Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ultimate Human by Warren Ellis and Cary Nord - A Comic Book Review

One of the highlights of the Ultimate line

Ultimate Human by Warren Ellis and Cary Nord – Short and sweet at a very concise four issues, this miniseries makes for an impactful hardcover. Ostensibly an Ultimate Hulk vs. Iron Man story, Warren Ellis and Cary Nord craft an entertaining but insightful fable about human achievement and scientific progress. Yeah, there’s plenty of crazy, widescreen action, and the narrative is simple, but it’s all tempered with a story that aspires to be a little more than your standard superhero fight comic. This, plus the level of professionalism and genuine care that was part of the execution of it all, makes Ultimate Human a definite triumph, not only for the Ultimate line of comics, but for superhero comics in general. So what if it was a minor, four-issue miniseries that came out right before Marvel decided to throw the entire Ultimate line into upheaval? I don’t feel that all that Ultimatum stuff cheapens Ultimate Human at all.

Ellis is definitely one of the best writers in comics today, whether he’s working on his creator-owned stuff or work-for-hire stuff like this. I definitely appreciate his acerbic dialogue and witty, darkly humorous one-liners as well as his penchant for bringing some legit science fiction into the mix. I also feel that a lot of the stuff he writes appears to be dark or cynical on the surface, but a deeper inspection of his stories reveals a quite a bit of optimism and idealism, and Ultimate Human is certainly one story that exemplifies that trait.

Ellis introduces Ultimate Pete Wisdom in this story, and he is actually also Ultimate Leader. In fact, the Leader is a big impetus for most of the plot, even getting the entire third issue devoted to his backstory. I find it interesting that the other issues all pretty much feature pages with three-tiered grids, usually using three wide panels per page. Yet with Wisdom’s spotlight chapter, Ellis and Nord switch it up a bit and use quite a few more panels per page. It’s an interesting storytelling trick that is easy to appreciate in the collected edition because you can see how it helps the pace of the story. It makes sense, somehow, that the least action-packed issue of the series should have the most panels and have layouts that look different from the others.

Cary Nord’s art, masterfully colored by Dave Stewart, is as excellent as anything the duo ever did on Dark Horse’s Conan. As in Conan, Nord’s finished pencils are directly colored by Stewart without any inking. The look certainly sets it apart from the look of most other Ultimate books. His storytelling is impeccable, and his characters have an elegance and dignity about them no matter how grotesque they may appear. The Leader, in particular, is exceptionally well-designed. Nord’s Hulk is real behemoth, and the cover to the fourth issue is probably one of my all-time favorite Hulk pictures. He’s just enormous, bursting with rage and power. It’s impressive to see how Nord draws the Hulk in action.
An early scene from the first chapter that helps establish the three-panel layout used throughout much of the series, as well as the relationship between Stark and Banner

The plot itself involves Tony Stark and Bruce Banner getting together to try and figure out a cure for the Hulk, to make it so that Banner will no longer transform into the Hulk. Then Banner would be able to continue his life’s work of perfecting the super-soldier serum. Pete Wisdom comes into the mix as a high-ranking but rogue officer of MI6 (y’know, the British Secret Intelligence Service) who wants Britain to have its own super soldier covert operatives. Wisdom becomes the Leader after he allows himself to be subjected to some experiments by his British scientists. With his newfound power, he decides to kidnap Stark and Banner, steal their blood (and kill them), and then use their blood samples to figure out how to best create supermen. (You also have to love how the British writer figures out a plausible way to bring Britain into the Ultimate superpowers arms race. And how he Ultimatized the character he created himself in Excalibur all those years ago!)

Throughout the course of the story, Ellis does an intriguing job of revealing the science ( Or is it pseudo-science? Science fiction?) behind Stark’s, Wisdom’s, and especially Banner’s superpowers. Ellis has some clever explanations as to how the Hulk works – essentially, the Hulk adapts to any stressful situation. That’s why the angrier he gets, the stronger he becomes.

The science fiction elements play a big role in the motivations of the characters, and I like that he uses the three primary characters to comment on the future. You have Tony Stark, who has nanomachines in his bloodstream, making him a technological marvel like nothing human. You have Bruce Banner who becomes the Hulk, making him a biological specimen like nothing human. And you have Pete Wisdom, who somehow seeks to use the best of both fields of science to become something else entirely.

But each man is defined by other traits as well. Stark has a streak of callous pride that would make him insufferable if not for his charm. Banner is simply a guy who’s been beaten down so many times in his life that he feels like a chump. And Wisdom is a cynical old codger, embittered by the fact that the other two guys haven’t been able make the best use of their intellectual gifts and better the world beyond simply punching evil aliens in the face.
In one breathtaking image (the cover to issue 4), Nord captures everything about the Hulk and Iron Man. The Hulk is a brute consumed with whatever is directly in front of him. Iron Man,  meanwhile, looks towards the future

The ending is terse and fairly abrupt, but it feels very, very right. There’s no pontificating, no preaching from Ellis using any one character as his mouthpiece. Ultimate Human doesn’t tell you what to think about what human progress is all about. It just makes you ponder what ultimate power would mean in capable hands, and whether it’s even possible for people in real life to achieve their lofty dreams, or if we should even have lofty dreams in the first place.

