Sunday Slugfest – Ultimate Nightmare #2

A comic review article by: Craig Johnson, Jason Cornwell, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Dave Wallace
Jason Cornwell

With the mystery world-wide broadcast being tracked to the in the Russian region of Tunguska we see the Ulitmates form an advance team that consists of Captain America, the Black Widow, and a freelance operative named Sam Wilson. Meanwhile the X-Men send in their own team that consists of Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Colossus to investigate what they suspect is the emergence of a new mutant. As the issue ends we see both groups enter a massive, seemingly abandoned underground complex they uncover.

I recognize that it's a story structure that allows for more in-depth character development, and it also affords Warren Ellis the opportunity to impress readers with his grasp of the occasional intrusion of comic book science into the real world, as the Tunguska explosion is a cooler than heck real life mystery that has never been fully explained, and as such it makes for an ideal launching point for a work of fiction. However, when one takes a step back to look at the point of the story that it's taken two full issues to arrive at, we've essentially introduced the mystery that attracts the attention of our heroes in the first issue, while this issue assembles the characters and has them travel to the source of the mystery transmission. I mean I remember when we would at this same point of the story in before we had even reached the halfway point of the first issue, and frankly it's hard not to be frustrated by a comic that spend two pages showing us that Sam Wilson can fly, and then spends another two pages impressing us with the resources at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s disposal. Add to this the fact that the final eight pages of this issue are essentially the two teams arriving at the transmission site where they each contend with the easily defeated hurdle of a locked door, and it's hard not to be a bit annoyed by the plodding pacing that this story is offering up. Warren Ellis is a talented writer, but frankly the intrigue that was established in the opening issue has been replaced by sense that the story is dragging its heels.

Trevor Hairsine is a fine artist and he's given several moments in this issue to show impress upon the readers that he's got a bright future ahead of him. I mean the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers always make for a cool visual, but this issue offers up a fantastic looking establishing shot of one, and an equally impressive shot of it later in the issue where it releases its scouting party. There's also a nice bit of Jean Grey using her telekinetic abilities to deal with a locked door, and frankly it's always nice to see this element of her powers as far too often it takes a back-seat to her less visually impressive telepathic abilities. However, most of this issue is talking heads, and this does expose a bit of a weakness in his art, as Trevor Hairsine's characters could use a little more variety in their expressions, as frankly they all look a bit stone faced, though I did enjoyed the expressions on Logan and Piotr's faces after Jean demolishes the door.

Kelvin Green

Ooh, this is frustrating. Two issues in, and the heroes (“characters” perhaps? I’m never sure whether the Ultimate people count as heroes or if they’re too “gritty” for that) have only just arrived at the Tunguska site. I’m no fan of the current trend towards “decompressed” (i.e. lazy) storytelling, but I’ll give this the benefit of the doubt partly because decompression has never been Ellis’ style, but mostly because this is supposed to be a horror story, and horror stories thrive on the slow build-up. If it turns out that the whole series is paced like this, I shall be less than pleased, but for now it works rather well.

So for now, the plotting gets a thumbs-up, but what of the scripting? Well, as you’d expect from Ellis, the dialogue crackles along, and while everyone seems a bit too cynical for my liking, that does fit in with the tone of the series. Ellis clearly enjoys writing the Ultimates, and does an excellent job of their characterisation and dialogue, especially Ultimate Falcon (or whatever he’s called), making him so much more than simply Captain America’s black manservant. Ellis also does a superb job with the Black Widow, giving her a delicious air of superiority and arrogance, while still keeping it understated. He’s less comfortable with the X-Men, it seems, as they lack any distinctive characterisation, and just seem to blend into the background. And again, I can’t take Ellis’ Xavier seriously, as he seems to talk solely in Silver Age clichés (“Rescue this poor dreamer, my X-Men”).

The art is, of course, excellent. Facial expressions and body language are superbly done, as are the action shots and the big impressive “this is straight out of a movie” splash images. I’m a little concerned by Hairsine’s tendency to draw Cap in costume as if he’s being played by the late Brian Glover (“Ey-oop Black Widow!”), but all in all, he and inkers DeCastro and Coleby do a fine job. I do wonder which of them is the one that has a dislike for Colossus though, based on the coffee mug they give him on the second page… Frank D’Armata’s colouring is top-notch again, bringing out the best in the linework. The Ultimate line has a reputation for top-of-the-line art, and this team doesn’t let the side down.

I’m enjoying this series much more than I thought I would, having been lured primarily by Hairsine’s art and having no particular love for the Ultimate line or Ellis’ work. I’m a bit concerned about the pacing of the story, but for the most part this is a highly entertaining tale of mystery and horror. In fact, I’m enjoying this a lot more than either of the parent titles.

