Marvel’s Military Marvels
If superheroes did exist in our world, how would they interact with our government? It’s a subject that is usually sidestepped in comics, but The Ultimates, by writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch, puts the question in a brand new light: It’s a superhero team sponsored by the U.S. military, that carry out their missions with the strength, arrogance and righteousness of a hyperpower America.
In order to effectively combat the threat of evil-doers everywhere, the U.S. has given Colonel Nick Fury a giant budget and carte blanche to protect us from whomever may do us harm. Sound familiar? It’s odd timing that this comic has come when the American people can’t act fast enough to give votes and cut checks to whomever promises us the most protection against our worst fears. Fury has his choice of superheroes to outfit the new team: the de-thawed Captain America, scientists Bruce Banner and couple Henry and Jan Pym (the former being able to grow to over a hundred feet tall and the latter being able to shrink and fly), industrialist Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit of armor, token left-leaner Thor (using the team to get his political message across), and intelligence spooks Hawkeye and Black Widow.
It’s strange to see Millar, who had a healthy contempt for all things military as the scribe of The Authority and Ultimate X-Men, fall in love with the American army. Tony Stark and Nick Fury comment to one another about forming the team to be the good guys for a change, and it is a comforting to think that those writing our foreign policy have such thoughts in mind. Millar is very conscious to play up both the U.S. army angle and the sense that they are working to save the world for a change.
Needless to say, not every comic has approached the subject in this manner. The one-two punch of ‘80s gritty-realism, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, both assumed that only the psychotic or the weak would be fit for government superhero duty. Watchmen‘s The Comedian, already a rapist before he went mad in Vietnam, and the inhuman Dr. Manhattan are a perfect fit with the military. A comic fan’s stomach turns when he sees Superman treated as a pathetic lapdog of the Reagan administration, gladly doing the bidding of ‘anyone with a badge’ in A Dark Knight Returns. When Batman beats him silly, it feels more like he is about to commit a mercy killing than anything else.
The creators are at the top of their game in this title. Millar, who can be very sloppy, rushed and uneven in plotting out long storylines, is able to walk a very fine line of keeping the story measured yet entertaining. As opposed to most team books, where several characters sit out on the sidelines, each character is developed in separate storylines. No single superhero dominates the narrative—a problem for many Marvel titles. Millar juggles each of the individual characters like a pro, moving them in and out of scenes like a musical conductor.
I’ve always been a big fan of Bryan Hitch’s art. He has the ability to give each character a completely different feel, with very clean lines much like Dave Gibbons, and with the detail, depth and variety of giant spaces that Geof Darrows produces. One of the first rules of creating a spectacle is to de-emphasize the individual in favor of the environment, and that’s exactly what Hitch’s art does. The surroundings, be they the inside of an apartment or the happenings on a city block, are given more attention and space than the major characters inhabiting them. Each panel has an element of deep focus to it, where you can see details in the extreme background. The comic panel comes across as big and giant, like a great action movie. The reader will notice backgrounds to a degree not found in other comics. After finishing an issue, you are more likely to remember the image of Grand Central Station or a fleet of helicopters over the New York City skyline than what Iron Man’s costume looks like.
Also, in a move used equally well in such indie comics as Optic Nerve and Stylish Vittles, Hitch’s spaces convey a great amount of information about the characters and events. You can see the desperation and frustration of Bruce Banner is his ramshackle apartment and workspace. The idea that Tony Stark is stuck in a rich-boy’s “gee whiz” adolescent super-hero fantasy comes across in his giant mansion filled with his latest collectable of the week. Most importantly, you get a sense of the high-tech devastation capable of being wrecked by the team itself in their ultra-modern, sleek military headquarters.
And this devastation is key, as the infatuation with all things military is the core of The Ultimates. Captain America has been redesigned: He now looks more like a World War grunt than ever. Giant combat boots, an ammo utility belt, and the mindset of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation.’ When we first see him, in a flashback issue, he’s even wearing a green war helmet. The Ultimates don’t just show up to combat: their first battle with the Hulk has an entire fleet of combat helicopters flying through the city of New York to escort them. Everything about them screams military, in a way much different than most comics today.
And in a move influenced by Milligan’s new X-Factor (now X-Statix), Millar has the team as the ultimate celebrities. DVDs are sold of their battles, and movie licenses of the characters are being bought up. In a world where General Franks and Secretary Rumsfield are treated as media darlings, why not? In today’s pro-military mentality, where states are on the verge of fiscal collapse but we can always find more money for the military budget, it’s tough not to think that if the government pranced around a team of superheroes the world wouldn’t immediately eat them up. Their headquarters being so cool and techy is appropriate: In current government budgets, it’s easier for a military base to get another dozen missiles than for a public school to get another teacher.
It would be difficult to write a book that is so gung-ho about the military mindset without making a passing remark about masculinity. In a really bizarre move considering his other titles, Millar make everyone who isn’t a trained soldier into epitomes of male loserdom. The two scientists are deeply insecure and neurotic. Banner wanders around in a daze, constantly failing and disappointing the team and his fiancée. When he finally turns himself into the Hulk, he main rationale to everyone is “I wanted to feel big again.” Dr. Pym is already big, but it’s not enough for him: he turns out to do some nasty things on the side and when Captain America is about to beat him silly in an alleyway, it’s tough not to cheer.
The Authority had promised to change the way politics and superhero teams existed. Ellis and Millar played up superheroes as the only power left in the world, much like how America feels now. But they were always rogue, acting on their own and answering to no one. Post-September 11th, we get this—superheroes acting as our military. Their means may not always be just—the rationale for their first battle is covered up—but the ends are always portrayed as right. If anyone has any anxiety over our new imperialism overseas, kick back and read this title, where for once Captain America and the good guys are actually in charge.