Flashback to… The Ultimates!

October 22nd, 2015

What I like best in art – and I like loads of stuff, I like jokes that I can’t help but laugh at, I like being able to just fucking marvel at someone doing something that seems impossible, I like that moment when something that didn’t seem like it could possibly come together does, and so on – is being put into difficulty.  Not in terms of being faced with something that’s hard to watch/read/look at/listen to necessarily, more in that I like it when I’m made to confront something that I can’t easily resolve or ignore or explain away.

The Millar/Hitch Ultimates doesn’t look like the most promising territory for this sort of experience, and for the most part that’s true. It’s probably the last Mark Millar comic I was able to enjoy without vomiting up qualifiers, and it definitely represents the last point where Bryan Hitch’s artwork looked good to my eyes, but if I like it at all then I like it in a fairly breezy way.  I laugh at the crude bits, I follow the fight scenes, I enjoy the brash, bratty character beats, and all of this is good.

The point of difficulty, for me, the point where I find myself getting really tangled up in the book, involves a cameo by the man who was President of the United States of America at the time the story was published:

Now this is a joke, and George W. Bush is the butt of it, but I can’t help but think that this moment draws attention to uneasy nature of The Ultimates‘ parodic elements.  “What if superheroes were jingoistic arseholes or unstable psychopaths or both?!!” wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fresh question when Millar and Hitch started working on this book, but scenes like this draw my eye to the book’s specific effects and textures.  Compared to something like Marshal Law or The Dark Knight Returns, there’s not much of the caricature in the visual language of The Ultimates.  That picture of Dubya is a bit broad and goonish, sure, but it’s also in keeping with the photo-referencing of Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury – a more tangibly realised bit of magic than anything Grant Morrison has managed; shame it didn’t work when you put Em and Halle in Wanted, eh Mark? – and the cute conversation about who would play whom in the movie adaptation.

There’s a sheen of Hollywood realism on the whole thing – these characters aren’t over the top symbols, their actions aren’t abstracted or instantly readable as being critiques of ideological positions or audience assumptions.

As a result, The Ultimates ends up demonstrating a superhero-specific version with Swafford’s paradox – the difficulty of critiquing something while also making it look REALLY FUCKING COOL.  Because sure, I laugh at that Bush scene, and I get that we’re laughing at how preposterous Captain America is when he does the big line to camera, but what am I really here for?

I’m here to see The Hulk take on Manhattan.  I’m here for the R&D Iron Man unleashing a thousand dork fantasies on the world. I’m here to see Captain America kick some arse. Reading this book, I know that I am living in the 21st Century full of tough arseholes making stupid decisions and for once I find myself thinking that it’s fucking awesome.

All of which means that reading The Ultimates makes me think like George W. Bush, if only for a little while.  It’s a strange feeling. I know that I don’t like it, but it’s the only thing that keeps me coming back…

***

THIS POST IS AN EDITED EXCERPT FROM MY CONTRIBUTION TO THE LONDON GRAPHIC NOVEL NETWORK DISCUSSION OF THE ULTIMATES.

RELATED: MARK MILLAR, “KILL EM ALL” 

9 Responses to “Flashback to… The Ultimates!”

  1. plok Says:

    Hey, that’s my line…!

    Coming, coming…

  2. plok Says:

    Yes, that Hitch artwork…when did I start to despise it as an enemy of civilization? Maybe it was just never as well suited to anything else. Hey, also: remember when people liked Alex Ross?

    HRM. Well maybe we can’t get or enjoy any supercomics in the modern age unless they make us feel a little dirty, maybe that’s the point now. Even acclaimed retro-fests, “funcomix” even, are just slightly soiled with our particular up-to-date fantasies of participation, nostalgia, love of ‘sploding, Screenwriting 101 fetishism, whatever…we know the “good” stuff isn’t the real stuff. Is it that our real identification characters are the authors, nowadays? “I’m shameless, Jim; let’s just go for a full-on ASS SHOT” — that’s better dialogue than anything Frank Miller actually had any character say in All-Star Batman, isn’t it? Drama!

    Pathos!

    Intention!

