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The Reread Reviews — The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy

And we come to the end of August, which has turned into Ultimate month here at the reread reviews. That wasn’t done on purpose, but once I’d done three weeks of Mark Millar Ultimate stuff, I figured why not finish it with two weeks of Warren Ellis? After all, I like Ellis’s work more — and it’s discussed/remembered/read less. So I will educated you all! Oh yes. And to conclude things, we get an odd one. Spoilers as always.

ultgal01The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy is written by Warren Ellis and made up of three different series with five artists: Ultimate Nightmare with Trevor Hairsine and Steve Epting; Ultimate Secret with Steve McNiven and Tom Raney; and Ultimate Extinction with Brandon Peterson. You can buy the whole thing in a variety of formats: single issues, individual series trades, deluxe hardcover collecting all three and a paperback version of the hardcover. I have the trades for all three series having gotten them cheap at the University of Windsor’s bookstore last September — they had a huge stockpile of Marvel trades for very, very cheap rates (that’s where I got Millar’s Ultimate X-Men run). The same day that I purchased these three books, I also got Iron Man: Extremis, which is a frustrating, brilliant read for many reasons. Maybe someday, I’ll return to it. Until then, we have these three books.

It’s hard to take them as a whole since, while they tell one big story, they each have their own plots and casts and art teams. Ultimate Nightmare was actually the only part of the story that Ellis was scheduled to write, it acting as a lead-in to a big Ultimate crossover by Mark Millar, but health problems meant that he had to back out and Ellis was put in the position of completing the story. As such, Ultimate Nightmare is the best of the trilogy, playing to Ellis’s strengths more so than the other two. Ultimate Nightmare is the black ops, history coming back to fuck us, horror-ish story with a team from the Ultimates attempting to discover the source of these nightmarish transmissions that have been broadcasts worldwide. Meanwhile, Professor X sends some X-Men to rescue a mutant psychic who’s been sending out similar thoughts… this pays off at the end when Nick Fury and company basically call the X-Men morons for not even bothering to turn on a TV at any point to see if maybe something bigger was going on. It’s an interesting critique of Xavier and his group — so self-focused, so isolated that they don’t really fit into the world… and, if they don’t, are they actually relevent? How can they bridge the gap between humans and mutants if they’re so disconnected from the society they live in? A small moment that leads to a larger unspoken critique of the group and its mission/tactics.

Ultimate Nightmare deals with an area of Russia called Tunguska, which had something crash in it from space 100 years ago. Now, nightmarish transmissions regarding the deaths of various alien civilisations are interrupting broadcasts around the world, speaking of death and no hope, leading to suicides and such. Fury puts together a small team to investigate made up of himself, Captain America, the Black Widow, and Sam Wilson — making his first Ultimate appearance. Wilson here has his Falcon wings, is former military, is a science guy, and isn’t yet best buds with Steve Rogers. The group of X-Men sent are Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Colossus. Both teams discover that the Soviet base where the transmissions/psychic screams are coming from houses monsters… the remnants of one of the failed attempts to create Soviet super-soldiers. Weird freaks full of alien machinery, most gone mad… culminating eventually in Captain America’s opposite number, Captain USSR… a man whose red uniform is a duplicate of the WWII uniform Cap had, but they couldn’t duplicate Cap’s shield, so he made his own — out of human bone and flesh.

Ellis uses Captain USSR to highlight some points about Captain America here: while the USSR psycho goes on and on about honour, glory, and pride, Cap responds that fighting isn’t about any of those things. No, fighting is about winning… at which point he uses a bone fragment to kill the Soviet. This isn’t a ‘cool’ scene to me, but it is a revealing one as Ellis really sums up the difference between Ultimate Captain America and his regular MU counterpart. The MU Cap is about honour, glory, and pride… he represents an ideal, the soldier who somehow wins wars without slaughtering his opponent… he’s the nice soldier that kicks ass for country, but doesn’t make it messy for us. Ultimate Captain America is a guy who’s been to war and doesn’t deny what it is. He doesn’t put on a show for everyone or act like what he does isn’t about making sure the ‘bad guys’ don’t walk away no matter what. I find that Ellis gets that point across better than Millar does without turning Cap into a complete asshole. Sure, that’s there a bit — like his sneer when Sam Wilson explains that he thought he could do more good outside of the armed forces. There’s a great scene in Ultimate Extinction where Fury and Rogers talk, and Rogers explains that the threat they’re fighting is too big for him — it’s bigger than anything he’s ever encountered and how that relates to his belief in God, and, man, Ellis nails the character there, bringing him back to Earth in a big way. He gets across something that Millar tried to shove down our throats but never really accomplished: the reason why he’s such a violent asshole is because fighting is the only thing that’s stayed the same. Everything else around him has changed, except for the military and that someone needs their ass kicked. Fighting is the only place that feels like home to him at this point. It wasn’t until I read this trilogy that that point really hit me in a big way even though I can tell Millar was going for that.

