Friday, August 6, 2010

Ultimate comics Avengers 2 #1-6 "Crime and punishment"

As part of their continued effort in re-energizing their Ultimate line of titles, Marvel has just concluded the second storyline of the imprint's co-architect Mark ("Civil war", "Wanted") Millar on "Ultimate comics Avengers". His collaboration with Leinil ("Secret invasion", "Wolverine") Francis Yu has also served to mark the halfway point of the writer's scheduled engagement, packaged as four connected limited series.

That the publisher is serious in rethinking their once premier brand, is apparent from every facet of the bi-weekly presentation. The result is nothing less than a very solid action comic, and a surprisingly accessible one. Overall, the "Ultimatum" crossover that preceded the line-wide rethinking of the Ultimate brand seemed to have been conceived with the idea that the company should cancel the most problematic titles and start over with a tighter focus. While in practice this meant limiting the number of writers to a small cadre of proven commodities, and pairing them with some of the most popular superhero artists, with "Ultimate comics Avengers" another very important facet is notable from the start.

By inviting back Millar, the writer of the company's smash hit "Ultimates", Marvel primarily seemed to have been interested in his qualities as an ideas man. And while some of his trademark fan-baiting ideas still come through, the whole of "Ultimate comics Avengers" project feels much less political and ambitious than it's famous precursor. The company seems certainly open to his innovations, with the commitment showing in making these spin-off stories be as startlingly visual as they can be, following Carlos Pacheco's work with the art team of Yu (inked by fellow Filipino Gerry Alanguilan) and celebrated colorist Laura ("Planetary", "Astonishing X-Men") Martin.

The creators open their story in a very intriguing way, by basically having the whole of first issue be a prelude, meant to reintroduce the Ultimate universe version of the Punisher. As such, it reads like a perfectly serviceable "the Punisher" comic, albeit penciled by Yu. And just as the reader familiar with the character starts resenting the set-up as a yet another generic retread of the ground so often covered much the same way in the regular Marvel universe, Millar comes up with a fast and effective way of reminding the reader of the team concept implied by the title. There is not much more to the opener, except for a callback to Matt Fraction's run on the "Punisher war journal" title, demonstrated by Ariel Olivetti-inspired costume the character ends up sporting in "Ultimate comics Avengers".

Similarly, the second issue is devoted to reestablishing the role of the Hulk in the Ultimate Marvel universe, a concept that the writer introduced in his first arc. By having two new characters substituting for the role of the team's uncontrollable strongman, Millar seems to be determined on setting up some kind of reconciliation regarding the issue. The matter is left to be resolved in another mini-series, presumably featuring the original Hulk, who is still supposed to be alive in the Ultimate universe. As for the matter at hand, Tyrone Cash is introduced as a simple idea, that of the Banner's mentor and first historical Hulk posing as a criminal warlord. The inclusion of another identity and the tragic past is there to help give the character a typical Marvel feel (as well as tying in with the mini-series' thematic core). Despite the enormous bulk and the facial tattoos, the character somewhat resembles Luke Cage and is certainly stereotypical, albeit on purpose. Millar and Yu use him in an engaging way, and it is likely that his hinted depth will resurface at a later date.

It is only with the third issue that the writer finally provides exposition on the nature of the threat that Nick Fury has assembled this particular black ops team to deal with. As is his mandate, this ends up being a revitalized version of another longtime Marvel mainstay, the Ghost rider. Despite considerable effort by Millar to establish the supernatural anti-hero as a compelling force in his own right, he faces a very particular problem. Despite his decades old status, coupled with a surge of popularity in the 1990s and a 2007 feature film, the Ghost rider has always been a cult favorite character. Certainly the most popular of Marvel horror titles, his comic has still faced cancellation time and again, making it a particularly challenging to update the concept for modern audiences in the alternate continuity of the Ultimate line.

