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A League of Their Own


The Ultimates, Vol. 1: Super-Human

Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie

Marvel, 2002

Rating: 4.4


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill

America's Best Comics, 2002

Rating: 4.7

Posted: September 17, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The muscle-bound, brightly-garbed comic book superhero, as we know him today, bears little resemblance to his forebears, the serial-adventure pulp heroes of the early 20th century. From the birth of Superman in the 1930s, through the ushering in of the "Marvel Age" of comics in the early '60s to today, the superhero has evolved from a four-color doppelganger of the Shadow and Doc Savage into his own unique entity, one steeped in his own mythology and iconography. And as the superhero has evolved with the times, so too must the concept of the superhero, and indeed even the milieu in which he operates.

In fact, in the last two decades, the stripping down of the superhero to his basic elements has become so common a device that deconstructions, reconstructions and reimaginings -- from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen to Brian Michael Bendis' Powers to Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Moore's Supreme, not to mention the whole of his America's Best Comics imprint -- have become the norm rather than the exception. And as superheroes have exhibited a stranglehold on the rest of the comics industry, glutting the market with interchangeable product bogged down with issues of "continuity" and other baggage of the genre's constraining conventions, some of these revisionist titles have also served as a commentary on, and a critique of, both the genre and the industry itself.

Two recent trade paperback collections perfectly illustrate two ends of the post-modern superheroic spectrum. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, conceived and written by Alan Moore, the unwilling godfather of the deconstructionist movement, eschews the steroids-and-tights approach entirely, reaching back even beyond the pulps to the classic escapist literature of another age; its brilliant high-concept conceit is that it reverse-engineers the elite of classic adventure fiction -- H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, to name a few -- gathered together as the Justice League of their day. The Ultimates, on the other hand, takes exactly the opposite route: Mark Millar drags Marvel's premier superhero team, the Avengers, into the 21st century with much the same violent, sexually charged post-modern sensibility he so recently exhibited with The Authority.

League begins as Mina Murray (formerly Harker, from Bram Stroker's Dracula), a steely divorcee with a harrowing past, sets about recruiting some of her Classics Illustrated colleagues for a top-secret mission in defense of the British Empire. Dispatched by portly Campion Bond (in the name of a mysterious director known only, James Bond fans take note, as "M") to the ends of the globe, Murray (traveling aboard the Nautilus with her own recruit, Nemo) quickly retrieves a pathetic, opium-addicted Quatermain from Cairo, and in short order confronts (if not exactly tames) the beastly Edward Hyde, and flushes Hawley Griffin -- H.G. Wells' Invisible Man -- out of hiding (he's been having a good old time deflowering virgins at an all-girls boarding school).

The august assemblage soon undertakes its mission -- retrieving an experimental element said to engineer the properties of flight from an insidious Oriental crime lord (Fu Manchu, anyone?). But it isn't long before the assembled "heroes" realize they've been tricked, duped into aiding the evil scheme of the enigmatic "M", himself an equally-notorious British crime lord (it wouldn't be sporting to reveal his name here, but suffice it to say he's a staple of British detective villainy). The team proves fractious to the point of disintegration -- the simpering Jekyll grates almost as much as the surly, violently misanthropic Hyde, while Griffin proves an unstable ally at best and Murray and Quatermain bicker constantly, masking a mutual affection in the best tradition of the genre. But it nonetheless must work together to foil the plot of their erstwhile employer.

From its faux-period covers and "next-issue" blurbs to its sufficiently fantastic visuals, League affects the air of a 19th century adventure periodical, but Moore also slips in a couple of decidedly post-modernist elements. We're treated (or subjected), for example, to scenes of visceral, gory violence on the part of Hyde and Griffin (whose sociopathic tendencies bubble to the surface on a couple of occasions, including his invisible rape of a proper English virgin at the boarding school). And Moore elaborately lays out the book's very premise in an almost winking manner, playing the entire thing straight and providing very little help in identifying the various parties for the benefit of the not-up-to-date-with-his-classics reader. Half of the enjoyment of League comes from the reader's recognition (or figuring out) of the principals (as well as a few judiciously-placed guest stars), and he knows it.

But most of all, it's hard not to see League as, at least in part, yet another of Moore's ongoing attempts to dilute the modern adventure comic to its essence, the sense of wonder and imagination that comics regularly inspired in the '60s. In this sense, League is very much a companion piece to his work on Rob Liefeld's Supreme, his 1963 miniseries for Image and the America's Best Comics line. League's central conceit, so markedly removed from most of today's mainstream comics, is a not-very-subtle endorsement of a long-discarded style of comics storytelling, one that emphasizes straight-ahead storytelling without wrapping itself in the trappings of genre scripture. In fact, its very usage of classic public-domain characters with their own rich history can be read as a thumbing of the nose at comics fandom's obsessive jones for "continuity": Moore treats his "borrowed" characters with respect, but doesn't let their past histories get in the way of a good story.

