Book Club / Brash, Bratty Character Beats

The Ultimates
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Bryan Hitch






Assemble! For the comic that inspired The Avengers movie that everyone went to see. And an in-depth word talk tackling all sorts of big issues such as: can you say bad things about Jack Kirby? Are the thoughts in your head more facts or opinions? And who would win in a fight between Captain America and Mr Sir Patriot?

 

Why superheroes? 

 
What’s the appeal? Why do people like them? What is it that they give you? How do they make you think? How do they make feel? And why are they now (pretty much) the dominant genre in western culture? 
 
I mean: do you remember Heroes? (Now rebooted because obviously). Like this article on grantland points out: about ten years (or whatever) having people run around in coloured spandex used to be so ridiculous that even Heroes (a show about how all these people have superpowers) didn’t really to sell itself as a “superhero” show. You know: the whole nose-holding thing. And now – well yeah – throw a stone at your nearest tv or cinema and chances are you’ll hit a superhero. 
 
For some stupid reason (I told myself it was research for this what I’m writing now) last week I watched Avenger 2: Age of Ultron and yeah – even as it started I basically wished that I hadn’t. Because – oh my god: what exactly is the appeal here? It was like watching a corporate synergy meeting with over-generously sprinkled with quips (oh my days: so many damn quips: it’s like an infinite amount of monkeys on typewriters – only every monkey is a bloody smart-ass: “Language!” etc). 
 
And afterwards I was all like: damn – why on earth did I watch that? I mean – what was I even looking for? Which lead to: well yeah – what’s so great about superheroes anyway? And man: how did this whole worldwide superhero take-over happen anyway? 
 
Answer: Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates. 
 
I mean – yeah: there were superhero movies before The Ultimates and superhero comics (obviously). But if you want to get all summing things up and drawing lines in the sand – you could do a hell of a lot worse than saying that The Ultimates is basically the ground zero of superhero culture today and if Joss Whedon (who for gosh sakes wrote the introduction for the collected edition of The Ultimates back in 2004) hasn’t been sending Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch thank you cards and envelopes stuffed with cash then well that just ain’t right… (Like it says in this very nice good Vulture article (“The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, the Experiment That Changed Superheroes Forever“) which yeah I recommend you all read: “The Avengers that hundreds of millions of people see on the silver screen are, for the most part, the Ultimates. The classic Avengers were a private club that hung out in a mansion with a wacky butler; the Ultimates were a military operation assembled by superspy Nick Fury to combat extinction-level threats. Classic Hawkeye was a wisecracking reformed criminal who wore a ridiculous purple mask; Ultimate Hawkeye was a hardened black-ops soldier in dark leather who was best buddies with Black Widow. Classic Iron Man was a wealthy-but-sweet ladies’ man with a firm code of ethics; Ultimate Iron Man was a cynical, charismatic, womanizing alcoholic. Classic Nick Fury was white; Ultimate Nick Fury was African-American and explicitly drawn to look like Samuel L. Jackson (Millar had the idea to change Fury’s ethnicity, but Hitch was the one who modeled him off of Jackson, just because he thought the actor’s look fit their reimagined character’s attitude). Which of those setups sounds more familiar?”
 
Because this is it. This is the blueprint. And (ain’t it always the way?) the original and the best iteration of your all star superhero team there’s ever been (Grant Morrison’s JLA? Ok. Whatever). 
 
For my tastes anyway: if you don’t like The Ultimates then – man – you just don’t like 21st Century superhero comics. Because it’s very rarely ever been as good as it gets here. 
 
“You think this letter on my head stands for France?” etc
 
 
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

I would say Warren Ellis’ ‘The Authority’ definitely was the precursor to ‘The Ultimates’ in my opinion. 
 
I remember skeptically skimming through the first issue of The Ultimates at Gosh and the clerk getting me to pick it up saying “it’s Marvel doing the authority”
 
Also I remember the wounds of 9/11 still being raw enough for Steranko to break his mythic silence to wax lyrical about how awesome the first issue of The Ultimates was (which I’ve looked for online to link but there’s weirdly no trace)
 
 
 

 

Ha! I knew someone was going to mention The Authority! In fact – now I’m kicking myself for not mentioning it myself because yeah: it’s very definitely a forerunner (not least because both Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch both worked on it (but not at the same time – right?)). But then – me and Loz were talking about this at the last Barbican Comic Forum: any idea that you can come up will always always be based upon ideas that came before. You know – before The Authority there was The Invisibles and the Grant Morrison’s JLA. Before that there was Kurt Busiek doing Marvels and Astro City. Before that there was Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire with Justice League International. And before them: well Stan Lee and Jack Kirby doing all their things…  

 
I mean if you wanna get all Trent Reznor about it then you can say: everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a. But isn’t more just cross-pollination? I mean – that’s not to say that yes – there are comics out there (as well as TV and films and music and etc) that are just pure and simple rip-offs (naming no names here): but if the people making it are any good at all then there will always a cool spin you can put on things no? 
 
And hell even if The Ultimates is just “Marvel doing The Authority” I mean – isn’t the fact that it’s being done with Marvel characters rather than a bunch of tweaked archetypes (sorry Jenny, Apollo, Midnighter, The Doctor, The Engineer, Jack Hawksmoor and Swift – you know I still love you right?) make it more resonant and changes the meaning? In fact yeah – I’m of the opinion that the only reason to tell new stories with old/classic characters is if you’re going to mess around with them because – gosh darn it – otherwise: what’s the frigging point?
 
