Today, Spencer and Drew are discussing The Ultimates 5, originally released March 23rd, 2016.
Spencer: As a team, the Ultimates exist to solve problems within the Marvel Universe that are too grand for any other team to fix; it’s fitting, then, that Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort seem to be using The Ultimates 5 to solve an equally grand problem that Marvel Comics as an entity have been grappling with for years. It’s perhaps the most meta-textual concept in an issue full of meta, but thankfully, all that meta makes for an intriguing read.
So what’s the problem? Well, “time is broken.” This phrase was thrown around a lot by Marvel a few years ago, when the massive time travel shenanigans of Age of Ultron, as well as of Hank McCoy and his All-New X-Men experiment, seemed to be weakening the very fabric of the universe. The Ultimates finally aim to put this problem to rest for good, but first they need to assess the damage that’s already been done. To do so, they venture into the void outside of all existence, but the emptiness overwhelms them, and Galactus ends up stepping in to save the team’s lives. Galactus insists that time isn’t broken at all, and proceeds to enlighten the team on the real nature of “time.”
Long story short, Galactus is describing Marvel’s sliding timeline, the system that establishes, say, the Fantastic Four or Iron Man’s origins as taking place around ten years into the past even though those stories were published 50 years ago. In this universe, time is constantly in flux, even the so-called established past. It’s a system that creates a clear and logical excuse for continuity errors, retcons, and dated stories, but more importantly, it solves the “time is broken” problem in real life as well.
While the integrity of the timeline is the Ultimates’ ultimate concern (ha!), the problem with “time is broken” as a promotional phrase is that nothing can ever really come from it. Time travel stories aren’t going away — Marvel can make all the claims they want about putting a cork in them, but it would be a temporary change at best, which is probably why the phrase just disappeared after a while with no real resolution. In that sense, I suppose you could say that Ewing’s addressing it came too late, but that’s almost besides the point — what this solution does is keep as many storytelling options open as possible.
Think about it. “Time is broken” is certainly a storytelling possibility, but a limited one — if it’s resolved, time-travel stories are over forever, so Ewing’s taken that possibility off the table entirely. Yet, Galactus also states that disruption of the timeline could still change history as the Ultimates know it, perhaps even erasing them from the timestream entirely — time travel stories still have massive stakes, up to and including destroying the timeline as we know it. What we have here is a scenario that removes the limitations of “time is broken” yet keeps all its advantages; I’d chalk that up as a problem solved, folks.
Before Galactus returns the (now sedated) Ultimates to reality, though, he stops to have a quick chat with Eternity itself.
Rocafort certainly makes this a moment a show-stopper, depicting Eternity as a figure that dwarfs even the great Galactus (who, himself, is depicted as being far beyond the abilities of our heroes). Yet, for all its power, something has bound and captured the very Marvel Universe itself, and that’s no small feat. Who has that kind of power? How about the creators and editors at Marvel Comics? I mean, they are literally the ones who control every minute detail of the Marvel Universe — if Ewing and Rocafort decide that Eternity is going to be in chains, they have the power to make it so.
Don’t get me wrong, I doubt the villain of this arc is actually going to be revealed within the pages of The Ultimates as Marvel Comics (though I wouldn’t put it past Ewing), but it seems likely to me that whoever’s behind this could easily represent Marvel. If so, then what is Ewing trying to say about the company? Jury’s still out, but brainstorming the possibilities has got me awfully excited.
In the meantime, Galactus poses an intriguing question of his own when he accuses the Ultimates of hubris, claiming that they breached eternity, not to fix time, but simply because it was a challenge they couldn’t resist. Is there any truth to this? It’s hard to tell, but Ms. America may offer some answers as to the team’s motives.
This scene is a touching (and very necessary) human moment in an otherwise clinical issue, but what stands out to me is America’s constant, incessant need to help people. I’d say that this goes for the rest of her teammates as well — you don’t decide to solve the “ultimate” problems unless you have a pressing need to make things better. I suppose the question, then, is if this need to help people is pushing the Ultimates to take unnecessary risks, both to themselves and to the universe at large. And as the self-appointed watchdog of the Ultimates, does this shared quality dampen America’s objectivity? If America needs to remember to ask her friends for help, is there somebody the Ultimates should be asking for help when things get out of hand as well? Man, there’s even more questions I can’t wait to see if future issues address.
