Jonathan Hickman would be a hell of a hustler if he wasn't in comics. Hickman is an indie darling turned Marvel Architect (whatever that means) and his run on Fantastic Four is one of the most inventive and expansive in the series' history. Suffice it to say, Hicks (as he very likely hates being referred to) is a master of the long con. Perhaps no series of his best exemplifies his skill with serialized storytelling than The Ultimates. A relaunch of the Ultimate line with a more creator-centric focus, Hickman's Ultimates is a thorough and taut series with threads as form-fitted as the costumes its participants wear.
The first story arc, "The Republic is Burning," is one of Hickman's most ambitious and confident arcs — the wringer he puts these characters through and the consequences they face would never fly in 616 continuity. It's more in line with a season of the Battlestar Galactica reimagining — a good season, smartass, like the first one, where choices matter, people get hurt, and hope is the least likely emotion to be had. One of the more interesting techniques Hickman employs is the lens of the story — although it is about a superpowered team of tough-guys, the conflicts and the consequences all fall on Nick Fury. The first issue begins with him reviewing all the theaters of operations and making badass small talk with Iron Man, speaking of dreams of fallen enemies and other Dope Shit. Hickman's Fury is less of the pejoratively used bastard that Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron write him — he's more akin to Commander Adama himself. The Triskelion is presented as a giant dome of information, cleverly paralleling the threat the team faces: an ever-expanding organic environment named The City, which is swallowing up parts of Europe. Its denizens, the Children of Tomorrow, are a biologically advanced race lead by a mysterious and cruel leader: The Maker.
"The Republic is Burning" stands on its inflexible direness: in each issue there's yet another setback, and each encounter appears more and more unwinnable — a position that militaries in the real world face, not superheroes. Some might argue that there needs to be belief, that the reader needs to be assured that everything will be back to normal, but Hickman thumbs his nose at that — Fury as the reader needs to understand that it might not be, in order to guide his decisions accordingly.
The sci-fi slant is part of what makes this arc so fascinating: Fury and his team are reliant on their technologies, which is one of the first things that the Maker manages to take down. Left to their wits and their sheer strength, the Ultimates are down a leader with Captain America in hiding, but mostly they're left unprepared. Their hubris would previously never be called into question, but Hickman imbues a palpable sense of danger as evidenced by the tragic assault in issue 3. A distressed Fury, who admits defeat in the end of the first issue, tells Thor with a false bravado that there is no retreat — they'll be victorious or they'll die on the spot. It creates a resonant moment of empathy or fear or even understanding when Fury is forced to retreat, only to find he cannot, and Thor has to summon the strength to jump the ships out of combat. Hickman makes great use of his universe as well: the threat resonates more aptly as supporting characters like Captain Britain are called in — usually the subject of tie-ins or canceled fare, the inclusion of his unit and several other B/C listers manages to diegetically heighten the tension: shit and fan, y'all need to play nice.
All the Battlestar Galactica comparisons may imply roteness, but they're merely similarities in terms of placement. Hickman's knack for characterization and economic dialogue help distinguish these versions of our characters but also make them vibrant and realistically fractured. Esad Ribic's pencils are as fluid and clean as ever: his talent for organization and flow convey urgency and not clutter: an important aspect in a story that captures the essence of chaos. The battle scenes and the face-offs all are daunting and grand-scale, in no small part due to Dean White's Kubrickian palette. He and Ribic are like the Harlem Heat of Marvel: the greatest tag-team in existence. Their keen understanding of one another is evident, as White's colors breathe energy and atmosphere into the scene: from subtle portions like the red glare of a klaxon off of Fury's head to the sickly brights of the interiors of the City, White and Ribic are as equally responsible for the diegetic power and gravity that the book earns.
The Ultimates has continued onward and the stakes have only gotten higher and higher, but as an introduction, "The Republic is Burning" could not be more apt. Hickman, when allowed to utilize these characters without severe editorial oversight, has actually stripped them of their powers and abilities figuratively and literally, thus making them "human" and fallible and infinitely deeper than the usual kind of Avengers story. We want these characters to win, to triumph over evil as they always do, and knowing that they might not is not a position a comics reader is used to be in. While normal continuity obsesses over these characters as being semi-stagnant and moving from crossover to crossover, Hickman and Ribic and White have uncovered the vein for telling better stories with the same old avatars: they've made us worry, they've made us care again.
Rafael Gaitan was born in 1985, but he belongs to the '70s. He is a big fan of onomatopoeia, being profane and spelling words right on the first try. Rafael has a hilariously infrequent blog and writes
love letters to inanimate objects as well as tweets of whiskey and the mysteries of the heart. He ain't got time to bleed.