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

The Authority was pretty unique as it was the fruition of what Ellis was building up to with Stormwatch – Neo Conservative Superheroes! lol
 
I loved Joe Caseys riposte to it his famous one issue story of Action Comics
 
 

 

The Ultimates is great fun.  Its genius is that it borrows from lots of places but more than anything else, it steals a LOT from Morrison and Yeowell’s 2000 AD strip Zenith which was full of edgy cynical characters, crunchy violence, pop culture and political references and reinventions of pre existing (British) comic book characters and was at the time a very fresh take on ‘realistic superheroes’ in the wake of Alan Moore’s Marvel Man. 

What was particularly smart about this was that Zenith was out of print and impossible to obtain in collected format during this period due to copyright issues so Millar was able to get away with his blatant theivery from his former mentor without anyone being able to call him out on it..
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

Looks like I’m buying Zenith then. Cheers for the tip, Tam 
 
 

 

I’m about halfway through Ultimates 1 (The Hulk just took Manhattan) and oh my god yes: I had completely forgotten just how totally totally slick it is. Yes yes I know that I’ve typed a lot about how great entertainment and all the rest of it. But yeah – if you’re looking for a simple example of something with no greater purpose that to make you thrilled, entertained and satisfied then The Ultimates is it. I mean: reading it kinda makes me feel like a dog getting it’s belly vigorously rubbed. I mean – if I had a tail then when I’m reading The Ultimates – it would wag. It would wag lots.   
 
And yeah – alright – I know that maybe it’s a little bit obvious to compare it to The Avengers movies: but come on! and also – wow yeah: it’s a shame that they didn’t rip off the comic even more. I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore would hate to be quoted in such close proximity to this kinda of stuff but still I think this in particular is kinda relevant: “There is more integrity in comics. It sounds simplistic, but I believe there is a formula that you can apply to almost any work of modern culture… The more money that’s involved in a project the less imagination there will be in the project, and vice versa. If you’ve got zero budget, you’re John Waters, you’re Jean Cocteau, you’re going to make a brilliant film.” Plus well – this too: “The main reason why comics can’t work as films is largely because everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant. These people may be able to add up and balance the books, but in every other area they are stupid and incompetent and don’t have any talent. And this is why a film is going to be a work that’s done by dozens and dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of people. They’re going to show it to the backers and then they’re going to say, we want this in it, and this in it… and where’s the monster?” Because yeah: I think a big part of what makes The Ultimates so great is the sense of freedom that comes with reading it. I mean – who knows? – maybe Marvel micro-managed them to within an inch of their lives and they didn’t get to tell the story that they really wanted to tell – but  it sure doesn’t feel like it when you’re reading it…. I mean: really it just feels like they did whatever the hell they wanted which I think comes across most in how damn likable they make (some) of the characters. And I mean – well – it’s not even really characters at this point is it? Iron Man. Captain America. Thor. These are billion pound properties. Which yeah – I think just even ups the “oh my god” of the way that some of them (all of them?) are portrayed. I mean come on – yes it’s very nice that Mark Ruffalo does such good work making Bruce Banner / The Hulk into such a nice, eyes-melting sweetheart but the Ultimates version of Banner is about a thousand times more interesting and (strangely) cinematic. That whole scene with the payphone? I mean – I could hear the soundtrack playing in my head as that happens as opposed to the Avengers movies where – I mean – do these films even have a soundtrack? Or a theme? Or anything? Or is it more that we’re just supposed to thrill at all these actors all being on the screen at the same time? (Yeah – it’s that isn’t it?). 
 
 
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

I dunno about that being something emblematic of movies or comics – comics definitely didn’t have that integrity in the 90s where it was just as obsessed with gimmick and formula as movies are today.
 

Stanley Kubrick made films that were very intelligent and groundbreaking yet had big budgets. Spielberg too. 

 
I remember a series of tweets Mark Millar gave a few months a go about that era in Marvel – they had just come out of bankruptcy and the old way of doing things wasn’t working so they were up for trying anything.
 
A similar thing happened in American film towards the late 60’s when Easy Rider made a ton of money and the studios couldn’t understand the new cool counter cultural youth so they took a risk on the first wave of film school kids and let them experiment and that lead to 70s American film, arguably the last great decade for American film. 
 
I’m reading Eisner’s ‘The Dreamer’ at the moment for a Gosh Comics reading group and it struck me how these early comics creators weren’t making their brilliant work for any lofty artistic reasons – they did it to make sales. Same with lots of marginalized art – I bet if I spoke to Son House about aesthetics he’d of laughed in my face. 
 
 
 

 

Has anyone been reading Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers/New Avengers? It does seem that Hickman looked at what Millar did on Ultimates and Ultimates 2, chose the bits that worked (and not all of it does, although it’s really just Ultimates 2 that is bad) and then applied that to The Avengers.
 
 
 

 

What are the “bits that worked” in the Ultimates? Is the answer not just “everything”? 

I’ve tried reading some of Hickman’s Marvel stuff (Fantastic Four, a bit of The Avengers etc) but everytime I do I get a headache and feel nauseous. But then his non-Marvel stuff (shout out to East of West and the The Manhattan Projects!) is proper comics ambrosia so erm yeah? 
 
Re: Ramsey / Eisner / Lofty artistic reasons. My take is – if you’re making something to make money then it’ll probably be rubbish. And if you’re making something because you have lofty artistic goals – then it’ll also probably be rubbish. But hey – if you’re making something because you think it’ll be cool and fun and entertaining – then yes and yes and yes. And you know: that’s what it feels like for me reading The Ultimates. The whole thing is just this awesome cool never-ending rush where you can practically hear Millar and Hitch sniggering to themselves and saying: “what can we get away withnext?”
 
And you know – for me – that’s the good stuff.  
 
 
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

I dunno, man. That sounds great in theory but lets look at the evidence. Jack Kirby has gone on record as saying that his prime motivator was sales but can you say his stuff was rubbish? maybe you personally don’t connect with it but you can’t disregard it
 
 
 

 

I think perhaps the method rather than the motivation might be the issue here. 

