Writer Michael Fiffe continues to lay the brick and mortar down for his All-New Ultimates, creating a series that is uniquely his own. The Ultimate line has suffered inconsistency over the years with some of the character portrayals as they bounced from writer to writer (most noticeable in the Ultimate X-Books). Thankfully Fiffe doesn’t disappoint and keeps in tune with Bendis’ established character layouts (Cloak, Dagger, Miles Morales/Spider-Man, Jessica Drew/Black Widow, Bombshell, and Kitty Pryde). They act accordingly to their prior appearances but there seems to be something lacking. In the big fight scene, they appear weak and unsuited for such heroic antics.
This is slowly becoming an untrained group of ragtag “teenie boppers,” as Crossbones refers to them, and they are incapable of making it out of a street-level fight with the Serpent Skulls, despite going head-to-head with the likes of Galactus and high-armored, fully weaponized, Roxxon security in the past. There is a lot of pressure on someone like Fiffe to take these well-established and definitive characters and place them together in a team setting for the first time. His job of following Bendis, who has shaped these character’s from their birth, is not an easy one and he deserves credit for pulling off what he has thus far.
The world of this new Ultimates team is still under construction as Fiffe produces new character after new character; what feels like a new face on each page. Text boxes to inform readers of a character’s purpose in the story is an old-hat trick for comics and is not necessarily taboo to use, even in contemporary stories. However, for the entire first issue no introductions to the cast of Detectives and Serpent Skulls were made and in this second issue there are 12 text boxes informing readers of the second-tier cast, expecting readers to care and differentiate between various goons. For example; who is this Detective Paul “The Crippler” Dennis? The reference in an Ultimate Universe to a 616 Wild-Pack feels obligatory whilst everyone else in the Serpent Skulls are recognized 616 Captain America villains such as Sidewinder, Diamondback, and Crossbones.
All the introductions might feel inconsequential but through Fiffe’s unorthodox approach, there is room to have a very unique story in the Ultimate franchise. It’s slow-going, but these characters don’t feel purposeless. There is plenty to speculate about in this book because at only issue #2 Fiffe is still establishing the building blocks of this world. There is a flavor of things to come such as high-stakes gang wars and unrelenting police officers seeking justice for their fallen comrades. A lot of matches are struck, fuses lit, but it feels a long way off before anything is ready to blow.
Though the story is still building up, there are questions that remain and look to haunt the readership for a little while longer. There is still little information given about this mysterious Scourge (who looks strikingly like Chameleon), a serial killer running around and eliminating anyone who appears to have super powers or a mask. Along with this recent mystery we are given little details as to why Jessica would change her name from Spider-Woman to Black Widow despite sporting a red jacket that gives off a very Scarlet Spider vibe. Then there’s the curious division of officers being led by Brigid O’Reilly meant to deal with super gangs. It seems that the cataclysmic attack by the cosmic super-entity Galactus has left New York in an unrelenting crime spree and while the Serpent Skulls are on the rise so are the killings of masked villains and (presumably) vigilantes. With the O’Reilly’s crime unit investigating the abandoned Roxxon Corporation outposts in search for villains Styx and Stone, it’s only a matter of time until they and the All-New Ultimates simultaneously stumble onto something big and the gaps in the story can start connecting.
The dynamic of the team is where Fiffe’s writing is at its strongest. His dialogue with Miles and Jessica, the most seasoned of the group, displays their awareness of the young Ultimates’ lackluster skills as a team. He coaxes sympathy with his use of Bombshell, the youngest and now most irritable of the group and a former antagonist to Peter Parker. Her frustration with their predicament is understandable and it helps when a writer gives a character the forethought to question decisions and actions. These characters aren’t just two dimensional, so when they call into question what they actually think they’re doing, running around fighting gangsters and cops in spandex, it lends itself to be that much more relatable.
Fiffe is massaging in the double-plots, which no Spider-Comic is complete without. Fiffe even plays to the X-Files crowd with strange supernatural occurrences being investigated by everyday detectives. But the book is circulating around the plot of a newly formed super-team trying to squash a gang war before it engulfs the entire city. All-New Ultimates, at it’s heart, is about a green-team learning to work alongside each other while in tandem a high-functioning gang of deadly, super powered, street fighters roam New York. Fiffe nails that, if nothing else.
The critique applied to a longstanding series like Amazing Spider-Man cannot also be applied to a book just two issues in that throws together a new cast, a new creative team, and a whole new bag of cats to play with. Credit is due to Fiffe, Pinna, and Woodard who take charge and really bring in some characters who in the 616 might be considered benchwarmers. This creative team is trying to escalate a seemingly easy-to-wrap up threat as a hellish nightmare for New York City and the young Ultimates, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite there yet. Certainly with the awful poison that was stabbed into Jessica, the intensity of the situation should increase rapidly. That final panel is absolutely unnerving, as it should be.
Fiffe isn’t working magic, but he’s crafting all the same and it will take time. Likely, he will be given the time to make it work and it should be a whizz-bang story once it all clicks. Likewise, it appears artist Amilca Pinna and colorist Nolan Woodard still need some time to get it all to flow together. I pointed out Pinna’s seemingly inconsistent character designs before and it’s really no better this issue, but the coloring this issue helps to illuminate some of the difficulties with this art. They are both superbly talented, but the combination of the two makes for awkward artwork. Regardless, Bombshell’s projectiles, the impact effects in the three-way clash, and in general just about anything associated with super powers, is wonderfully highlighted, colorful, and impressive.
Unfortunately, there’s strange skin complexion in relation to lighting, which gives characters like Crossbones a Purple Man look in one page of panels and a pale, muscular, Lex Luthor look in the next set. It doesn’t help that there is a consistent use of warm colors like pink, maroon, purple, and even red, making the tone of the page feel almost opposite of what the action in the story should be depicting. The hues of pink are really noticeable throughout the issue. The panels are consistent, but plain, and they don’t really try to stretch the limits of the page and open up the scene with interesting angles or unique perspectives. Discouraging is a good word to describe the art. It’s not that this is bad stuff, but these are characters who exceed the limits of our imagination.
It’s prudent to point out that there are two scenes for art that are both aesthetically pleasing and wonderfully rendered. The panels of Jessica hallucinating are a fabulous use of colors and trippy visuals, almost something you would expect from a Doctor Strange comic. Before this there’s also the full page panel of the All-New Ultimates being dumped from a teleport out of Cloak’s… well, cloak. It calls back to the days of Mark Bagley’s work on Ultimate Spider-Man and could, speech-bubbles aside, even work as a cover. An undeniably solid panel.
Concerns aside, this book is just getting started. The engines are revving and the take-off is a mere issue away. With big hopes for issue #3 to explode out of the gate, there’s a lot of reasons to keep holding on to this book. A fantastically diverse cast of characters, intertwined subplots slowly spreading out and revealing themselves, and a team of creators that clearly know and respect the characters — even if they are new to them. This isn’t a miraculous issue, this isn’t even a great issue, but it’s hard to consider a comic with this much ambition a flop.
With characters this interesting, it’s discouraging that All New-Ultimates #2 doesn’t try to really raise the bar and attempt new things. Basic panel layout and odd coloring schemes hurt the tone of an already packed story with what feels like editorial oversight, but the conflict is quickly escalating and should result in a much better third issue as pieces of the story come together.