A couple of years ago, Marvel released the first couple of issues of Damon Lindelof's ill-fated Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk mini-series. Whilst most of the discussion of that series now revolves around carping about its lateness, people seem to have forgotten that it was actually rather good, with some strong writing which hinted at a more in-depth exploration of the psychology of the Ultimate version of the Hulk. With that series still in limbo, writer Warren Ellis makes a second attempt to explore Bruce Banner and his alter ego in greater depth, throwing Tony Stark - Iron Man - into the mix to create a fascinating clash of personalities which come together in pursuit of a common goal. Rather than basing his series around a conflict between the two characters which later leads to a team-up against a common foe, Ellis inverts the classic formula by kicking things off with a scene which sees Banner beg Stark to help him, and the two characters begin to work together in an attempt to cure Bruce of his condition once and for all.
One of Ellis' great accomplishments here is in respecting the characterization of both of his central characters, but moving their relationship forwards in an organic and enjoyable way. His Tony Stark is the same distracted, brilliant scientist with alcoholic tendencies that we saw in Mark Millar's Ultimates, and his Bruce Banner is the same bag of neuroses with a darker side that constantly needs to be kept in check. Ellis uses the idea that the Hulk is becoming more dominant in his relationship with Banner as a catalyst for the events of Ultimate Human, and from that simple premise extrapolates a plot which feels very natural and uncontrived. Ellis also introduces the Ultimate version of Pete Wisdom for the first time, and although I won't spoil the details here, he's drastically different from his regular MU incarnation, adding further intrigue to the story.
In addition to the strong character work, Ellis gets to exercise his sci-fi muscle here, utilizing several high-concept technological ideas, many of which are rooted in cutting-edge real-world concepts (the writer must have a regular subscription to New Scientist). Stark's "Ironworks" facility with its 'Planet Tank' lends itself well to a visual medium, and Ellis includes explanatory footnotes for much of his scientific jargon, ensuring that lay-readers don't miss out on the details but avoiding the need to painstakingly explain them in the dialogue. He's also careful to inject a bit of levity into proceedings too, never playing the story so straight that it loses a sense of fun and wonder. I particularly enjoyed the wonderfully underplayed final line of the issue, and the humourous exchange between Banner and Stark as they discuss the Irish Stew that is Banner's altered DNA.
Despite indirectly making reference to Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk at one point, (and thus reminding readers that there's a gap in the Ultimate Hulk's history that still needs filling in if we're to appreciate exactly how he got to this point), the writer makes good use of Ultimate continuity, with explicit reference in the text to elements of Orson Scott Card's Ultimate Iron Man miniseries and several events from the first two volumes of the regular Ultimates title. This gives the series a sense of context in the larger Ultimate Universe, as well as setting the stage for Ellis to push Stark and Banner's relationship into some unexpected yet completely logical places. However, the writer never feels as though he's using the established continuity as a crutch in lieu of his own ideas, and never makes the references to other stories so obvious that they distract from this one. The highly enjoyable interaction between his two central characters shows that Ellis has a real grasp of what makes each of them tick, and is ready to develop them further. It only makes me wish that he'd been chosen to helm Ultimates 3.
Cary Nord's artwork demonstrates exactly why he was chosen for the series, with a great grasp of the characters apparent from the very first page. His Tony Stark has a slick confidence about him that masks the occasional hints of a more troubled mind; his Bruce Banner is a disheveled, frightened shell of a man; the Hulk is a powerful, raw manifestation of Banner's brutish id; and the first glimpses that we get of the Ultimate Leader show a quiet yet grotesque intelligence. Nord generally makes use of a three-panel horizontal grid, with wide panels which allow him plenty of space to create the effects that Ellis' script calls for. Sometimes his visuals are atmospheric (such as the opening sequence of panels which switch between shots the two lead characters, often finding inventive ways of placing both characters in the same panel via reflections, reinforcing a possible theme of Tony and Bruce being two sides of the 'tortured scientist' coin), and sometimes they show a more dynamic flair (such as the exciting final pages which show the Hulk's attempts to escape from the 'Planet Tank').
When I first saw previews of Nord's artwork for this series, my one concern was that the panels were frequently light on backgrounds or bereft of any really intricate detail. Happily, master colorist Dave Stewart makes up for any shortfall in the original linework, adding depth to every panel with his well-chosen hues. His colors maintain the same mix between realism and more restrained fantasy which has made the Ultimate books so accessible for readers, and his presence really brings a lot to the art. Even the lettering is pitch-perfect, with Dave Sharpe choosing the perfect font for the book's numerous captions so as to make them unobtrusive but clear and readable, and using a great technique for the Hulk's speech balloons which reflects his instability and monstrous rage.
When this series was first announced, it carried the whiff of financial opportunism, feeling like it was being produced in the interests of marketing synergy rather than because Ellis had a really interesting story to tell (or is it just a coincidence that this series has been scheduled in time for a TPB collection to be published at the same time as this summer's Incredible Hulk and Iron Man movies are released?). However, on reading the book I was pleasantly surprised to find an elegant mixture of intelligent sci-fi and strong characterization, with enough regard for superhero conventions and sheer spectacle that it feels at home in Marvel's Ultimate Universe at a time when many of its other titles are losing their way. What's more, this installment does exactly what a first issue should do: it sets out the crux of its storyline, introduces all of its main players, and actually gets the story under way.
At a time when I've become a little disillusioned with many of Marvel's superhero books (and the Ultimate line specifically), this is a welcome slice of quality storytelling, and one which makes me even more excited to see what Ellis does when he takes over Marvel's Astonishing X-Men later in the year.
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