If you ask a person what their motive is, they might say: ‘lots of money’, if you ask them how they plan to go ahead doing that, they might try by producing the best comic they can and trying really hard to make it good.

You could be cynical and try to make lots of money by pandering to people’s lowest common denominators (metaphors come premixed) and that will probably also work, albeit get forgotten and not be brought up in these discussions (Twilight, except we forgot to forget it). 

Then you have film executives who want to make lots of money and their methods are not a conducive to a good story. (Start with a treatment, hire a writer to flesh it out, realise it doesn’t match what you would write if you could write, sack the writer, hire a few more writers, ask them to chop and change and prune so it looks like the Frankenstein’s monster of what you would write if you could write. Sack those writers and hire a third team so it looks almost like a proper story, but the audience finds it’s in the uncanny valley and finally figures out: one side is partially paralysed, it has permanent blinding headaches resulting in snappy, mean behaviour, also if you look carefully you can see where the bolt was).

Perhaps ‘low budget equals good work’ is suffering from survivorship bias and really the message is ‘low barriers to entry create a lot of rubbish that can safely be forgotten, plenty of medium good stuff, and a few absolute diamonds’, also the diamonds are probably getting their training in the rubbish and medium films.

Once you have a basic sufficiency do you need more than that? (channel Eleanor and Marianne for this question).  A mere 20 million will probably get all the important things, while every million added on after that will have diminishing returns. I only ever read comic film news that you guys have posted on facebook so you know that some films that made a loss actually made perfectly respectable amounts, it was the budget that was crazy.


I always loved the bit from Buffalo Soldiers where the overprotective Dad followed his daughter and her bad boyfriend to the night club. The boyfriend (the protagonist) was supposed to lose the Dad in a high speed car chase (he does foreshadow how much he loves being able to drive his beloved car superfast on the Autobahn). After they ran out of budget the Dad wasn’t allowed in the night club because he was wearing white trainers. While a car chase would have been fun, the white trainers served the story equally well. (The Dad got the car brutally murdered anyway).  

Maybe there’s a sweet spot of having enough money for the basics (from IF we can see that colour film is not included here) but not having so much money you don’t need to think hard, (necessity … invention). In [the science of] Luck Richard Wiseman describes how he only developed his prize winning magic card trick when his suitcase of old tricks was stolen and the only prop he could buy at short notice was a pack of cards. But in Scarcity Mullainathan and Shafir  describe how worrying about money (or time) can drop your IQ and can make you drill down and focus so much on the scarcity that you can’t look up and around to spot the creative solution. So you need to find that middle ground (and distract the film execs with colourful toys/fast cars on autobahns).



 

It’s funny that you mentioned Jack Kirby seeing how he was the one who originally created the Avengers (you know – along with that other guy): but then I mean – for me anyway – once you start getting into it all stuff starts getting all muddy and well – complex (ha – “complex” is a good word): because yeah – how much credit should he be given for The Ultimates (not to mention the Avengers movie and etc and all the billions that generates…). 

 
On the one hand – he’s the one who created the characters and the concept and without him the Avengers wouldn’t even exist and – man – isn’t it rubbish that all this international corporations are making all the billions and etc (and oh my gosh yes – in terms of people being completely ripped off – Kirby is way way up there for someone who should have died in a gold palace and instead – well – didn’t. So. Yeah. That’s not fair. 
 
But then again – with The Ultimates especially – I mean: I realise that expressing this idea might not make me the most popular person around: but come on – could Kirby have ever even conceived of the stuff that Millar and Hitch do in the Ultimates? I mean – it’s literally a whole different universe. So who cares if Kirby was the first guy to do the guy with the “A” and the shield. I mean – aren’t ideas free? Isn’t the point of them to spread and change and mutate and move above and beyond? Or to put it another way – should J K Rowling be cutting cheques for Jill Murphy and Ursula Le Guin?
 
Of course framing it this way is maybe part of the mistake (and gosh – the older I get the more I realise that everything is basically about getting the first angle to start with and making sure that you’re not being messed around with the wrong question. It’s like – do you want your parents to be killed by a gun or a knife? I mean – better to just reject the assumption of the question – altogether right?): and think with the Kirby and the Ultimates thing I mean –  the problem is the thinking in terms of money I think. I mean: wouldn’t it just be better if there was no such thing as intellectual copyright altogether? (Well – yeah: but maybe). I mean: I know it’s a bit extreme: but that way – everyone can just do anything and maybe you don’t have to worry if billions are going to the right people. (I feel like I should probably clear this up with another few paragraphs: but I can’t be bothered right now because there’s more stuff I want to say). 
 
Because also – well – in terms of what you said Ramsey about how I can’t “disregard” Kirby. Well – that’s a whole interesting thing there just in terms of how certain artists and creators and whatnot get to the point where they basically exist beyond critical distance (or however you want to put it). Like – if you say something bad about Bowie or Alan Moore or Shakespeare or Picasso or The Beatles or James Joyce or whoever (yes yes – those all be white men: but hey I didn’t make the canon: and I’m about to reject it anyway so…) and all you get is a pitying look and a “well – you’re wrong.” (Ramsey – I totally get that maybe this isn’t what you meant exactly: but I’m running with it ok?). I mean – Kirby. I’ve tried reading some of his stuff now and again (New Gods I think was one of them) and yeah: I thought it was rubbish. And what’s more: I stand by my right to say it’s rubbish and not to dilute that and say something more like “well – you know: I just don’t think it’s for me” or “I can see that he’s important.” I mean – I think I understand why people do it (it’s nice to have a point of agreement and something we can all point to and say is good and not worry about getting it wrong): but it’s basically the death of thought and opinion and making sense of the world – it’s treating things and art as “facts” which is something I find to be massively unhelpful and serves only to obfuscate the world rather than making it clear – you know?
 
