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The Reread Reviews — Ultimate Human

Yes, so soon after the monstrous blogathon, I have returned to write a reread review. Well, actually, I wrote this on Friday and scheduled it for today, but, still, that’s a lot of comics-related writing in a short period of time. This week, I continue my journey through the Ultimate universe with my absolute favourite Ultimate title. Spoilers, of course.

ultimatehumanUltimate Human by Warren Ellis and Cary Nord is my favourite Ultimate title for a number of reasons. One, it features two of the best ‘Ultimate-ised’ characters, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Two, it introduces another fantastic Ultimate character in Pete Wisdom (aka the Leader). Three, it’s just a lot of fun. It reads like the sort of book that the Ultimate line was meant to be: straight foward; witty; clever; some good action; something you can jump right into without having read anything before it. It’s a very simple premise: Bruce Banner wants Tony Stark to cure him of the Hulk, while Pete Wisdom wants Stark and Banner’s altered blood to cure him of his enhancement, which has him confined to a wheelchair. Bam. Let’s go.

I’ve read Ultimate Human three times now (once when it first came out monthly, sometime after I had all four issues, and for this post) and I’ve always enjoyed it quite a bit. Warren Ellis seems a natural fit for these characters, putting together Stark and Banner, who both represent the two types of artificial human evolution in the 21st century, biological and mechanical. One is a success, the other a failure — but we’ll learn that they’re results have various elements in common, like non-military uses (assuming you can get rid of the mindless HULKSMASH! element of Banner’s formula). In The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2, Banner was often paired up with Pym since their areas of research were very close, but to pair up two men whose areas of expertise cover a broader base makes more sense.

Not only that, but can Stark and Banner be more different in personality? Outgoing, handsome, brilliant, hard-drinking Tony Stark; introverted, ‘Steve Buschemi-looking,’ supposedly brilliant (but mostly failure), sober-livin’ Bruce Banner. It’s a natural odd couple buddy comedy in the making. Stark sees a man just as brilliant as him who just hasn’t been as lucky — no one knows why Banner’s work has failed and he’s the best and brightest in his field… that could easily have happened to Stark. More than that, eliminating the Hulk is for the good of the planet.

I love Tony Stark, drunk. I love that he’s a functioning alcoholic. Why? Because that goes against the norm. Regular Tony Stark is kind of boring with his ‘I’ve admitted I’m powerless’ lifestyle; a man who doesn’t do anything except drink and is still gets shit done? That’s interesting, because you’re waiting for it to turn on him. It doesn’t here. There’s a kind of shock in seeing Stark guzzle vodka the way he does and still function… it reminds me of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a fantastic Canadian show about a Vancouver coroner who regularly attends AA meetings and goes out and gets drunk. I don’t know, it just seems a bit more real, because it’s not what you expect, it’s not typical, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to root for Stark here, because he’s obviously got a problem… except it hasn’t affected him yet.

Ellis redefines Ultimate Hulk without altering anything really: the Hulk adapts to any new stress. They need to run tests on Banner while he’s the Hulk so they can see how his cellular structure changes and when they alter the environmental conditions in the sealed room from one planetary condition to another, the Hulk grows extra muscles and bones so he can survive like on Venus. It’s great — and capped off with one of Stark’s assistants uttering the fantastic line “I don’t think I like it when he’s angry.”

Pete Wisdom here is easy to relate to. He’s the Director of Operations at MI6 and is a strong advocate of a British Enhancile Program, while it looks like the Service will back the European program headed by Dr. Bradock. Wisdom strongly disagrees because that program will not put Britain’s security first, nor will it be run up to his standards — and the means by which MI6 will back it (namely the Deputy Chief supporting it so he will get a good job upon leaving MI6 — since the only higher position is that of ‘C,’ the Head of Service, and that is always filled from outside the Service, usually by a seasoned diplomat, someone to keep things in perspective and under control). To prove his point, Wisdom undergoes the BEP treatment himself and turns into a telekine/telepath whose cranium is so large that his neck can’t support it. He is promptly fired. Now, he wants Stark’s nanoblood and Banner’s supersoldier/Hulk blood to perfect the treatment to cure himself and prove that Britain needs him.

