Overrated/Underrated: The Ultimates Vol 1: Super-Human

Okay, we’re introducing a new column here on Comic Nexus. I’m going to be moderating a column where the writers of Comic Nexus take the “classic” trade paperbacks, story arcs, and comic book runs and rate whether they are overrated or underrated, based on their reputation.

But, let’s define the terms. I actually like the following definitions, from the Urban Dictionary.

Overrated: Anything that is given too much credit and hype.

Underrated: Something or someone that deserves much more respect than people will allow.

The important point to make here is that a book can be good, maybe even very good, but still be overrated. If I say The Beatles are overrated, it’s not like I’m saying that The Beatles suck. I just mean that The Beatles aren’t as good as everyone says they are.

So, first up for grabs is a title that should be getting a little more attention in the upcoming year, due to the Avengers movie coming up this summer. The first six issues of The Ultimates (Volume 1) by Mark Millar and Brian Hitch.

The Ultimates Vol. 1: Super-Human

Publisher: Marvel Comics – Ultimate Universe
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Brian Hitch
Original Publication Date: March 2002 – October 2002

This series was available in the following formats:

Quick History

Marvel launched the Ultimate Marvel imprint in 2000 with two titles Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, and was met with a surprising amount of success from both casual and hardcore fans alike. So, in 2002, the fourth series was launched, the Ultimate Universe version of The Avengers: The Ultimates, written by one of the rising comic book writers, Mark Millar.

Everyone was hoping that Millar would bring in the ‘big event’ feel of writing The Authority to the Marvel characters. I think most would regard The Ultimates as the second most popular title in the Ultimate Universe, behind Ultimate Spider-Man. The Ultimates title has continued across several ongoing limited series, including the most current one: Ultimate Comics: Ultimates. In addition, Mark Millar became one of the more popular comic book writers, going on to create several popular properties, most notably: Wanted and Kick-Ass.

Quick Synopsis

Super-Human captures the first story arc of The Ultimates. The primary focus of the first few issues is the introduction of the characters, as they hadn’t been seen in the Ultimate Universe, outside of an Ultimate Marvel Team-Up issue. So the first few issues deal with the following:

  • General Nick Fury of SHIELD is working with Tony Stark to create a superhuman strike force team. Initial members are Tony Stark (Iron Man) himself, Hank Pym (Giant-Man) and his wife Janet Pym (Wasp).
  • Bruce Banner is hired by SHIELD to recreate the Super Soldier Serum used to create Captain America in the 1940s. Banner had previously injected him with a trial version of the serum, which turned him into the Hulk.
  • Betty Ross, Bruce’s ex-girlfriend, is made the Director of Communications, which is basically the publicist for the team, which she dubs The Ultimates.
  • Serendipitously, the frozen body of Steve Rogers (Captain America) is found in the Arctic, kept alive by the Super Soldier Serum.
  • To round out the team, Nick Fury tries to recruit Thor, who is an outspoken environmentalist crusader. Thor refuses to join the militaristic group unless the government donates money to charity.
  • The Ultimates come under public scrutiny, and a jilted Bruce Banner modifies the Super Soldier Formula with Captain America’s blood, becoming Hulk again. He rampages through Manhattan to get to his ex-girlfriend, Betty.
  • The Ultimates team comes to stop Hulk, but are mostly thwarted until Thor comes to assist them, who had been given charitable concessions from the United States Government.
  • The Hulk is stopped, and The Ultimates are public heroes. Bruce Banner is quietly taken into custody by SHIELD.
  • In the aftermath, Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Thor declare their friendship for each other, and domestic problems arise between Hank and Janet Pym.

But all that being said, is the title Overrated or Underrated.

To join me in this discussion are two of Comic Nexus’s talented writers: Michael “Skitch” Maillaro and Matt Graham

Michael “Skitch” Mailllaro

I have always had a weird “writer-reader” relationship with Mark Millar. I genuinely think he is one of the nicest guys in the industry. I was at a convention in Columbus, Ohio with Millar, and even though the fire alarm kept going off, Millar was still signing autographs outside, and no matter how long the line was, he would treat each person with a warm, personal touch. He drew a picture of Batman for my wife and told us one of the best stories I’ve ever heard about a seven year old boy asking him to sign his copy of the Authority.But despite my love of Millar as a person, I’ve really never been a huge fan of his writing. A lot of the times it just feels over the top just for the sake of being over the top. This was especially true to me of his Ultimates run. The characters just kind of made me cringe at times, like Captain America’s infamous line “This A doesn’t stand for France.” I know he was trying to do something different, but the characters just felt unlikeable to me.I also thought that Ultimates might have come a little too late. Ellis (and Millar) had already ready shaken up the superhero team concept in Stormwatch and the Authority. Ultimates sort of felt like more of the same for me. There is always room for deconstruction of the superhero genre, but I am just not sure there was all that much new to say in Ultimates.