Plus also (to swing back to the money thing): I mean – just because Kirby went on record and said in one interview or thousands or whatever that he was “just about the money.” I mean – why should we even believe him? You know – humans aren’t always the best at knowing their own motivations (at least from my experience) and hell – even if he is right about himself: does that mean that everyone else is the same? 
 
In fact – maybe there’s a better way to approach it instead of just going to every artist ever and say: “You doing it for the money or the love or for the success?” because – well – I mean: humans are more complex than that aren’t they? I mean – maybe it’s all a bit of a both? Although still saying that – and using Christine’s example of the film executives: I mean – if someone is just making something cynically because of the money and because they just want the success: I mean – well – screw those people because (I’m sorry but it’s true): you’re making the world a worse place you know? We need more beautiful things and less soulless cash-grabs. And well – I guess the point I was making (badly as always) before – is that doing things for “lofty artistic” goals or whatever – is maybe it’s own form of soullessness? And it’s own form of misguided egoism? Because you know – you want to be an “artist” and you want to be “deep” as opposed to – well: The Ultimates sitting around and talking about who’ll play them in a movie (which OMG is such a great scene for so many different reasons you guys!)
 
 
 
 

 

While discussing The Ultimates vs. The Authority, you mentioned the extra frisson that having the characters be Captain America and The Hulk rather than Mr Sir Patriot and Big Grey Rage Beast added.
 
Is the question then not whether Millar and Hitch could have ever even conceived of the stuff that Millar and Hitch do in the Ultimates without Kirby?
 
(Okay, Kirby and a dozen other guys, maybe, but let’s keep it simple for now.)
 
The Ultimates is very clever in the way it both plays on and plays beyond the expectations that come with these characters. As in The Authority, the action is well staged, and builds in recognisable movie tropes in a way that opens it out to a less comics-savvy audience, hence why it’s easy to conceive of this book as a big sign post to Marvel’s eventual box office domination. And yet, The Ultimates is also very much a work that invites the reader to thrill at its deviations, at its naughty, dickish versions of familiar heroes – seems to me that while the results are broad enough to communicate more widely, the process leading up to them involves a deep engagement with a set of expectations that start with Kirby.
 
See Millar’s roughly contemporary work on Ultimate X-Men for a less effective use of the same technique. My then-girlfriend thought that the stuff with Wolverine and Jean Grey in that first Millar/Kubert story arc just read as being really choppy and arbitrary, and I could see how it would play that way if you weren’t going in with a set of pre-conceived notions about how those characters should interact for the book to exploit.
 
As to whether it would be better if there were no intellectual copyright, I’m for the freedom of informationthe ecstasy of influencethe genius of plagiarism, etc, but I’m also for folks getting to eat.
 
Not to worry, I’m sure we’re only a couple of Kraken podcasts away from the end of capitalism now – no pressure lads!



 

Anybody who thinks information should be free, should create some information and set it free (quote: famous internet person)

You are on top of that with the podcast.


 

[Giant copyrighted thumbs up logo goes here]


 

If you don’t like it – then you don’t get to make comics. Simple as. (That should sort the wheat from the chaff). 

 
Or then again: I mean – come on. Yes. Of course people should eat and get paper and all the rest: but – then you know: I don’t think it’s really about people. It’s about the big giant corporations like Marvel and Disney and so on. I mean – come on (I realise that this may read as an anti-Kirby screed – but it’s not supposed to): but Captain America and the Hulk are household names not merely because they are the most amazing characters ever – but because they have been endlessly marketed for generations and generations (and particularly to children – which you know: means that stuff gets in deep). I mean – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the characters with the – how do I say this? – biggest reach? are most well known? are comic book characters you know? I mean – there’s only one Pride and Prejudice but oh my god – I mean – just how many tons of Batman comics are there out there? We must be talking millions at this point no? (and I don’t mean how many copies of each issue – I just mean – if you could each new issue once: it’s still A LOT). And this isn’t to give the corporations (Marvel and DC and so on) credit and say “hey! well done guys!” – it’s more just to give a sense of how we’re fighting against tidal waves and all one person can do is hope to make a puddle – you know? And so the thing isn’t to say – oh hey: I don’t think people should lose the rights to their puddles. More that: erm – maybe we could get rid of the tidal waves?
 
(I don’t know if that makes any sense).  
 
 

 

Have you read that link in my last message to the report on EU copyright reform? I realise this is possibly the least appealing sentence that has ever been written in the history of the world, but until you confirm that you have I will continue to consider that you want us all to either get on out there and WIN AT THE GAME or else shut up and go live in yurts knitted out of our own chest hair.
[I’m hairy as fuck, so I don’t know what you’re all moaning about, it’ll be FINE.]
 

Anyway, that report I linked to is probably far from perfect – I dunno, it’s been a while since I read it but iirc it’s tangled up in specific European/technological contexts – but it’s an attempt to get into the messy business of how you try to deal with the fact that corporations will police the fuck out of this shit while also looking after the sort of people they might be policing against.

Which is to say, you cuddly creative types, hairy or otherwise. 
 

I’d belther on more about all of this but I’d rather blow that load on the Mindless site, we’re at a real interesting point with regards to corporate engagement with fandoms, they’re really keen on cultivating that (it’s makes sense for them to try to keep people excited about the new toys) and they like to flirt with the sort of endless combination and re-configuring that fuels certain parts of the internet (on a niche level, the Ultimates parody in Multiversity; on a mainstream level, the various Warner Bros sub properties interacting in the Lego Movie) but isn’t this energy also kind of a sly threat to them? Do they think people care about whether Harry Potter and Captain America shouldn’t be allowed to play together because we own the wizard but that other one belongs to the Mouse?

