This issue is about sex, in case you weren’t aware. Sex-appeal is how publishers used to sell comics, or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. We, as a fanbase, want it to be that comics don’t still sell for their sexed up women that in scantily clad ninja outfits, whip around nun-chucks and kick muscular men in their teeth. That’s old school, that’s from the ’80’s and ’90’s, those sort of books don’t get published anymore, right? Well, we are wrong when we say that and we know the truth, though it has gotten better, they still make these comics. All-New Ultimates #4‘s story floats around four or five subjects: Is Jessica Drew a lesbian? Has Tandy Bowen (Dagger) had sex with Tyrone Johnson (Cloak) yet? Is it wrong that Miles kissed a woman while he is dating Kate Bishop? Will Diamondback be able to keep Lana Baumgaurtner (Bombshell) from getting raped by her own gang members while under her persuasion?
Seriously these are the dilemmas that this issue gives us… Scourge is finally revealed in the last issue and he is mentioned once in passing during #4. Peculiar that Fiffe chose to just derail the arc from this plot to take “a day off” with his characters when he literally just pulled the trigger on the development of Ultimate’s newest foil to the superheroes we love to read. The big question surrounding this issue is, what the heck is going on?
To be fair, the book is not trying to sell itself on sex alone. There’s one page of Detective Schreck being knocked into a sewer by what looks like a lawn gnome with a gun in a tow truck (zero context given, can’t waste any more time trying to figure out what it means) and somewhere in the beginning there’s two pages of Cloak chasing some drug users out of his home, the abandoned cathedral, and getting into it with some old man across the street for inexplicable reasons. This is troublesome though, Fiffe never returns to this during the issue. Cloak, in broad daylight, openly engages a civilian and two addle-brained drug addicts, using what looks to be the fullest extent of his recently acquired and untrained abilities, and that’s all we get. Two pages of brief conflict. Then there’s even a few panels of Kitty still fighting the fame of being Earth’s savior during the Galactus battle. Admittedly, this was one of the best parts in the issue as it was good to see that brought up again. It really wouldn’t make much sense if she emerges in public and not one person mentions that to her. She is, from here on out, a total celebrity.
The issue also has a Skinny Ganke (not anywhere near as fun as Bendis/Marquez’s pudgy Ganke) talking about macking other women with Miles while they’re websling their way over to the movies. This scene is not beneificial for any reason other than to establish that Diamondback’s kiss to Miles appears to incite mind-control. Maybe. Once again in this series, readers are left to their own devices to establish what is going on. Even more troublesome is that Miles is using his webs. In Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man #3, Peter Parker shows back up, knocks Miles out, and steals the web-shooters back. There is a clear reference in All-New Ultimates #4 of that very Miles Morales issue when Ganke asks: “And what’s with you wanting to tell Katie everything? Was your secret identity not enough?” Editorial oversight aside, a relating series released within the same month with opposing information is strange from Marvel, especially in the Ultimate-verse. Their ducks are usually all in a row, this is a peculiar mistake.
The only real clairvoyant piece of plot that emerges from this scene is Diamondback’s hold on Miles (from the kiss in issue #2) is taking effect as he seems to be leaving behind diamonds in his webbing. But how did that get there? And why the heck is he leaving diamonds? How did Ganke, of all people, who was staring at him while he loaded his web-shooters with the fluid Ganke gave him, not notice him leaving behind a gigantic, sparkling, rock? Example after example emerge in this series that prove these issues have less to do with the writing on Fiffe’s part and fall back onto Amilcar Pinna who just can’t get a grasp on panel layout and action order. So many things happen off panel in this series, things we are assumed to either understand or at least vaguely register, but at no point is context illuminated. Artwork should be able to convey these points the writer wishes to hide information and not conceal context that is possibly valuable to understand the action throughout the comic.
Another great example of this is in the two page, four panel “spread” of the Serpent Skulls moving in on several gang turfs. We have Anaconda taking on the Wolfpack, Sidewinder fighting off the Zodiacs, Black Racer against the Supreme Soviets, and Death Adder strangling the Nasty Boys. It’s assumed that the gangs spoken about in the first issue that emerged from the havoc that was Galactus are the ones we see here, but with a lack of police characters, who have been pushing their noses into the story the past three issues, nowhere to be seen in this issue– it’s hard to figure out why these kids have so much free-time and have such trouble finding bad-people to beat-up. Issue #2 had Crossbones make an obvious threat to the gangs, stating “We will teach them these lessons of the world,” so obviously this is the movement expected to see but when it’s simply restricted to four panels of mayhem and murder, it’s awful hard to appreciate the true widespread danger this Cobra Skulls gang offer.
Sure, the obvious repercussions of the Teen-Ultiamates taking the day off will be turning on the TV and seeing their current foes wreaking havoc in every borough in New York City, but why the heck would they have even taken the day off in the first place? They had, what–two days of action as a team? This feels wildly out of character for a group of thoughtful, selfless, intelligent, and superpowered youths who are each, in some way, responsible. A day off from being superheroes, especially with Scourge running around, seems like it’s building into some sort of lesson-learning plot device. Unfortunately, said plot-device is so hackneyed it’s nearly intolerable. We’ll see how it pans out as the comic proceeds.
This issue is good for one thing and that’s the fact that it brings the focus back into characterization. Teen angst sells comics like you wouldn’t believe and this series should be delivering this sort of thing in boat loads while keeping in tune with previously established characterizations. While it hasn’t been poor characterization so far, this is unfortunately the worst it has been. Here we see Jessica finally acknowledge to the group that she is in fact a clone of Peter Parker, a secret that up until then only Miles knew. The fact that Kitty Pryde didn’t know is sort of a stunner. Regardless, Jess comes out as a clone and as a lesbian, without actually saying the words on the latter (she says “girls” feel right). Apparently she really has a thing for red-heads (go figure) and she admits to having a thing for “Jewish girls too” which sets off a very disconcerting look for Kitty, an ex of the now dead/maybe not dead Peter Parker.
