What would happen if superheroes actually existed here, in our real world? How would they ineract with us? How would they fit into society? It's a question that's been asked in comic books for decades, most notably in short-run series and graphic novels such as Alex Ross's Marvels and Alan Moore's legendary Watchmen, and on-and-off (mostly peripherally) throughout the run of classic books like the X-Men, Spiderman and Batman.
Marvel's relatively young series (it's been going for a little over two years), the Ultimates, asks that question in a different way. The Ultimates takes our real lives and real world, right now, including our language, sensibilities, technology and politics (including actual celebrities and political figures), and then asks, what if some of our most popular classic superheroes showed up in this world, were created from scratch in this society? How would we, our people and governments, react? How would they be different, being spawned in the early 21st century, instead of in the 1950s and 1960s? In the case of the Ultimates, the heroes in question are Marvel's first super-squad, the mighty Avengers, including household names like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man, and less-well-known heroes, like Giant-Man, the Wasp and Hawkeye.
The Ultimates starts off toward the end of WWII. The world's first superhero, Captain America, is helping fight the Nazis. In this "real" world, most people don't believe Cap is a superhero, his fellow soldiers included. They think he's a publicity stunt -- a PR campaign designed to recruit more American soldiers. Since the missions he's sent on against the Nazis are mostly top-secret, he's seldom actually seen in action, except in photographs, and his victories are as secret as the missions themselves. When he is lost in the north Atlantic after a secret mission to destroy the Nazi Atomic Bomb (nearly completed a year or two before ours, thanks to some alien help), no one thinks much of it, and the U.S. government cannot replicate the "super soldier serum" by which Cap was created.
Flash forward to 2002. The world is as our world is. George W. Bush is president. The world is focused on terrorism and the middle-east. The economy is in trouble. America and the world are painted as they really are, except that a few "superheroes" and "supervillains" have started to emerge. After attacks on New York city by Magneto and the Hulk, people are worried not only about "conventional" terrorism, but also "super-terrorism." They don't trust the mutant X-Men, who seem as mysterious and dangerous as Magneto, or Spiderman, whose gymnastics and web-slinging may or may not have helped stop the Hulk. The U.S. Government, conscious of this new threat, decides to re-start it's WWII-era "super-soldier" program to battle the emerging super-terrorism, and hires scientists Henry Pym (who is working on a "Giant-Man" formula) and his wife, Janet (whose super powers are generally thought to be the successful result of her and her husband's experiments, but really stem from a carefully-hidden secret), Dr. Robert "Bruce" Banner, whose work on re-creating the super-soldier serum accidentally created the Hulk (he's now supposedly cured), and Tony Stark, billionaire scientist and entrepeneur, and the inventor/pilot of the Iron Man armor. As Pym finds sucess with Giant-Man, and Banner becomes increasingly frustrated with his lack of success, a frozen but miraculously alive Captain America is fished out of the North Atlantic ice. With a team assembled, and a live original super-soldier to help Banner's task of engineering more super-soldier serum, all the newly formed "Ultimates" have to do is thwart a super-threat to justify the massive military expenditure...
I'm happy to say (after all the description above) that the Ultimates is a fantastic comicbook series. The first 18 or so issues are now collected in 3 volumes (Super-Human, Homeland Security, and Gods and Monsters), and the series continues, well into its third year, featuring the same creative team with which it began.
There are a number of elements which have combined to make this series so consistantly good. The first is the question described at the beginning of this review, which makes for a compelling foundation upon which to retell the story of these beloved heroes. The second is the choice of some of the most loved, recognizable heroes in comic book history to help answer that question. But this question was similarly asked in Marvel's Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man, resulting in two series which are far inferior to the Ultimates, in my opinion. The factors which allow the Ultimates to succeed where these others fail seem straightforward enough, though they are notoriously hard to find in the comic book world: absolutely incredible writing and utterly fantastic art.
Millar's writing is amazing all-round: his dialoge is natural, modern and convincing, and rivals or exceeds even the best of today's television and movie writing. His plotting is careful, well-thought-out, and wonderfully paced (hints dropped in the first few issues as casual asides are only now beginning to bloom into full-fledged plot points), and his characters are complex, as flawed as they are super-talented, and extraordinarily human. The small and large relationships and subplots, as much as anything else, create the deeply realistic atmosphere on which this book thrives. From Steve Rogers' (Captain America) difficult adjustment to a life where his friends are shuffling senior-citizens (or dead) and his values are radically outdated, to Banner's inferiority complex, to the Pym's destructive and violent marriage, to Stark's alcoholic defeatism, these are some messed-up people who have to spend as much time holding themselves together psychologically as they spend defeating super-villains. Add to that mix a radical social activist who wields god-like power (at one throroughly enjoyable point in the first story-arc, when Manhattan is being levelled by the Hulk and the Ultimates are doing everything they can to contain him, Thor demands that Bush double the U.S.'s international aid budget before he will lend a hand), and a government who seems ready to use their new bought-and-paid-for super-force for political purposes, and you've got as layered and nuanced a set of relationships as anything seen in comics to this point.
A fine compliment to the expert story and writing is Hitch's art. It's difficult to describe why it is so good, except to say that it is, like the writing, just startlingly real. Not in a painterly, Alex Ross way, or in a delicately-shaded John Cassaday way, but rather because of his total mastery of the way people carry themselves. Somehow, the way his characters stand, sit and move, they way they hold their faces, they way their bodies bend under force and react to emotion is simply, startlingly true-to-life in a way I've never seen in comics before. He's top-shelf in the other important areas as well, from camera position to backgrounds to textures, but it's all tied together by his ability to capture the life of his characters. On rare occasion, sloppy inking dulls a little of this power, but only a little.
Between premise, writing and art, the Ultimates is a must-read series for serious comic book fans, and a great introduction to modern comics for those just getting started. With its complex plotting and relationships, this is not a book for those looking for a bubble-gum spandex-brawl in every issue. But for those readers looking for a comic which appeals to the mind as well as the eyes, this is the real deal -- as good or better than anything being done in the world of comics right now.