 
So anyway, what I like best in art – and I like loads of stuff, I like jokes that I can’t help but laugh at, I like being able to just fucking marvel at someone doing something that seems impossible, I like that moment when something that didn’t seem like it could possibly come together does, etc – is being put into difficulty.  Not in terms of being faced with something that’s hard to watch/read/look at/listen to necessarily, more in that I like it when I’m made to confront something that I can’t easily resolve or ignore or explain away.  
 
The Millar/Hitch Ultimates doesn’t look like the most promising territory for this sort of experience, and for the most part that’s true. I like it – it’s probably the last Mark Millar comic I was able to enjoy without vomiting up a whole load of qualifiers, and it definitely represents the point where Bryan Hitch’s artwork looked best to my eyes – but I generally like it in a fairly breezy way.  I laugh at the crude bits, I follow the fight scenes, I enjoy the brash, bratty character beats, and all of this is good.  
 
The point of difficulty, for me, the point where I find myself getting really tangled up in the book, involves a cameo by the man who was President of the United States of America at the time the story was published:
 
cool or uncool
 
Now this is a joke, and George W. Bush is the butt of it, but I can’t help but think that this moment draws attention to uneasy nature of The Ultimates’ parodic elements.  “What if superheroes were jingoistic arseholes or unstable psychopaths or both?!!” wasn’t anyone’s idea of an unasked question when Millar and Hitch started working on this book, but scenes like this draw my eye to the book’s specific effects and textures.  Compared to something like Marshal   Law or The Dark Knight Returns, there’s not much of the caricature in the visual language of The Ultimates.  That picture of Dubya is a bit broad and goonish, but it’s also in keeping with the photo-referencing of Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury – a more tangibly realised bit of magic than anything Grant Morrison has managed; shame it didn’t work when you put Em and Halle in Wanted, eh Mark? – and the cute conversation about who would play whom in the movie adaptation.
 
There’s a sheen of Hollywood realism on the whole thing – these characters aren’t over the top symbols, their actions aren’t abstracted or instantly readable as being critiques of ideological positions or whatever whatever. 
 
Confidence comes with a cape
 
As a result, The Ultimates ends up demonstrating a superhero-specific version with Swafford’s paradox – the difficulty of critiquing something while also making it look REALLY FUCKING COOL.  Because sure, I laugh at that Bush scene, and I get that we’re laughing at how preposterous Captain America is when he does the big line to camera, but what am I really here for?
 
I’m here to see The Hulk take on Manhattan.  I’m here for the R&D Iron Man unleashing a thousand dork fantasies on the world. I’m here to see Captain America kick some arse. Reading this book, I know that I am living in the 21st Century and for once I find myself thinking that it’s fucking awesome.
 
All of which means that The Ultimates makes me agree with George W. Bush.  It’s a strange feeling. I’m not sure I like it, but it’s what keeps me coming back.
 
SHOULD BE “…The Ultimates makes me think like George W. Bush” GRR ARGH I AM TEH FANDAN
 
 
 

 

“Satire” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Like too much. For my pedantic tastes anyway. I mean – to use Black Mirror as an example: I mean – I’m not going to try and google the reviews for the first episode (because they’ve probably been lost under “swine11“) but man – so so so many people were like: “oh yeah: the Prime Minister having sex with a pig. That’s like really satirical and stuff?” Only well – no it’s not. I mean – it has the flavour and taste of being satire – only there’s not really a thing that’s being satirized (unless you want to make an argument that it’s the human condition or something? I dunno…). 

 
I’m kinda leaving myself wide open for ridicule here I know: but I guess what I’m trying to say is that – I don’t really see The Ultimates as really being that satirical. If at all. I mean – yes: it’s all very cool (that would be my sum up quote for the poster if anyone wants it): but I never really got the feeling or the thought of the sensation that it was advancing any type of worldview or taking any other worldviews down. I mean – the mindset is that of a teenager playing with a bunch of toys and making the coolest possible scenarios (“oooh! I’m gonna use my Samuel L Jackson doll as Nick Fury! I can make him wear an eye-patch and everything!”) but you know – what’s being satirized here? (Question: does something have to be being satirized to be satirical? I would say yes but would be interested to be persuaded otherwise…). 
 
I mean – for me at least – I think that the extent of the satire (although I think I would use another word) is what you said David – is that it compromises the reader so that you end up having the same mindset as Bush. But really that’s about it?  Like is Mr Sir Patriot’s “cool” line really that preposterous?
 
In fact – if I had to think about it / make a guess – isn’t the real reason Bush is there to add to the realism of the whole thing? I mean – Marvel books usually have fake presidents right? (Is that right??) So isn’t it a kinda line in the sand to be like – oh look guys – we’ve got the real thing! (oh wait – no that’s wrong ha!). 
 
But then again but then again: thinking about it further – I mean – maybe all superhero stories are by their very nature right wing and individualism and one man can change the world and fix everything and go back to bed American your government is in control etc. 
 

Re: “Is the question then not whether Millar and Hitch could have ever even conceived of the stuff that Millar and Hitch do in the Ultimates without Kirby?”