I love this version of Wisdom. He’s easy to root for, because he’s surrounded by corruption and people who don’t know better. And, you know, Tony Stark is a drunk and Bruce Banner is a mass murderer, so fuck ‘em. Ellis clearly indulges in his own personal brand of cynicism and interests here. Pete Wisdom was always an Ellis stand-in, but here he’s an insane Ellis stand-in and that’s a little bit better.

In the end, Wisdom is killed, Banner is no longer cured (as Stark had to disable the nanites that cured him in order to save them both from being bled to death), and nothing has really changed, but it’s a nice little story. Full of great one-liners, fun science, British politics, and the pinnacle in superhuman existence being a big-headed freak.

Cary Nord’s art is coloured directly off of his pencils, but it works. Nord’s pencils always include a lot of shadows and softness that I think lends itself to direct colouring like this. His Hulk is huge and monstrous. His Pete Wisdom is freakish. He’s given a lot of room to work with as pages are almost exclusively either six- or three-panel grids. It’s a wide-open, loose sort of story and he nails it.

Ultimate Human isn’t a grand, ambitious story that will change lives, but it’s highly entertaining, and the sort of book that I’d feel comfortable handing over to someone who’s sole knowledge of Iron Man and the Hulk comes from the movies.

19 Comments

Funny. This week I have been really bugging myself to dig out this 4 issue mini-series from my comic tub and reread it. Now I log onto CBR and see it as a reread review. Good Stuff.

I agree with everything you wrote here. It’s a solid straight forward story and after reading it I felt they should stick Cary Nord on a Hulk title.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

August 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm

The other side of Ultimate Wisdom is that he’s also little other than a nationalist, a man whose own country would much rathr work with the EU than play the kinds of isolationist games that give Wisdom himself power. Indeed, that’s much of the subtext in the flashback making up the bulk of issue #3: everyone else has found opportunity and relevance with the EU, and Wisdom wants to create superhumans for Britain and Britain alone. I suspect he’s meant more to satirize rightist elements in the UK than anything else, particularly as African regime change — something that for a British liberal would be tantamount to seeking a new colonial empire — is at the top of Wisdom’s list. I hardly think that’s a position that Ellis, or even a crazy Ellis avatar, would hold.

That said, I’m afraid I do have to mentiont he huge flaw of the series: issue #4 just doesn’t really work, with Wisdom’s scheme never really paying off in satisfying action or a thorough resolution. Star undoes the Hulk cure, the Hulk leaps away, and the story ends before we can get any sort of proper epilogue or even denouement. I can’t help but think that the third issue was at the cost of the fourth, and that its flashback material could have been distributed throughout with some of the sequences of issues 1 and 2 being pared down slightly to make up the room.

That, or this needed five issues to work out. As it is, issue 4 rolls around and stuff just sort of perfunctorily ends. There’s not really any climactic moments after the end of the second issue; even theundoing of the cure is so casual and has to be passed over so quickly for plot purposes that we never get to see Banner react afterwards. (Indeed, the Hulk simply goes straight into the action sequence and never reverts to Banner before the pages run out.) It’s a glaring flaw in an otherwise fun, clever little story.

On a totally frivolous note, I remain surprised at the number of Easter Eggs in Ellis’s Ultimate Universe work. In Ultimate Human, we get Ultimate versions of Master of Kung-Fu supporting characters James Larner (a short-lived MI6 agent from the original series who perished there, too) and Black Jack Tarr as the head of Special Section who points out how crazy Wisdom is when he wants the head of the British secret service assassinated for political reasons. Similarly, Doctor Stragg comes from the mainstream Captain Britain’s origin, where Joshua Stragg was the criminal who attacked Darkmoor (here, Dartmoor) and sent Brian Braddock off to his fateful meet with Merlin.