(Mention should be made here that even his choice of artist provides a nice irony: Kevin O'Neill, who rather brutally "deconstructed" the superhero genre in the violent fable Marshall Law, renders League in a slightly distorted, sinister style that's recognizable to readers of Law while wholly appropriate to the book at hand.)

It's not necessarily a slight to The Ultimates to say that it doesn't exhibit quite the same depth as League; few contemporary writers can match Moore's multi-level sleight of hand, and in any case The Ultimates aims for an entirely different effect (to say nothing of readership). Set in Marvel's "Ultimate" universe, which re-spins the adventures of classic Marvel icons for a newer, more modern audience, The Ultimates tracks the formation of that world's premier superhero team. As such, it treats its subject matter with decidedly less deference than modern superhero comics: Its characters interact in the "real world" 21st century, and exhibit many distinctly human foibles. In a cosmetic sense, it's not unlike Watchmen in its "this is what superheroes would really act like" approach (although any similarities end there). But it takes the concept of bickering, flawed heroes quite a few steps further than Stan Lee had in mind when he introduced such human elements to Marvel's books in the early '60s.

In the early 21st century, the world's premier superhero team isn't some accidental assemblage of heroes brought together by circumstance; it's a precisely crafted government project, overseen at the highest level by SHIELD director Colonel Nick Fury (drawn by Bryan Hitch as Samuel L. Jackson with an eye patch). The project's immediate supervisor, Bruce Banner, has fallen from favor since exposing himself to an experimental process designed to replicate the Super Soldier formula that created Captain America in the 1940s. That incident transformed him into the Hulk, resulted in much property damage, and cost him his professional esteem and quite possibly his marriage -- he's currently estranged from his wife, Betty Ross, who just happens to be the PR director for the project. Banner (now demoted) is an object of more-or-less open ridicule from two of his colleagues, scientist Henry Pym (who's come up with a way to communicate with insects, and also is slated to fill the role of Giant Man, able to grow to 60 feet) and his wife Janet (the Wasp, who can shrink to insect size, fly and fire "stings" of energy).

To this unstable stable, Fury adds Iron Man -- a.k.a. Tony Stark, a billionaire industrialist and thrill-seeking playboy (the anti-Bill Gates) given to partying with actresses and flying around in a suit of powered armor of his own design. But the Ultimates project really kicks into high gear when the body of Captain America, who's been floating in suspended animation since falling from an exploding rocket off the coast of Newfoundland, is fished out of the ocean.

Every super team needs a super foe, of course, and a distraught Banner provides one; distraught over his dissolving marriage and his inability to crack the Super Soldier formula, he injects a mixture of Captain America's blood and his own formula into himself, thus creating a Hulk for the new team to prove itself against -- and, not incidentally, to disrupt Betty's dinner date with Freddie Prinze, Jr. The graphically realistic battle between the Ultimates and the Hulk, rendered by Hitch in his trademark photo-realist style, is The Ultimates' centerpiece, complete with tons of property damage and the intervention of Thor, depicted here as a New Age cult leader/self-help guru with an unsubstantiated claim to godhood and a penchant for left-wing political activism (he refuses to intercede until the President authorizes the doubling of America's international aid budget).

As he did with The Authority, thoroughly modern Millar doesn't shy away from presenting his heroes in less-than-flattering light: Banner, while sympathetic, is gratingly weak, while Hank and Janet Pym light into each other in a painful domestic altercation turned unspeakably ugly by Hank's jealousy, rage and sense of inadequacy; his actions toward his wife prove The Ultimates' most shocking moment.

Ultimately, The Ultimates, like The Authority before it, makes no stronger a statement than that superhero comics today don't go far enough; it's intended, it seems, for the Maxim magazine/ Man Show crowd, a nation of comic-reading bubbas who glory in violence, destruction and sex. And while it certainly evokes a childlike sense of awe in its "aww, cool!" moments of adrenalized inspiration and massive property damage, effective even on intelligent men in their mid-30's, that's not quite the same as evoking a yearning for comics' simpler past. As fun a read as it is, held next to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Ultimates is post-modern fast food, a product of its complicated time in its affected attitude and reliance on shock value as a primary storytelling device. League, meanwhile, makes a powerful statement about the thrill of a good, uncomplicated adventure story -- while wrapped inside a good, uncomplicated adventure story. And while The Ultimates' de/reconstruction of the modern superhero comic is impressive in its entertainment value, League's timeless charms place it in a league of its own.

Related Links:

The Authority: Earth Inferno and Other Stories

Swamp Thing: Earth To Earth

Ultimate X-Men Vol 2: Return to Weapon X

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2: Learning Curve

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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