Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ultimate Human #1

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are as different as any two men can be — at least, as far as brilliant scientific masterminds go. Stark is the supreme success story, achieving miracles through technology that were previously thought to be impossible. Banner is the classic underachiever, constantly failing to reach the potential of his world-class brain, leaving chaos and destruction in the wake of his mangled experiments. How the two have never been paired as such is a terrible oversight, but also something I hadn't even considered before Warren Ellis laid it all out in the first few pages of Ultimate Human.

Truly, the Ultimate universe is the perfect playground for this kind of uncharted territory. Neither individual carries with him the deep, developed history that surrounds their counterparts in the standard 616 universe. As characters, they're both still infants — complete with untapped strengths and unexplored weaknesses. Stark has an addictive personality, and unless he can satiate that appetite with worthwhile scientific breakthroughs, he fills the void with alcohol. Banner is painfully aware of both his intellectual potential and his tragic track record, but it kills him to turn to another to ask for help. In this new series, that's exactly what he does.

Banner knows that Stark was literally born with tiny robots in his bloodstream, the subject of his parents' experiments while he was still in the womb. He also knows that Tony's taken a deep personal interest in the nature, modification and technology behind these nanomachines. In plain English, he wants Iron Man to inject him with more of the same, in the hopes that it will help him control his transformations into the Hulk. Naturally, not everything is going to go according to plan.

It's my humble opinion that Warren Ellis is at his absolute best when he's writing this kind of a story: fantasy wrapped in just enough scientific and medical detail to flip that switch in the reader's brain and convince them that what they're reading is more than just science fiction. While Stark is experimenting on his comrade, in the midst of his horrific transformation into the grey behemoth, we're discovering what's going on inside the man's body during the change. Ever wondered what happens to the Hulk's guts when he shrinks back down to Bruce Banner's size? His skeleton? Ellis explores these concepts and more, and it's just captivating reading. And that's not even the half of it; at the same time, he's introducing new characters and sliding them into the fray, stirring things up from afar even as they grow more heated in Stark's personal laboratory.

Cary Nord's artistic contributions go hand in hand with the writer's reality-grounded storytelling. His style is almost pedestrian, accenting the humanity of two of Marvel's most relatable characters. When Banner's big transformation into the Hulk actually happens, he highlights the physical strain and grotesque, jolting nature of that change. It isn't the simple, pretty fade from tiny man in glasses to tall green man in torn clothes that it's always been; here it's a violent, obviously painful growth. When Banner's eyes stare, unfocused at the floor midway through the change, it really hits home just how vile the process really is. Nord has never been one of my favorite artists, but his work in this issue has led me to believe that he may have been merely working with the wrong type of story. He's great, and fits the bill perfectly here.

This series was a surprise, since I'd never even heard mention of it before it arrived in my inbox as review material. I wouldn't have it any other way — it's surpassed even my wildest expectation, and given me yet another title to add to my monthly pull list. If you were taken by Ellis's work on Ultimate Fantastic Four, if you're a fan of the characters or if you just like an intelligent sci-fi adventure, this will be right up your alley. Take a chance on a new series and buy it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9

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