I understand why Ellis works on superhero comics — for the cash — but he seems to know or research some fairly obscure corners for the sake of throwaway references, doesn’t he?

He is a Professional Writer who does his research and takes the job seriously.

And I think there’s sympathy in Wisdom’s nationalism, if only because that’s his job. His job is to protect Britain, not care about the EU. That the others in the Service DON’T see that as their first priority is cause for alarm within the context no matter what our personal feelings on the matter are. I can see the satirical elements but think there’s more to it than that.

Good review, Chad. I liked this series a lot too. One question, though; is this the first Ultimate canonical reference to Tony Stark’s mutant physiology ( as established in Orson Scott Card’s greatly-missing-the-point revision in the Ultimate Iron Man series )? I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere, though Tony’s neural distribution here is treated somewhat differently ( re: no healing factor ).

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

August 23, 2009 at 1:43 pm

I get that Ellis is a pro, but some of these references are things he’d have to go out of his way to add in, not merely elements of telling a damned good story.

Any thoughts on the pacing of the series, especially the final issue?

I don’t know if you get Ellis’s Bad Signals, but, in the past, he’s mentioned the amount of research he puts in at Marvel — mostly because his job a lot of the time is to bring back lesser known characters, so him making sure EVERY character is an Ultimate version of an MU one sounds like something he’d do. If you’re going to learn about all of these characters, may as well use as much of it as possible.

I never minded the pacing. I found the devotion to Wisdom in all of issue three a little odd, but that it worked. The final issue came together, I’d argue. Hulk breaks out, kills the Leader, goes off. I don’t see how another issue could have made it better since there wasn’t a lot there anyway. Wisdom’s overconfidence is what screws him over and it’s a solid, fine ending.

The third issue really killed the pacing– probably pissed off some fanboys, too. But overall, it’s a good mini.

I read this comic as one should likely read all Ellis comics, in trade form, so the third chapter didn’t bother me one bit. I’m not sure why people would get anything Ellis writes in single issue format when they know for a fact by this point that it’ll be reprinted.

Oh crap, except for Nextwave, I couldn’t possibly wait for the trades on that one, it was too damn funny.

I’m a huge fan of Ellis’s Ultimate work, since he does seem to “get” the idea behind the line. Half the characters are mad scientists, after all. And the Gah-Lac-Tus trilogy represents an Ellis version of a Marvel-style epic – that isn’t tongue-in-cheek (like “Nextwave”) or subversive (like “Ruins,” which still makes my skin crawl) – and that just makes me smile.

But if Ellis has a failing on some of his work-for-hire stuff, it’s a slight lack of closure. I would imagine it’s a stylistic choice – he’s not exactly the kind of writer to go, “Oh crap! Forgot to write an epilogue. Oh well” – but an extra couple of pages at the end could have made the whole thing feel a bit… weightier? But then, it might have also felt a bit like the end of a He-Man episode, Tony asking, “So what have we learned today, kids?” And Ellis might have wanted to avoid that writing trap.

The Ultimate line was/is ideally suited for writers like Ellis – imaginative writers who simply don’t like working in the superhero genre – by giving them an area where they can use the real world to explore extra-human ideas. And that’s what makes stories like “Ultimatum” that much more annoying – getting a writer like Jeph Loeb, whose strengths lie in the anything-goes-punch-explode school of superhero writing, doing their big “revamp” story and basically missing the point of what the Ultimate line is supposed to be about.

Ironically, two other Ultimate-suited writers – Brubaker and Fraction – have more or less made the line irrelevant by writing Cap and Iron Man with a (slightly more) real-world sensibility. Which is fine – they’re like my two favorite books – but having them (and Bendis) charting the course of the Regular Marvel universe did make the Ultimate line feel that much more irrelevant.

