Al Ewing is a writer who has employed an impressive number of strategies in answering the questions of continuity and event comics. He’s taken an “all things are true” approach in Loki: Agent of Asgard, fought for ideas that matter to him in Avengers: Ultron Forever, and launched teams out of editorial demands in the case of Mighty Avengers, but this week’s issue of Ultimates^2 makes it clear that he has been playing with one particularly bold strategy. You see, while many a creator struggles to justify how their book fits within the context of the greater Marvel Universe, The Ultimates^2 has simply decided that it’s going to take a moment to explain how the Marvel Universe fits within the greater context of this series.
Given that The Ultimates ran for twelve issues before being, in my opinion questionably, rebranded into this series, it makes a certain degree of sense that issue #6 brings the current story to a close and sets up for the, seemingly, final battle to come. Given the stakes as we enter this issue, that’s no small thing.
In actuality, that can be the cause of a number of this issue’s biggest flaws. Put simply, there are so many, literally, epic ideas in these pages clashing and interweaving with each other that some of them lose some impact. Adam and Monica’s big moment in particular feels muted because there isn’t space or context enough to appreciate its enormity. All of this is further exacerbated by the issue’s need to provide not only an effective history of the Marvel Multiverse but for the Troubleshooters as well. There’s simply not a lot of time for a battle on this scale to take place when those reveals take somewhere between nine and eleven pages, depending on how you count.
Don’t get me wrong though. There may be no more masterful conductor of Marvel’s continuity than Ewing and this issue is an absolute love letter to some largely ignored portions of the universe. Tying together disparate and sometimes contradictory histories of the Celestials, the New Universe, and cosmic Marvel, Ultimates^2 #6 creates something with all the strangeness, depth, and beauty deserved of Jack Kirby’s successors and makes it look effortless.
And it’s not just the ideas. While you might fairly be unable to tell me who the remaining corporeal members of the Troubleshooters are without a knowledge of the New Universe, Jim Tensen, Galactus, and Blue Marvel are written with specificity and with a clear eye towards emotion and arc. Nowhere is this better seen than in Anti-Man, whose place on the sidelines over the last few issues only highlight how forcefully Ewing has crafted the unique tragedy of Connor Sims. When the time finally comes for him to step into the action at hand, there is a quiet power at play that, honestly, has very little to do with the dialogue on the page compared to the weight that Ewing has imbued his characters with.
And, of course all of this is in addition to the sheer scale of the story. This easily could have been Marvel’s summer event, – it’s easily bigger in scope than any I can remember, save perhaps “Secret Wars” – but the choice to present it in a monthly book gives it both a sense of surprise and a sincerity that I doubt a ten-issue limited series and a dozen tie-ins could muster. In this day and age of comic books, it is insane to think that all eighteen issues of Ultimates have been telling a single story, much less that the origins of this team go all the way back to Mighty Avengers.
Regardless, it is one story and what a story it is. The First Firmament is not an incredibly original villain, but the trappings of Marvel’s multiverse provide him a level of gravitas rarely seen. Appropriately enough, he’s sort of a Galactus for our time, complete with requirement of a better way out than an Ultimate Nullifier and the accompanying tension of how he could be defeated. One wonders how the fairly simple monstrosity will fare out in the open, when so much of his charm has come from the personality of his agents, like Logos and Rodstvow, but that question is for another month. For the purposes of this issue, The First Firmament serves his function ably.
Speaking of The First Firmament and what makes him work as a villain, it’s almost impossible to ignore Travel Foreman and Matt Tackey’s contributions in this regard. Though he only appears in full on one page, the power of The First Firmament’s design is present throughout the book and demonstrates what this artistic team is best at: striking imagery, grand compositions, and gorgeously layered cosmic visions.
The smooth eeriness of The First Firmament contrasts with the detailed starkness of Anti-Man’s return to battle, which proves decidedly distinct from Jim Tensen’s full-page explanation. Foreman and Yackey manage to hold on to their unique style while also feeling in line with the tone that Kenneth Rocafort set on the original Ultimates.
There’s an impressive level of variety, however, there are places where that cuts both ways. While lovely, early images of the Celestials are a little flat and the issue ends poorly on an uncannily smooth and characterless America Chavez. That’s partially because it’s the wild and fantastic that brings out the best in Foreman and Yackey, but, minor as it is, a similarly awkward America butt-shot proves another distraction.
The Ultimates is quite simply one of the most stunning comics that Marvel has put out in a long while and, while there’s an undeniable charm about its quiet way of telling some of the biggest stories in that Multiverse, if you’re not aware of it yet, you kind of need to be. This issue beautifully expands on the shocking reveal of last month and lovingly introduces a slew of wonderful weirdness that mixes modern sensibilities and unabashedly Silver Age creativity. Though the story as a whole takes precedence over some dialogue and individual moments, Ewing’s narrative sense and Travel Foreman’s forceful layouts make the reading experience exactly that, an experience.
With huge moments, incredible imagery, fantastic use of Marvel’s multiverse, and the promise of even bigger and crazier things, The Ultimates^2 #6 pulls this weird, wonderful series into sharp focus. This may be your best, last chance to jump onto one of the wildest rides in work for hire comics.