Sunday Slugfest - The Ultimates 2 #3

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Bob Agamemnon, Shawn Hill, Michael Lucinski, James Redington, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
“The Trial of the Hulk”

Bob Agamemnon

Plot: The trial of Bruce Banner for the Hulk’s murder of over eight hundred civilians is held. A verdict is arrived at, and the sentence is carried out.

Comments: The word “workmanlike” comes to mind when attempting to describe the writing of Mark Millar. Like a carpenter using wood to build a chair, Millar uses words to tell a story. In The Ultimates 2 #3, he assembles scenes in which the necessary words are used either to move the plot forward or to elicit the appropriate emotion. The finished product has the requisite beginning, middle, and end. Never, however, does the issue manage to transcend this mere functionality. Never do the words move beyond themselves to create in the reader that sense of energy, surprise, or at least inevitability that the best comic books achieve. Although his story affords him several opportunities to create a genuinely powerful tale, he misses each of them.

The trial of the Hulk is the perfect forum for exploring the public consequences not only of Banner’s individual curse, but also of the actions of superheroes and even governments. When handled properly, courtroom drama provides a sense of realism without getting bogged down in procedure, and provides a vehicle for a more in-depth examination of social issues without becoming a series of speeches and polemics. Millar exploits neither of these qualities. In order to draw baseless parallels between the serum that transformed Banner and substance abuse, the prosecutor spends his opening statement waving around a bottle of booze that certainly hasn’t been entered into evidence. The judge fails to rule on one of Matt Murdock’s (Banner’s lawyer) objections, saying instead, “Duly noted, Mister Murdock.” After Murdock’s closing statement, the judge, in a show of ridiculous bias that would certainly be grounds for appeal, thanks him for “a most impassioned performance.” These are absurdities that even the most casual viewer of legal dramas such as Law and Order or The Practice could have avoided. And instead of the trial as a means to deepen the reader’s understanding of the issues, Millar gives us canned “lawyer talk,” such as this gem: “Doctor Robert Bruce Banner isn’t asking you for freedom, my friends; just the chance to stay alive. . . .” Demonstrating that a trial is occurring is all that these unimaginative scenes accomplish.

The concept of the “Hulk” is essentially that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and contains all of the rich opposition that the original story does: mental versus physical, rational versus instinctual, moral versus amoral, restraint versus indulgence. While it is easy to slip into cliche when working with such ideas, any story concerning the Hulk’s guilt must take them into account. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Hulk: Gray is an excellent example of a story that treats the complexity of the Banner/Hulk relationship without coming to any pat conclusions. In the last issue of The Ultimates 2, artist Bryan Hitch gave a glimpse of what such an exploration would look like in this title with a full page rendering of the Hulk—nude, bald, teeth bared, and brow knit furiously. This Hulk—reminiscent of Kevin O’Neil’s Mr. Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with an even more savage demeanor born of his muteness—is unlike the big, green giant of the regular Marvel Universe, whose fierceness has been tamed by familiarity. Hitch’s Hulk is the Hulk of pure id. Alas, Millar fails to let this powerful image set the tone for his representation of Banner, and instead turns in an insipid four-page farewell scene with Betty Ross that does nothing to deepen the character in his final moments.

Bryan Hitch’s highly detailed backgrounds and his lovingly penciled facial expressions reveal a talent suffering from underemployment. Provided with a script that takes full advantage of his skills, he would doubtless use his distinctive, almost architectural style to craft a stirring visual narrative. As it stands, he is shackled by the banality of Millar’s writing.

In the end, “The Trial of the Hulk” is dutifully reported, but it is a tale lacking any resonance, a forgettable episode, a missed opportunity.

Shawn Hill

Plot: It’s countdown to decision time for Bruce Banner, now that the people know he and the rampaging Hulk are one and the same.

Comments: What’s going on here? This is the most talky issue I ever remember of this title. Is Millar slowing down enough to pay attention to people’s … thoughts and feelings? Is the “second season” of this title actually turning out to be a different sort of beast altogether, one where the ramifications of all the wide screen action of volume one actually have an effect on the people involved?

