- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

This chronic feature lets me review what has recently passed my bloodshot pupils. So pull up a chair, break out the sarcasm filter and welcome to:

Mr. Zad's comic critique
The Ultimates, Nos. 1 through 7 (Marvel Comics, $2.25 each). Even after swearing that I would never again get sucked into a comic book in which familiar superheroes are shown as fallible beings with everyday problems, I have fallen into a sequential-art series espousing that very theme, and I refuse to get up.
The list over the years reads like titles to soap operas: Kingdom Come, Marvels, Astro City, Rising Stars. I had to believe every exhaustible plot about aging or psychologically bankrupt superheroes had been written, but I was wrong.
The simplest of concepts, re-imagining the birth of the Avengers as the United States Superhuman Defense Initiative, gets transformed into a complicated, socially acerbic and pop-culturally satisfying affair, thanks to the twisted mind of Ultimate X-Men scribe Mark Millar.
Headquartered in the new, government-sponsored digs of Triskelion near New York City, the team consists of a wisecracking, Samuel L. Jackson-looking Nick Fury; a recently thawed and confused Steve (Captain America) Rogers; the spousal-abusing couple of Henry (Giant-Man) Pym and Janet the Wasp; Tony (Iron Man) Stark, the billionaire playboy with an inoperable brain tumor; socially inept nerd Bruce Banner, who satiates his manly inadequacies by turning into the destructive Hulk; and the political activist and god Thor, who occasionally lends a hammer.
These folks get involved in some wild subplots that range from Dr. Banner turning into the sexually sophomoric Hulk and murdering 300 innocents after seeing his fiancee, Betty Ross, at dinner with Freddie Prinze Jr.; to Mr. Pym unleashing a horde of ants onto his miniature wife, whom he just blasted with bug spray; to former war photographer Bucky Barnes, a lifelong friend of Captain America's, marrying the hero's true love, Gail Richards.
Add to this team of manic misfits lost in their complicated lives some government coverups with splashy battles, and how can any fun-loving older comic-book reader not love this book?
I felt compelled to read each issue just to find out how much more intense their problems could get. For every superpower shown, Mr. Millar has offered an equally super, emotional mess for him or her to handle.
The creative team hooked me with the first issue, chronicling Captain America's deep-freeze demise after a spectacular World War II battle to stop the launch of the Nazis' atomic weapon, aimed at Washington, and I have been onboard ever since.
And I cannot gush enough about the fantastic artwork of Bryan Hitch. His realistic style carefully captures the beauty of the Wasp while easily revealing the frightening fury of the Hulk.
My only problem with the series is its quirky release schedule. It appears to come out every other month or when the creators get around to finishing an issue.
Nonetheless, much like my giddy response to devouring a finely crafted double-cheese pizza, the Ultimates left me equally satisfied with wonderfully layered tales and exquisite illustrations.
Bottom-line rhyme: The Ultimates lives up to its name, delivering a spectacular brand of superhero angst balanced with action that is never lame.

To the point
A selected peek at titles that didn't inspire a bloated evaluation.
The Art of Hellboy, art book (Dark Horse Comics, $49.95). Mike Mignola and his bizarre 9-year-old paranormal investigator get a 200-page tribute focusing on the illustrations that helped define the making of a sequential-art horror legend.
Blacks and reds will overwhelm the peepers as masterpieces chronicle the stylings of the artist who just wanted to draw monsters. Anyone infatuated with Hellboy and Mr. Mignola's style will love the large color and black-and-white imagery, which includes such ditties as convention sketches, lithographs, final lunch-box renderings, a model sheet, initial concepts of the character and even an entire story embedded sideways into the book culled from the Dark Horse Extra promotional posters. Overall, it's a glorious monograph celebrating a "one of a kind" creator that would look great on a coffee table in purgatory.
Daredevil vs. Spider-Man, for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $19.99). The house that Mickey Mouse built intelligently keeps releasing digital videodisc compilations of the popular 1990s Spider-Man cartoon just around the time a Marvel hero gets his own movie. This DVD, with a smattering of starring roles for Daredevil (who has his own film, starring Ben Affleck, in theaters), offers four episodes really featuring the Kingpin from the third season of the animated show.
However, what I really loved were the bonus episodes. One comes from the 1960s Grantray-Lawrence series with Kingpin annoying Spider-Man. Another, from the 1994 Fantastic Four series, puts the team in a classic confrontation with Dr. Doom, and the four get some assistance from the Man Without Fear. Stan Lee also introduces all of the 'toon happenings making the DVD a great resource for lovers of the Marvel history.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016, fax 202/269-1853, e-mail jszadkowski
@washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington D.C. 20002.

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