Shawn Hill

A bunch of deadly badasses converge on a cursed, spooky tract of land, unaware that another deadly bunch is following the same plan.

What’s interesting:
Last issue was all prologue, apparently, because now that the situation is established the pace is picking up. Last issue was about a worldwide disturbance, and it was rather faceless and wide-open. This issue we see the beginnings of a response from the players called out by that disturbance, and as such it’s a character piece about some very intriguing characters. This story has found a face, and the intensity in this issue (where still, technically, little happens) is the sense that the building response to the threat is anything but unwary or unprepared.

In fact, this issue has the feeling of one of Ellis’s best past projects, Stormwatch. The final issues of that title took everything really, really seriously, upping the stakes and the consequences for everyone involved. It was a practice run of sorts for Authority I suppose, which ultimately took everything way over the top.

Maybe it’s the constraints of even the Ultimate Marvel-verse, but there’s no point taking these regular superheroes up to Authority levels of brunt, crude power display, even when faced with a world-level threat. The tension here is the Black Ops nature of the gathering; these two groups heading towards conflict are both leading ultra-secretive reconnaissance missions with goals that may or may not be compatible. There’s a sense that impending conflict may be action-packed, but probably won’t be stupid or simple.

Also interesting:
I’ve gotta say I’m loving this revival of interest in Falcon, a character I always felt had way too much potential to be forgotten or to stay second-string forever. He’s the Marvel answer to Hawkman, a ruthless and covert peacekeeper/cop, and this Ultimate one seems to have all the nerve with less of the baggage of the one Priest is writing simultaneously. He’s just too cool as a super-soldier ordering helicopters out of his way, or staring down Ultimate Nick to earn the Widow’s respect.

Hairsine’s art is channeling a bit of a Jiminez/Lanning vibe here, which is all about the goodness. Cap on the cover looks like he’s smelled something stinky, but inside you can actually watch him size up Sam wordlessly and aptly. DeCastro and Coleby’s inks are seamless, and delve in moody shadow without any loss of storytelling clarity. Each character looks distinctly different and unique. He’s also good with tech, such as the new SHIELD “highspeed helicruiser,” backing up cap on the cover and making a dramatic debut inside.

As interesting:
I thought Ultimate War was rather crude and brash, and I like that we’re getting a much more subtle play on that concept here. When the X-men enter the spooky underground complex at Tunguska from one side through force, while the covert Ultimates use more sneaky means at another door, you can feel the inevitable battle implied. Ellis is on form here, displaying his best sang froid as his mutants calmly discuss which of them should break down the steel door (as each of them could), while his Avengers jostle for status and enter danger as equals and allies.

Stay interested:
Remember when Winter rammed the Skywatch full of Aliens into the sun in the final arc that ended that team and was magnitudes better than it should have been? Expect as dramatic a final solution out of this series, too.

Jason Sacks

Can someone please tell me who buys some of the crap advertised in Marvel Comics? I don't mean the Punisher DVD or the Spider-Man NGage video game. (In the latter case nobody's buying it since the NGage is a stupid system, but I digress even more than I do in the rest of this godforsaken paragraph.) I'm talking about the Marvel checks advertised on page 15, the Marvel silver eagle dollars on page 17 and the adult Captain America costume on page 21. Who buys this crap? What adult will buy a Captain America costume, complete with padded felt muscles and crappy shield, and actually think it's cool to wear to a Halloween party? Sure there's camp value in wearing a costume like that, but there's also a camp factor to a man wearing a ballerina costume and I don't know who would do that, either. It can't impress the chicks much. But then neither would writing a check with Wolverine on it in your local Safeway. That cute chick in checkout line 5 won't find anyone interesting who cares so much about Spider-Man that he wants his checks to have a picture of Spidey shooting his web on it. But the silliest of all the products has to be the "Marvel super hero silver eagle dollars" with images of the Human Torch, Thor and Rogue that the Morgan Mint is selling for $19.95 apiece. Yes, for the price of a copy of your favorite TPB, you can buy a copy of actual US mint legal tender with the image of the Silver Surfer colorized and layered in 24 carat pure gold on it. Why, if you hold onto it, in ten years this coin might be worth as much as a copy of the gold edition of McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 is worth now! Who buys this crap? Is it another sign of the approaching apocalypse? Does Marvel think their fans are stupid? Will Marvel merchandise almost anything to make a buck?

