Rumor has it that this is the beginning of the end of Marvel’s Ultimate line, and perhaps I’m just not looking in the right places, but I don’t see many pundits or fans being too broken up about this. But then, I think that any fan or even casual reader of Ultimate Comics knows that it’s a place where change can happen, drastic change, where Peter Parker or Wolverine can be permanently killed, Reed Richards can become the bad guy, or America can divide and go to war with itself. So if the dying line needs to go out, it should go out big, and in all the Marvel Universes it doesn’t get much bigger than Galactus.
With the end of Age of Ultron last month, realities are collapsing, the fabric of time and space is tearing, and a cosmic entity like the 616 Galactus is going to sense that and exploit it. As the cover of the book gives away, Galactus enters into the Ultimate Universe, prying open a tear between dimensions, crawling out of the void like Bugs Bunny out of a rabbit hole. Lest we forget that the Ultimate Universe already have a planet eater in the hive-like Gah Lak Tus swarm (see also Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer… on second thought, don’t), they arrive, in the midst of a Chitauri/Kree war, to greet (or rather, attempt to consume) the other-dimensional interloper and the encounter is unfortunately (yet appropriately) brief.
These events are all born witness through the eyes of Rick Jones, bearer of the power cosmic and champion of all creation (at least all creation of the Ultimates Universe, and not so much the champion of Gah Lak Tus, so perhaps not “all”). Rick has been exploring the depths of Ultimate space but himself hungers for the fast food of Earth (although he no longer needs to eat). Beyond the fact that Rick Jones has taken on numerous guises in Marvels’ past, it’s curious that an exceptionally average guy like him is given the power and position he does, but it obviously serves the crucial “everyman” point of view for this cosmic-scale tale.
At this stage, Hunger is all promise, and potentially all premise without payoff, as announcements and promotional images have come out of San Diego for the follow-up series Cataclysm by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley showing Galactus facing off against the Ultimates. This, I would wager, means Galactus will only be reaching Earth on the final pages of this series, so the interim will be mostly space-bound, as whatever cosmic heroes the Ultimate Universe has will be endeavoring stop him from devouring it in its entirety.
Being a sporadic reader of the Ultimate line (and Marvel in general over the years), I can’t say how much of the Ultimate Cosmos has been explored previously, so this presents an interesting Annihilation-like opportunity to do so, if on a somewhat less grandiose scale with only a four-issue run.
Joshua Hale Fialkov delivers an occasionally amusing but otherwise largely serviceable script. Centering on a quippy Rick Jones keeps the perception of events rather small and light, containing them to a degree, but it’s also a bit average as a result. I imagine Rick Jones becomes more of a necessity for the story in coming issues, during which it would be nice to explore his year’s worth of isolation and what psychological impact that has had on him beyond just hungering for greasy burgers (as well exploring his relationship with the Ultimate Watcher who seems to push him around a bit).
I’ve followed a lot of what artist Leonard Kirk has done over the past decade and I believe this is the first cosmic-level book I’ve seen him do. He’s coming off his series-closing run on X-Factor, where his Terry Dodson-lite style worked exceptionally well with the interpersonal conflict and character-driven stories. Here, he strives to hit that epic scale, but it’s often just beyond his grasp. There’s three different two-page spreads, but oddly not for the arrivals of Gah Lak Tus or Galactus. That seems like a missed opportunity for some real awe, but what he does in the smaller panels for their arrivals is quite good . His space battles are serviceable, but Kirk has never been an intricate illustrator, so they suffer in lacking inspired details to draw the eyes around the page, particularly when it’s a big double-page spread. Colorist Jesus Aburtov recovers some of what Kirk’s style is missing through vibrant tones, rendering a radiant yellow sun for Gah Lak Tus to eat, some grand-scale explosions and not at all being afraid of purple.
Hunger hits just shy of the scale it should be operating at, but it’s not completely out of reach. With a book featuring not one but two world-devourers, there’s plenty of potential left.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
There’s inevitably an upper limit on how just good these inter-company licensed character crossovers can be. To his credit, Mark Waid (currently writer of record on IDW’s Rocketeer books) makes the “heroes-meet-misunderstand-fight-reconcile-join forces” trope go down smoothly here. He knows how to pair off the franchise dramatis personae: Cliff Secord / Denny Colt, Peevy / Dolan, Betty / Ellen. Some of the sparks that fly are predictable (that Betty would find herself in The Spirit’s arms, to Cliff and Ellen’s slow-burn outrage, was pretty much inevitable), but he also takes enough license to forge unexpected relationships, too. The dialog is appropriately cute and quippy, and the Spirit-Rocketeer aerial fistfight is a terrific action sequence.
Waid, however, is denied a crucial part of the crossover toolkit: the pleasure of seeing selected members of the heroes’ respective rogues galleries joining forces to bedevil them. Neither of these characters have ever been particularly strong in that department: The Rocketeer’s most notable conflicts came not with his relatively faceless Nazi baddies, but with the thinly-disguised pulp heroes he encountered (Doc Savage and The Shadow), who regarded him as an interfering nuisance before finally accepting that he did more good than harm; and while we are treated to a single panel of the gloved hand of The Spirit’s longtime foe The Octopus, that character was never more than a plot device for Will Eisner, and I doubt any reader of this comic will have the same frisson of anticipation that we feel when a hero from another universe might have to go up against, say, The Joker or Dr. Doom. Of course, the Spirit did have a great gallery of femmes fatale, and it seems likely that we’ll see at least one of them cozying up to Cliff before things are through, but otherwise the lack of a fan-favorite baddie does take some of the edge off our enjoyment.
