The Ultimates, Al Ewing’s Masterful Cosmic Opus, Sends Out The Call To Comics’ Future

by Noah Sharma

After twenty-two issues over two series, The Ultimates finally comes to an end this week. Originally pitched as a proactive superhero team tackling cosmic level threats before they became ‘cosmic level threats’, Ultimates was a book unlike any other the Big Two are producing right now and one of the only ones that truly made me feel as though “Secret Wars” had a positive, lasting impact on the Marvel Universe.

With the clarity of the end upon us, it’s clear that the entirety of Al Ewing’s run on this book was one story. However, it is a single unit the same way that a line of knitted yarn is a single unit. Especially in its confusingly numbered final issue, The Ultimates is positively exploding with threads and concepts that mirror, shadow, and double back upon themselves and their siblings.

Ultimates2 #9 did an impressive job of transitioning from a “Secret Empire” tie-in to this final issue, refocusing the story on the Eternity War and setting up a satisfying arc for the series as a whole. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that Ultimates2 #100 swerves away from the obvious resolution its predecessor laid out for it, offering a climax that is equally satisfying but wildly different and incredibly expansive.

As it has ever been, Ultimates2 remains a thorough examination of superhero storytelling, a brutal critique of current politics, a refutation of cynicism, a creation myth, and a personal message from its creators all at once. To say that any one exists in service to another for more than a moment is contrary to the very point of the story, as Ewing establishes the First Firmament as not merely an inherently horrifying and compelling cosmic enemy, but a primal elemental of fascist thinking, a being driven and undone by its mistaken understanding that anything meaningful is merely one thing.

The political undercurrents, crystal clear yet powerfully subtle since this second season began, resolve beautifully and with explicit attention. This is a story about how, whether order is using chaos or chaos is using order, neither is better than the other and how both possibilities, or either, are not only less frightening than the danger of things happening because they happen, but frequently symptoms of that tautology.

The ‘political’ thinking can also be quite fun. Ewing takes the Ultimate Universe to task, stripping away the air of respectability of its ‘grown up’ takes on Marvel’s classics, but leaves the respect that those comics earned on the page alongside a bit of the naughty fun of acknowledging the mainline Marvel’s demons.

The original Ultimates (the Ultimate universe Ultimates, but not the Ultimate Ultimates… Ewing is clearly having fun with us at this point) are caricatures of their mainline counterparts and almost of themselves and that lets them feel fun and intense even in the relatively short time they have to play their part. However, though it would have been easy to use this collection of some of Ultimate Marvel’s least likable heroes as moralistically villainous cannon-fodder, we are reminded that they remain flawed heroes, as the prime Earth’s protectors are, and that to diminish them to their worst in the name of what is iconic is villainous and weak.

That said, it’s still incredibly satisfying to watch Adam Brashear, a black widower who lived through the Civil Rights Movement, just deck ‘ethics in gamma radiation’ Hulk.

It helps that Ewing doesn’t talk down to his readers. As lofty as his ideas may be, Ultimates2 #100 not only assumes that the reader is smart enough to discover and explore its vagaries but gives them all they require to understand those allegories necessary to comprehend its literal plot. And though there is much to uncover and ponder and theorize, Ultimates2 #100’s construction holds true to its thematic principles and never limits. This is not a text from some gnostic cult of nerdhood, meant to be studied and secreted away and used to create hierarchies, but a springboard for fans, creators, and creator/fans to build upon.

And so Ewing himself is also subject to the power and responsibility of his metaphors, called upon to the same degree that he calls upon us to see and improve these shared legendaria. It’s hard not to see the Queen of Never’s role as a rebuttal to those supporters of the status quo, who selectively enforce the suspension of disbelief only when it doesn’t cater to them, and/or an attempt to reframe that endless debate positively. And tying into “Secret Empire” isn’t difficult when you’re already writing a story about the dangers of monopolistic control and subverted systems, but Ewing still demonstrates his skills, and seemingly character, by using this series to validate “Secret Empire” despite Ultimates2 objectively being a larger and more significant event to the Marvel Universe.

Indeed, with all of the endless humility it requires, Ewing makes an earnest attempt to step into the shadow of Jack Kirby and bring all of that vision, intensity, and wonder back to Marvel, playing with and calling upon many of the King’s creations and trademarks as he does. The simplistic beauty of the “Ultimate Ultimate’s” mythology, delivered in that most treasured and disdained of comic mechanisms: the introdump, is truly incredible. Paying homage to Kirby’s work and unknown numbers of brilliant creators who followed after him, Ewing positively fills his twin pages with love for Marvel and the comics industry.

SPOILERS: READ CAPTIONS AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION

The mere existence of the Fourth Cosmos, lost and yet achingly familiar, is one of the most efficient bits of classic comics storytelling I’ve seen in years. There are literally three sentences in existence that make up the published totality of this character, and yet they easily stop me in my tracks more than nearly anything else in this issue and far easier than most full pitches for comic books.

