One of Comic-Con’s bigger announcements this year was that Warren Ellis will be taking over Astonishing X-Men after Joss Whedon’s run finishes. This got me looking at some of Ellis’ recent Marvel work. First up, his take on Galactus for the Ultimate universe.
|Ultimate Galactus Trilogy
By Warren Ellis and several artists
Marvel Comics – hardcover, $34.99
It was inevitable that a concept as enduring as Galactus would eventually make it to the Ultimate Universe, and the hardcover was released in time for the new movie. The screenwriters of Fantastic Four 2 clearly read this, as their approach to updating the story is similar and some of the dialogue, like Reed Richards’ retort that the sports jocks now ask him for help, is directly borrowed. Ultimate Galactus is the biggest event the Ultimate line had seen at the time, as every Ultimate franchise except Spider-Man is represented and the series introduces several characters to the Ultimate universe.
Warren Ellis has actually sort of redone the story before, in the “Outer Dark” storyline of The Authority, in which the “owners of the earth” are returning and send heralds to terraform the world back to their liking. That story takes a different direction than the original Galactus tale, what with the more proactive and interstellerly mobile Authority taking the fight to the entity and frying its brains. But the basic concept is essentially the same as the one that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put forth in the mid-60s: “What if a god came to earth and wanted to kill us all?”
At 15 issues, Ultimate Galactus Trilogy runs over five times the length of Fantastic Four #48-50’s original Galactus trilogy. Actually, it’s more than that, since the original “trilogy” is only two full issues: half of FF #48, all of #49 and half of #50, with the other halves of #48 and #50 featuring other stories, because that’s how Stan and Jack rolled. You just gotta love how the cover text on FF #50 follows “The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer!” with “At last! The Human Torch in College!”
This time, rather than three issues, the trilogy consists of three miniseries, each taking different narrative approaches and drawn by different artists. Ellis has the advantage of hindsight, knowing at the beginning how important Galactus – called “Gah Lak Tus” in this incarnation – is, allowing him to engineer 100 years of backstory into its “first” appearance, creating a greater sense of anticipation than was possible in the short span of the original story.
The first series, Ultimate Nightmare, is aptly titled, as it takes the form of a horror book, steeped in darkness, monsters jumping from the shadows, and Japanese horror imagery reminiscent of films like The Ring and Suicide Club. Most of the story takes place in a dark bunker in the middle of nowhere in Russia, as separate teams of X-Men and Ultimates, in classic horror movie fashion, head deeper and deeper toward something that crashed there in 1904. Trevor Hairsine’s art (with a fill-in chapter by Steve Epting) is appropriately moody, with plenty of blacks making it shadowy and claustrophobic. In all the darkness, it could be hard to tell when the scene cuts from one team to the next, but the coloring cleverly keeps them distinct. The Ultimates are illuminated in electric greens, while the X-Men are rendered in the orange of Wolverine’s torch and Jean Grey’s telekinetic powers.
The arrival of the Vision, a robot warning of Gah Lak Tus, in Russia makes the world a bigger place than many New York-centric movies and comics, and allows Ellis to run with the wholly different circumstances the Vision faces when landing in an agrarian society not equipped to deal with it. It turns out that it has spent 100 years being harvested for parts to graft to Russian super-soldiers, a payoff to Ellis’ earlier setup of the jerry-rigged nature of Russian technology. The Vision’s world-wide broadcast warning of Gah Lak Tus’ arrival occurred only after it had sufficient time to rebuild its communications hardware, a necessary detail in selling the fact that it’s been there for 100 years, but the story begins today.
The only serious mis-step is that, while the X-Men’s presence in the first act explains their necessary involvement in the third act, it feels arbitrary here. They’re only present because they’ve inexplicably mistaken the Vision for a mutant and, as another character even points out, didn’t even think to check the television or anywhere else to see if there was any more information. Their inclusion here could have felt much more organic.
Part two, Ultimate Secret, is the the shortest and fastest paced of the three minis. It’s the big action segment, with the most superhero fights, explosions and witty one-liners. The first half is pencilled by Steve McNiven and the second by Tom Raney, who each excel in the flying, punching, blowing-stuff-up milieu. Both provide art that is more open than in Nightmare and the colors are appropriately bright. Unfortunately, while both artists complement the material, the change is jarring, especially since the styles are so different (Epting’s fill-in on Nightmare is less noticeable, possibly because that story is so dark that is obscures many of the differences).
