How THE ULTIMATES Changed My Concept Of What A Comic Book Could Be

My first exposure to comics was in the early 90s. Born in 1984, the first comic I ever saw was the final issue of the “Death of Superman.” I had watched the old George Reeves Superman show on cable at my grandparents, so I knew who Superman was. I just didn’t think he could die. I began to collect comics after this, starting with DC Comics but eventually becoming a collector of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Little did I know at the time that I was becoming a comic book fan during one of the most gimmicky eras in comic book history (made all the more humorous by the fact that my first exposure to comics was the gimmick-extraordinaire of all comic book events!). At one point, I probably had every issue of the infamous Clone Saga as well as all the lead-ins and tie-ins to the X-Men: Onslaught event.

I stopped collecting comics not too long after the end of the Clone Saga and Onslaught. Sure, I would check in to see what the characters were up to every once in awhile (back when comics could be found on grocery store magazine shelves), but I became detached from that world. It wasn’t until 2004’s “Avengers Disassembled” storyline that I started to get pulled back into comics. Wanting to read this story eventually led to my finding out about Marvel Unlimited, Marvel’s online subscription service with thousands of their comics available online, and Marvel Unlimited led me to The Ultimates.

In 2000, Marvel launched their Ultimate Comics imprint, which featured a reimagining of many of their characters and gave writers, particularly Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, the de facto architects of the line, creative freedom in reimagining many of Marvel’s characters, their origins, and their relationships. While Bendis and Mark Bagley launched the line with Ultimate Spider-Man in 2000, for me, Millar’s The Ultimates was the biggest game-changer.

Millar reimagined the Avengers (from here on out dubbed “The Ultimates”) as a group of flawed individuals working as special government agents for S.H.I.E.L.D. The team, led by an African-American version of Nick Fury, who was inspired and helped inspire his portrayal by Samuel L. Jackson in the MCU (the character was depicted as white in main continuity), was placed into the political setting of the early 2000s, with the War on Terror still in its early years. George W. Bush even made some notable appearances throughout both The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2. Looming in the background of the Ultimates storyline, and in the Ultimate line of comics in general, was Nick Fury’s concerns about superhumans as the new weapons of mass destruction and the preparation for a superhuman arms race.

While people who grew up in the 1980s may feel like they’ve “been there, done that” when it comes to depicting superheroes as though they operated by real-world politics and morality, this was new to me. My only exposure to comics, as I said, had been 90s gimmicks and my dad’s old Silver Age DC comics.

All of the characters had similarities to their main universe counterparts, but with a cynical edge. Bruce Banner still transformed into the Hulk, but the Hulk was now a horny cannibal. While Hank Pym had domestically abused Janet Van Dyne in the main Marvel universe, Millar dialed the abuse up to eleven. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were depicted as secret agents working for S.H.I.E.L.D., exchanging their services to expunge their records for crimes committed working with their father Magneto and to free mutant prisoners. Possibly the most intriguing change of all (to me) was the ambiguity created around the character of Thor. Millar plays up the Jesus-imagery with the language of the son of god (Odin) coming to Earth to save it (from big business, the military-industrial complex, etc.) after having had a nervous breakdown at 30 when he realized his “true identity.” Both of Millar’s Ultimates tales inform the reader throughout the majority of the run that Thor is actually a mental patient who procured technology meant to create a Norwegian super-soldier. Millar does a great job keeping the reader guessing about this throughout his run.

Of course, The Ultimates would not have been what it was without the cinematic art of Bryan Hitch. Hitch’s visual storytelling had as much to do with making The Ultimates what it was as Millar’s scripting did.

The Ultimates impact can probably be most felt in the first Avengers movie. Black Widow and Hawkeye as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and partners, the Avengers as a team working for S.H.I.E.D., even the Chitauri are all influences from The Ultimates. I might make myself unpopular for saying this, but I wasn’t as big of a fan of the first Avengers movie as I wanted to be. Why? I wanted MORE Ultimates’ influences. I wanted a bit more of the politics of The Ultimates. I wanted the superhuman arms race and shapeshifters infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. I wanted something a little…darker. At least, that’s how I felt at the time.

Recently, I revisited The Ultimates, and one thing that struck me now, unlike then, was the cynicism. It was too cynical for me. I’m not sure I could point to a particular moment. Maybe it was when the Ultimates thought Thor had leaked government secrets, and the Wasp tells Fury that he had “ruined their first team-up” with Captain Britain and a bunch of European super soldiers. Maybe it was the twincest between Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Perhaps it is when Bruce Banner is condemned to death for his rampages as the Hulk, and the letter he leaves saying the Ultimates were his family is met with a comment from one of his teammates about what a sad man he was and she barely talked to him.

Maybe it’s a sign that cynicism and “realism” have run their course for me when it comes to comic books; however, that doesn’t keep me from appreciating the times we had. Millar and Hitch crafted something special with The Ultimates, and while I’ve moved on, their storytelling left its mark.

What did you think of The Ultimates? Is there a comic book that had a personal impact on you? Comment below and let us know!



Matthew Brake
Matthew Brake
Matthew Brake is the series editor for the book series Theology and Pop Culture from Lexington Books. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Religion and Comics series from Claremont Press. He holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy from George Mason University. He also writes for Sequart and the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy blog.