    I actually don’t think the joke is at Bush’s expense, really…I think that’s just the last page of Wanted again. Bush owns the joke: he’s stupid and juvenile and Captain America is his toy, his punchline, he is on his way to a party later and he fundamentally doesn’t give a shit. Comics are stupid kids and so are the people who like them: we snotty teens who are just learning to swear properly might drop in to check it out, but it’s probably stupid and gay and your Mom’s kind of a bitch and Santa isn’t real and when am I ever going to use math again, Dad, you hypocrite? Yeah, I’m here to see jarhead Cap kick Banner in the teeth after Hulk Did Manhattan…and is it wrong for me to like the way Millar wrote the Hulk’s dialogue as “psst everybody, secretly Banner is a serial killer in his heart”? I just wanted the spectacle, the circus, the maximum transgression. I wanted Ultimate Wanda to decide to fuck a robot because she’s just SICK INBRED EUROTRASH, because little teenage fucks, balloons slowly filling with testosterone, are totally okay with that, you retard, your music sucks, what a loser, etc. etc. So…Bush is the writer’s stand-in? Pretty directly?

    It’s really juvenile, and I guess that’s what makes it awesome. One reads so few comics that are truly juvenile, knowingly juvenile and proud of it and working really hard at it, not just warts and all but especially the warts, because in fact it may all be just warts. I can’t think of another piece of popular entertainment that ever convinced me it was remotely okay to live once again in that ignorant headspace once again, even for a little while…but the Ultimates, at least “Season One”, managed the trick.

    TO MY ETERNAL SHAME!

    “Whoa, Henry Pym’s gonna kill his wife, this comic’s awesome!!!

    It destabilizes commentary and analysis both. Read a bit farther in the Ultimates and it becomes grossly apparent that this comic doesn’t really have a point of view…it begins to suck, as soon as it tries to be any good. I’m here to hate all these characters, exactly as much as I can, in an eternal Act One. Felt ripped-off when I was asked to do anything else? Even to see Ultimate Cap beat up Ultimate Giant-Man for beating up Ultimate Wasp cheapened the cheapness for me, somewhat. I dunno, it was a weird book. It was like watching someone’s remake of Psycho, only starring Crispin Glover instead of Anthony Perkins, shot for shot but all rotoscoped or something, and in migrainous 3D. Actually the thing that looks the most like it nowadays (to my mind, anyway) is “Star Trek: 2009″, that sold itself as the Star Trek movie for the “good” fans, the “non-geeky” ones, but nevertheless included for your delectation and mine the scene where the Enterprise spreads her legs for the audience…

    Which, I promise you, happens.

    And not by accident.

  3. Illogical Volume Says:

    “One reads so few comics that are truly juvenile, knowingly juvenile and proud of it” – oh shit, that’s actually true, isn’t it?

    I’ve been passed a pleasantly crude, boyish comic for review purposes, didn’t know why such a straightforward thing felt so refreshing until I read your comment here!

    With regards to the Bush cameo, you’re totally right about it being the last page of Wanted but it’s also the cover of Private Eye or a million unfunny “humour” books that were sold in the mid-2000s. I recognise that composition and it’s every bit as much of its time as the militarised superhero set-up of The Ultimates, you know?

    As you say, this is Bush’s story and these are his toys, but in the context of its this scene is also something else: a joke so lacking in bite that it can’t take the edge off of the experience.

    Like I said on that London Graphic Novel Network thread, imagine if Kyle Baker had drawn the book. The action would still have been queasily thrilling (have you read Special Forces?) but it would also have undeniably been A HUMOUR BOOK. I would have had an easier time with it, basically, but why should I get off lightly?

    (QUIET DAVID)

    “Is it that our real identification characters are the authors, nowadays? “I’m shameless, Jim; let’s just go for a full-on ASS SHOT” — that’s better dialogue than anything Frank Miller actually had any character say in All-Star Batman, isn’t it? Drama!

    This is fucking excellent, there’s definitely something to it and it plays in weirdly to Morrison’s current multiversal method, where the audience identification character is an author who is locked into a cycle of confusion and distrust with that same audience.