I don’t know, maybe I’m being dopey and making it sound like there’s a whole lot to this comic when it’s still kind of about a couple of guys pounding the snot out of each other. But at least this comic aspires to be more than a typical superhero comic. I’d say it succeeds on every count.

Before I read this comic, I always wondered why it was called Ultimate Human when Ultimate Hulk vs. Iron Man would have been the more commercial title. (Sorta like that Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine miniseries.) Well, Ellis has a very clever way of showing why this comic has its title. That’s the cherry on the sundae of this all-around superb piece of work.

Ultimate Human gets my highest possible recommendation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quick Reviews 3

The TPB also has some elucidating commentary from Mark Evanier about the genesis of this project
Boogeyman by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier – Well, this is certainly one gem of a comic. Aragones is a living legend and Evanier is an underappreciated writer. I know Evanier writes for a lot of TV shows, but all of his comics tend to range from enjoyably entertaining to memorably and sincerely thrilling, and always with a healthy dose of genuine humor and remarkable attention to craft. Boogeyman, published by Dark Horse in the late ‘90s, is a sterling testament to these two friends and collaborators. Essentially a modern day Tales from the Crypt-type of comic featuring a banjo-strumming black dude named Mr. Diggs as the “Cryptkeeper”, Boogeyman is a nice collection of short stories about the things people fear. Though Aragones and Evanier keep things pretty light with their sense of humor, most of the stories ultimately reveal something about the human condition, and how irrational fears can ruin our hearts; that they tell these tales in a way that isn’t heavy handed makes this comic ideal for adults as well as younger readers. Recommended.

Rereading this makes me wish BKV would do some more comics

Wolverine: Logan by Brian K. Vaughan and Eduardo Risso – I reread this one after I had finished 100 Bullets in its entirety and I was still on my Risso kick. Risso’s artwork is certainly suited to this short (three issues) miniseries set in Japan during World War II. Dean White’s colors are splendorous, as well – just look at that majestic final page, which so perfectly encapsulates, in one glorious yet bittersweet image, the essence of Wolverine. In three issues, BKV and Risso tell a story of Logan’s past reaching back from the grave to strike at his heart one more time. It’s a simple enough plot and premise, but it works thanks to the attention to detail and the painstaking care you can see them pour into the craft of what could easily just be another mindless Marvel zombie cash machine. Like the best Wolverine stories, Logan ends with tragedy mixed in with a bit of hope, much like how the character himself struggles to contain his animalistic instincts with his human nature. Recommended.

Lloyd's lush artwork really improves the story

The Territory by Jamie Delano and David Lloyd – This is an unusual comic. I feel like I need to read it again in order to get a better grasp on it, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. Most of my experiences with Delano’s writing makes me feel this way, in fact. I think he’s a good writer who tends to layer his works a bit densely. Lloyd, of course, illustrated that indomitable classic V for Vendetta, and his artwork here looks just as good as you’d expect. The story, as far as I can tell, is a futuristic science fiction tale that follows a man as he struggles to separate fiction from reality. It’s a dizzying descent into madness and the dark corners of human psyche. Unlike some of Delano’s other comics, however, the narrative is straightforward enough to follow easily. It’s the deeper implications below the surface that provide a good amount of meat to munch on.

The Dave Dorman covers, which are obviously in a style reminiscent of Drew Struzan, were misleading to my younger self

Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy – Ah, the challenges of not only rereading, but reviewing a beloved childhood comic… I must have gotten this trade paperback back when I was around 11 years old. I’m now 27. I remember reading this over and over and over as a kid. I grew up loving Star Wars and absolutely devoured every Star Wars novel and comic I could sink my grubby little meathooks into. Dark Empire was definitely, to my young mind, the ultimate Star Wars comic. Over the years, I’d pull this bad boy off the shelf just to take a trip back down memory lane. Even though time has certainly dulled the impact of the story, I still somehow find myself getting lost in the imagination of the comic. 