But if Jessica is supposed to be a clone of Peter, why is she acting so introverted and quiet? Sure Peter was bashful in his early days, but he was a nerd surrounded by people he couldn’t get along with. Afterwards and as the series (and characters) developed, Peter, when surrounded by trusted friends (those that knew his secret identity), would become nothing short of a loving, talkative, extrovert. He wasn’t touchy-feely by any means but he was hospitable, communicative, funny, even snarky. Jessica has been all of those things several times under the penmanship of Bendis and somewhere between that character tailoring and Fiffe’s take-over, Jessica is either trying to find her own personality or has lost any sense of her personality. No matter which way it swings, it’s a totally distinct and discouraging change for fans of the character.
Also, what’s with the sex talk? Sure one would expect it from “bad-girl” Lana, but where is this coming from with Tandy? Dagger has been softly developing and blooming into character, we really have very little information of her previous life before the limo accident that resulted in her and Tyrone’s bodies being delivered to Roxxon for experimentation. But here she is talking up sex-banter while Kitty stands by the good ‘ole sentiment: “That’s strictly nunya.” But the conversation is so wrapped in such ill-defined terms while the girls (who hardly utter any sort of teenage argot) use indistinct innuendoes and you really have to be very focused on the dialogue while reading it to really get a grasp as to what the hell is being talked about. The focus in this part of the comic though is not just the sex-talk, it’s informing readers (mostly the male readers) which of these characters is a virgin, which are not, and who is willing to tell. It is a fruitless conversation that doesn’t appear to relate to their relationships as friends. It’s weak in character development other than confessions from Jessica about her sexuality.
That point alone is something to rail against, if you’ll forgive the brief soapboxing. There is an unmistakable demand for comics that better display diverse characters and comics that have these kinds of conversations between these kinds of characters, creating safe-havens for those who can relate and open readership. The fact that this conversation is muted, interrupted, or even faintly censored is remarkable when you compare the fact that this is the same publishing company that married two gay couples and marketed it, put a Pakistani girl in the tights of Ms. Marvel, introduced a slew of diverse characters and titles in comparison to the Distinguished Competition, and is known the world over for trying to develop characters as diverse as we are in their films and tv series (key word being “try”).
So what in the heck is Michel Fiffe, Emily Shaw, Mark Panicca, Axel Alonso, and Joe Quesada doing avoiding this conversation? It feels like the girls realize it was a topic that sort of… went on too long. Kitty and Tandy acknowledge Jess for being brave for admitting these things but there is an empty slot here, a place for genuine support that isn’t realized by either the writer or the editors or both. Worse than that, it seems Lana’s relationship with Poey is one based on drugs and moral support. Turns out, Poey, apart from being freakishly clingly, is suicidal. Young women everywhere can relate to this conversation piece. Drugs involved or not, Poey and Lana’s relationship is a mixture of typical and stereotypical troubled-teen relationship and it ends with a grapefruit and a gun rather than some sort of closure or consolation. Introducing realism and then mishandling it or executing it within two panels is not the way to hook readers. The handling of sensitive issues with young teens is a point that this series needs to work on or they are going to drive readers away.
As always, the art is strange. While the cover (by David Nakayama, or as his signature states, D.NA) has the young women looking like designer models in skimpy bikinis that are each vaguely reminiscent of their costumes or powersets, their actual bikinis/swimsuits are far more fitting when you get to the interior pages. Without trying to focus on the swimwear of the underage women in the issue, why is it Tandy and Jessica choose to be in form covering outfits here, outfits which support their character traits, and on the cover they are posing for Victoria’s Secret? Jess, who is probably still trying to wrestle the reality of being a woman while thinking like the young man Peter Parker, is in in a one-piece suit and Tandy wears a beach dress. While the cover wants to show off their “hot bods” in a desperately out-of-character design, the interior goes above and beyond to actually match outfits with people and I really have to applaud Pina for that because it’s one of the few things he seems to consistently nail when you look back at these four issues.
Faces and eyes, on the other hand, need some troubleshooting. Ganke looks like some sort of doll during his few panels and at least four times in this issue there’s this weird snarl, lip-biting thing that goes on that really just looks strange and misplaced. The bodytypes are unique and consistent for each of the women and Miles is his regular lanky and muscular self. The outfits some of these Cobra Skulls are in though are a bit ridiculous. The doofy-looking fella with the limegreen tight-tights, 70’s style collar, a ridiculously impractical skull placed as what appears to be a button under his adam’s apple, and a silly looking biker-helmet is something comical you might pick out of a Superior Foes of Spider-Man comic. I mean, he looks just silly. In fact, each and every Cobra Skull member, Diamondback included, look like they’re about to head out and search for the Warriors. In terms of costume design, this stuff is a bit silly and over the top, but hardly discouraging as a reader.
This issue is not necessarily new-reader friendly, despite taking slight diversion from the current story arc. Picking it up, it offers a lot and delivers a little. The question remains, how many issues before it really finds it’s legs and starts running? This series could not find it’s pacing fast enough with the recent cancelation of Ultimate FF, a tie-in series to this one. The clock is officially ticking in terms of improvements and while there is plenty to look at positively (character interactions, plot thickening, continued world-building) there is still far too many problematic points in question with this series. Far be it from me to preach to Marvel what to consider, but a change up in art might not hurt.