By: Sam Humphries (Writer), Luke Ross (Artist), Matt Milla (Colorist), Clayton Cowles (Letterer)
The Review: Sometimes it’s hard being an Ultimate Comics fan. If it isn’t Jeph Loeb sadistically eviscerating all of your favourite characters, it’s encountering an element of snobbishness from the 616-only crowd. “Grubby little pockets universes,” they’ll sneer in a Gollum-like manner, “Is the anti-Precious! Unclean! Unclean!” With a heavy sigh you might have the energy to point such doubters towards Warren Ellis’ run on Ultimate Fantastic Four, Millar’s Ultimates 1 or 2 or pretty much any volume of Ultimate Spider-Man in an attempt to change their minds. More often that not you’ll just tell them to go stick their head in a sandwich toaster. What you should definitely not do is show them a copy of Ultimate Comics Ultimates #18; such an ill-advised course of action would only lead to disaster, mockery, and an evening spent crying into the pillowy rump of your beloved Ultimate Blob plushy.
Does Sam Humphries really want you to ruin your priceless collectibles with salty Human tears? Probably not. As with the previous issue I get the feeling that he was tasked with a huge amount to do in a somewhat limited amount of space. He was handed a gloriously disfigured universe (the fallout from Jonathan Hickman’s run) and had to assemble all the pieces more-or-less back together over the following six months; a daunting job for any writer. But even with that said, at times this an eye-rolling, teeth-grinding crotch-punch of a comic.
The opening four pages of the issue are arguably its best, but – infuriatingly – to go into too much detail would completely destroy their impact. They’re the pages used for the issue’s preview so you can always check ‘em out there. Otherwise this installment mainly revolves around a continuation of the battle between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. in Wyoming. This has roughly two main points of focus – a mind-controlled Thor trying his best to rip Cap in half, and everyone else trying not to die.
As revealed last month, all of these problems are down to Thor’s estranged son Modi who’s in possession of a ‘Mind Gem’. Mind control is a recurring theme in comics, a useful shortcut to make established characters act against type; but the clichéd means of deployment used here come close to parody. “Thor! Remember! This is not who you are,” shouts Cap, mere milliseconds before his skull gets rudely introduced to Mighty Mjolnir. “Captain…the Gem…I can’t…Nnng get out of my mind,” strains Thor through gritted teeth and, as I’m keen to limit my output of snark, that’s all I have to say about that.
The larger conflict between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra faces many of the same problems witnessed in the last issue. Basically, there’s just not much of a warzone atmosphere generated. A few little skirmishes here and there which are too quickly and conveniently tidied up, some predictable fight dialogue and some questionable panel-pacing; Black Widow for instance seems to have gained the ability to teleport anywhere the script needs her to be at a moment’s notice. The icing on the cake is another scene where our heroes charge recklessly at the enemy (“You heard me, Americans! CHARGE!” ^_^ ) and a moment between Thor and Modi which is supposed to carry a lot of emotional resonance but can’t help but fall flat; Modi is darned unlikeable (I know he’s a villain, but still) and we’ve only known him properly for all of two issues. His back story is simply not established well enough for his apparent demise to carry the sombre tone Humphries seems to be aiming for.
Also, I think I’ve landed on the main problem I have with Alex Ross’ art on this arc. Some things he depicts quite brilliantly. There’s a decent amount of weight to the punches landed between Thor and Cap and a moment with Giant Woman providing a jaw-dropping save is, no matter what your internal logic clock screams at you, captured nicely. It’s coloured well, features lively costume designs and the facial work is strong. But overall the style is just not a good fit for the story; I’d balk at using the word ‘cartoony’, but I think this final act of Divided We Fall/United We Stand needed to look bleak, gritty, blood soaked. These are, potentially, the final days of America after all, right? Why does everything look so bright, with the sharp edges rounded off? To be fair Alex Ross and Matt Milla can’t really be said to have put a foot wrong in what they’ve contributed, but editorial should have perhaps taken a little more care when putting the team for the book together.
Conclusion: I was pretty harsh on last issue, and I appreciate that, if anything, I’ve whaled on this one even more. For the record I’m well aware that I’d probably have no hope of writing anything near as good as what Humphries has come up with, but as a reviewer and an Ultimates fan I have to give my honest opinion, and that is that this is one of the least enjoyable story arcs to be found in the series since the Ultimate Comics rebranding.
Mainly it’s been an issue of pacing. So many ideas have needed to be established since the end of Hickman’s run and they’ve been crammed into as short a release window as possible. As a result Divided We Fall/United We Stand in the pages of Ultimate Comics Ultimates has seemed like a bunch of ill-conceived scenes just being rushed through to get everything back to the way it was before Hickman jumped on board; it’s as if someone got cold feet with the brave new world he’d created and decided that after one step forward it was time to take two steps back. How frustrating. It may well be that the status quo was reinstated as a platform for some fantastic stories yet to come, but if so this has been a case of the long term’s gain coming at the expense of the short term’s quality. In that sense, breathe easy fellow Ultimates fans – the worst is surely behind us. I hope.