Here's a sample panel of Cam Kennedy's art (I believe he colored himself)

This is due, in no small part, to the amazing artwork of Cam Kennedy. His pencils are dynamic. His figures are great actors and he draws facial expressions well. Best of all are his action scenes and anything that involves hulking mechanical behemoths. His designs for the World Devastators (supposedly, an Imperial fleet of planet-demolishing leviathans on a threat level on par with the Death Stars) are intricate and creative. His star fighters are satisfyingly detailed and his soldiers’ rifles spit hot fire right off the page. Kennedy perfectly captures the chaos inherent in devastated war zones. As a kid, I used to try and copy his pictures. As an adult, his pictures continue to stimulate my imagination. The initially bizarre secondary color scheme in the series confused me as a child; now I truly appreciate the various hues of pink, green, blue, and brown. It gives the series a unique, dignified look. The story, on the other hand, hasn’t aged well. Tom Veitch appropriates a rather “comic booky” premise with this story, meant to take place years after Return of the Jedi (and a little while after Timothy Zahn’s excellent Thrawn Trilogy): the resurrection of the Emperor. During the course of the story, characters (especially Luke Skywalker) behave in ways that simply don’t feel plausible. It’s as though Veitch forced characters into situations instead of letting them react naturally to the world around them. A few important plot events and character development even happen off-panel, and the ending feels terribly rushed. Nonetheless, I just don’t have it in me to hate on this comic, although as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize just how mediocre the vast majority of Expanded Universe novels/comics can be…

I got nothing but respect for First Second

Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece – I’ve been enjoying First Second’s output. I haven’t been able to read all that many of their releases, but pretty much everything of theirs that I have read, I’ve enjoyed. Life Sucks may not be a world-changing comic book, but it’s an entertaining story. I was familiar with Abel’s work thanks to her superb, critically acclaimed La Perdida, and Pleece has done some pretty excellent work for DC Comics. (He drew Ed Brubaker’s Deadenders series for Vertigo as well as the underrated Kinetic for the short-lived DC Focus imprint.) Life Sucks follows Dave, a vampire living in modern day LA. Dave works a dead-end job at a 24 hour convenience store for his boss, the old-school vampire lord who turned him in the first place. (Dave works the night shift, naturally.) As you can surmise from the title, Dave hates his life. He gets some hope when he meets Rosa, a girl he immediately likes, but of course things get complicated. Life Sucks is light story about feeling stuck in a rut and about what a downtrodden, kind of wimpy guy is willing to do for the sake of love and happiness. I think the best thing about the storytelling is how clear the art is and how compelling the characters are. It makes this a breeze to read.

I would have taken Howard Porter over any of the other jokers who drew the issues in this trade

Captain America and the Falcon volume 2: Brothers and Keepers by Priest and various artists – It’s tough for me to read a Cap story nowadays, because I can’t help but compare everything to Brubaker’s definitive run on the character. Still, I can accept other interpretations of Cap, and Priest’s short run in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s is definitely a flat-out superhero action book, almost in the tradition of the Silver Age in terms of the unbridled, joyous excitement he packs into his stories. It’s a shame the art’s so woefully inconsistent. A variety of pencillers featuring the dull stylings of Dan Jurgens and Andrea Divito mar what should have been an exhilarating superhero romp where Cap and the Falcon race to uncover a conspiracy and do battle with M.O.D.O.K. and the incredible Hulk. The story also ends with an unfinished feeling, because I think Marvel wanted to end this series as Brubaker’s run was warming up. That doesn’t sound very fair, and I’m sure it wasn’t the first time Priest got shafted, but such is life. Still, even though it’s kind of a messy, unfinished work, I find Cap and the Falcon an interesting read… You can sort of see how the real world unravels the comic, as things get rushed towards the end. It’s certainly not a perfect comic, but it’s told with genuine aplomb and, as I’ve said before, I often find myself gravitating toward flawed works when it comes to superheroes.

Here's the cover to the second issue so you can see Harris' interpretations of Uncle Ben, Aunt May, and the Bradbury-esque Flash Thompson

Spider-Man: With Great Power… by David Lapham and Tony Harris – Here’s another Marvel Knights miniseries. Harris did this during his time on Ex Machina and his art, for the first four issues of this collection, looks exactly like the bulk of his run on Ex Machina as inked by Jim Clark. The fifth issue, however, features Stefano Gaudiano on inks, and it’s quite a jarring change. It’s not a bad look, by any means, but it’s so different from the previous four issues that it does take you out of the story a bit. A little consistency would have been appreciated here, especially for the collected edition. With Great Power… takes place between the panels of Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man) and tells a story of how Peter Parker reveled in his newfound powers in the early days. It’s the beginning of his understanding of power and responsibility. Lapham’s writing is solid but nothing as powerful as his work on Stray Bullets. Harris’ art is the true star here, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that hardcore fanboys took umbrage at his interpretations for certain characters. Flash Thompson, for one, looks like Bradbury. Aunt May and Uncle Ben don’t look anything like how they’ve traditionally been portrayed. (Uncle Ben is thin and has a mustache, while Aunt May isn’t the frail old lady we tend to imagine her to be.) Liz Allen looks way too hot to be a high schooler. Crusher Hogan has long black hair. Stuff like that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story, although I felt that the themes of power and responsibility weren’t deeply developed. As a result, the story feels kind of thin. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this comic, other than the art, is how Lapham doesn’t end it where you expect it to end. It’s worth a read and would probably make a very fine introduction to Spider-Man to anyone who’s new to comics.