And who decides where the ads will appear in the comic? Why do we get a shoe ad on page two, right after the recap? I finished reading the recap, ready to plunge into the story as has happened in every other comic book in the history of Marvel Comics, and instead was confronted with an inscrutable ad. For a moment I thought Colossus on page three was reacting to the ad on page two - a postmodern moment better suited for Grant Morrison than Warren Ellis. I got completely bumped out of my reading, and that was a bad way to start the comic. Marvel should really give some thought to how to lay out their comics, this was just ridiculous.

Please excuse the tangents; it's just hard to review a comic book where nothing happens. That's right, in Ultimate Nightmare #2, absolutely nothing happens in its 22 pages. Oh, it looks nice enough and there are a few bits of decent dialogue, but really not a single damn thing happens in the comic. Here's a summary of the events: the X-Men and some folks from the Ultimates and SHIELD learn that the broadcast from aliens that took place in issue 1 came from Siberia. So they fly to Siberia. And that's it. That's it! Nothing else happens, not anything. In a Stan Lee comic this plot might have taken one page. In a Mort Weisinger comic ("Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy...") such a story might have taken two panels. Here, it's a whole issue.

$2.25 to see some of the X-Men fly a plane, meet the Ultimate Falcon (thank god they got that one out of the way, now the fanboys can rest happy) and see a SHIELD helicruiser. Oh, and we do also get an ad for the Spongebob season two DVD and another ad to buy a checkbook cover that has Spider-Man's torso on it. I know we're living in the era of decompressed storytelling, but if there ever was an example of why many fans hate that style of writing, this is it. Maybe in the trade this chapter will read as the calm before the storm, a moment of peace before the all-out action of the rest of the story. Maybe. But issue 1 was also damn slow, too, and it kind of makes me wonder if there's much of a plot in this story at all. Is anything going to happen in this story or will we just get more cool shots of the Falcon flying and Jean Grey blowing up a wall?

Come on, Ellis, get on with it already! You can write something other than this decompressed crap, will you please do it? You're wasting Trevor Hairstine!

Dave Wallace

Having really enjoyed Ellis’ deliciously darkened take on Marvel’s Ultimate Universe in issue #1, I was afraid that a four-issue paced-for-the-trade Marvel miniseries was going to result in a slowed-down and somewhat inconsequential second issue. That turns out to only be half-true, as – whilst it’s true that the plot doesn’t advance leaps and bounds in this installment – it’s far from an uninteresting continuation of the threads that were begun last time around, enhancing the sense of suspense before the eventual alien encounter, rather than merely delaying it. Trevor Hairsine’s pencilling continues to improve, and if a few familiar facial problems occasionally crop up (Wolverine’s features seem in a constant state of flux) it doesn’t take away from the grandeur of the rest of his work such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicruiser, or the X-Men’s entrance into the underground bunker. The detail included by the artist is almost on a par with regular Ultimates penciller Bryan Hitch, and the dark inking by DeCastro and Coleby really sells the brooding atmosphere of Ellis’ dormant sci-fi threat. (On another note, am I the only one that noticed Colossus’ coffee mug apparently calling him a “wanker”?)

Ellis injects some real personality into his characters’ exchanges, and it’s notable that the lion’s share of the issue centres around the far more interesting Ultimates team rather than professor Xavier’s less thrilling X-Men. This distinction in tone between the two groups isn’t an accident of writing either. The conflict between the ideologies of the two groups has been set up subtly, with Nick Fury obviously seeing the emissions from Tunguska as evidence of a technologically advanced threat to the military whilst the more pacifistic Xavier sees a mutant in need of “saving”. I’m hoping that Ellis is going to surprise us with the answer, bearing in mind the continuing rumours and possibility that the centre of the Ultimate Nightmare could be a new regular Marvel Universe character being “Ultimized”.

The standout development of the book is the burgeoning character of Sam Wilson, and - whilst I’m relatively unfamiliar with his regular MU appearances as the Falcon - the flashy new look of the character is a very cool update and the rebellious military attitude sets up some great character dynamics with the rest of the Ultimates. It’s like having a 21st-century-savvy Captain America with balls. Wilson’s allusions to Amazonian mystics and alternate universes further fuel the fire that Ellis could be setting up the groundwork to introduce a more “cosmic” character into the Ultimate stables.

I’m pulled in by the militaristic, cinematic angle – this issue plays like the set-up of a movie before you get to the action set-pieces - and the details that Ellis does let out concerning the nature of the underground Tunguskan installation promise an explosive finale to this mini (remember Chekov’s old theatrical rule: If a Gun is shown in the first act, it should be fired in the third). With the promise of the two groups clashing again after the Ultimate War miniseries, I’m definitely hungry for more. Let’s just hope that further issues give us something more in the way of plot.

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