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Ultramega is too busy sidelining its female characters to deliver on kaiju promises

<i>Ultramega</i> is too busy sidelining its female characters to deliver on kaiju promises
Image: James Harren
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There are specific challenges and pitfalls that every type of creative project faces, but the first issues of new original comic series carry a particularly heavy load. World-building and character introductions can be tough to perfect in such a short format, not to mention the delicate balance that must be struck between exposition and art. Ultramega #1 deals with some of this challenge by doing away with the short format entirely, tripling the average comic book length to 66 total pages, buying creator James Harren more breathing room.

Unfortunately, this is also where it starts to stumble. Ultramega is the story of a man tasked with fighting giant monsters using mysterious powers he believes to have been gifted to him by aliens. The first half is extremely text-heavy, which is a shame, because Harren’s art could have shown readers a lot without explicitly telling them anything. The imagery throughout this triple-sized issue is detailed and immersive, and elevated even further by Dave Stewart’s colors, particularly his intentional and measured use of saturated reds and neons. The story relies on common enough tropes, such that readers should’ve been trusted to see the shape of the story without being handheld through the process. At the core of this story is a man exhausted by his obligation to fight monsters, a familiar premise that can easily be made compelling. There are echos of Green Lantern and Shazam origin stories in how protagonist Jason acquires his powers. The tone is similar to Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, and one can see the influence that Ultraman had on Ultramega, as well as several panels that evoke the specter of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

But an unnecessary amount of text isn’t the only hurdle that Harren fails to clear. Jason is flanked by two other warriors in what feels like a blatant reference to the mother, maiden, and crone triunity: The grizzled Ern and young Stephen are both male and bear enough of a resemblance to Jason to simply be the same character at different life stages. That could be interesting imagery, if it weren’t for the fact that this co-opting of explicitly female symbolism takes place in a book where the only female characters are all dead or monstrous, and exclusively defined by motherhood. That’s not to say that Jason himself doesn’t suffer; his battle wounds and emotional trauma are very clear throughout the issue. But there are only two female characters in the whole book, both of them linked to Jason by their ability to bear him a child, and both of them used solely for his character development. While both women are subjected to violence in order to advance Jason’s tale, one of them is actually fridged, dying for Jason’s story and his son. The fact that both are given Old Testament names with very clear undertones about their value adds insult to injury instead of layering symbolism.

The final handful of pages reveal that subsequent issues will likely be going in a very different direction, and that could save Ultramega from itself and its own backstory. But without any exploration of where the giant monsters come from and how Jason got his powers, calling this book a kaiju story feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre and its roots. Harren spends far too much time and effort on developing a man’s pain by torturing the women around him, instead of exploring the rich tropes and possibilities that come with giant monster stories.