Back in the 1980′s I was what was called a Marvel Zombie. Oh, I liked DC comics too, but of the two superhero universes out there I shouted “Make Mine Marvel!” with the best of them. But as I grew older, I felt attracted to things besides superheroes, coincidentally just about the time the collector’s market hit a snag in the early 90′s. For a while, I caught superhero titles only sporadically and was intrigued when Marvel revamped their continuity by launching a new imprint geared towards older readers like me: The Ultimate Universe. While I found the update of Spider-Man hit all the right notes, quite frankly the other titles seemed to miss. Unfortunately Avengers vs. New Ultimates: Death of Spider-Man falls into this latter category.
The storyline involves the Ultimates, aka the Avengers in the Ultimate Universe, tracking down covert agents who are trying to steal the super-soldier formula (of Captain America fame) and offer it to other nations so they can build their own super-powered armies. Led by SHIELD director Carol Danvers, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Black Widow, and Giant Man quickly find out the culprit is supposedly none other than former SHIELD director Nick Fury. Meanwhile Fury himself is assembling his own team, confusingly christened the Avengers, consisting of Hawkeye, the half-vampire Blade, Iron Man’s protégé War Machine, and the vigilante hero Punisher. When they track down another lead to the super-soldier security leak, it seems to indicate Carol Danvers is instead the main suspect.
The main problem with the plot is that it’s very hard to root for anyone. The characters all seem self-absorbed in their own conflicts without any regard to protecting the world from threats to the common man. Isn’t that what most superheroes are supposed to do? What we have instead is an espionage story with superheroes who act anything but heroic. For instance, on the very first page we see Thor’s indestructible hammer placed on a train track waiting for the train to hit it and derail, surely causing not only injuries but off-panel deaths. The Thor I grew up would be appalled by this sort of dishonorable attack, and Captain America would never condone it, even if it did happen to be good strategy. Another example would be the character of the Punisher. Already a controversial figure for his habit of killing criminals rather than capturing them, how does writer Mark Millar up that ante in the adult-oriented Ultimate Universe where other heroes now kill? Simple. Make him a total psychopath and let Nick Fury recruit him by promising him a whole prison full of inmates to torture. And the Punisher’s reaction when he shoots Spider-Man accidentally is in line with the psychotic he now is: he demands hysterically that he himself be punished. Spider-Man, by the way, basically plays the role of innocent bystander, simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naming the book after his death for the whole seven pages he appears in it seems quite the misnomer.
One positive for the book is the artwork by Leinil Yu and Stephen Segovia. Aided by the inkers and colorists, they work in a thin, controlled line that delineates a great amount of detail and roots the figures in a world that feels very realistic. They also manage to find angles that increase the drama of a quiet scene as well as cover action in a unique way when it explodes across the page. While easily capturing the super heroic form, their figure work also seems realistic, making all but the Hulk-like characters seem like they could exist in our world. The artwork is easily the best part about the book.
For all the talk about Avengers vs. New Ultimates: Death of Spider-Man being adult in nature, the most extreme thing in it are some blood splatters. The curse words are still censored out in the time honored (#@&%) way. It should most likely still be on the adult shelves due to the complicated plot, but there is nothing that would prevent it from being shelved in the young adult area.
I admit I am not familiar with all the continuity leading up to this storyline. It could be that I’m just not up with the current trends in the Marvel Universe. But to my mind, espionage fans would be much better served by Andy Diggle and Jock’s The Losers. Those who appreciate adult-oriented superhero tales might like Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City, or the works of Mark Waid, such as Kingdom Come, Irredeemable, or Incorruptible. But the majority of the Ultimate Universe still seems like a step in the wrong direction to me. In spite of the storyline here, other superhero tales prove you can have adult storylines without having every hero seem to decide that morality doesn’t mean anything anymore. If the Ultimates or the Avengers are now what passes for heroes, then Make Mine Something Else.