Monday, April 04, 2005

The Ultimates


A while back I was going to talk about superhero comics, and I reckon why not now.

Okay. When I was a kid I read superhero comics. Them and science fiction made me the man I am today. And the Bible. I read that a lot. I had this programme where you had to read the whole thing three times a year, and I so every January, May and September I'd be reminded what the Lord said to Moses after the death of Sihon, king of the Amorites.

This means that if you need a partner for "Biblical Trivial Pursuit: the only trivia game where the answers are not trivial", I'm not the worst bet.

(The worst bet, by the way, is a two way tie - I knew a girl in Uni who got pissed off with "all the religious freaks trying to turn Easter into some sort of religious thing", presumably instead of the chocolates and so forth. And there was some ten year old kid who got dumped at another Church youth group every Friday, and when he read from the Bible and got to a bit with the name "Jesus Christ" in it he'd roar it out in a pissed-off tone, "Boy, I'm getting my belt" tone: - "For there is one mediator between God and man, the man - Christ!! Jesus!!").

Anyhow - superhero comics, in particular the Ultimates. When I was a kid I read superhero comics like other people breathe. They were the "Tales to Astonish" of their time. Mothers, you want your kids to grow up interested in life, interested in science and the world, at least some cursory sense of right and wrong, sit them down and make them read Spiderman and Iron Man comics. I loved the things.

I loved them because anything could happen in a superhero comic, and you had heroes you could trust and look up to, people who'd do the right thing, and because all the stories interlocked and were self-consistent - (you'd see The Black Panther hurling stuff at the Rhino and there'd be this thought bubble coming out of the Panther's head saying "The Rhino - last I heard Iron Man'd put him away for good!", and then an asterisk and it'd say "Check out issue 271 of the Invincible Iron Man for details, True Believer!") they were a world we could immerse ourselves in that was much more accepting than the outside. And because we were familiar enough with the lives and personalities of these characters for them to be more real to us than many of the relatively confusing people around us. And I also loved the way they talk, and the incredibly hot women. There is some part of my head that considers Susan Storm-Richards, of the Fantastic Four, one of the four or five sexiest woman alive.

And I loved the dialogue:
"Though I be ringed about with enemies, still shall my power prevail!"
"Never, villain -nnnngggghh!!"
and so forth. Read that out aloud - what's not to love? Try it in a meeting when things aren't going your way. Perhaps your power will prevail.

But in the end, the reasons I loved them were the exact same reasons I gave them away*. A uniform diet of the spectacular, the invincible and the amazing can't sustain you as an adult. You get an overdose of wonder, it becomes toxic for the stories themselves. In the Marvel Universe anything could happen, and if anything can happen, and you tell the story for long enough, everything does happen, and most things several times. Like those interminable afternoon soaps. So every conceivable and several inconceivable horror has happened to our hero by issue #271, and you just get over it.

So, cue ten or fifteen years.

Then a few years back I started reading again. Not all of them, because most comics, like most books and most films and pretty much all tv and newspaper, are crap. But there's a few select authors. I started reading Bendis's psychoterror novel Daredevil, I started reading the frighteningly erudite Grant Morrison, the deeply disturbing Warren Ellis, the inhumanly gifted Alan Moore... and I started reading Ultimates.

Ultimates is written by someone who appears to be a hard-drinking lay preacher with no "skin". I can't put this into English, but he is someone whose heart must be only a few millimetres below his skin. He writes people that you love, and I am aware that I am saying that about people called Giant Man and Captain America. But good God, this man can write.

"Ultimates" is a retelling of the story of the Avengers, the original Marvel comics supergroup of the late sixties, but it's the Avengers written as if they were real thinking, feeling people, people you can feel for. One thing I remember reading about writing is the secret to good plotting and dialogue and characterisation is the same - "to make everybody right". That's what Millar does. The man whose industrial "accident" kills eight hundred people, the woman who breaks him, the man who kicks him when he's down and the friend who poisons him, the bipolar wife-beater and the woman who leaves him, the left-wing paranoid psychotic who believes he's a Norse God... in this story they do what they do for good reasons, for comprehensible motives, because they are trying to do their best, decent people trying to make sense of difficult situations.

The thing Millar understands is there are no superheroes. There are flawed, fallible people with
unusual abilities. Being able to do some remarkable things doesn't mean that some other, really mundane things, like taking your medications or listeing to other people or asking for help before things get out of hand, are things you do.

Anyway, Ultimates vol 2 issue three almost made me cry into my dry cider. It won't mean as much to you if you weren't raised on superheroes, but give Ultimates (Vol 1: 1 - 13, especially the first half) or Daredevil (Underboss and Out) a go.


*Except for Susan Storm Richards. Snarf snarf.


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