This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 10, 2016.
A couple of weeks ago we tooks a look at Marvel Comics’ current lineup of X-Men comics reviewing each of the five significant titles (Extraordinary X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, All-New X-Men, Old Man Logan, and All-New Wolverine). This was written under the nominal excuse of discovering whether Marvel really planned to cancel the line. That’s all a bunch of rumor mongering nonsense from comics clickbaits sites though. In actuality it was a way to review a series of titles and perform a “checkup” on the health of a brand.
This week we will be setting Chase Magnett on another assessment of Marvel mainstream titles. However, this time he’ll be taking a look at those with the greatest connection to Marvel Studios: The Avengers. So how are the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes performing? Are they involved in quality comics or putting out the same saddening mediocrity we observed in the X-line? Stay tuned to find out.
The Ultimates #4
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Kenneth Rocafort
Colors by Dan Brown with Kenneth Rocafort
Letters by Joe Sabino
Does it qualify as irony that the absolute best Avengers comic being published today doesn’t actually refer to its team as Avengers? In either case this is the series establishing what a superhero team comic is capable of today.The Ultimates sets an exemplary standard for what monthly superhero and science fiction comics are capable of by using imagination and design all in service of big ideas and engaging stories.
The Ultimates #4 poses a difficult task for itself, following up the cliffhanger of The Ultimates #3 by having to introduce Anti-Man, a barely recognizable supervillain, and his convoluted history with team leader Adam Brashear, the Blue Marvel. Writer Al Ewing traces parallel timelines throughout the issue flashing as far back as 1951 while charting the encounter occuring in the present. It’s not as simple as two timelines either. Anti-Man’s powers displace his mind in time allowing the story to shift between periods in flashback sequences as well. It’s a complex collection of narratives that reads in a very smooth manner.
This can be attributed to Kenneth Rocafort’s direct layouts and ability to clearly distinguish characters across time in a variety of civilian and costume garb. While pages are designed to shift from wide-open spreads to collections of tight vertical panels, they never leave readers questioning where to jump next. This strong skeleton is embellished with design elements based on the bizarre Neutral Space through which the Ultimates are traveling. Strange shapes and twisty borders never let readers forget where this story is taking place and add a unique style to each page. Dan Brown and Rocafort accentuate and embellish this sense of place with gradients of colors that almost shimmer on the page.
Design elements are strong as well including mechanical suits designed for Neutral Space from both the 1960s and present day. The contrast between oversized, Cousteau-like exploration gear and kamen-like supersuits enhance the long timeline being shown and the advancement of intervening years. While these designs might make for great action figures, they’re simply a joy to witness on the page as they embrace the high concept nature of this story by going big in more way than one.
Ewing’s greatest accomplishment in this story is the grace with which he distills an entire mini-series into the flashbacks of another story. The derided Legend of the Blue Marvel is turned into a potent backdrop for a singular drama that then becomes part of something much larger (further alluded to in another cliffhanger). It is a story about dedication and honor and trauma that serves as a vehicle for readers to both learn to care about Blue Marvel and empathize with his decisions in this issue. The Ultimates #4 provides a better characterization of this one member of the team than many contemporary comics manage with complete rosters throughout 4 issues. It’s not entirely smooth with the abrupt appearance of Adam’s son raising unanswered questions. However, given the amount of information and multiple narratives on display, the comic seemingly packs ten pounds of story into a five pound bag of comics all while making it look easy.
The Ultimates has been one of the best books from the All-New, All-Different Marvel relaunch and The Ultimates #4is no exception. It’s a comic that functions both as an individual issue, making a character study spread across five decades, and as part of an ongoing plot, pushing the limits of weird science in superhero comics. It shows there’s no need to choose amongst plot or character or stlye or action, combining all of these elements into one very enjoyable comic book. There’s a lot happening in these pages, but that only makes the manner in which The Ultimates #4 delivers all the more impressive.