Anyway, I can’t wait to read the next Ellis/Ultimate Iron Man story…when it gets collected, since, c’mon, why wouldn’t you wait a couple more months to have the whole story to read in one sitting? It really would’ve made UH #3′s extended Pete Wisdom flashback less of a hassle for monthly buyers.

” His job is to protect Britain, not care about the EU.”

That is quite a self-defeating purpose, now isn’t it? :)

“That the others in the Service DON’T see that as their first priority is cause for alarm within the context no matter what our personal feelings on the matter are.”

Is it? How so?

Myself, I would say WW I proved that mindset wrong.

Add to the list of Ultimate Tony Stark-esque functioning alcoholics Nate Ford, Timothy Hutton’s character in the TV show “Leverage”. He spends every episode of Season One with a drink in his hand, and manages to still pull off some very complex and intricate cons on unsuspecting bad guys.

@Seavey – I love drunk Nate, though I am happy they made the decision to sober him up between seasons rather than have it be a painful subplot. I also like that Nate has replaced booze with coffee, including a floor-to-ceiling cabinet full of nothing but beans.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

August 24, 2009 at 7:23 am

Jimmy McNulty and the Bunk Moreland of The Wire, though Jimmy’s functioning declined precipitously towards the end. Actually, to a lesser extent every homicide detective on the show might qualify.

Oh god do I love The Wire. It says something about a series’ ability to lovingly craft characters that even when one comes up with an idea that’s utterly, terribly, irrevocably ill-advised (McNulty by season 5)…you’re still kinda rooting for him.

Oddly enough, the same flawed booziness I love in McNulty I absolutely loathe in every single character on “Rescue Me.”

I always thought of something here, in terms of explaining how the Leader survivied if they ever bring him back in the Ultimate universe (which, as much as I loved him, would be ruin it for me. He should stay dead. End of story. But we all know how comics work…)

The Hulk’s hide can survive a explosion of a airplane landing on him. The Hulk was on top of Pete, almost shielding him from the explosion. I think everyone can put two and two together.

Mind you though, the Hulk did beat the shit out of the Leader, so explaining THAT is a whole other story.

But on the topic of the story, loved it. Warren was great with how he made all the characters.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 25, 2009 at 6:46 pm

And I think there’s sympathy in Wisdom’s nationalism, if only because that’s his job. His job is to protect Britain, not care about the EU. That the others in the Service DON’T see that as their first priority is cause for alarm within the context no matter what our personal feelings on the matter are. I can see the satirical elements but think there’s more to it than that.

I haven’t read it, so my words may be worth less than the energy expelled to write them, but if African regime change is on his list, he’s probably meant to be a satire on British spies in the LeCarre sense, with MI6 much more interested in looking after Britain’s commercial well being rather than protecting the country from attack.
(The EU does level the playing field a bit and make it a little harder to keep the home interests the home interests).

Also, don’t say he’s an Ellis avatar, I once made a joke about that explains the Kitty Pryde thing, and Ellis appeared and gave me shit, and I was certain he’d figured out a way to kill me in my sleep (using his brain-rays).

mostly because his job a lot of the time is to bring back lesser known characters,

Is that his job or what he likes to do?

Because honestly, apart from Next Wave, I’m not that familiar with him actually doing that.

Seems more a Jeff Parker ‘Agents OF Atlas’ type deal.

(A series which works great as pure escapism, but I reckon Ellis could have done a great cynical version of as well – with the exact same plot).

Ellis has stated that ‘rehibilitating’ forgotten/mismanaged characters for Marvel is, indeed, his job there much of the time and one of the main reasons why they signed him to an exclusive deal.

Thing I love about this title is that is kind of establishes Banner as being more of a forward thinker than Stark. I can’t recall the exact exchange but Stark basically asks why Banner would create a soldier that could exist in space to which he replies something to effect of “Did you really expect people to be fighting in mechanical suits forever?”.

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