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.

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