In these days of the internet wanking itself into a frenzy over Vanity Fair photoshoots of Infinity War it's hard to remember how un-hip the Avengers were at the start of the century. The nadir of the book - being farmed out to Rob fucking Liefeld for Heroes Reborn - was behind it but while Kurt Busiek's run had won back the fans it was too nerdy for bringing in new readers. Indeed, the title's stock was so low that when it was chosen for the next property to receive the Ultimate treatment they didn't even use the name. The result was a smash hit however and a genuine first step back to the top for the characters and concept.
The Ultimates combined two of the key forces behind Wildstorm's genre-redefining superhero smash The Authority, though they hadn't actually worked together on the title. Bryan Hitch had drawn the first dozen issues along with creator Warren Ellis, leaving with the writer before hand-picked successor Mark Millar took over the writing (with Frank Quietly as artist, at least initially). Millar had been writing for years at this point but it was the mega-selling mega-controversial Authority issues that put him on the map in America, leading to Ultimate X-Men. Hitch meanwhile had already drawn huge acclaim for the Authority's 'widescreen' visuals, featuring highly detailed and dynamic battle scenes.
They're great ingredients and the end result truly delivers. Broadly the first volume shows SHIELD (led by Nick Fury, then surprisingly a bald black guy with an eyepatch, though now he'd be less recognisable in his original form) putting together a government-backed superhero team in response to possible threats along the lines of Magneto (who assaulted the White House in the opening arc of Ultimate X-Men). The initial line-up consists of Captain America (thawed out of suspended animation as he was in the regular universe), Iron Man (already publicly known as the alter ego of Tony Stark), Thor (who claims to be the son of Odin and has his lightning powers, though how much of this is verified is called into question), Giant Man (SHIELD scientist Hank Pym) and the Wasp (Pym's wife Janet and his assistant at SHIELD). Bruce Banner (already established as the Hulk following an introduction in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up) is also a key part of the cast, eventually reverting to the Hulk and battling the team. What helps the Ultimates stand up is its' one-way relationship with the rest of the Ultimate universe; bits and pieces are picked up when they're useful (like the Hulk origin and Magento's attack on Washington) but the title largely does as it pleases; this was partly imposed due to Ultimates' infamous inability to keep to shipping dates (when a crossover with the X-Men was launched it happened in a separate mini-series, Ultimate War, with a separate creative team) it really works in the title's favour. The Ultimate universe largely kept things simple at this stage anyway but it helps lift this one clear and give it a bubble that works well for the cast and concept.
It's an altogether more realistic and more cynical approach, with much made of the political side of things - whether the team are a propaganda exercise, how professional a diverse group of untrained personnel can be in a military operation and whether they're actually needed. Also largely they're not nice people. Captain America's old-fashioned attitude is played up in a serious fashion and he's clearly a hardened soldier; Tony Stark's at least partly motivated by the money he can make off the team and is a functioning alchoholic; Thor is an activist whose ethics sometimes fly close to the line; Hank Pym is quickly shown to be out of his depth in combat and takes it out violently on Jan before the arc is out, and while she hardly deserves physical violence she's no angel. Banner meanwhile is instantly jealous of Pym, rapidly becomes neurotic and eventually takes a second dose of the Hulk serum, which turns out to be a good thing as it gives the team something to stop - though his association with them leads to the need for an immediate cover-up. PR duties themselves are handled by Betty Ross, Banner's estranged partner who shamelessly manipulates him to further her career. Nick Fury, SHIELD head and government employee, might actually be the nicest person in it. This can be a shock to the system, but it is at the same time believable.
Parts of the comic have dated, in some ways as badly as anything Stan and Jack put the team through. A key ploy and selling point of the Ultimate line was the present day setting with real world references rather than made-up pop culture. This means references to Freddy Prinze Jr and Shannon Elizabeth haven't aged well but the actual weight of the celebrity aspect, with the heroes going on chat shows and selling DVDs of their exploits, is just as salient. Pop culture will always matter to people and it helps ground the characters to give them record collections and favourite actors. It's one of the many factors that point to the arc's overt influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe - the first half of Avengers Assemble owes this one a huge debt (with the second volume carrying much of the rest). While a lot of the edges are filed off for the cinema this is basically the template. Some of the ideas had appeared elsewhere before but this is where they really got refined and pulled together - SHIELD's role in forming the team, Tony Stark's public identity, the internal threat of the Hulk and Cap's struggle with adapting to the future (which was never really addressed in the breezy Silver Age material) were all influenced by this arc.
Hitch's art meanwhile is still in and around the benchmark for superhero work. While the use of clear models for some characters (Fury) can be distracting occasionally it takes photo-realism to another level and the incredible amount of detail on everything from tanks to landmarks to graffiti makes just about every frame rewarding. The ability to get across the scale of everything is sometimes breathtaking but it's not just like looking at traced photos as Hitch also fills everything with genuine dynamism. The opening Saving Private Ryan-aping assault on a Nazi fortress isn't just a flash attention grabber but a statement of intent, with the climactic battle in Manhattan similarly full of ultra-detailed poster-quality images that still manage to tell a story as they go along. Not that he's bad when there's not action either. There's the occasional face that looks overly referenced but for the most part even simple conversations are nuanced and clear. The redesigns largely work too, with everyone just about recognisable despite the "real life" body armour ethos.
It all adds up to a genuine modern classic full of smart dialogue and memorable action. While I liked the mainstream Avengers title of the time (and still do) this was a clear, crisp reformatting which helped relaunch the team in the direction of genuine pop crossover territory for the first time in decades. And this is the set-up volume; after this the book only got bigger and better.