And even as the story reaches back to the first moments of the Marvel MultiOmniverse, it’s almost more impressive to find throughlines all the way back to Mighty Avengers. From Blue Marvel’s loneliness to the White Tiger’s compact, seeing plots that have been brewing since about this time in 2013 come to fruition, if not absolute completion, gives this book a sense of scope that even Eternity and the Lifebringer cannot match.

Though I’ve already used the word, there may be no better descriptor for Ultimates2 #100 than “expansive”. From the beginning of time to eternity, from an Earth as close to ours as a microsecond is long to the outside of everything, from “Infinity” to “Secret Empire”, from a battle against the Maker to a collaboration between Avengers from two different worlds, from a war between cosmic powers and humble monarchs to a murder turned family reunion, Ultimates seems to expand exponentially, expanding its scope, its dreams, its optimism, until it’s astonishing that this could be a single plot of a single issue of a single series.

Unlike classic storytelling, Ultimates’ ending is not about tying up loose ends. It’s about creating them. It does not draw its plots together to reveal how they are connected but encourages them to grow outwards in the same direction.

With such philosophical and creative density, one might expect that characterization suffers and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Certainly there is not a great deal of character exploration in this issue. For some, I concede, it might go so far as to feel dispassionate, but, personally, I disagree. For me, Ewing and his artists provide just enough quick, sincere character moments to keep this decidedly macro-level adventure connected to the real and the immediate.

Travel Foreman and Dan Brown are an incredible team and it shows most clearly when depicting the highest echelons of the Marvel cosmology. From the haunting stillness of the warring multiverses to the striking mixture of Foreman’s perfect papercut lines, Brown’s soft blending, and the high contrast of the empty background found in their panels of Galactus, the Eternity War is a sight to behold. There are many different aesthetics coexisting side by side and its not always clear which pages or even which parts of pages were drawn by which artist, but Foreman, Brown, Matt Yackey, and Filipe Andrade make it all read effortlessly.

It seems like Andrade handles more, perhaps all, of the Counter-Earth scenes. As is his style, many characters walk the line between attractively fluid and unsettlingly smooth. The characters who go the other way and are etched deep with fine line and inkwork look much better, making 1610 Tony Stark a lovely addition to the book.

And just as important as the sheer beauty and range of the art is how its presented. The use of negative space throughout the issue is wonderful and the way that small and slender panels are utilized give a very distinctive feel to the issue. One of the book’s only traditional fight scenes is largely compressed down into the space of a single ‘normal’ panel, but retains all of its punch. It’s especially funny as it immediately precedes Giant-Man getting in on the action.

And, once we start getting abstract with the content, form follows function. All of a sudden rectangular panels start becoming circular and those straight boarders that remain give up on being level. The appearance of the Queen of Nevers, in particular, is a fantastic example of how clever and visually interesting this issue can be and what follows after is just one of many incredible double page spreads this issue contains.

Though Foreman and Andrade’s contributions flow together almost seamlessly, the three pages by Marco Lorenzana and Scott Hanna at the issue’s end are certainly a bit of a visual speedbump. The change in aesthetic is severe, not only from this issue’s look but the entire run’s, and the quality of the art, while in no way lacking, doesn’t hold up to the rest of the issue. Still, at least the point of transition is natural and the art is charming. Odd a statement as it is to write, Galactus’ smile is almost enough to justify the entire interlude.

Ultimates2 #100 is a wild ride that brings one of Marvel’s most monumental and masterful series of recent years to a fitting end. Though the enormity of the scope and cast doesn’t allow for a real goodbye to Spectrum or the Troubleshooters, the book is threaded through with appreciation for these characters and their universe. Indeed, a big part of what makes Ultimates2 #100 work is its tone of optimism, humility, and warmth.

Ultimates has no ego. It doesn’t lord its knowledge or complexity over its readers, but rather tries to create something new and wonderful and innocent for them. It breaks down the Marvel comic, the mad creative one-shot from their halcyon days and the precisely written trade in the making of the modern day alike, and reconstructs them as a single entity. I can honestly say that The Ultimates easily stands alongside the work of legends like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis, delving the same depths but rejecting some of their singular, iconic luster in favor of a series that celebrates and supports its place as part of the larger Marvel Universe.

With the conclusion of The Ultimates, Al Ewing puts behind him a collaboration with some of the most mindblowing artists in comics and a cycle of stories that beautifully interrogate what it means to be a hero, how to challenge the status quo, and how we define power. As this phase of his career comes to a close, Ewing crowns it with a series that truly dreams as big as it gets. Ewing and his artists eagerly step into the line of Kirby and Starlin and Simonson and all those who expanded our understanding of ourselves and our universe through stories of swashbuckling heroines and men in spandex. And on the page–where nothing dies–they turn to us, those who will carry these stories and this universe in our hearts and minds, and raise their voices. And the call goes forth…

It is up to us to unchain Eternity.