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…




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