That is just pure crazy talk, but it does seem to be what’s going on so far. Millar finds the true emotional heart of this story, in an extended sequence where Betty and Bruce own up to all their faults, to all the ways what they’ve done has led to so much carnage for the public, not to mention personal devastation. Betty’s not painted as an idiot or even a cold hard bitch, and Bruce is actually less of a creep than he’s been thus far.

He’s even developed a friendship while in captivity, one that serves him well in Millar’s tricky and powerful plotting this issue. There’s a bit of slight of hand, but it’s justified I think with all the emotions playing out after the court verdict. There’s more than one bait-and-switch, deception on the part of Fury, and believable regret for Banner’s almost friends on the team. Interesting stuff.

Now if we can just figure out what’s up with Thor.

Michael Lucinski

The Plot: A bloodthirsty public wants Bruce Banner executed for the Hulk’s rampage through Manhattan that killed hundreds. The Ultimates lounge around watching the trial as Thor spreads more left-wing sounding doubt about the Ultimates’ true mission. Only one character appears in costume, outside of the cover. A talky issue in the grand tradition of Brian Michael Bendis, Banner’s fate is sealed. The result is most unlikely and not quite what the world expects.

Comments: If you hate “Nu Marvel,” then this is not the issue of The Ultimates you should pick up. No costumes, no fights but on the upside the snarky, sarcastic dialogue is kept to a bare minimum in this issue. Even if you’re a fan of this title and couldn’t get to the store this week, it’s not the world if you skip this issue. The art is superb as always, and the dialogue rings true, especially between Betty and Bruce. But there’s no pop, no unrestrained superheroism that shines in the sun while fighting off alien invasions. It’s a quiet issue of a series that’s not meant for quiet issues.

Banner is the star of this issue. He takes ultimate responsibility for his actions, but still isn’t above indulging in self pity or blaming others. Ultimately, he’s read to make peace with his fate. His encounter with Nick Fury is compelling because it raises his hopes that he just might be saved. The reader can telegraph where the encounter is headed, but you still feel sympathy for Banner nonetheless. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Banner’s final fate is so ambiguous.

In the Ultimate universe as the regular Marvel universe, Matt Murdock is the only lawyer available to superheroes and villains accused of crimes. Murdock’s argument for the cause of the rampage and argument for sparing Banner’s life are innovative. It makes one think what if our world’s most infamous criminals had skills that could be put to beneficial use. What if Osama bin Laden had the scientific skill to cure cancer? It’s a compelling question.

What’s not explained – at least in this issue – is why such extreme measures are needed to execute Banner. Granted, most forms of execution for normal people would probably awaken the beast inside. But couldn’t they just shoot him in the head? I concede it’s a nice visual keeping with the wide screen nature of Millar’s style. And it does provide the Ultimates some opportunity to express their sadness. I just wish the reasoning was better explained.

The Final Word: This is one of those issues where “stuff happens, but nothing happens. ” Characters are changed and the status quo is altered, but the issue reads a little hollow. The series will pick up when our heroes put their costumes back on and resume smashing the bad guys.

James Redington

Poor Banner.

This issue really kicked arse on all levels. I enjoyed issue #1, didn’t think issue #2 was as good as #1, BUT this issue brings things back to the level I expected from the quality set by volume one.

The trial of the incredible Hulk comes to a conclusion. A wicked, but extremely cool moment from Nick Fury and a great end page leaves the door open for an Ultimate Hulk series!

Bryan Hitch is awesome. The issue presents no actions scenes, but Hitch steals every page from Miller this issue. He takes Miller’s script and makes it real. He turns Miller’s characters into faces you can root for. You can see the emotion in their eyes, not just the expressions on their faces.

To conclude, go out and pick up volume one if you haven’t already. Then go and buy issue #1 and #2 of this series, pick up this issue and join in on the ride. If Miller and Hitch continue to produce each issues like this one, readers are in for a real treat.

Jason Sacks

Okay, let’s get the part where I sound like all the other reviews out of the way first. God DAMN is that some great art by Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary! Okay? It’s great. They should win prizes.

And the story, yeah it’s cool to see Bruce Banner be held accountable for his actions while Hulking out. It’s overdue, and really nice to see.