As a fan of Ellis’s run on Ultimate Fantastic Four, I was excited to see more of his take on the characters and he mostly doesn’t disappoint. Sue and Reed make a great geek couple, although their flirtiness and inability to keep their hands off each other in public doesn’t quite match with the rest of their, particularly Reed’s, nerd portrayal. It’s a fairly minor complaint, though, and Ellis has a great feel for the whole group and does a convincing job of making them sound like teenagers, especially Ben and Johnny. The dynamic that the two develop with Thor is hilarious.
There’s also great chemistry between Reed and Tony Stark, the boy genius and the inventor who’s already made it. When they plan together, you feel their excitement, and nobody writes science types thrilled with their scientific knowledge and scientific plans like Ellis.
Ultimate Extinction is where Ellis takes the most liberties with the original story, revealing the true nature of Gah Lak Tus. This time around, it’s a hive-mind, composed of hundreds of thousands of component robots, not unlike the outer space threat from Ellis’ Justice League Unlimited episode, “Dark Heart,” but much bigger in scale.
The change doesn’t bother me, and creates a more interesting visual than cloud Galactus in Fantastic Four 2 (although I liked to imagine that the cloud was simply the movie version of the original Galactus’ spherical space vessel and that he was inside it in all his giant purple glory). It’s a typically Ellis touch, but someone with a voice and interests as distinct as Ellis’ is hired to bring that voice and those interests. Furthermore, the Ultimate universe’s purpose is to re-envision Marvel characters with a modern spin and it seems unlikely to me that Galactus would really be a giant man if he were first introduced today.
What does strike me as an unnecessary flourish is the addition of a new motivation for Gah Lak Tus, its hatred of organic life. Since its old motivation of using planets for sustenance still stands, adding another motivation on top of that detracts from the compelling simplicity of fighting an emotionless force of nature.
Continuing the use of different genres in each series, Extinction is the race-against-the-clock, thriller part of the trilogy, the one with the most time on the street and in science labs and meeting rooms, and by far the one with the most gunplay. Brandon Peterson’s art is a good fit, depicting everything realistically, with plenty of shadows and enough variety of cinematic angles to keep multiple scenes of people talking across tables visually interesting.
Extinction is where presenting the whole thing as a separate event from any one of the Ultimate universe series pays off. If Galactus had first been introduced today, it would have been a comparable event in the main Marvel universe and he would have faced opposition from more than just the Fantastic Four. All of the Ultimate universe superteams set about stopping him in different ways and it is a combination of their plans that eventually succeeds.
However, after all the buildup, Gah Lak Tus is dispatched a bit too easily. The plan to stop it and its defeat happen in the span of one chapter and it never even makes it to earth, instead getting shot with what is essentially a giant gun while still in orbit. While this is perhaps more realistic, it loses the dramatic payoff of Fantastic Four #49 and 50, in which the team has to come to grips with a foe that actively treats them as beneath notice. Professor Xavier’s brief psychic contact with Gah Lak Tus and the revelation that it hates living things is a poor substitute.
The hardcover also includes a short story written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita Jr., reprinted from Ultimate Vision #0. It takes the form of an expositional monologue from the Vision, which seems to be meant to fill in backstory, but actually achieves little more than illustrating what we already know. The chapter also features the Vision suddenly being able to completely repair itself and, for no apparent reason, rebuilding itself as a female robot with metallic DDs. The story appears between Secret and Extinction, and is wholly skippable, despite very pretty art. One might wonder why the Vision is suddenly female in Extinction if they missed Ultimate Vision, but having read it doesn’t really explain that, either.
As a complete package, the story is a mixed bag. It’s filled with good ideas and themes, but several of them are explored with greater passion in Ellis’ more personal work. The buildup does an excellent job of creating the scale and event-feeling that Gah Lak Tus’ first arrival on earth should have, but the characters are moved around a bit too haphazardly, like they’re putting in an appearance more than that they’re truly necessary to the scene, as in the X-Men’s inclusion in Nightmare. Secret is probably the most fun, with Ellis doing his widescreen thing, the humor that he did so well in Ultimate Fantastic Four and his obvious love for the space travel material. Nightmare is atmospheric and includes a great Captain America story, pitting him against a Russian counterpart who has waited decades to face him. Extinction seems more half-hearted, with obligatory new character introductions and a science-heavy victory from a distance.
Overall, I got some fun out of the new take on Galactus, but I couldn’t recommend it at its $35 pricetag. If you can get it from the library like I did, it’s worth a read.