The fact that the book’s script pays off with modest satisfaction isn’t surprising; what’s maybe mildly disappointing is that one can say the same thing about Paul Smith’s art. Granted, Smith (who did a run on DC’s Spirit monthly a while back) faced a helluva challenge: Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer was like a lush, Cinemascope reimagining of the frenetic energy of a Golden Age comic, while at its best (in its post-WWII incarnation), The Spirit gave Eisner and his stable of collaborators the chance to explore, and explode, the storytelling methods of sequential art. Trying to find a middle ground between the two was probably impossible (what would that even be: “progressive retro“? “ground-breaking nostalgia“?), and what Smith provides here is lovingly illustrated, comfortably laid out, with some vintage Golden Age paneling tricks and fine facial work. He’s not obsessed with period detail, but what he chooses to include, he nails, helped by Jordie Bellaire’s muted color pallette. Honestly, it might be the prettiest comic I’ve read this week. It’s just that, representing the heritage of two of the most influential comics of their respective days, it feels a bit safe.
That’s also the biggest drawback to the overall impact of the comic: there was always a dark core at the center of both of these strips, whether it was the sexual frustration at the heart of Cliff’s relationship with the often downright unpleasant Betty, or the Spirit’s frequent appearance in his own comic as a supporting player in stories of human weakness and folly that came right out of Saki, or an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And given the inevitable need to streamline both characters for casual enjoyment, as well as the restrictions inherent in this kind of licensing, Waid and Smith can barely hint at the darker elements that kept these characters memorable, despite the passage of decades (in the case of The Spirit), or the tragically small output of Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens. What Waid and Smith might have come up with on their own, not shackled by the realities of corporate entanglement, is left just an enticing tease.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Comics are a little schizophrenic these days on the subject of gender politics, to say the least. It’s hardly news to anyone who’s been paying attention that a lot of mainstream comics, particularly those at the Big Two superhero publishers, have been, shall we say, problematic when it comes to portrayal of women, frequently reducing their female characters to passive sex objects. But at the same time, indie comics have seen an explosion of female creators in the last decade, particularly online, and with that has come a much more mature treatment of gender roles and feminism. It’s a little head-spinning to see the divide between the two, but there’s been little to bridge the gap on this issue. While we still do get the occasional attempt to create strong female characters (or more often, Strong Female Characters) in the superhero world, it’s fairly rare to see a mainstream comic address the problem at all.
Princeless was, and is, a book aimed at changing that. The story of a princess in an unnamed fantasy kingdom who rescued herself from her tower, hijacked her guardian dragon, and set off on a quest to save her sisters before some boring old prince could do it, the book took an explicitly feminist perspective on both the fairy tales it was parodying and comics in general. As such, it was both a breath of fresh air and perhaps a *little* too strident at times—among other things, its broadsides at the “princess culture” of Disney-style fairy tales, while well-earned, weren’t so much shooting fish in a barrel as they were firing an RPG at a sardine in a coffee mug. Still, the results were funny, and this is a kid’s comic, after all. Slightly more off-putting was its consistent portrayal of all its male characters (with one exception) as chauvinist a-holes, including both the protagonists’ own fathers. Hey, I’m the first to admit men can be scumbags, but there’s such a thing as nuanced characterization. (And it’s worth noting that Princeless is written by a man, Jeremy Whitley; I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of sweeping condemnation of men in a comic written by a woman. It’s the dudes who are hard on themselves in this regard, I guess.)
Fortunately, the second trade paperback collection, Get Over Yourself, takes a more complex view of things, while keeping the energy and fun of the first volume. Our heroine Adrienne has come to where the first of her sisters, Angelica, supposedly the most beautiful princess in the kingdom, is being kept. But her rescue hits a snag: seems like Angelica is perfectly happy where she is, and Adrienne’s arrival creates problems where there seemingly weren’t any before. Meanwhile, their father King Ashe has sent out a troop of manhunters to look for Adrienne, mistakenly believing (thanks to her new-minted armour) that she’s an evil knight who killed Adrienne. Ashe himself also finds himself confronting hostile factions within his kingdom while pursuing the mystery of his old companion, the Black Knight.
If the message of Princeless volume 1 was laudable but simplistic, here the themes become a lot more interesting. Now that Adrienne’s established that there’s a gender imbalance and has put herself on the road to self-actualization, she finds herself confronting the much thornier reasons why these kinds of disparities exist, and discovering that the solutions tend to be a lot less clear-cut than she might have thought. It looks as though Whitley plans to use Adrienne’s various sisters as symbols of the various ways society undermines women, or how women can undermine themselves; in Angelica’s case, it’s equating a woman’s worth with her appearance. Likewise, the knights on Adrienne’s tail—who seem to be a mix of goodies and baddies—seem to represent the various ways men relate to women; there’s a boorish thug, a medieval pick-up artist, a “white knight”, and so on. This adds a much richer subtext and makes for a much more intriguing story for an adult reader.
But I’m making it sound like some dry gender studies textbook, when in fact Princeless is a genuine romp with tons of appeal to all ages. New artist Emily Martin has a somewhat manga-influenced style, as opposed to the cartoonier work of the first volume’s “M. Goodwin” (GENDER UNCLEAR), but it maintains the antic feel of a sort of punk-rock Disney film. The humour is, if anything, even funnier this time around (Adrienne’s half-dwarf sidekick Bedelia sprouting a mustache overnight cracked me right up) and it climaxes in a legitimately good action sequence with a clever denouement. Even as we’re seeing Adrienne has her personality flaws, we’re also seeing her come into her own as a real hero.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars