Graphic Novel Review: New Ultimates: Thor Reborn

PUBLISHED: 10:06 28 April 2011

New Ultimates Vol 1

New Ultimates Vol 1

Archant

(Panini £12.99)

Jeph Loeb and Frank Cho

IN 2002, Brit writer Mark Millar reinvented Marvel superhero team the Avengers for the newly created Ultimate Marvel Universe, a parallel world much more grounded in reality than the traditional MU. Over the course of 26 killer issues and two annuals, largely produced in collaboration with photo-realistic artist Bryan Hitch, he crafted an intelligent, politically-inspired take on how an alliance of incredibly-powered beings could possibly operate in post-911 America. Then, having said everything they wanted to about the Ultimates, both Millar and Hitch left for new projects, leaving their creation in the hands of once-celebrated writer Jeph Loeb.

Over the course of five issues illustrated by former X-Men artist Joe Madureira, Loeb succeeded in stripping away the emotional depth behind the team, ignored the real world grounding which Millar made work so well, and left the book a hollow shell of what it had once been. He then compounded his mistakes in the horrifically misjudged Ultimatum mini-series, which received almost universally negative reviews for its shock and awe tale of the devastation of Manhattan by a tidal wave created by mutant terrorist Magneto. By the end of this five issue run, the Ultimate Marvel Universe had been torn apart, beloved characters were dead, and Loeb’s reputation as a comics writer was in tatters.

But despite producing a comic book which ignored characterisation, storytelling and dialogue at the expense of violence and bloodshed, including a particularly graphic scene of human cannibalism, someone high up at Marvel decided to give Loeb another shot at the Ultimates with this new series.

They shouldn’t have bothered.

OK, the Thor Reborn arc is nowhere near as bad as Loeb’s previous work with the team, and he seems to be at least attempting to rectify some of his earlier oversights by focusing each issue on a specific character in a bid to provide them with some of the depth lacking from previous storylines after Millar’s departure. But at the end of the day, he still fails to achieve even a fraction of the impact of his predecessor’s run.

The first issue focuses on a theme which has run through Loeb’s work for the past five years, the death of his 17-year-old son Sam from cancer, as seen during his run on DC’s Superman/Batman title. But here, as he emphasises the horrific side-effects of chemotherapy through the experiences of Ultimates leader Tony (Iron Man) Stark, it seems forced and lacking in emotional depth.

The rest of the run falls ever further from this opening, and one can’t help being left with the feeling that Loeb himself may be suffering from creative burnout, as we are left with a remix of some of Millar’s themes of betrayal and loss, wrapped up in a tale of Asgardian god Thor’s resurrection from Valhalla, the Norse realm of the dead, as part of his brother Loki’s machinations on Earth.

It’s a tired and formulaic plot, with nothing new that sets it aside from the sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki which has played out for more than 40 years in the mainstream Marvel Universe.

With the suitably titled New Ultimates, Loeb had a chance to prove he was still the award-winning writer behind such acclaimed titles as Superman For All Seasons and Batman: The Long Halloween, but judging from this opening arc alone, he appears to have missed that opportunity. Whether he can redeem himself in subsequent storylines remains to be seen.

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