It was hard going, reading New Ultimates #1, the other Jeph Loeb-penned Ultimate-line Marvel book. Even the phenomenal whimsy of Frank Cho’s artwork failed to cut through the depressive funk.
Since the launch of the original Ultimates (helmed by writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch), Marvel has always produced a quixotic view of the strange wedding between military intelligence and the super-powered. In the pages of Ultimates, Millar unfolded a high-frequency montage of characters who always look without leaping, whose opinions are definitely not well-considered, and who, ultimately, read more as politically incorrect throwbacks than heroes.
Except, they were heroes.
Millar’s brilliance lay in his almost unique capacity to illustrate old-timey superhero morality against the backdrop of 21st century geopolitical complexity. These stories in the volumes one and two of Ultimates had heart. Characters were motivated by deep passions, and all this beneath a veneer of icy-cold 1960s, Bond-villain lunacy. Their schemes were grand, global in conception. And yet somehow also fragile and human. Millar would redefine industry standards for comicbook heroes that seemed angst-ridden, tormented and perpetually depleted emotionally.
New Ultimates however, particularly that first issue, seems to have deflated that overweening ‘will-do’ attitude that characterized Millar’s run as somehow both light-hearted and psychologically dark. The single ecliptic image would stand out as Tony Stark, Iron Man’s, monologue on his reason for forming the Ultimates.
Loeb’s narration of Tony Stark being influenced by the chemotherapy of a young boy named Sam (details which mimic Loeb’s own harrowing ordeal with his now passed, real life son, also named Sam), seemed to push the tone of New Ultimates back to a post-Watchmen ‘dark for the sake of being dark’ mood. It was as if, within the space of a few short caption boxes, Ultimates had lost something vital.
Moreover, this sense of a harrowing mourning in public for Sam Loeb, would cast aspersions on Loeb’s own skill to helm New Ultimates. This was not the gifted writer behind Fallen Son, or Batman: Long Halloween. And this was certainly not the perspicacious young mind who as a boy had inspired writer Elliott S! Maggin (as Maggin himself admits in his introduction to Kingdom Come) to pen the seminal “Must There Be a Superman?”.
But concerns around Loeb’s public grieving as having a negative effect on his writing seem unfounded after the first issue of Ultimate X. Again, Loeb treads a paternal narrative thread, this time centered around Jimmy Hudson, the hitherto undiscovered son of X-Man Wolverine. Jimmy has been languishing in rural Florida, living with his mother, and adoptive father James Hudson the local sheriff.
For Jimmy, his identity as a mutant, and as the adopted rather than actual son of James Hudson, come as a shock. The façade of his quiet, ordinary life is shattered not only by the news of his lineage, but by his mutant abilities already beginning to manifest. Even without the untimely appearance of former X-Man Kitty Pryde, small-town life in the everglades was fast becoming a closed door to the young protagonist.
But Loeb’s genius can be seen not in the travails of his protagonist, but in his choice of narrator to frame that story. Rather than the obvious choice of an established character (and mutant known to and loved by readers) Kitty Pryde, or even Jimmy’s unknowing mutant on the cusp of his powers, Loeb chooses to narrate through the eyes of Sheriff James Hudson.
Ultimate X, ultimately is a father’s tale. It is the story of a man freeing his son from the shackles of childhood, and trusting that he has sufficiently prepared his child for the moral and psychological complexities of life. It is a work of unremitting kindness, and courage for Loeb, and one that is wholly redemptive of his incredible skill as writer.