Thursday, October 08, 2009
I admit, I shared Elmo's skepticism when he handed me the hardcover graphic novel collection of the Marvel "Ultimatum" mini-series that was touted about fifteen minutes ago as being the biggest turning point ever in Marvel's 'Ultimate' line of comics.
Elmo made one of his typically withering comments about how idiotic "Ultimatum" is, how the graphic novel collection only serves to highlight that idiocy - basically, how the whole thing feels like the fevered half-assed 'wouldn't it be cool' musings of a high school comics nerd hopped up on Red Bull.
(Short bit of background for the rest of you: the 'Ultimate' line was Marvel Comics' attempt to simplify the long and convoluted backstory of their flagship characters and teams. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four ... we got to see modernized, contemporized first issue origin stories for each of them, with no fifty years of cluttering-up. And some of those 'Ultimate' launches were quite good, in their way; I never cottoned to the X-Men or Spider-Man - even though they were, predictably, the move's big sellers - but I thought there were moments, sequences, issues of Fantastic Four and Ultimates that were very, very good ... often more vigorous than the 'normal' continuities unfolding right alongside them)
And Elmo was right, of course: one one level, "Ultimatum," written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by David Finch, is horrible. The writing is clogged with cliches (the Ultimate Hawkeye, as far as I can tell, speaks the whole time ONLY in cliches), the plot has holes you could drive a truck through, none of the roughly500 characters in the book actually behaves in character, and there's not a bit of narrative cohesion anywhere in the thing. Comparing "Ultimatum" to, say, the first story-arc of "Ultimates" is starkly, seriously depressing.
The story here centers on Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism. It turns out his daughter the Scarlet Witch was killed, and this drove him insane - or insane-er. So he does what any grieving father would do: he uses his powers to alter the Earth's magnetic polarity, causing massive geothermal and climate disruption, and slamming New York with a massive tidal wave (the glorious shot of that wave cresting and hitting Manhattan is some of Finch's best work ... except that he's an incompetent moron who opts not to draw it). This disaster catches everybody by surprise and kills scads and scads of people - ordinary people and super-heroes alike. The leader of the X-Men, Professor X, knows it was Magneto who did the deed, and he telepathically tells everybody else, including the scattered heroes who are fighting for their lives in a Manhattan that's suddenly become a deserted post-apocalyptic wasteland. Those heroes band together, fly to Magneto's lair, and attack him and his henchmen.
But I've read this thing a couple of times now, and I think it has one element that isn't horrible at all: it's freaking hilarious.
Not intentionally, of course - Loeb doesn't seem to have enough talent to be intentionally funny (the writing in these issues is noticeably awful, and this is some of the worst, sloppiest, laziest artwork Finch has ever turned in). But when you take a minute to remember the big-scale, fairly intelligent story-arcs that have happened in the 'Ultimate' continuity over the last few years, reading "Ultimatum" has the potential to make you laugh your head off. After only two or three pages, it becomes completely obvious that Loeb's pitch to the Marvel Powers That Be consisted of him leaning forward in his seat, blowing foam from his lips, and screaming "Kill! Kill! Kill!" It's a sad commentary on the current craven mindframe of Marvel Inc. that this approach (which very much is the kind of thing a Red Bulled adolescent would propose) got green-lighted.
But somehow Loeb did indeed get permission from his corporate masters to essentially wreck the 'Ultimate' universe, and boy, he goes at it with a vengeance. That's where the hilarious comes in.
I lost count of how many characters die in this graphic novel. The Blob EATS the Wasp. Giant-Man bites off the Blog's head and spits it out. Magneto snaps Professor X's neck. Dazzler drowns, as do boatloads of other characters. Giant-Man gets blown to giant-sized chunks by a swarm of suicide bombers. Sabretooth eats Angel's wings and crushes his head. Doctor Strange gets his head popped like a pimple. Magneto gets his arm chopped off. Then he gets gutted by Wolverine. Then he gets his head blasted off by Cyclops. Wolverine gets blasted to ribbons by Cyclops and Iron Man. Then he gets blasted to atoms by Magneto. Cyclops gets his head blown off. The Thing crushes Doctor Doom's head. It's like being inside the mind of a violent, dimwitted
teenager. It's impossible that even Loeb considers this any kind of storytelling - it isn't, it's just pornography. And after the third or fourth grotesque disembowelment, you can't help but laugh as the hits just keep on coming.
So this is the watershed of the Ultimate continuity. After all those big, daring stories, the whole experiment comes down to "Kill! Kill! Kill!" And if some future writer decides that there was potential left in any of the sixty or seventy characters Loeb kills in this one graphic novel, well, maybe they'll get permission to form some Ultimate Ultimate continuity. Why not? Sure as Hell doesn't look like anybody at Marvel cares one way or the other.