Drew, I think you might be the perfect partner to talk about this issue with — its meta-commentary seems right up your alley. Am I right, or did this one not click for you? How about Rocafort’s art this month? I’m a bit curious about the shapes in the gutter this time around, particularly how they switch from shapes to a kind of liquid/goo for America’s flashback — any thoughts on what that means? And where did this “Mac” nickname for America come from, anyway? I don’t like it.
Drew: Silly Spencer; a flexible, fluid timeline means that America has always been called Mac, and will be forever. That is, until someone decides that she was never called Mac, and never will be forever. Strained timeline jokes aside, Spencer, you correctly identified what most captured my imagination in this issue. I absolutely love your reading of Galactus’ description of time as a meta-commentary on Marvel’s continuity, but there’s one big hitch: Galactus is lying. It’s a simplified explanation he offered to the “pre-cosmic minds” of the Ultimates to avoid them destroying themselves. That notion of knowledge as a destructive force is an incredibly old one, and puts the Ultimates on footing with that of Prometheus or Adam and Eve. But I think it also offers a meta-commentary on narratives, and our own suspension of disbelief. I’m working this out as I type it, so bear with me.
If intimate knowledge of how time works in the universe — and specifically, how the universe is constrained (both the chains we see on Eternity, and the “cage” Anti-Man refers to) — could destroy the Ultimates, I’m inclined to think that it’s not the meaning of the chains we need to parse first, but that of the Ultimates themselves. I’m inclined to see this knowledge as simply standing in for our own awareness of the constraints of this fictional universe — editorial mandates, sales numbers, and simple copyright rules all have a huge influence on what Marvel does and doesn’t produce. Moreover, we seem to be living in an age where people are constantly second-guessing decisions at that level. Cynical readers are suspicious of a female Thor or a growing emphasis placed on the Inhumans because they see it is somehow meddlesome. I’ve long argued that those quibbles are suspiciously inconsistent — isn’t it just as meddlesome that copyright considerations prevent Superman from swooping in to save the Ultimates here? — but Ewing makes a much more compelling argument: caring about that stuff destroys the Ultimates (and, by extension, any comic you’re reading). That is, obsessing over the most basic rules that govern a universe (however convoluted the origin of those rules may be) is detrimental to your ability to accept and enjoy the narratives within that universe.
Before I carry this line of reasoning too far, I do want to acknowledge that there certainly is room for considering these editorial-level questions when discussing comics — a discussion of comics in the ’50s and ’60s would be incomplete without examining the impact of the Comics Code, for example. However, while that knowledge can inform why those decisions were made, engaging with the narrative necessarily requires us to accept that the decisions were made. “This comic is bad because of the Comics Code” is dismissive to the point of uselessness, and utterly fails to engage with the comic at hand. The same could be said of any creator decision, from the appointment of legacy heroes to the appointment of creative teams. An understanding of the reasons behind those decisions can be informative, but offer no guidance as to whether or not those decisions work. Oof. Can you tell I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about these things?
Anyway, my read is that the Ultimates represent our engagement with the material. They aren’t the readers or the creators or the editors, but the magic that happens when we accept and enjoy a work of fiction. That is what’s at risk of being destroyed by too much “hyper-cosmic awareness.” What’s intriguing, though, is that Ewing doesn’t seem to agree with Galactus and Eternity’s assessment that we should be spared this knowledge. That is, I doubt he’s bringing up that this isn’t the whole story only to ignore the whole story forever. Which I guess brings me back to those chains/the cage.
Spencer, I can definitely see a reading where the chains represent the editors, who restrict creators from running absolutely wild. BUT, I can also see an equally valid reading where the chains represent the continuity of the Marvel Universe, which might actually be why the editors are so restrictive in the first place. But maybe continuity only has to be adhered to because of obsessive fans, in which case the readers are the chains. I guess I’m saying we don’t have enough information to validate any one of these readings over the others, but I’m inclined to think that the blame for the restrictive, continuity-obsessed world of comics rests somewhat evenly on everyone’s shoulders.
But the real piece of meta-commentary that I couldn’t wait to talk about was Galactus’ heroic entrance:
“Everything lives” is the optimistic rebuke to the “everything dies” refrain of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers epic. Only, Ewing opens the issue recreating the end of Secret Wars, reminding us that this hopeful turn might actually be Hickman’s.
I somehow missed the obvious parallel that Hickman’s run, which chronicled the death of every universe Marvel had ever created, ended with the creation of infinite new ones. Death became life. Dread became hope. Man, if this series does nothing but help me appreciate just how beautiful of an ending Secret Wars 9 was, that’s more than worth its cover price.
Oh, and Thanos is back. How’s that for hope?
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