    Or something, I dunno, I’m running on Thatcher levels of sleep right now so I’ll probably start blethering on about how we should privatise love in order to make it more efficient in a minute…

  4. plok Says:

    With regards to the Bush cameo, you’re totally right about it being the last page of Wanted but it’s also the cover of Private Eye or a million unfunny “humour” books that were sold in the mid-2000s. I recognise that composition and it’s every bit as much of its time as the militarised superhero set-up of The Ultimates, you know?

    Eep!

    I’d forgotten about all that!

    Just wiped it right out of my memory!

    Recalculating…

  5. plok Says:

    I had a thing on this, that yer modern superhero writer who is “cool” identifies much more with the villains, by a kind of Mary Sue logic — after all, who is it who knows all about the hero, is fascinated by the hero, seeks to explain the hero to him/herself, or rectify the hero and the hero’s world…wants to get right in there and participate, fix the fiction up into some better state? It’s the Mary Sue character (i.e. the enthusiastic author), but it can also be the Joker, or Lex Luthor, so maybe an enthusiastic author must always be tempted by the villain, want to validate the villain? In DKR, the Joker is so enormously activated by Batman, in a relationship with Batman like unto magnetism, that eventually I have to read the whole thing as a critique of how readers engage with their comics…and it’s maybe the only critique of this sort Frank ever offers, that just happens to stopped-clock-wise line up with my own feelings. Frank has all these ideas about what the heroes are and aren’t, can be and can’t be; he’s a meddler too, but the focus is that he wants to have “his” Batman, and he’ll deform many things around Batman to do so. Whereas with Millar, you’ve got someone who is just all about fucking with the hero in various ways, much more interested in inhabiting villainy than heroism…

    And therefore likes to toy with “the villains get smart” and stuff like that, I think because he himself would make a crap villain. In Batman Returns, he’d be Christopher Walken — he couldn’t survive, no matter how pragmatic he was: the egos running around are just moving too fast, and they have armour plating on them, and spikes. An average manipulative sociopath doesn’t stand a chance, with people like that! So if you’re not a person who’d tell Bond your whole plan then leave him alone in the death trap, then odds are someone like that has already killed you, in that sort of environment…

    BUT ANYWAY: yeah, the complicated author/reader/character thing, you put it much better than I did. And you know, it actually confused the shit out of me when Ultimates issues suddenly seemed to expect me to root for Captain America or something? Because I’m not reading the Ultimates for tales of heroism any more than I’m reading The Unfunnies for that. I was down with seeing this full auteurish presentation of “what if these famous good guys were all really bad, well here’s my version”…that was the frisson itself, that was the problematized feedback loop with author and actor and reader right there, but then suddenly I’m supposed to be on side with the derring-do, and…unlike Morrison, Millar isn’t good enough to fashion this metatextual midden of sarcastic snickering and then suddenly transform it all into something that makes me feel something despite expectations. Instead, suddenly the author I was following so avidly deserts me, craps out and fucks off, and then it’s merely a comic full of characters I don’t give a damn about…

    I dunno; maybe the GWB appearance was sexretly the best bit of all?

  6. plok Says:

    That should probably be “secretly”…don’t get the wrong idea about me and George…

  7. Illogical Volume Says:

    Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step to playing yourself like accordion…

  8. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » “Beard Prick” – Sleeping Dogs reviewed Says:

    [...] “One reads so few comics that are truly juvenile, knowingly juvenile and proud of it” - is that true? If not, why did it hit me with the force of a thousand failed understandings when my pal Plok said it, in relation to Millar/Hitch’s work on The Ultimates? [...]

  9. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Flashback to… Kevin O’Neill! Says:

    [...] See Alan Moore’s essay on comics’ pre-history in OCCUPY COMICS for a stealth argument that Mills and O’Neill’s style of comics is in keeping with the *true* spirit of comics past, the piss-take on the flip side of the monument, the sly dig on the side of the milk carton, etc.  See, also, the first volume of Hitch/Millar’s THE ULTIMATES for an example of how much more toxic this type of storytelling feels when presented with a sheen of Hollywood Realism – special guest star George Dubbya Bush! [...]

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