Sunday Slugfest – Ultimate Nightmare #1

A comic review article by: Craig Johnson, Jason Cornwell, Michael Deeley, Kelvin Green, Shaun Manning, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
Jason Cornwell

This opening issue does a very effective job of creating a genuinely ominous vibe as we're treated to series of creepy moments that nicely underscore the fact that something very wicked is approaching the Ultimate Universe. The issue also brings another Marvel character under the Ultimate umbrella, and I have to say that while I've never been a huge fan of the character, the character does get an impressive introduction in the pages of this issue, and I'm looking forward to his playing a role in the ensuing investigation. However, when one takes a step back to look at what was accomplish in this opening chapter it's hard not to be a little concerned that this issue didn't really bring much else to the table. I mean that we have the threat slowly pervading the issue and we have the characters that will play a role in the action being made aware of the situation.

Now I guess there's no steadfast rule that a writer has to blast their way out of the gate, and given this miniseries looks to be trying for a horror movie vibe, I'll give it thumbs up for taking the time to establish an unsettling atmosphere. However, the current trend that has swept over the comic industry is for writers to take their sweet time to tell a story and pad their issues so they will fill the demands of the trade-paperback format, so I've become a bit gun-shy when I come across an issue like this one where the writer could've used half the issue to arrive at the same end point, and spent the remaining pages further advancing the story. Still, it's a little early in the show to be making complaints about the pacing, as some of the best horror movies ever made have benefited tremendously from starting out of the gate slowly.

Trevor Hairsine certainly does the wide-screen visuals with an impressive sense of scale, as the opening pages of this issue do a fantastic job of capturing the sheer intensity of the Tunguska explosion. The art also does a very effective job capturing the elements of horror as the series of panels that show us the multiple suicides are wonderfully disturbing, as are the shots of the alien civilization being destroyed. The big moment where the character is introduced in the final pages is also pretty effective, as there's a nice sense of majesty to the final page image.

Michael Deeley

Why did I buy this? I don’t like Ultimate X-Men. I certainly don’t like The Ultimates. As characters, I mean, but if I hate the characters, I hate the series/movie/show. I could have waited six months and bought it in a trade paperback. Then it would have fit in with my ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ and ‘Ultimate Daredevil/Elektra’ books. So why did I buy this comic?

Maybe I was in a buying frenzy. I’d already spent $20 on comics that day. What was one more? Maybe it was the creative team. Ellis is one of the greatest writers to have ever worked in comics. I’ve loved Hairsine’s art since ‘Cla$$war’ and he’s been steadily improving. Maybe it was the promise that this mini-series would finally reveal the “conspiracy” running through the Ultimate comics since day one. (But then, shouldn’t it be written by Bendis?)

Well, I got the thing, so let’s review it.

Everything with a screen begins broadcasting the same images repeatedly; Images of an alien civilization being killed by something from space. Millions die screaming like babies. There is a spoken message of inescapable death and horror. The more this message is repeated, the more people kill themselves. Prof. Xavier and Col. Nick Fry both trace the origin to the broadcast: Tunguska, Russia, where a massive comet struck in 1904. The X-men and the Ultimates will meet at one of Earth’s most mysterious and deadly places.

If you want big, weird sci-fi, you call Warren Ellis. Period. Ellis can take any common idea and grow it into something wild and strange. You give him a ranch, he’d raise 50-foot high cows with red and green stripes, give milk and cola, and somehow serve as a metaphoric update of that one ‘Fantastic Four’ story where the Skrulls turned into cows. Ellis popularized the “widescreen” comic because his ideas can’t be conveyed in small boxes. He works with big events, big concepts, and big consequences. Right off the bat, we have one of the most popular inspirations for UFO stories, sweeping vistas of a mammoth crater and the Amazon jungle, an alien genocide, and a growing global plague of suicide. The world’s two most powerful superteams will arrive next month. They couldn’t fit in here.

