So what happens when Stan Lee, perhaps the United States’ most famous comic book author and co-creator of many popular Marvel Comics characters, decides to create a Japanese manga? With the aid of veteran manga-ka Hiroyuki Takei, himself the author of the popular Shaman King series, we get to find out in Ultimo.
The title (in Japan, Karakuri Dôji Ultimo) is also the name of one of the main characters, a doll in the form of a boy. The doll, or Karakuri Dôji, is created by the enigmatic and seemingly immortal Dunstan to be the embodiment of perfect good. In opposition he also creates another boy of perfect evil, called Vice. Each doll must serve a human master. In Ultimo’s case it is impulsive high school student Yamato Agari, who finds and awakens Ultimo in a second-hand shop simply by coming near him. But thanks to a prologue chapter the audience already knows that Yamato is actually a reincarnation of a Robin Hood-like bandit from Japan’s Heian period, specifically in the 12th century, and that Ultimo and Vice had their introduction there.
Dunstan, a caricatured version of Lee himself, reveals he made the dolls as an experiment to find out if good or evil is stronger. Both are really advanced robots and have special powers to transform into many different combat modes and perform many different attacks. Other Karakuri Dôji soon join the battle, each with its own master. In a clever turn, the evil dolls are modeled after the traditional Seven Deadly Sins and balanced by six good dolls with the virtues of the Buddhist Six Perfections.
Events build quickly through the first three volumes, culminating in an apocalyptic event called the Hundred Machine War barely after all the characters have been introduced. The story feels rushed, as if Lee and Takei are up against some sort of deadline to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, to make things as epic as possible as quickly as possible. Only after readers open the fourth volume will they discover a reason behind the flurry of introductions and battles, as a surprising twist gives the story of Ultimo much-needed depth. The story then turns into something less simple than just “Good vs. Evil,” calling into question the true motives of Dunstan himself, and honestly makes the plot much more enjoyable.
I would love to know exactly how much of the day-to-day writing and plotting chores Lee handles. Ultimo, especially in the first three volumes, is almost stereotypically Japanese, using familiar tropes and providing nothing that surprises the reader. The battle scenes have a similar feel to Takei’s previous work on Shaman King, being almost overly dramatic. Takei is one of the more stylistically daring manga-ka to gain a United States following, and this shows in the slim, androgynous design of the robot dolls.
Many times I internalized a character as female, only to have the text prove me wrong later. The costumes and wardrobes of the dolls only muddle things further, creating very feminine appearances for robots who are all referred to as male. Coupled with the wide range of body types for the human characters, the artwork sometimes seems like a patchwork of many different artists’ work all thrown in together. The tall, gangly Yamato doesn’t quite look like he fits in with the the rest of the world. You could pick nearly any human character and say the same thing as Takei seems to revel in showing as many different body types as possible. His battle scenes can be a mishmash as well, when a character’s special attack is drawn with so many force and action lines that it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what is going on even in a two-page spread.
For all that, Ultimo definitely has a certain appeal and should go over well with those who enjoyed Shaman King, Rave Master, and similar fight-themed manga. If the series ended at volume 3, it would just be one out of many examples of the shonen genre and be quite forgettable at that. The developing plot shows signs of moving into realms where the fights aren’t as cut-and-dried, which can only help this series as it progresses. As a battle manga, there are moments of blood and sometimes the robots suffer what would be a gory death for a human, but it should work well on most young adult shelves. Stan Lee’s experimental dip into the world of Japanese comics, with obvious enormous help from Takei, is actually beginning to surprise me with its originality. I can’t help but be reminded of how Lee was there back in the 1960s to take on another experiment with a then-unknown company called Marvel.
Ultimo, vol. 1-6
by Stan Lee, Hiroyuki Takei
Vol 1: 9781421541211
Vol 2: 9781421538198
Vol 3: 9781421538419
Vol 4: 9781421539522
Vol 5: 9781421539539
Vol 6: 9781421541211
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)