Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s The Ultimates #3. Written by Al Ewing (New Avengers, Loki: Agent Of Asgard) with art by Kenneth Rocafort (Teen Titans, Superman) and colorist Dan Brown (Teen Titans, Moon Knight), this issue shows why Ewing has become Marvel’s most reliable Avengers writer. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
While Jonathan Hickman held the reins of the two main Avengers titles for the past three years, Al Ewing was quietly doing exceptional work on The Mighty Avengers and its continuation Captain America And The Mighty Avengers, creating consistently entertaining stories featuring a team primarily composed of superheroes of color. Ewing’s Mighty Avengers reflected the diversity of the community they protected, and the writer positioned the team as the people’s heroes, building a street-level Avengers network that allowed them to solve problems on a more local scale than Hickman’s sprawling team, which dealt with issues on an international, intergalactic, and interdimensional scale.
The strength of his Mighty Avengers run made Ewing a natural choice to replace Hickman as the head writer of Marvel’s flagship superhero team, and Ewing has taken on two new Avengers series for the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” relaunch: New Avengers, which builds on the work done with formerly evil organization A.I.M. in Hickman’s run, and The Ultimates, which offers a fresh take on a title that used to spotlight the superteam of the now-defunct Ultimate Universe. Both teams feature a mix of characters from Mighty Avengers, Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers. Ewing blends the strongest elements of those respective series to make his two titles feel like the next stage in an Avengers evolution that began with the first Marvel Now! initiative.
Titles have power, and it’s telling that Ewing’s Mighty Avengers was the book that became The Ultimates, a name that denotes an elevated authority for these characters. For most of The Ultimates’ history, the team has been composed of the heaviest hitters in the Ultimate Universe (until All-New Ultimates, where “Ultimate” meant they were the last heroes standing), and Ewing has assembled a team of incredibly powerful characters for his Ultimates revival, none of whom are white men. There’s King T’Challa the Black Panther, ruler of the hyper-advanced African nation of Wakanda; Dr. Adam “The Blue Marvel” Brashear, a super-scientist living antimatter reactor who served as one of the Marvel Universe’s first black superheroes; America “Ms. America” Chavez, a queer Latina interdimensional teleporter/ass-kicker; Monica “Spectrum” Rambeau, a black woman who can harness the full power of the electromagnetic spectrum; and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers, who is now in charge of Alpha Flight, Earth’s main line of defense against interplanetary threats.
The Ultimates may not have Avengers in its name, but it’s always been an Avengers book, so much so that the original volume by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch set the template for The Avengers movie. Over time, the Ultimate line dwindled in popularity and Marvel struggled to keep sales up for books that weren’t Ultimate Spider-Man, resulting in the discontinuation of the Ultimate line and destruction of the Ultimate Universe with last year’s Secret Wars event. That allows Ewing to completely reimagine the concept of The Ultimates, and his new angle brings these heroes together as the ultimate team to stop the ultimate problems plaguing the Marvel Universe. It’s all very grandiose, but Ewing, artist Kenneth Rocafort, and colorist Dan Brown are matching the scope of that tagline with their work on this series.
The new creative team set the bar high with its first two issues, introducing the Ultimates by pitting them against Galactus, the world-eater that has been a constant threat in Marvel Comics for nearly 50 years. Rather than trying to destroy Galactus, the Ultimates find a way to transform him, retrieving the incubator that Galactus emerged from after the Big Bang and sending him back inside it to finish the growth that was interrupted millennia ago. When Galactus emerges, he is no longer a world-eater, but a life-giver, and his first act as a benevolent deity is restoring the first planet he destroyed. That all happens in two densely packed issues, but Ewing keeps the pace moving quickly and smoothly while incorporating smaller character moments that provide a more personal perspective of the sweeping changes.
The Ultimates #3 finds the team dealing with the ramifications of its Galactus mission when it comes under fire for taking a unilateral action with universal significance, but there’s no time for them to pause their problem solving. Time is actually the problem at hand, and the Ultimates’ new undertaking addresses one of the big subplots running through Marvel comics over the past three years: the broken timeline. As Dr. Brashear summarizes in this issue, the timeline of the Marvel Universe has been severely abused for years, and the Ultimates have to travel outside the space-time continuum in order to assess and repair the damage. By the end of the issue, the team makes the journey outside time with the help of the new Giant-Man, Raz Malhotra (another hero of color), and after three years of shattered timeline stories, it’s refreshing to see Ewing rush to fix the problem.
Ewing is thinking big on The Ultimates, and the art team realizes these big ideas with an appropriately high level of energy and spectacle. Kenneth Rocafort has spent the last few years working on underwhelming DC Comics titles like Red Hood And The Outlaws, Superman, and Teen Titans, delivering visuals that were far stronger than the stories they were depicting. With Ewing, he’s finally found a collaborator who can push him. The Ultimates #3 begins on the surface of an alien planet as a trio of Shi’ar Imperial Guard members investigate Galactus’ recent gift of life, a scene that spotlights Rocafort’s lushly detailed environments and Dan Brown’s vibrant color palette, which heightens the fantasy with bold shades of pink, orange, and green. The pink “mind-sight” projection that beams from Oracle’s mind could have just been a plain ray of light, but Rocafort adds intricate patterns within the projection, creating a sense of motion as Oracle pieces together the psychic impressions she’s pulling from the planet into one visual.
Panels surrounded by ornamental geometric details have become a signature element of Rocafort’s aesthetic, and Brown takes advantage of these flourishes to bring extra color to the page and accent certain moments. When Oracle projects a huge image of Galactus, pink and teal bars attached to the preceding panel are layered to create lightning bolt shapes, providing the illusion of energy emanating from the giant pink Galactus. These unconventional design elements make it easy to identify Rocafort’s work, and while they may seem extraneous, they play a significant part in the visual storytelling, especially when combined with Rocafort’s dynamic layouts.
The two-page spread showing the Ultimates crashing through America’s star-portal into the time-displaced Neutral Zone is a prime example of how those visual elements combine to create kinetic images. The team is flying toward the reader, and Rocafort intensifies the force of this action by laying out the three panels on the right in a 3-D space. The spread gives the impression that those three panels are shooting out from the larger image, particularly with how the center panel overlaps with the bottom panel, and the geometric shapes sprinkled in the white space underneath add visual chaos that reflects the team’s bumpy trip.
The big hook of Mighty Avengers was that it was a superhero team driven by heroes of color. While it would have been nice to see a writer of color telling these stories, Ewing justified earning the assignment with the strength of his stories. He didn’t spend much time addressing race issues, choosing instead to tell fun, character-driven narratives powered by the idea that anyone can be a hero because heroes are simply people that care about the community around them and want to make it better. While the end of Hickman’s Avengers epic was cold and abrupt, Captain America And The Mighty Avengers concluded with a heartwarming story about finding individual strength and fighting until the very end, and those ideas are still in play in The Ultimates even though the action is now unfolding on a cosmic scale.