Ultimate Nightmare ends with the discovery of the Vision, an artificial life sent to warn us one hundred years in advance of the coming of Gah Lak Tus, something beyond comprehension that is going to kill all life on Earth. The Vision has spent its 100 years on Earth begin pulled apart by Soviet scientists, constantly trying to heal itself — it came to give humanity time to prepare and leave the planet. But, Gah Lak Tus is on the way, so it’s too late. Oops.

ultgal02Ultimate Secret has a bit more energy than the first mini, if only because Ellis had to throw it together in a greater hurry (from what I’ve read) and with less planning. He updates a couple more characters here, Carol Danvers and Captain Mahr Vehl. This series is actually very typical — to the point of being boring. The alien sent to Earth that betrays its people, the xenophobic alien race, the asshole humans… if you’ve read Ellis before, this won’t surprise you much, honestly. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good, it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily grab you right away.

Normally, I’m the first one to say that energy in storytelling beats everything else (well, not everything else, but energy goes a long way) — this time, it doesn’t. This is actually the part of the story that you could just lift out and you wouldn’t be missing a lot. You would miss a couple of details on Gah Lak Tus that are repeated in Ultimate Extinction and the introduction of Mahr Vehl… that’s about it. It reads, when looking at the whole story, as something that was thrown together. The switch from Steve McNiven to Tom Raney after the second issue doesn’t help. Normally, I’m not a big McNiven fan, but his work here is probably the best I’ve seen from him. It’s not quite as refined as his work has become and his people don’t look so made out of plastic. They still do a bit, but not too much.

Ellis’s tenure on Ultimate Fantastic Four helps this second part a lot since he uses those four characters to great effect, having them interact with the Ultimates. Ben and Johnny are taken under Thor’s wing as he declares them warriors and decides that, before the battle, they need beer. Where Ellis shines is the dynamic between Reed and Sue here — they’re treated like a regular couple with all of the stupid cute banter that couples have, but also the other tensions. While they’re obviously going to be together, you get the sense that they’re not that sort of ‘together forever because that’s the way it is’ couple that they are in the regular MU. Sue rebuffing Iron Man’s advances is also a good scene.

Ultimate Extinction is an odd sort of finale to a big story like this, because there’s much more emphasis placed on the science guys figuring things out than Big Muscle Men Hitting Things Until They Stop Working as most events like to end. Is The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy an event? It’s a crossover for the Ultimate universe, but… an event? It was intended to be an event until Millar dropped out… how sad is it that when Millar writes it, it’s an event, but when Ellis writes it, it’s just a quality story?

And I do think this final part is a quality story. I know that there’s a lot of people who don’t like that Gah Lak Tus here isn’t a giant in purple pants, but that wouldn’t really work in the Ultimate universe. Galactus would be greeted with laughter and mockery and the threat here is meant to be terrifying and so big that it genuinely seems unstoppable. Galactus doesn’t seem that way. He’s a giant in purple pants with a dumb looking hat. Earth would get eaten because none of the heroes could stop laughing. Now, a hive-like group of creatures that are approximately one hundred thousand miles long that kill all life on Earth in 24 hours? That’s big, that’s scary, that’s unstoppable.

One area where this entire story falls down is that Gah Lak Tus is never as terrifying as it’s meant to be. From Ultimate Nightmare on, we’re meant to believe that footage of what Gah Lak Tus does can drive a person insane, but that never really comes through. Now, I think that’s largely a result of this being a Marvel Comic, so you can’t go too heavy with the horror of entire races being driven insane and slaughtering each other. The limitations prevent showing the horror on the scale that it needs to be shown.

ultgal03The final part of the story combines ground-level action with the larger Gah Lak Tus plot well through Misty Knight, a former cop turned PI after losing an arm in an explosion — and having it replaced by Tony Stark with a metal thing. She investigates a possible cult to find a man’s wife and that’s when we meet one of the Silver Surfers (never called that here) — a silver man with wings. These silver men are part of the Gah Lak Tus onslaught, sent to Earth to soften up humanity psychologically — get chunks of it prepared to die when the anti-creator comes. Death cults as a means of killing the planet… such a simple, elegant concept. We see another one of them later, this one sent by Gah Lak Tus after Professor X tries to make telepathic contact and Gah Lak Tus recoils in terror and disgust — this Silver Surfer is sent like a bullet, switching from silver egg to man on a surf board, but the added touch of four sets of teeth makes him more unsettling — there’s no conscious thought here, he’s just another aspect of Gah Lak Tus. We’ve already had Mahr Vehl switch sides… another alien doing so would be a bit much.

Gah Lak Tus destroying organic life because its mere existence offends it is a good concept. The ultimate xenophobe — it so desires to be left alone that it will kill everything there is. Ultimately, Gah Lak Tus is defeating on two fronts: more telepathic contact to torture it, Xavier and Grey tapping into all of humanity to push across the experiences of living; the other is a weapon that Reed Richards invents that taps into the energy of the multiverse and fires like an energy cannon, destroying 20% of Gah Lak Tus… the two efforts making it too much of a hassle to try and kill Earth.

Unlike the original ‘Ultimate Nullifier,’ the weapon here is something that Reed struggles to deal with, to accept that it must be created and used. He’s not sure if creating a weapon so powerful isn’t just as bad as Gah Lak Tus killing the planet. But, he still does it — he has to. Something I really don’t like, though, is that Nick Fury shares the plans for that weapon with other planets by transmitting the information — so they can defend themselves against Gah Lak Tus. However, wouldn’t a weapon that big and powerful possibly be as potent a threat as Gah Lak Tus? Seems like the sort of thing that would come and bite them in the ass.

The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy is a bit uneven because of the way it’s told. The middle part is the lightest and most expendable part — a sort of false second act. The first and third parts are pretty good… the first part especially since that’s where Ellis gets to be Ellis the most. The rest of the story is geared to his style and interests — the manner in which he has Gah Lak Tus attack and soften up Earth is something that’s pure Ellis. The art on the books is uniformly good. Hairsine and Epting work very well in the shadows, which is what the first book needs; the second is brighter, which plays to McNiven and Raney’s strengths; while the third has Brandon Peterson’s best art that I’ve ever seen from him. He uses an odd shading technique that’s a little distracting at times, but he really shows off what he can do.

The story here doesn’t leave a lot of room for character work in any big way. A lot of people show up and get small moments, but the story is so big, the events so monumental that there just isn’t the space. I also think that Ellis did this story better in the final arc of his Authority run, which did come across as bigger and more epic. There’s a feeling of anti-climax at the end of Ultimate Extinction. I think that’s a result of Gah Lak Tus being so big that the heroes are useless. Ellis creates other small threats, but it really comes down to Reed inventing something while Xavier thinks at the creature. It’s not that exciting and, while a good story, doesn’t necessarily make for a great superhero story. It’s one of the rare cases, I find, where Ellis just couldn’t make a concept work in the genre — something he’s fantastic at.

But, check it out. It’s a good read.

16 Comments

Ben and Johnny’s joy at drinking beer with Thor was my favorite part.

Chad,

Funnily enough (and not by intention) I don’t think I ever read the middle part… and never really felt like I missed a thing! So there’s one empirical data point in favour of your hypothesis.

I only read part 2… and felt no need to read parts 1 or 3. And this is from a Fantastic Four diehard fan…

So… part 2 is pretty versatile then. It can be read alone, with the other two parts, or ignored and works in each case. That’s rather odd.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

August 30, 2009 at 12:43 pm

I disagree withgt he evaluation of regular Captain America as “a nice soldier.” The idea that Cap is a soldier is really itself an invention of the Ultimate line; the Marvel version was more solidly a superhero, to the point that “soldier” was actually his secret identity rather than his profession.

There’s a general problem modern readers have with the artificial setup of actual Golden Age characters, particularly in those characters’ Silver Age revivals: they wore costumes and fought in wartime but were, generally speaking NOT soldiers in any meaningful sense. Cap didn’t punch out battalions of Nazi troops; he punched out costumed spies and guys in crimson skeleton masks. He didn’t carry a rifle and flank enemy tank units; he ran around throwing a shield at one enemy agent somewhere in Berlin.

If the wartime, war-involved supeheroes were meant to be America’s fighting forces, they were that allegorically and not literally. But then, modern comics readers increasingly seem incapable of understanding or accepting the difference between allegory and literalism, between genre tropes and realism.

This series still gets slammed on alot. I probably would have forgotten about it by now if bloggers didn’t bring it up every once in a while as an example of a crappy comic.

I enjoyed it well enough, as a generally average comic with a few very cool moments and ideas, and it’s nice to see someone else did, too.

The best Captain America stories are those that understand that he is a soldier. Not a superhero. Not a vigilante. A soldier. That’s why I enjoyed Ultimate Cap better than the last ten years of Cap stories. (The ridiculous A isn’t for France nonsense notwithstanding.)

Problem is, how many comic book writers since the the Silver Age are actual veterans?

What I didn’t like about this series were the duplicates. As in, there already was an android produced / referenced during The Ultimates that was to be Ultimate Vision, or at least Scarlet Witch’s analogue to it. Additionally, I was under the impression another being was Ultimate Silver Surfer, and not the sentries shown here. I feel the series itself was ill-explained at times.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

August 30, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Again, The Mutt, the Cap comics of the Silver Age were written by two WWII veterans — Jack Kirby was even a combat veteran and the character’s co-creator — and Cap is definitely NOT a soldier in those stories.

These “best Cap stories” you’re describing…were any of them published before, say, 2000 or so?

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 30, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I loathe that first mini.

Well I don’t loathe it, but it wasn’t very good.

Two separate lots of heroes run around in a spooky old facility falling into traps and having ho-hum adventures, only to get to the end and find out what the threat is… and that threat is coming in the next mini.

If this was meant to be an event, it sure wasn’t written like one.

I think that this was where I had one of my epiphanies about modern comics–they’re all scared of people making fun of them. Of course Galactus is a silly concept. He’s a giant guy in a purple metal toga who goes around eating planets. The Silver Surfer is silly, too. Heck, big chunks of the Silver Age are just downright silly.

But that only bothers us now, when we’re trying to convince everyone what an adult pastime reading comics actually is. I’ve described comics as an adolescent medium before, and this seems to be one of the primary symptoms of it–that need to divest oneself of anything that might be seen as “childish”, in order to try to get people to take you seriously as a grown-up. The Ultimate Galactus trilogy–heck, the whole Ultimate universe–seems to read like the writers are desperately afraid that one of their high school buddies will come up, read it, and say, “A big guy in a purple toga? You’re still into that? What a baby.”

Once you understand that modern comics writers are all about stripping all of the elements of kids’ comics that actually appeal to kids so that they can validate their still enjoying the hobby, a lot of modern comics make a lot more sense. :)

Picked up the omnibus trade for this. I liked it okay. I was initially bemused by how dumb he made the X-Men look, but you bring up an interesting point. I also remember liking the second part a lot.

Also:

Once you understand that modern comics writers are all about stripping all of the elements of kids’ comics that actually appeal to kids so that they can validate their still enjoying the hobby, a lot of modern comics make a lot more sense. :)

Yes, John, that’s all they are about. It’s not about writing for a different audience or era, or finding a way for the material to mesh with their styles. It’s all just how embarrassed they are.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 31, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I was thinking on this, and I reckon Chad, if you’d gotten Ultimate Nightmare in either single issues or as the standalone trade, without the other parts yet, you’d feel a lot less generous towards it.

John — I agree with Brad here. Even as a kid, I thought Galactus was goofy as all get out. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the tone of these comics calls for something different — not as a way to justify them or to eliminate the stuff that kids like, but because certain ideas are somewhat antiquated.

FGJ — Perhaps, I can’t say for sure, since I got all three trades at once and read them, basically, as one story. Then again, I’m not put off by the plot or the ‘read the next series’ element because I thoroughly enjoy Ellis’s storytelling in that series. That’s a very subjective area, I must admit.

I seem to recall in an old Lying in the Gutters column Rich Johnston revealed that “Ultimate Exticntion” was based on a reworked un-used script Ellis wrote for Marvel in the late 90’s called “End Times” that was going to be a Y2K end-of-the-world event-type of story involving an angel-like being on earth. Check the swipe file:
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?id=15142&page=article

Jocutus — The first time I read this story, I thought about that, and forgot to mention it this time. But, thanks for the link proving it.

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