Overrated

Matt Graham

This is a difficult call for me. I do not believe that Super Human (also known as the first arc of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates) is underrated at all. I also can’t say it’s overrated. It’s iconic and influential, that’s what it is.Since we’re only considering these first six issues, I feel that these early issues avoid most of the criticism and controversy that later volumes sparked. We haven’t gotten to what the A doesn’t stand for, yet. Most of the big political commentary is weighted in the entire second volume, even if it’s seeded here. In these first six issues, you essentially get a modern vision of the formation of the Avengers the modern world (at least, as of a decade ago) with some pretty grounded reimaginings and changes to how such a machine might work. And in this arc, the only questionable section is the final issue where we glimpse Hank and Janet’s abusive relationship.However you feel about Millar or the Ultimates as a whole series and concept, Super Human manages to stand on its own. Millar deconstructs the characters and heroes enough them to be believable people, not gods who never do wrong. The rest of the Ultimate Universe fell in line with this mantra (though it helps Millar set it with Ultimate X-Men, too).

And most importantly, this is the book that gives us the successful Marvel movies. Tony Stark, Captain America, Thor, they all owe to their presentation and concepts in The Ultimates. When they form The Avengers in the films, let’s not kid ourselves, The Avengers is very much The Ultimates in movie format. These are flawed, identifiable characters doing their best to be heroes. The presentation of the world is the “real world” backdrop that Millar dropped the characters in. Nick Fury as Sam Jackson originated here. Black Widow and Hawkeye as the newcomer baseline humans who just kick enough ass to hang with these superheroes. It’s all from The Ultimates. Which was derived from The Avengers and Marvel, but there is no secret that the most successful and accessible movies in comic history all call back to Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, which is essentially a “widescreen” action movie, with a flawed cast, and quirky yet humane characterizations, and of course, big, ridiculous action sequences right at home on the silver screen.

For that, I can’t say that Super Human is overrated. It’s too soon in the Ultimates story to be that, and it’s offered so much to creative teams that came after, fans who want to see something different yet familiar (as comic fans can be), and certainly a wider appeal in the industry as a whole when you consider the films. Were we discussing the entire first volume or the series as a whole, then I could espouse more.

Properly Rated

RJ Schwabe

Reading this as a comic book only, I would say that it is rather overrated. The first four issues are about character introduction, team creation, public reaction, publicity management, and back office workings. This is all well and good, but there are only two action scenes in the whole story arc: The initial World War 2 battle where Captain America falls into the arctic waters; The one issue mega-battle between The Ultimates and The Hulk. Add to that, the fact that as The Hulk is an enemy of their own making, he does not make for a very satisfying villain.Additionally, the characters are not overly likeable. Tony Stark is even more arrogant than he is in the Marvel Universe; Bruce Banner is a wet blanket; Hank Pym is a womanizing jerk; Janet is flirty with men even though she is a married woman; Thor is pompous; and Steve Rogers has a hard-nosed soldier’s mentality without the worldliness of the Marvel Universe Captain America. And special consideration must be taken to the super-powered domestic violence between Hank and Janet Pym, which is realistic but rather disturbing.This book is sold on realism. How would a super-hero team realistically deal with the modern world? And on that note, I think it is exceptional. Millar covers all aspects of how a real super-hero team would have to be constructed and managed on the back-end. All of the characters have serious flaws. It makes them less likeable, but it makes them vivid and real. And the book is funny, the rants about Hulk asking Betty if she needs a real man, reveals the inner demons in most guys.

The large, dare I say, big-screen feel of the story cannot be overstated. I think that by reading this book, you could start to see how a modern day Avengers movie would look and feel. This can be proven by Millar and Hitch’s decision to make Nick Fury look like Samuel L. Jackson, who just happened to be cast in the Marvel movies.

Underrated

Synopsis

Wow, right out of the gate, the Comic Nexus staff goes “right down the middle.” We all agree that the book is cringe-worthy at times, but certainly not a bad read at all. And there’s no denying the influence of the title with regards to the Marvel movie properties that have been released.

So, if I can speak for my fellow Comic Nexus writers, I think the book is underrated if you are starting to expand your horizons to over-the-top superhero deconstruction, and want to see the sparks of where The Avengers movie began. But, the book is overrated for those looking for a solid super-hero team story with likeable characters and interesting villains.

Properly Rated

 

Your Turn

Agree with us, disagree with us.  Let us know in the comments below.  This stuff is more interesting when we see what others have to say.

Plus, if you have any suggestions for future Overrated/Underrated columns, post them here, or message me on twitter at @rjschwabe.

Thanks, and we’ll see you next week.

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