the dots and have fun with it. James Jonah Jameson still can’t find out, nor Aunt May.

The villains are also new for old. Dr. Octopus looks less like an Elton John reject and more a vicious killer (and is the version that you’ll see in the Spider-Man 2 film). Venom is no longer an alien symbiote, but a cure for cancer created by Peter’s father. Kraven is a side-swipe at the Steve Irwin, Australian school of crocodile hunters and in perhaps the only misfire of the Spider-Man series, the Green Goblin is now a Jekyll and Hyde monster instead of a psycho in a mask. For me it just doesn’t work. The scariest part of the GG was that always grinning mask ( not the transformer in the first movie), plus the fact that what was beneath it was even scarier.

Millar has also been doing sterling work on the Ultimate X-Men, bringing a more cynical and sarcastic British view to the (not so) merry band of mutants. Again taking The X-Men back to teenagers and to the fact that the rest of humanity really does fear and hate mutants, Millar has also made his characters celebrities (even taking them on a world tour at one stage). The X-Men try to promote peace and understanding, but its not helped by the fact that they have a known killer in their ranks (Wolverine) and that Magneto is no longer a Malcolm X figure but a Hitler/Stalin one who has publicly announced that his aim is to see the destruction of all of humankind.

Millar has also been doing sterling work on the Ultimate X-Men, bringing a more cynical and sarcastic British view to the (not so) merry band of mutants. Again taking The X-Men back to teenagers and to the fact that the rest of humanity really does fear and hate mutants, Millar has also made his characters celebrities (even taking them on a world tour at one stage). The X-Men try to promote peace and understanding, but its not helped by the fact that they have a known killer in their ranks (Wolverine) and that Magneto is no longer a Malcolm X figure but a Hitler/Stalin one who has publicly announced that his aim is to see the destruction of all of humankind.

Millar plays more on the bigotries of the human race in this series than in the regular Marvel Universe. Henry McCoy’s parents disown him when he finds out he’s a mutant, but when they slightly come to terms with that, their prejudices are made worse when he reveals that his girlfriend is Storm (now a young thief from the ghetto). Iceman’s parents are shunned and ignored by all their once former friends, the military would love to turn them into weapons under their control, the Sentinels make no differentiation between male or female, young or old, to them, you are a mutant and must be eradicated. Not that easy being a celebrity.

Millar has taken vast amounts of the regular X-Men saga and stream-lined it to good effect. For example, whereas in the mainstream the Hellfire Club are a continuous thorn in the side of the X-Men, in Ultimate, Millar dispatches them in one issue that also heralds the burgeoning arrival of the Phoenix. Although Wolverines lost past is still used, most of the Weapon X story is used in the first volume. Like Bendis, Millar will twist the characters just enough to make them both recognizable and at the same time different, this creates enough interplay with familiar stories to make them fresh and interesting.

In the end though, Ultimate X-Men is less about the differences between the races on the planet Earth than the ongoing war that is slowly enveloping them all.

And in the end, war is what The Ultimates is all about, both open and covert.

The Ultimates Vol 2 is, in every sense, epic. From Millar’s tale of interplanetary warfare to Bryan Hitch’s detailed panels and widescreen vistas, it just screams BIG!!! From the opening salvo of an attack on an enemy building by Hawkeye, the Black Widow and S.H.E.I.L.D. (matching and bettering The Matrix) to the final Independence Day battle (without the dubious moralising); this is story-telling at its best.

In fact, I’m going to break a rule and not even review the story. I’m just going to say straight out. Buy it. You’ll kick yourself for missing one of the best comics in years if you don’t Buy it even if only for finding out what the letter on Captain America’s head DOESN’T mean, for The Hulk telling the world that he’s straight, for Samuel L. Jackson playing the role he was meant for (and which he is very well aware of) and some of the most biggest explosions in the history of comic-books.

Seriously.

Buy.

Ultimate Spider-Man is by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, published by Marvel Comics.
Ultimate X-Men is by Mark Millar and Adam and Andy Kubert/various, published by Marvel Comics
Ultimate Fantastic Four is by Bendis/Millar and Kubert, published by Marvel Comics
The Ultimates Vol 2: Homeland Security is by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, published by Marvel Comics priced £11.99

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