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.
Ultimate 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.