There’s a strand of self-awareness running through All-New Ultimates which gives it more strength than other recent comics published from Disney’s comics division. This isn’t the reflexive lampshade hanging common to the Joss Whedon/Brian Michael Bendis school of superhero writing; there are no gags referencing real-life nerd debates or breaking the fourth wall by announcing which tropes the story is going to pull out next. Instead, self-awareness is manifested in the way characters behave–as individuals and as a cohesive whole who are, themselves, part of a larger community–and in craft.
The All-New Ultimates–Spider-Woman, Bombshell, Cloak and Dagger, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, and former X-Men member Kitty Pryde–refuse to simply react to crime. As children of the working poor, with powers resulting from irresponsible corporations a bit too cozy with their governments, they’ve witnessed how that mode of superheroics dead-ends: the previous Ultimates (an alternate universe Avengers) left behind a ragged New York plagued by street violence and lit by visceral neon color (Nolan Woodard even has reds, blues, golds, and violets bleed into the outlines of characters, evoking the grimy glitz of John Romita, Jr.’s Uncanny X-Men or the Walter Hill movie 48 Hours). Instead of sitting around trillion-dollar bases or posh mansions awaiting someone to fight, Michel Fiffe has these Ultimates plan–at least about as well as teenagers can plan. They meet in an abandoned church and pick targets based on what kind of threat they represent to the neighborhood. They approach fights with guerrilla tactics, opening with a sucker punch or energy blast, followed by a scramble for a makeshift weapon if an opponent threatens to overpower them. Appropriately, their main foils are all shock and awe: a police unit rolls in using bluster to keep perps in line; street gang the Serpent Skulls, meanwhile, use numbers, shakedowns, and punk outfits to bully anyone who catches their eye. That the Serpents are also backed by one of Marvel’s sinister biotech firms suggests their lower class attire is a marketing move (perhaps a playful dig at the thought of doing “subversive” art while working for an arm of a billion-dollar empire?). Amilcar Pinna draws fights between these groups in quick bursts of violence. Tight closeups and narrow panels entrap the characters, stressing danger rather than awe. Punches in this comic are statements of intent.
Where the previous Ultimates were militaristic might, squashing undesirables in Bryan Hitch’s intricately drawn two-page spreads, these kids are survivors as much as they are superheroes. They are able to joke and bullshit with one another in private settings (at one point, Bombshell mocks the group’s de facto headquarters as smelling “like a diaper”), but adopt a collective, defensive posture when one of them is gravely injured. This leaves All-New Ultimates in a place of opposition, not only to the (occasionally satirical) jingoism of the volumes it follows, but also the apathy and surveillance state apologia which crept into the main Avengers comics under Brian Bendis and Jonathan Hickman. It’s a place which, if not even remotely dangerous, is human.