 
I mean – obviously not. Obviously. It’s all a rift on the songs that Kirby (and others etc) wrote. And yeah – I guess for some people: that’s why The Beatles are the best band forever and ever: because all anyone does is copy what they’ve already done – aka: the oh-my-god-i-can’t-even-say-how-awful Rolling Stone:  How Radiohead Shocked the World: A 15th-Anniversary Salute to ‘Kid A’  which (among other things) just makes it seem like music is just about getting the parts of what people have done before and sticking them together like lego blocks or something: “the Moody Blues strings and Chris Squire bass of “How to Disappear Completely,” the Blind Faith hook of “Optimistic,” the Bowie-in-Berlin vibe of the whole concept.” I mean – yes – obviously people get influenced by stuff – but to reduce things to just – well: there was this one thing and then someone else just copied it and made it difference – I mean – it’s fucking reductive and gets you nowhere close to understanding how this stuff actually works. The Ultimates is not just The Avengers plus The Authority. It’s Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch doing loads and loads of work on so much different stuff in order to make a goddamn work of super-cool art/entertainment/comic. I mean – the stuff on io9 every bloody day (Imagine Futurama characters as Batman villains! Imagine Buffy characters as Disney characters! Imagine Star Wars characters as Harry Potter characters!) – I mean – that stuff is the devil. That stuff is just copying with very very little of anything creative. And that’s the reduction of the sandpit of our collective imagination so that all that is left are franchises and owned properties – and so the only thing we can think of is a rift or what has been done before. 
 
Or to put it another way: If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. And everyone arguing over whose boot is it. It’s Darth Vader! No wait! It’s Batman! No – it’s Lego Batman Darth Vader! etc
 
 
 

 


It’s hardly a joke at Bush’s expense given Cap’s response!  And I don’t think Millar would be daft enough to risk alienating any of his his audience, (even if Marvel let him.  Which they wouldn’t) by portraying any unambiguous political convictions within the story whatsoever.  All mainstream comics and films want to achieve the maximum audience so any ‘right wing’ moment will carefully be balanced out with a ‘left wing’ one and vice versa to avoid offending anyone.
 
And while I respect and admire Kirby’s contribution to superhero comics, I find it really depressing that most British comic fans seem to know and care far more about this than for example the similar battles people like Leo Baxendale, (the brilliant creator of the Bash Street kids and Minnie the Minx) went through on this side of the atlantic and they still don’t have anywhere near the recognition they deserve
 

 

Joel – just as well I was careful not to use the word satire then, eh?
 
[Clenches arsehole, hopes to fuck the word didn’t slip in there by mistake, though to be honest it’ll be hilarious if it did!]
 
With regards to whether that Bush line is silly or a joke or whatever, I’d find it hard NOT to find that particular word/picture combination funny so regardless of Cap’s reaction (or, indeed, my own boom tish ULTIMATE response) I’m comfortable with my position there, for sure
.
Most (not sure about “all”, but that’s a question for another day) superhero stories have a certain affinity with the right wing worldview, sure. How much they handle, subvert or embrace that can vary wildly though, and The Ultimates manages a couple of contradictory things there.
 
So Bush’s appearance adds to what I called the Hollywood realism of the comic AND to its potential status as a tongue-in-cheek rummage in the playbox – the fact that you can take it both ways is a huge part of the fun for me, compromised goon that I am.
 

With regards to our endlessly remixed Darth Vader boot camp future, aye, sure, that stuff’s awful. EMPTY IS THY HAND, etc.

No one here’s arguing for that view of creativity though, are they? At the risk of sounding defensive when I don’t need to – I don’t think the passage I’m about to quote from was aimed at me, but I’m going to blunder on anyway for the sake of clarity – I certainly haven’t suggested that you can solve The Ultimates like a backwards maths question that equals “The Avengers plus The Authority”.

As you said, “the fact that it’s being done with Marvel characters rather than a bunch of tweaked archetypes (sorry Jenny, Apollo, Midnighter, The Doctor, The Engineer, Jack Hawksmoor and Swift – you know I still love you right?) make it more resonant and changes the meaning” – the fact that this leads us back to a couple of specific American comic book creators was all I was trying to highlight there. My last big couple of comments have had more to do with the specific work Hitch and Millar put in, and again, just try to imagine how that “FRANCE” panel or the Bush scene would play if, say, Kyle Baker had drawn them.  The spirit of those scenes wouldn’t be entirely different (Special Forces is a bloody weird comic!) but it would perhaps be more pronounced, maybe?

Tam – totally fair point about the relative lack of noise around Leo Baxendale, if you have any links to information on that I’d be happy to do my bit to share them around.




 

Oh man. Sorry. My approach to everything is always scatter-shot and nowhere near as thought through as it probably should be and never really aimed at particular people. It’s more that someone will say something – and then I’ll twist and interpret that as something else and then use it as a basis for some rant on something or the other. I mean – I think there’s lots of stuff in the world that’s wrong: but unless someone said something that was completely against what I agree with (eg “Scott Pilgrim isn’t the best comic in the whole world ever”) then yeah – but I’m not really directing things at people on here: more using it to fire my missives out into the world (I mean – see above: where I took one sentence that Ramsey wrote and just used it to go off on a thousand crazy tangents…

 
Re: Ultimates and satire. I mean – I made a solemn vow when I started the London Graphic Novel Network that I was going to try and rise above “gotcha” comics blogging: and – I mean – who cares who said what anyway (that’s not what it’s about): but for sure I’ve pretty sure I’ve heard people concept those two concepts before and – ooooh – there we go: it seems like Mark Millar said it himself (!): 
 
Millar: It’s amazing how many people seem to think this is a neo-con comic. Same thing happened on [Marvel’s] Ultimates, when it was clearly anti-war through and through. I feel like [director Paul] Verhoeven must have felt after Starship Troopers, in the sense that many people are missing the political satire.
 
….
 
There’s political satire?? 
 
(Holds up The Ultimates by the spine and shakes it around the hope that the satire will drop out and make itself known). 
 
 
Nope. I’ve got nothing. 
 
 
 

 

Oh hey, not to worry, I’m not going to take the huff even if someone does tell me I’m talking shite (I enjoy being told off for my nonsense and bluster, personally) and I know you’re a wee hurricane of ideas, I was just confused as to whether I was expected to defend positions I’d never tried to, uh, occupy blah blah RISK cakes.
 

