Ultimate Annuals volume 1

By Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn, Brian Michael Bendis, Jae Lee, Tom Raney, Mark Brooks, Jaime Mendoza Steve Dillon,& various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2035-3

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative impasse in the late 1990s, the company took stock, braced itself and came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for the new youth culture.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Creepy vigilante Spider-Man Parker was not-so-secretly a high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors whilst mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethnic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they frequently hid amongst.

The Fantastic Four were two science nerds and their dim pals transformed into monsters, and global peacekeeping force S.H.I.E.L.D. kept them all under control with their own metahuman taskforce humbly designated The Ultimates

The revived series all sported fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities and freaks manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001, and the Mighty Avengers were reworked into The Ultimates in 2002 with Ultimate Fantastic Four joining the party in 2004.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were retooled for the perceived-as-different tastes of a new readership: those tired of or unwilling to stick with precepts originated by inspirational founding fathers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, or (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The new universe quickly prospered and soon filled up with more refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains but eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

Eventually, in 2008, an imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Long before that, however, Marvel’s original keystone concepts were awarded their own celebratory summer specials and this stellar volume collects Ultimate Fantastic Four Annual#1, Ultimate X-Men Annual#1, Ultimate Spider-Man Annual#1 and The Ultimates Annual#1 (all from October 2005): a selection of relatively stand-alone sagas displaying the daringly different tone of the alternate yet chillingly familiar world.

The compilation kicks off with ‘Enter the Inhumans’ by Marl Millar, Jae Lee and colourist June Chung from Ultimate Fantastic Four Annual#1 wherein dim but pretty party boy Johnny Storm gets involved with a runaway princess bride.

The ethereally beautiful girl is named Crystal and she is fleeing from an arranged marriage to her creepy, crazy cousin Maximus. The match was decreed by her sister Medusa and King Black Bolt, rulers of a hidden race of super-powered parahumans who have concealed their existence from humanity for ten thousand years.

Even after the Human Torch almost dies defending her, Crystal is successfully abducted, compelling Reed, Sue, Ben and recuperating Johnny to go after her into the heart of hidden city Attilan, thanks to the teleporting talents of the princess’ faithful giant bulldog Lockjaw

The subsequent confrontation with the lethally powerful Inhuman Royal Family leads to an inconclusive resolution but a shattering end to the lost city…

Romance plays a part in the next tale too. ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ by Brian K. Vaughn, Tom Raney, Scott Hanna & Gina Going (Ultimate X-Men Annual#1) finds Nick Fury warning Charles Xavier that the unstoppable Juggernaut has escaped and is hunting the mutant girl he holds responsible for all his recent woes…

Unfortunately for everyone, Rogue has absconded to Las Vegas in the company of sexy bad-boy thief Gambit, where the rampaging monster maniac finally corners the duplicitous duo. Tragically Juggernaut completely underestimates his former squeeze’s lethal powers and the self-sacrificing ingenuity of the besotted Cajun…

The most significant change to Stan, Jack and Steve’s breakthrough concepts was a rather telling one: all the heroes were conceived as being far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents. This even affected the sensational Spider-Man tales wherein – after decades of comicbook stardom – the perennially youthful Peter Parker was at last portrayed as a proper High School kid rather than a stodgy 40-year old geek trapped in a teen’s body…

In ‘More than you Bargained For’ by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Brooks, Jaime Mendoza, Scott Hanna & Dave Stewart – from Ultimate Spider-Man Annual#1 – the guilt-driven lad’s constant round of villain thrashing is derailed when cute but shy mutant Kitty Pryde makes the first tentative moves in her painfully adorable bid to make the mysterious hero her boyfriend…

That sweet, silly and utterly charming yarn is followed by a far darker and cunningly convoluted tale focusing on S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury and his long-term plan to mass produce an army of metahumans in ‘The Reserves’ by Millar, Steve Dillon & Paul Mounts.

Rather than highlighting stars like Iron Man and Captain America, the story follows the far from smooth development of a legion of Rocketmen, Goliaths, weather based warriors “The Four Seasons” and the short, tragic career of heroic hopeful super-soldier Lieberman. Of course the one-eyed master strategist has no time for regrets as he’s busy trying to avoid becoming the latest successful contract of infallible hitman Mister Nix

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also liberally dosed with teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, offering a smart and beguiling entrée into of Marvel’s other Universe that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2005, 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.