AGE OF ULTRON #1
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary & Paul Mounts
Matt C: There was a time when Brian Michael Bendis could do no wrong (Powers, Alias, Daredevil), then there was a time when he was doing as much wrong as he was doing right (New Avengers and - yes - Powers) and then there was a time when he didn't appear to be doing anything right at all (House Of M, Secret Invasion and - again! - Powers). Ultimate Spider-Man was probably the only book that was exempt from this gradual decline in quality, although there were other blips along the way (Siege turned out to be quite good), but it had reached a point where I couldn't pick up one of his books without getting wound up by his approach to mainstream superheroics, especially when his characters seemed to speak with only one voice, leaning heavily on colloquial 'high school' patter.
There's been a change of late though and I'd like to think it's not purely down to my perception of his writing but that his mojo may have been rejuvenated and he's now got a creative second wind. The first sign of this was Scarlet, a daring series from the Icon imprint - it may have been a creator-owned book, but it did prove that he still had the ability to dazzle. Then there's his recent shift into the mutant corner of the Marvel Universe with All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men - now, I'm not as enamoured with these titles as some of my PCG colleagues, but they are a damned sight better than I expected them to be, and he appears to be crafting an intriguing new chapter in the mythos. Finally, there was last week’s Guardians Of The Galaxy opener, which I really enjoyed, and which gave me a sense of genuine optimism for the potential for that series.
And so to Age Of Ultron, the event title that got pushed back from its intended release date of last summer when Avengers Vs. X-Men and Marvel NOW! became more of a priority for the House of Ideas. That almost makes it sound like they didn't think it was up to scratch and are dumping it when a gap in the schedule presented itself, but from a quality perspective that's definitely not the case, at least as far as this first issue goes because - surprise, surprise - it's actually really good!
We're dealing with a post-apocalyptic future here, and it appears that Ultron has taken over the planet (or the US at the very least); the hows and whys will obviously be left for a later date, as in this issue we're essentially given an extended action scene designed to not only thrill but give an indication of what a desperate situation our heroes (or what's left of them) are in. It's expertly paced as we follow Hawkeye’s attempt to bust a colleague out of a precarious predicament, and Bendis is wise enough to realise that he needs to dial the dialogue back and allow the action to do the talking. Which is where Bryan Hitch comes in.
Personally speaking, I don't think Hitch has scaled the heights of his halcyon days on The Ultimates for quite some time, with some recent efforts looking (relatively) unpolished. Here though, his trademark 'widescreen' approach comes into full focus, producing some tremendous imagery, the wreckage of the Helicarrier in Central Park being a prominent example. I was particularly impressed with the 'vibrating' panels as the Ultron drones approached, a simple bit of digital trickery that proved to be very effective. Hitch's longtime inking collaborator Paul Neary really helps nail down the visuals and colourist Paul Mounts ensures everything exudes that requisite dystopian vibe. The only downside to this is that Hitch only got five or six issues in the can before his contract with Marvel was up, and from the interviews I've read, rather than extend it to allow him time to complete the whole thing, the second half of the series will be illustrated by another artistic team instead. Based on what I've seen in this issue, that's a real shame.
I always like to put a disclaimer in reviews of event book debut issues because I've seen these things go off the rails after a strong start a number of times before, and there's nothing to say that won't happen here. I will say this was a very persuasive beginning though, one that doesn't give too much away but clearly shows our heroes have their backs against the wall and are completely outgunned (which is exactly where you need them to be if you want the story to place you in its vice-like grip!). Heck, I even had a twinge of nostalgia when I saw the embossed cover - I know this kind of practice almost torpedoed the entire industry back in the '90s but I can't deny it looked pretty damn fine here (and shiny too!).
I do harbour some doubts about its ability to sustain this level of quality for the duration, but Age Of Ultron #1 is a handsomely produced opening salvo that exhibits a fine understanding of how a 'big budget' event book should be delivered. 8/10