Bad habits of a message board vet/twitter arsehole: I spend too much time thinking about stuff as though it’s all part of a DEBATE to be WON at ALL COSTS.

 
 
 

 

Re: “a DEBATE to be WON at ALL COSTS.”
 
Oh my god oh my god oh my god. 
 
I mean – yeah ok: I know this is a tangent and nothing to do with The Ultimates / comics / whatever – but this stuff totally and completely fascinates me. (Maybe because I’m not always the best at social interactions? Ha. Yeah. Probably). 
 
I’d really like to do a Kraken on this (although I think the other guy’s mileage will vary) but basically I think that (if you want to get all binary about it): there’s two different ways to approach the thoughts in your head – on the one hand it’s facts and on the other it’s opinions. 
 
If you think that your thoughts are facts then everything gets highly charged and serious. I mean – you’re the one that knows the facts and anyone who disagrees with you is getting it wrong: which means that you know – you need to attack and prove things and convert all the non-believers and etc and so on – aka: everything becomes “a DEBATE to be WON at ALL COSTS.” Because yeah: you can’t help but see the world as divided into right and wrong. Because of the facts damn it. There are just some things that are true (and etc). 
 
On the other hand: if you approach things as opinions: then everything seems a lot easier. Then when you’re talking to people you’re not trying to explain the truth – you’re more trying to explain your point of view and (I mean – this would explain it’s my favourite word) you end up asking “why?” a lot more you know? “Why do you think this?” “Why do you believe this to be the case?” and whatever. Because then you end up seeing the world as more like different types of gradients. There are some opinions that we might have more reason to believe in (Scott Pilgrim is the best comic of all time) and some opinions that we might have less reason to believe in (Fables in the best comic of all time = LOL) you know? And it’s like instead of fighting with the cold hard steel of FACT – it’s more like the soft cushions of different opinions: which means that everyone is off the hook. 
 

As an example: I mean – going back to the “satire” thing (I mean – what can I say I think that’s interesting too): when I said (however I said it) that I didn’t think that The Ultimates was really satire: I mean – I guess my hope was that someone would be like: “oh actually – I think it is satire because of the reasons blah blah blah” because you know: then I’d learning and having my opinions changed (which I’d say is hands down one of the best things about treating your thoughts like opinions: it’s so easy to have them change: as opposed to facts where – you know: if there’s a counter-argument or whatever: then you have to have your facts be wrong and YOU HAVE LOST THE DEBATE etc): I mean – I guess that also explains why (mostly) I prefer to play games where it’s not always someone wins and someone loses and is more the pleasant interplay (eg. Playing tennis or whatever – lets not play for points – let’s just enjoy hitting the ball around – you know?). 

Addendum to the above:

 
A little birdie just a word in my ear outside and said that what I just wrote sounds “a bit petulant.” Which basically sends a cold chill running down the back of my spine. Because – well – I mean: everything I write here I attempt to do in the spirit of openness and kindness and everything else (be a world child form a circle) but yeah – if I’ve upset anyone reading this then I apologize and want you to know that I’m not trying to be aggressive or dickish or anything (if that’s how I’m coming across). 
 
Little birdie also said: “‘don’t be offended by anything i say because I probably don’t mean it’ which smacks a bit of an excuse for bad manners ” which i totally get and again – I’m sorry that it’s been understood in that way. So just to state things clearly: I don’t think there’s ever any excuse for bad manners and I’ll always try to conduct myself as politely and properly as possible. I mean – I mean all the things that I say. The point that I was (obviously poorly) trying to get at – is that I just don’t think the things I mean / the things I say need to be treated as being “yes or no / true or false facts”. More like: I dunno – items on a menu that you might find or less tasty than other things.
 
But still – I’m always happy to put my hands in the air I say: on – that thing I said – oh. ok. Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I got that wrong.
 
(I hope that helps). 
 
🙂 
 
 
 
 

 

This has got weird, I hope no one’s worrying on my account – I’m not going to get upset by Joel’s opinions because I KNOW my head’s full of facts. 
 
More seriously, don’t really want to spend too much time splitting the hairs on this beast because I’ve got FACTS to spread on the internet, but do people not rate the ideas and notions on their head on a spectrum?  Like, I know for a fact that if you were able to learn Bill Willingham’s true name it would simply be “Bill Willingham, who you should never read”, but I am also of the opinion that listening to what Mark Millar says in an interview is almost never going to be helpful because he’s probably just trying to find new ways to sell the same old shit.

 

I just wrote a thing about how rubbish Mark Millar is but then I deleted it. Because yeah – ok – I know that any time his name comes up you’re supposed to make a face and “oh no. I can’t believe it. That guy’s a wanker” and oh my god – yeah – there are obviously some seriously strange things going on his head (the last page in Wanted anyone? I mean – OH MY GOD) but you know: maybe it’s better / more heathy / or whatever to take people at their best rather than their worst? And come – Superman: Red Son, The Ultimates and – dare I say it? – Superior are all actually kinda cool and do good work. And yeah – I don’t know – it’s only when he gets off the leash and is allowed free reign that all the arse-stuff starts coming out. He’s like the star pupil when he’s in school – but then at night he’s going around and behaving like a dick because I don’t know it’s what the cool kids expect or something? 
 