Hairsine is Marvel’s new “it” boy. He did good on ‘Ultimate Six’, he does better here. But a lot of credit should go to Simon Coleby. Check out the detail in this book: every alien corpse is fully rendered. The scenes in the jungle are layers of plant life, not just a few trees and some grass. Contrast that to the utter desolation of the Tunguska crater, and the suburban street. Perfect.

Now, I make it a rule never to give a first issue a 5bullet rating unless it was a complete story. I’m tempted to break that rule this time. The story is off to a good start, and it’s being handled by three of comics’ best talents. I’m sure this story will not disappoint.

I’m glad I bought this.

Kelvin Green

More pages.

Less colour.

The big problem with this comic is that it’s over too quickly. I fully realise that Marvel’s audience would go into apoplexy if faced with a black and white comic, but if it meant that we could get a bit more story for the price, I’d happily put up without Frank D’Armata’s colouring, nice as it is.

So there’s not enough story here, which is in itself only a problem because this looks to be an exciting and entertaining series. Warren Ellis, a highly erratic writer most of the time, seems to be pulling off one of his rare hits here, albeit by sticking with what he knows best. The cosmic horror described and demonstrated here might be a surprise to most Marvel readers, but veterans of Ellis’ Planetary and Authority will find this to be familiar territory. Fan speculation has it that we’re witnessing the birth of Ultimate Galactus here, which I find unlikely, but if it’s true, Ellis has effectively conveyed the sheer horror that a being like Galactus represents. Back in the Marvel Universe, it’s hard to make Galactus seem at the least imposing, so overused has he been. Ellis gives us a taste here of what kind of psychological effect a world-destroying entity (Galactus or not) would have. In doing so, it’s further reinforced that the supposedly all-ages Ultimate universe is nothing of the sort, but that’s a minor quibble. Another minor quibble is Xavier’s clunky dialogue, which is the only flat note in Ellis’ usual snappy scripting. Well, the college student with his l33tsp34k is pushing it, but that’s a deliberate move. Xavier just sounds like a weirdo.

You’re likely to see the words “Bryan Hitch” a lot whenever Trevor Hairsine’s art is discussed, and to be fair, there is a slight similarity in their styles (although I’d guess that it’s more due to them both being influenced by Alan Davis than Hairsine copying Hitch), but Hairsine has a rougher, more grizzled look to his art which I much prefer over Hitch’s cleaner style. Meanwhile, Simon Coleby’s subtle inks complement the pencils wonderfully, bringing out the details without overpowering them, and, as I mentioned above, the colouring is very well done. I’m generally very impressed with the art job (and Hairsine is one of my favourite artists), but there are some minor flaws. One panel in particular shows Nick Fury supposedly ranting about troublesome Russians and the Cold War, instead looking more like he’s taking a large and possibly painful dump. But as with the writing, these infrequent glitches are minor flaws and certainly don’t detract from the overall quality of the issue.

I’m a little concerned that the miniseries as a whole will follow the lead of this first issue and be a somewhat insubstantial read, but overall, this is a good strong start to the series, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where this one’s going.

Shaun Manning

One, two, three, four… five. Five pages without dialogue, or people interacting on any level. That’s okay, it’s “cinematic.” we’re meant to take in the awe-inspiring special effects, the global destruction. One problem: this turns out to be five pages of “What the hell am I looking at?” Not a great way to start a book. And it doesn’t get much clearer.

Apparently, a meteor struck the Tunguska region of Russia in 1904, burning up nearby soldiers and settlements, and leaving a nice big crater. So big that the Russians waited twenty-three years to check it out. Tribal chiefs warn of bad juju, but somebody’s got to look, right? Anyway, they die.

Then, in 2004 (yes, seventy-seven years later, those pokey aliens), a horrible psychic broadcast tortures television viewers everywhere with images of torched aliens and a sound “like babies dying.” Mass suicides ensue, and the X-Men decide they really ought to do something about it. Ditto the Ultimates, who, of course, move in more mysterious ways.