Got it? This is a good comic.

So there are two things that bothered me: one little, one big.

First the little one: aren’t there any other attorneys in New York than Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson? Can’t a single one, just one, defend super-heroes accused of crimes? Why is it always Matt? If I were a lawyer in Marvel New York, considering the number of trials that seem to go on, that’s a business I would try hard to get into.

Now the bigger one: are the Ultimates insane? Bruce wasn’t killed in the end? The life of a mass murderer worse than the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy is saved, and he’s sent out to LA, where one nasty traffic jam might send him into an insane rage? What kind of heroes would do that? This is a classic case of an ending that seems happy, but ends up being horrifying. Maybe Millar is setting up a storyline for Ultimates 3, but to me this is taking the weak way out. If Banner is indeed a ticking time bomb whose next rage will cause more death and destruction, the Ultimates are complicit in any future problems he causes. Some heroes.

If Millar intended to make readers feel a bit strange in the ending, he succeeded. If he wanted a happy ending, he failed utterly.

Dave Wallace

Whilst I’ve been fairly down on Mark Millar’s work lately, finding his work on Wolverine to be all brawn with no brains and his Spider-Man run to be a derivative mixed bag of jumbled ideas, there’s no denying that he puts his best into The Ultimates every month – and has come out with another winner of an issue here. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk for his murder of hundreds of innocent civilians takes place this issue, and whilst there are a few ideas here that we’ve seen before (step forward Matt Murdock as the defence lawyer in the case), the majority of the book feels very fresh, interesting, and realistic.

The Hulk’s trial is more of a side-issue here anyway, as the best parts of the issue show the various other members of the Ultimates reacting to public calls for the Hulk’s execution – summed up neatly by the melancholy and shocking (no pun intended) cover image. The banter between the various characters shows a slowly fracturing team, and Nick Fury reaches new levels of Machiavellian plotting and coldness, as evidenced by his scene with a captive Banner. However, the most touching and well-written scenes come with Betty Ross and Banner’s tearful prison cell exchange, the couple of short panels involving Iron Man, Banner, and a crucifix, and the tear-jerking message that Bruce leaves behind to be read at his funeral. This final passage shows Millar at his creative best, as the beautifully-crafted prose gives us an insight into Bruce’s character which was never there before, yet doesn’t seem out of step with his lonely, isolated and emotionally repressed personality. The cliffhanger ending is also a fine piece of comics plotting which holds a lot of promise for future issues and a marvelous homage to the Hulk’s television incarnation, delivering on the ambiguous impact of the “execution” scene this issue whilst never revealing too much about how Hank Pym and Bruce have helped each other out. Millar credits the reader to fill in the gaps here, and as such it’s a more satisfying and provocative read. I’m also keen to see the result of Pym’s Ultron experiments: another promising little tidbit with which Millar continues to tease the reader.

There’s so much going on here in such a dialogue-heavy issue that it’d be easy to overlook the fine work of artist Bryan Hitch in the equation. He continues to turn in standout work here, and Marvel’s decision to hold back his issues until they can be released in a timely fashion was an important one in terms of keeping the story moving along – even if each issue does feel a little less like a special occasion nowadays. Hitch’s faces and body language carry a lot of weight in such an emotionally-driven storyline, with Betty and Bruce’s encounter being rendered many times more poignant through Banner’s neurotic body language and the palpable sense of complicated, repressed affection that the two characters so obviously feel for each other, which comes over strongly through the visuals. The book just wouldn’t be the same without him, and his work towards the end of the issue – the flashback during the reading of Bruce’s letter, and the intriguing few pages of cliffhanger ending – is worth particular mention.

You’ll probably enjoy this issue more if you’ve been following The Ultimates for a while, as a lot of the issues the team is dealing with – the Hulk rampage, Hank Pym’s isolation from the group, Betty and Banner’s relationship - date back to the first few installments of the original Ultimates title. However, new readers will find a lot to enjoy here in the characterization of this group of heroes, which renders them far more interesting than their regular Marvel Universe incarnations ever were. This remains consistently the best title of Marvel’s Ultimate line, and the best book Mark Millar has been involved in to date. If you’re not already reading it, give it a try.

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