On his end, Yu responds with a relatively tame version of Johny Blaze's costume, more or less reimagined into a typical biker's outfit. This lets the artist concentrate on Ghost rider's motorcycle and his main opponent, introduced in the last act. And while his designs are fluid and in keeping with the mythos' jagged edge, they seem to concentrate too much on the spikes and chains to be particularly iconic in their own right. This might seem an ironic thing to say when talking about a character that is all but defined by these things, but it's the lack of a strong central designing motif that makes Laura Martin's coloring the chief help in separating the two related hell-powered creatures.

Bearing in mind that it was Millar who famously broke away with the relative restraint of the Ultimate universe's science foundations, to introduce genuine pagan mythology, the addition of an unambiguous take on origins of the Ghost rider does seem slightly overstated and out of place. Certainly, faith plays a large role on the motivations of several of the featured players, but it feels like a fine line has been crossed from having Johny's infernal mentor not be Daimon Hellstrom from the same well of Marvel's supernatural properties, but Mephisto himself.

Getting back to the rest of the cast, the aforementioned the first Hulk and the Punisher naturally benefit the most from an arc that deals with some of the darker concepts touching at the heart of their motivations. Hawkeye the Ultimates mainstay likewise enjoys some convincing character moments by integrating with the Punisher. In this way Millar makes a commendable effort on continuing on with the character after putting him through a very rigorous ordeal in the set-up of the "Ultimates 2"'s final storyline. Unfortunately, just like Pacheco preceding him, Yu is forced to work with Joe ("Battle chasers", "Ultimates 3") Madureira's redesign, that works as a typical superhero costume but creates a disturbing effect when juxtaposed with Hawkeye's emotional disposition. Yu wisely tones down some of Mad's touches, and goes for a style that seems much more suited to a military uniform, albeit still far away from Bryan Hitch's original concept.

The two least developed characters that still inhabit a lot of panel space are the new Black widow and War machine, who once again fades into the background role. But at least the Iron Man mainstay's presence gets felt when it comes to the fighting, which cannot really be said for Monika Chang, who is for the length of another whole mini-series still actively defined by her former marriage to Nick Fury. As is always the case with Millar, both the set-up issues, and the climax of the "Crime and punishment" arc are action-filled, striving to be entertaining first and foremost, and this stays true throughout, despite the problems of exposing Ghost rider's revised origin, such as it is, and some minor art details, such as War machine's armor being too bulky to fit comfortably on the page.

Yet, for a couple of veteran comic professionals (despite Leinil being a mere 33 years old), some very strange mistakes happen during the course of the story. The fourth issue seems particularly problematic, opening as it does with a splash page, that is instantly reproduced as the first panel of the next page, stopping the pacing just a few seconds, but enough to take the reader out of the story. Similarly, a one-panel appearance by a small child, frightened by Mephisto, ends up being possibly more disturbing than the harrowing vengeance perpetrated by the Ghost rider. The reason for this is simply the rush in which the penciller turned out the page, causing him to imbue a pre-school boy with a head far too large and mature for his own age. Similarly, the cameo appearance by Tony Stark feels strangely disconnected and not at all because of the effect of the surprise the character has on the gathered SHIELD agents. The storytelling simply fails at setting up a proper pace and choreography for his intended role, while ironically proceeding with a very effective sequence featuring the mysterious Spider acting as the team's oracle.

As for the somewhat controversial aspect regarding the political background of Ghost rider's direct opponent, it feels tacked on, being foreshadowed by a few lines that fail to properly accentuate their importance. Millar's try for provocation seems similarly half-hearted and is bound to irritate only the most controversial of the readers. Despite his importance to the plot and Johny Blaze's revenge, the villain's impact still seems less direct than the previous storyline's controversial reinvention of Red Skull. Perhaps it's the lack of the connection to the team members themselves, but Ghost rider's opposite number feels very much a character too closely related to his own mythos, and shoehorned into fighting battle-ready Avengers at the last moment.

Regarding the character arcs that build the narrative tissue together, Millar is very careful in pairing up the conversing team members, thus providing both interesting subplots and opportunities for a dialogue that feels somewhat naturalistic, given the circumstances. There is a certain lack of a noticeable female presence in the story, but it can be somewhat understood, as it's dealing primarily with themes of extreme physical aggression. Still, the lack of resolution of Nick Fury shutting off his SHIELD superior Carol Danvers feels unfortunate, if not bordering on parodic, almost as if Millar was drawing a line excluding the presence of pretty girls in serious, otherworldly matters.

