Sunday, March 28, 2004

Saturday evening I spent some time at Barnes & Noble, and, as I often do when I'm hanging out there, I reaad some TPBs of comics I've heard good things about but haven't read. One of them was the first collection of Marvel's The Ultimates. Rarely have I ever read a more maddeningly schizophrenic comic. There's much that's very, very good here, including terrific characterizations on Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk. The last was especially interesting; a Hulk rampage, for instance, was triggered at one point by Banner's feelings of jealousy and rage that resulted from Betty Ross going on a date with another man.

But that sequence also illustrated the grievous flaw in the book: An overwhelming desire for hipness and cachet with The Young People that made the whole thing feel like you were looking at a guy trying to act like his mid-life crisis behavior is how he's always acted, man!

You see, the guy Betty Ross was on a date with was Freddie Prinze, Jr. You know, Mr. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Star of, um, not a single thing this century that wasn't an effects-drived pile of schlock that would have made just as much money if it had starred a baked potato in the same role. For some reason, we never see Prinze's face; he's always shown in a long shot, with his back turned, or with a word balloon strategically placed in front of his face.

And that's not the only instance of celebrity name-dropping; there's also Tony Stark on a date with Shannon Elizabeth in -- wait for it -- the Space Shuttle (the kids these days LOVE the Space Shuttle!), pointless references to the likes of Cameron Diaz, and a bizarre multi-page sequence in which the Wasp, Hank Pym, and Nick Fury sit around and talk about who they'd cast in a movie of the comic they're starring in.

It's like all the postmodern stuff in Morrison's Animal Man, except it's pointless and it sucks.

Worse than the hip! current! name-dropping, though, is an overall revelling in the puerile throughout the book. The Hulk going on a jealousy-filled rampage is a good idea. Hulk screaming about how horny the battle is making him is not. Nor is having the Wasp bring him to a standstill by flashing her breasts at him. It's just plain juvenile.

And for some reason, Tony Stark's butler Jarvis is now gay. Instead of subtle characterization that deepens our understanding of the character or adds texture to the world of the book, however, he's just portrayed as a middle-aged poof making what apparently in some circles pass for witty comments about Cap and Thor.

And worst of all is a brutal scene of domestic abuse between Pym and the Wasp; that scene was just plain creepy, but not in a facing-the-reality-of-domestic-violence way. It was more of a Christ-I-wish-they'd-stop-trying-so-hard-to-creep-me-out-by-wallowing-in-exploitation-film-caliber-pornographic-violence sort of way, if you see the difference.

It's a damn shame, because there's much about this book that's good; a brief sequence of Cap walking home with the Wasp after a shopping trip brings home the "man out of time" aspect of his character better than most things I've read along similar lines. But it's so wrapped up in a leering, lookit-me sensibility that all of that gets pretty much lost in the cracks. It's a damn shame; this could have been a really great comic.

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