David – I know you just said that you should never listen to what Mark Millar says in interviews but holy holy – this AvClub interview from 2010 is basically the Rosetta Stone for all Mark Millar everywhere if only for this little exchange:
 
AVC: How did fatherhood shape your portrayal of Hit-Girl?
MM: Well, I think it probably goes back slightly further, before Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I remember when my daughter was born in 1998, and I hadn’t had any success in terms of sales at that point. I was really scraping a living, and desperately trying to make sure the small book I worked on didn’t get canceled. Everything I worked on was always at break-even. Every month, if it dipped in sales, I would have been canceled. It was actually a weirdly stressful three or four years. The interesting thing about Swamp Thing, and so on—which were in places quite scary and quite horrible—is I remember a friend of mine saying to me, “Oh, I wonder if you’ll, now that you’ve had a baby, you’ll go all Ian McEwan.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ian McEwan—his work used to be very, very harsh, and then he had a baby, and he went quite gentle. “So I wonder if that will happen to you, if you’ll lose your edge.” I was, “Oh my God, no.” So I think I purposefully went the other way, because the next thing I did was The Authority, which turned out to be my breakout project, but also the harshest thing I’ve ever written. I think since then, maybe subconsciously, I’ve always been aware of, “Don’t go soft.” I probably push it a little too much sometimes, so that I don’t seem as if I’ve gone soft.
 

I mean – that’s like his whole problem / psychology / modus operandi right there in a single nutshell (with the oh-so-obvious sexual undertones): don’t go soft, don’t go soft, don’t go soft. oh please god, don’t go soft. 

 
 
 
 

 

I think there’s definitely a place for very testosterone-y superhero comics!  It’s worth remembering that many of the readers of The Ultimates like stuff like Cap’s ‘You think this A stands for France’ in a thoroughly non ironic kind of way…  Millar’s strength is that, like Tarantino, he can do this stuff in a way that he appeals equally to a wide range of readers (although his biggest fans are probably obnoxious 14 year old boys)

Incidentally a few weeks ago I spent a day reading about a hundred random mainstream marvel and DC comics from the last few years that I unexpectedly found.  Well actually, I tried to read them but found most of them almost unreadable, due to being either impenetrable, featuring (unintentionally) unlikable characters, dull or the stakes being about cosmic macguffins I struggled to give a toss about,  It made me realise why comic circulations are so low despite all the blockbuster movies in the genre 


As someone who grew up adoring this stuff, it was actually a bit shocking how low the bar is these days.  I’m not Mark Millar’s greatest fan, but reading this really made me realise how much better his stuff is than the bulk on mainstream these days.  Even his worst stuff is readable and shows a basic level of craft and keeps you turning the pages and his best stuff, (like Starlight or the first volume of The Ultimates) is pretty good.  Reading all this dreck by his contemporaries makes it easy to understand why he’s been so successful

 
 

 

I think one of the major things that The Ultimates has going for it (apart from what Tam mentioned about you know – the basic level of craft – which yeah – certainly helps doesn’t it?) is the (oh my god super super refreshing!) complete lack of continuity fan-wank. Doing the Barbican Comic Forum – one of the most common questions I get asked (especially if they’re picking up superhero comics) is something along of the lines of: “Can I just read this one book and it’ll all make sense?” because – and yeah yeah I get the reasons: because Marvel and DC long ago realised that the best way to hook your customers in is to smoother everything with references to everything else (see: London Graphic Novel Network Issue #42 for more on this!) and yeah – I mean – for my tastes anyway – it just ends up making things feel really stodgy. Like you’re just eating gruel. And helps generate this feeling that – urg – you can never get to the end of things. I mean: if I wanted life – then I’d go outside and despair as I walk the streets knowing that there are a billion lives and stories (same thing right?) out there that I’ll never know. But I mean – with fiction – one of the things it’s supposed to do (right?) is give you a complete experience. Something that can all be contained within one book. Beginning middle and end etc. 
 
And yeah – I mean: it’s obviously working for the Marvel movies in how they all connect up: but then maybe that’s all part of the reason why none of them are really all that good (apart from Edgar Wright’s Ant Man – which is playing on a constant loop in my dreams). 
 
I mean – for lots of people: the experience of superheroes is totally bound-up in continuity fan-wank. I mean – (with one or two exceptions) that’s pretty much the only way you can experience this stuff: so much so – that some people tend to make the argument that the never ending continuity is part of what makes the superheroes supeheroes. You know – like it’s part of the genre. And well – yeah: part of what makes The Ultimates so good, so refreshing, so much fun – is that it’s a perfect crystal clear example of what happens when you divorce superheroes from the binds of continuity and references and just let them free to kick-ass all on their own. I could be wrong about this – but back when I first read the Ultimates I don’t think I even really knew who Captain America and the rest of them really were: but – well – it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference you know? I mean: all the basics are basically there. 
 
Re: Zenith. Tam – on your recommendation I got all four books of Zenith out from the library (shout out to Southwark Libraries! And Loz!) and well yeah – having read them all yesterday (which was certainly an – ahem – interesting experience) – I’ve got to admit that I don’t see that much in parallel between the two (apart from alien Nazi bad guys): I mean – in fact – they almost feel like different genres: Zenith is more a kinda intellectual art house kinda thing (Altered States mixed with Richard Donner’s Superman) The Ultimates is more well – bang! smash! action (Bad Boys having a fight with Zack Synder’s Superman). Also – wow – there’s also that little bit of transphobia that just comes out of nowhere: and I was all like: “Wow. Really Grant? Really?” But it’s cool that nowadays that’s not the sort of thing that people do (so that’s something at least). 

 

Zenith and The Ultimates differ in various ways but the latter does blatantly steal a lot of the former’s tricks..  For example, it brashly ‘reinvents’ a lot of the (largely unmissed and unloved) 1960s and 1970s British superheroes who were dimly remembered by that generation of 2000 AD readers but are likely to be unknown by anyone approaching it cold today.  It was also very deliberately of its time, set in a recognisable world and full of cultural references and political references to Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine.  Personally I think this linking to very specific moments is one of my favourite things about it, (along with the stunning art in phase 3) but I can easily see see how other people would just find it weird and dated approaching it for the first time in 2015…
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