Review by C.J. Bunce
Everything nearly ended. Countless heroes were killed. The Fantastic Four have disbanded. The X-Men are gone. Mutants are hunted as criminals. The world still needs saving. This is what happens next.
Released last year in a nice hardcover edition and now widely available everywhere, the oddly titled Ultimate Comics New Ultimates: Thor Reborn is not always easy to find via electronic searches because of its clunky title. And if you try to just ask for “that great Jeph Loeb/Frank Cho” book from last year, they may or may not know what you mean. But take it from me, it is well worth remembering this one.
After reading last week’s prologue to the coming Avengers vs. X-Men series (Issue #0 came out last Wednesday and Issue #1 will be released early at a special pre-release party this Tuesday night), what it made me want was more Frank Cho. In a never-dwindling stack of books to read, this New Ultimates is the one in the stack you kick yourself for not reading earlier.
By way of background, Marvel’s Ultimate Universe is a parallel universe created in 2000 to try to bring in new fans without being bogged down in 40 years of Marvel Comics Universe continuity. Sound a little like DC’s New 52? The Ultimate Universe is a sort of all-bets-are-off line that Marvel fans either love or hate. As a fan of alternate history books, and as we wait for DC Comics to reveal its own new Earth 2 and Worlds Finest parallel universe series, this trade book, re-printing the Ultimate Comics New Ultimates: Thor Reborn Issues #1-5 from 2010, is exactly the kind of story I love.
I’ll put aside Frank Cho’s brilliant art for a second and get into the story.
Jeph Loeb is one of comic book writing’s greats for a reason. His storytelling is superb in that it is succinct enough for the comic medium yet comprehensive in its bringing in several major players and turning points in only five chapters. Each issue/chapter is told both from a third person narrative and an internal monologue from a different key player–each of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Valkyrie, Loki and Thor. Sometimes the stories run parallel with each other, and in other parts they require the reader to follow the two stories separately. I rarely like switching narrators in any type of book as it usually feels like a gimmick. In comic books, if done right, it can allow you to dig into a few characters more deeply than a third person voice by itself.
Jeph Loeb clearly poured a lot of himself into this story. Loeb follows the thoughts of Tony Stark as he beats up himself for surviving a battle with cancer, while a kid he met named Sam did not survive. Sam, of course, is a reference to Loeb’s own son who had died earlier of cancer, and was the subject of a popular memorial book by several DC Comics creators. The fact that Loeb would pour such a personal story into the opening page of this book grabs the reader’s attention instantly. Suddenly we see Loeb as Stark, and it somehow allows us to understand the darkness behind Stark’s personality. As Stark is chatting with Hawkeye, a group of the New Defenders appear for a brawl. Captain America shows up with two great characters, Zarda, who Hawkeye believes to be crazy yet is a goddess in her own right, and Valkyrie, who we later learn is a typical girl next door that ends up coerced into a life of a would-be superhero.
Valkyrie is central to this story, as Thor’s lover, she cannot get over losing him. He resides in Asgard, his exiled destination for sacrificing everything–including his life–in a prior battle. We meet yp with Thor in Asgard, trying to persuade Hela to let him return. She agrees, but for a great price that he pays–without much coercion–and with a result that will likely be played out in later series.
For Frank Cho fans, this world includes Shanna of the jungle and Ka-Zar, their twin tigers, and Black Panther. They are first to confront the series’ villain, Loki, and another enchantress named Amora, with a flying dragon/dinosaur beastie invading Manhattan. As much as readers will be blown away by Cho’s pantheon of women heroes like only he draws them, including Ms. Marvel’s Carol Danvers, Valkyrie, Zarda, Amora, the enchantress, and Shanna, his male superheroes are superb, too, and Iron Man and Captain America in particular have rarely been rendered artistically any better. Also look for cameos by the Black Knight and Power Man.
We encounter a brooding Captain America, who inadvertently pushes Valkyrie and Zarda into the manipulative trance of Amora (Zarda is a ringer for Cho’s Brandy and Amora for Cho’s Jen, both from his Liberty Meadows series). Rounding out a triumvirate of super-powered women under the control of Loki and Amora, Carol Danvers, now director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is pulled in to devastate the few heroes that remain: Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. Readers are treated to several poster-worthy splash pages from Cho. And hints abound in the series as well as in-jokes. Cho’s use of eyes and expressions tell stories themselves that, in retrospect, were giveaways easily passed over on a first read. Cho’s in-jokes are peppered throughout the book, in wall paintings and coffee house menus, in backgrounds other artists would have left as filler space.
Throughout this tale we follow the tragic story of the rise of Valkyrie, actually the human Barbara Norriss, whose entire life–as she sees it–is a lie. The theme “be careful what you wish for” is repeated throughout Loeb’s story. Valkyrie’s story is emotion-filled and poignant. If you are looking for a great story along the lines of Wagner’s Ring fantasy, this story would fit right in.
Loeb sums up the ruthless Loki very well as Loki compares his and brother Thor’s story to Cain and Abel, and Esau and Jacob, “Unlike those brothers, however, I don’t want to actually KILL Thor. I just want to @#$% with him.” Consistent with the Norse god stories, and Loki in the Marvel Universe, this reveals a lot about his motivations and the pages that follow. The final chapter, shown in part through Thor’s voice, wraps the story arc up nicely.
Back to Cho’s art–although we almost take for granted Cho’s pin-up worthy splash pages, his action scenes stand up to anyone else’s in their own right. His women in battle have some similarities to Adam Hughes 1940s style women-focused cover work (like his current Batgirl covers) that I have not recognized before. The numerous characters go through several emotions, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, and his eyes and mouths, wrinkles, frown lines, etc. convey much–he really makes it all look so easy. One final note: A few of these covers were mentioned earlier here in our review of the best covers of Frank Cho.
The appendix includes a great color and black and white gatefold of alternate covers and a sketchbook of Frank Cho pencil work from this series. Overall you’ll be hard pressed to find a more interesting adventure story coupled with stellar artwork than Ultimate Comics New Ultimates: Thor Reborn.