If this sounds like the first ten minutes of a film, that’s exactly how it feels to read. It doesn’t get far enough for the reader to work out whether it’s a good movie or not. It looks like it probably is, but there’s not enough of the “human heart” yet to see if all the action will have any punch behind it.

Jason Sacks

Man, can Trevor Hairsine draw! Not only does he produce lush, seemingly photo-realistic backgrounds, but he can draw people also. Everyone he draws seems different from each other. They have different faces and different bodies, and he seems from this issue to be completely at home drawing normal people as well as super-powered folks. This guy's going to be big time.

As for the story, it's a very spooky set-up for what should be an interesting plot. Ellis, as always, is great at setting up a mystery and then setting amoral characters out to resolve it. It should be fun to see how the characters come together, and especially for the ultimate version of the Falcon interacts with the Ultimate Captain America. I wasn't crazy about the intensely grim tone of the issue, but it does fit the story.

The only frustrating part of the issue is the cover. I wish it had been a little more appropriate for this part of the story instead of being the image that will probably be on the cover of the TPB. Colossus and Wolverine are on the cover, but never appear in the issue. Marvel should make more of an effort to fit the cover with the story.

Dave Wallace

Warren Ellis’ newest project for Marvel kicks off with a bang, opening with a visually stunning first few pages which detail a meteorite’s impact in 1904 in Tunguska (for which much credit can be given to Hairsine’s art). Tracing the history of this presumably alien landing site, we arrive in the present day where distressing broadcasts from the area are threatening to swamp Earth’s communication systems and cause global uproar. The Ultimates and the Ultimate X-Men must step in to discover just what’s going on…

From the off, we can tell that this series is going to be something special. There’s a huge amount of confidence on display from a writer who is happy to set up many key elements of his story before even getting the superheroes involved: first, the reader is treated to a series of increasingly disturbing transmissions detailing alien holocausts and statements of impending death; then, deeply saddening and affecting scenes of multiple teen suicides and worldwide confusion are presented; and only then do our heroes get involved. The mood of despair and impending disaster which pervades the issue is created well by Ellis’ economic use of text during the all-important broadcasts – and when it does come, it’s in the form of such bizarre, fractured alien speech that it only reinforces the otherworldly quality of the threat that the world is facing. In creating a mood which is simultaneously grotesquely disturbing and thrilling, Ellis has moved the Ultimates closer to an adult horror/fantasy film feel than they’ve been before. It’s a positive direction to go in, remaining in keeping with Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s cinematic vision of the team but putting a decidedly original Ellis stamp on proceedings.

Trevor Hairsine returns fresh from his Ultimate Six penciling duties to illustrate this new series, and I have to profess renewed admiration for the grandeur and class of some of his artwork. His depictions of the eradication of worlds and universes towards the issue’s opening convey exactly the kind of despair and scale of destruction that Ellis presumably intended, and often without the benefit of dialogue or captions. Indeed, it’s Hairsine’s ‘silent’ work that is most effective this issue, whether it’s the meteorite strike or the sheer impact of the worldwide teen suicides. His previously weaker character work may be a little sparse this time around, but overall there’s enough to convince me that the artist is improving beyond his already impressive enough prior work on Ultimate Six.
There are slight criticisms of this issue, sure: some of the dialogue sounds forced - “I’m missing the Posh Spice video!”, “It’s like the sound of babies dying!” (those two aren’t related, by the way), Hairsine’s facial artwork still leaves something to be desired, and the story is yet to really give anything away - but then again, this latter complaint is exactly what we’ve come to expect from these paced-for-the-trade miniseries. With all the promise of another high-octane crossover between the Ultimates and the Ultimate X-men, it would have been difficult for the creative team to make much of a mis-step here: as it is, Ellis exceeds expectations, eschewing the kind of bombastic storytelling which has characterized Mark Millar’s run on the Ultimates’ core title and opting instead for an original and inventive take on an alien invasion story. With all this, and the introduction of a brand-new Ultimates team member to boot, Ellis and Hairsine are setting out their stall for a potentially thrilling miniseries – and one that’ll certainly satisfy those missing The Ultimates’ regular title.

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