[30 January 2008]
The original Galactus trilogy—published back in 1966 when the whole wide world was bright-eyed, Blonde on Blonde was the new Dylan album, and Lennon was (more or less) apologizing for saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus—was a defining moment in the early Marvel Universe, maybe even the defining moment.
Stan and Jack not only had their legs under them at that point, they were in their stride. Four dozen issues into the Fantastic Four, it was time for something huge.
Though alien invaders and benevolent visitors from faraway stars had been a mainstay of the Marvel Universe since before it was the Marvel Universe, the introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer laid the groundwork for truly cosmic sagas. It was the Copernican event of comic books, demonstrating that Earth and its heroes were far from the center of the universe.
Four decades later, the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, in Ultimate fashion, drops a blown 454 big block into the ‘66 model and proceeds to rip up the road with it.
The story builds slowly—its beginnings traced back to the Siberian Tunguska event of 1904—and expands outward into the Cold War Soviet response to Captain America and the Super-Soldier Project, a nightmare where all the stars go out, and the discrepancy between the Drake Equation (which estimates the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy) and the Fermi Paradox (which asks, “So where are they?”).
The discrepancy, of course, in the Ultimate universe as in the original Marvel universe, is due to the Devourer of Worlds.
The “Gah lak tus” presented here, however, is no giant in purple headdress and short pants that can be conversed with, bargained with, or made to take a vow not to set his sights on Earth again.
In fact, Gah Lak Tus—an incomprehensible swarm, one hundred thousand miles across, of extinction—is something so repulsed by organic life that it convulses in horror when psychically touched by Professor Xavier, who is aided in this effort by a massively scaled-up version of Cerebro and the collective psychic underpinnings of the entire human race.
That degree of inapproachability tends to negate the prospect of negotiation.
No explanation or origin is given, adding to the horror (understanding something is the first step toward undoing fear, after all). The heroes of Earth barely have time to steal enough data from an orbiting Kree vessel in order to mount a defense.
The Kree, with the exception of Mahr-Vel (Ultimate Captain Marvel) were going to simply watch as the planet was stripped of life: more data for the collection, after all. Their indifference to the fate of humankind only shores up the story’s presentation of the surrounding universe as an inhospitable expanse where might alone makes right.
The scale of the Galactus story has been increased all around for its Ultimate treatment. Not only is the threat to Earth more massive, more alien, and therefore more threatening, but the attack occurs on multiple fronts.
Silver Surfer becomes a kind of advance infiltration unit, psychologically seeding the planet for destruction, recruiting susceptible individuals to aid in their own destruction. Supporting characters such as Misty Knight and Moondragon show up on either side of the fight, spurred on only by whatever pieces of the puzzle they have access to, while what might as well be extinction incarnate slips past Jupiter.
The considerable space allotted to the story allows for quieter moments between action sequences. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is of Steve Rogers sharing with Nick Fury thoughts about God, feeling far from home, and a self-described infantry guy’s frustration at facing “an evil too big to hit.”
That really brings it straight on home, doesn’t it?
When something big enough to blot out all life is on our collective doorstep, what goes through your mind? What are you willing to do to survive? Reed Richards realizing that, in theory, he knows a way to access enough firepower to punch a hole in the Gah Lak Tus swarm is one thing. Really digging down into the ethics of what he has to do—essentially playing God with the beginning of an infant universe—is beyond our ability to comprehend.
From a god’s-eye view of the multi-verse, what Richards did could actually dwarf what Gah Lak Tus was about to do. Comprehending the significance of possibly sacrificing a distant infant universe in order to save your own home planet is not exactly something that any of us have experience with.
And he knows that, but with no time to really think it through, he just does it, to survive.
That’s exactly the kind of scene that has made the Ultimate universe so popular in the last few years: revealing that, under extreme duress, even superheroes do what they need to do to make it through to the next sunrise.