Cor, it’s good to have it back, isn’t it? Mark Millar may be an inconsistent writer (and I imagine we’ll be talking about the latest issue of Kick-Ass, a series that exemplifies that in microcosm, later in the week), but there’s no denying that if you put him on The Ultimates, he’s just effortlessly great. Banishing Loeb’s run to the status of “awful nightmare”, he’s slotted back into his characters and setting like he’d never been away. Instantly, we care about these characters again, there’s fresh intrigue, and it’s simply a breezy, enjoyable read.
Admittedly it doesn’t feel as “big” as Ultimates 2 just yet – it’s nowhere near “event comic” territory. In focusing specifically on a ghost from Captain America’s past, it’s a smaller and more personal story – but Millar compensates for this by coming up with a genuinely interesting, and chilling, twist to the origins of the Red Skull. It’s the sort of imaginative reinterpretation that the Ultimate books did so well back in their early days – and coupled with the new Mysterio over in Spidey, it’s clear that a bit of creative spark has, at long last, returned to this universe. Other new elements introduced are a mixed bag – Carol Danvers still feels like something of an anonymous cipher, for example, but “Dr Stark” looks to be a brilliant spanner in the works. It’s nice, too, to see a vague in-context reason given for the change in title – the team in the original series were known as the Ultimates rather than “the Avengers”, after all, but here we see the distinction – and the fact that this new group are not the Ultimates – made clear.
Not that the old characters don’t come off well out of it – Millar’s actually done an admirable job of pulling Hawkeye back towards his established personality without simply pretending that the Ultimates 3 version doesn’t exist, while it’s just bloody great to have Nick Fury kicking around again. But it’s Captain America that surprises, carrying the story as a three-dimensional character in a way you mightn’t necessarily suspect – the “rebel” angle that humanised him somewhat in that post-Civil War, pre-death period is employed here, and at a time when his classic values aren’t necessarily in line with those of the establishment, it actually works pretty well. The flashback scene with Gail, meanwhile, may raise eyebrows – but (and it’s strange to say this about a Millar book) it actually feels restrained and mature compared with Loeb’s attempts to inject sex into the series; and by the same token a refreshing counterpoint to the rod-up-his-ass version of the previous volume.
Deserving as much credit as Millar for the quality of the book, though, is artist Carlos Pacheco. Always a solid penciller, he’s stepped into the A-list for this series – his design and character work is absolutely superb, and while his style is distinct from Bryan Hitch’s, the look of the book’s world is spot on in terms of continuity. It may have something to do with inker Danny Miki (after all, this doesn’t look like any Pacheco book I’ve ever seen), but this honestly feels like a direct continuation from Ultimates 2 both visually as well as in terms of the character and story – and that might actually be the first time that’s happened with a change of artists on an Ultimate book. And indeed, while it may not match Hitch for scale, a superb colouring job means it might even be a more pleasing book to look at than the second volume.
While certainly not providing the thrilling, “instant classic” kicks of its older brother, Ultimate Comics Avengers is at least a very well made superhero comic in the distinctive manner that the Ultimate imprint, at its best, had established – and that we thought the advent of Ultimates 3 had killed for good. It’s not tearing up any kind of rule book or breaking any new ground – but at the moment, we don’t really need it to, thanks.