Check it: the reason I paid for the hardcover was because it was cheaper than the two trade paperbacks. At this stage, I hadn't read the series, so I wasn't sure on the quality (Mark Millar runs hot and cold with me) but a flip through the first trade meant that I would buy the second, and even though I initially planned to buy one now and the other later, there's no arguing with a deluxe hardcover that's five bucks cheaper. Especially not when it offers you all thirteen issues of Bryan Hitch's fantastic art in one nice book.
That said, I had reservations. I've never really gone in for The Avengers, and Captain America has never been my favourite of the Marvel properties. It's the patriotism angle. I'm just not into that. It's got nothing to do with the fact that it's America, either; if a character called Captain Australia appeared, I'd probably feel much the same, though I'd probably cringe at the outback clothing he would be wearing. Likewise, I've never gone in for Thor. It's the Thor dialogue that pisses me off, though I did enjoy the Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry Thor: Vikings series that put the God of Thunder up against a bunch of zombie vikings. But, as with the other ultimate titles, such as Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spiderman an amount of recrafting is allowed, and I already knew that Thor had lost the ye old stupidity, that Captain America was a bit more hard nosed, and that Nick Fury, a major character in the series, was now a eye-patched black man resembling Samuel L. Jackson. In addition, I'd heard mostly positive things about the series. So, I figured, why not, let's go with the impulse and purchase this big fucking hardcover that I could fight people with.
I tell you, I can't remember when I last had this much fun with a superhero comic.
It's beautiful, first of all. Here's a link to some samples of Hitch's art of the series, but these won't prepare you for the amazing two page spreads he uses throughout the series, my favourite being the one of the damaged alien armada appearing on Earth. In addition, Hitch brings more than beauty: from the opening shot of World War 2, there is a level of research with the technical side of the art that helps establish the world that the superheroes exist in. It makes it more believable with this level of research to believe in a scene where Giant Man is flown through the city while the Hulk goes on a mad rampage below, leaving nothing but debris in his wake.
(Which, I might add, has one of the funniest things involving Freddie Prince Jnr that I have ever read.)
Hitch's art, however, outside being beautiful and well research, is so much fun. Scenes of the Air Force and Thor fighting side by side, the introduction of Black Widow and Hawkeye, the fight between Captain America and Giant Man, and the Hulk rampaging at the end... there's just a big, summer blockbuster feel to the scenes, that it's impossible not to find yourself caught up int he sheer fun of it. Even in the quiet or more serious moments (and the fight between Captain America and Giant Man is one of these) there is a slick, smooth feel that sweeps you along, leaving you with no doubt that if this was a film, the budget would have saved a third world nation.
Mark Millar gives us a summer movie plot that is summed up in two words: alien invasion. It's nothing special, but then, it's really only the external threat for the main characters, who are kept alive by their interactions with each other. Captain America is at his best when dealing with the simple things, and though I wouldn't have minded him facing a certain grey morality, it's not like this hasn't been done before. But Millar manages to give character to Iron Man and Thor, who I always found a little lacking in that department, and there's no denying the fact that by the end of the book, I was quite fond of the changes he'd done to Thor. It's not just the language that's gone, but in that he made Thor a pacifist who won't work for the Ultimates because of the position that the American government has taken in the world. It's a nice change to the traditionally warrior characterised figure, and his friendship with the billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is a nice bit of characterisation. Stark, I might add, is a drunk and eccentric billionaire facing a new orientation on life.
I could go on, and list the changes of each character, but that would spoil some of it. The outcome of the Ultimates is never in any doubt, and what keeps it moving is the characters, and Millar's sharp dialogue. It is true that I could have done with a plot that was interesting but, outside a few pacing moments towards the end that ring out of place, there is nothing to fault this series on.
It's a bunch of fun. If you've missed the fun that superheroes can be, I reckon you should check it out.