As for that wider thematic connection, it deals with justifying zealotry, as exemplified by Punisher, the first Hulk, Hawkeye, and finally Ghost rider. All of these characters have a fair bit of fanaticism to themselves, motivated by personal loss. Yet, Millar decided to go one step further and openly invite religion in a superhero story, intent on making a more precise point than the usual use of the holy symbol against the supernatural threats. To achieve this, he has the Punisher presented with a spiritual epiphany, that of a message from the afterlife. And while this too becomes a plot point by the end, once again highlighting the similarity between the vigilante and Ghost rider. A climatic final showdown even takes place in the church, with Millar intent on making it bear deeper symbolism than the typical use of the fighting on the holy ground being forbidden, as seen in movies like "the Highlander".

And while seeing superheroes discuss religion in such open terms is always somewhat disconcerting, Millar makes the most of introducing the ideas of Hell in his story, by largely forthcoming with his intent. In the end, "Crime and punishment" makes good on it's promise of an action story, in large part thanks to Leinil Francis Yu's contribution. While not concentrating himself on the acting of his talkative characters, giving them serious faces when not smirking or gritting their teeth, the Filipino artist still manages to handle even the most complicated of the set pieces with clarity and an approach all his own. His sketchy style given concrete definition by Gerry Alanguilan (sharing credit with no less than three assistant inkers the final issue), Yu conveys a lot of energy and movement in a way that seems typical of 1990s heyday of over muscular forms and gory details.

His attention to detail varying with the impact of the panel (and one would guess, the constrains of rigorous deadlines), it starts being colored by Laura Martin with shades of grey being broken by touches of blue and flashes of green and red, the palette seems to change for darker with the arrival of her replacement, Dave McCaig for the final four issues of the series. The difference is subtle and mostly noticeable due to addition of bright yellow to signify movement and danger. Even with the addition of Frank Martin coloring some of the pages of the apparently hastily put together final issue, the effect is that of unified coloring scheme, employed to highlight Yu's drawings in a very effective way.

For all their work, it is doubtful that the sum total of Millar and Yu's work on this particular mini-series will interest the potential new readers to the validity of the company's supernatural storytelling possibilities, particularly regarding a follow-up Ghost rider appearance. The character is competently presented, but once he follows through on the logical progression of his origin, there seems little of any inherent value in continuing his story in the Ultimate universe. Thus, it makes sense that the focus continues on Nick Fury's Ultimates black ops team, even as they confront Blade in next arc's yet another superheroes fighting vampires scenario that the writer has teased with such enthusiasm. Still, getting to the readers' good side will no doubt prove easier with the fan-favorite Steve ("Preacher", "the Punisher") Dillon on art, while Millar's creator owned "Superior" project with Leinil Francis Yu gets published alongside.

What is certain is that Marvel seems poised on letting all of Mark Millar's vision for these characters see light in a high quality presentation. The latter two mini-series will no doubt still function as stories that can be read on their own, with the added benefit of subplots working in the background for the reader who choses to read through all of these stories in sequence. This was always the plan for the Ultimate imprint, and it's refreshing to see Marvel stick to it even when publishing derivative work from one of it's strongest voices.

1 comment:

Chad Nevett said...

I reviewed almost every issue of this mini for CBR (without meaning to... it just kind of happened) and... I enjoyed this arc less than the first. This one felt more padded with the two prologue-esque issues. It felt like a four-part story stretched out to six issues. Still enjoyable, but a step down after the first arc. Though, I will admit that the quicker release schedule minimised the problems to a degree.

I'm wondering if the fourth arc (about which little has been said) will be the Avengers vs. the Ultimates as Nick Fury tries to take over SHIELD again. I am curious who the artist will be. Hitch returning would be interesting, but I don't think that will be happening.