Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s The Ultimates #6, written by Al Ewing (New Avengers, Contest Of Champions) with art by Christian Ward (ODY-C, The Infinite Vacation), this cosmic standalone issue functions as a bold metaphor for current events in the comics industry. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
This week, writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo, and colorist FCO Plascencia ended their four-year run on Batman. It’s the only creative team that has lasted this long in the New 52, and Batman has been DC Comics’ top selling title for nearly that entire time. This should be cause for celebration, but unfortunately Batman #51 lands during a troubling time for the publisher.
Last week, it was announced that longtime Vertigo editor Shelly Bond would be leaving DC Comics because her position was being eliminated. The online comics community was quick to criticize DC’s firing practices for its editorial employees, specifically wondering why Bond was let go when an editor with multiple sexual harassment claims filed against him is still with the publisher. DC is terminating the position of one of its top female employees, a woman who played a part in some of Vertigo’s most successful properties (many of which are gaining a second life in television). Yet DC still employs Eddie Berganza, the Superman group editor whose harassment of female colleagues has been an open secret in the industry for years.
It’s not a secret anymore, though. Former DC employee Janelle Asselin went public about the sexual harassment claim against Berganza she was involved with in 2010. In a post on her Patreon, she wrote about her experience with Berganza in further detail and shared some of the disheartening results of the sexual harassment survey she conducted in 2014. Male and female comics professionals, many of whom wished to remain anonymous, came forward with their stories of harassment, painting a sad picture of an industry that encourages people to accept this abuse for professional gain and continues to employ the harassers.
This isn’t just a problem in superhero comics. Dark Horse’s Scott Allie issued an apology last year after writer Joe Harris went public with his story of being assaulted by Allie at a Comic-Con International party, which was an isolated incident in a longer history of harassment from the former Dark Horse editor-in-chief. Allie no longer holds that title, but he’s still in a position of power at the publisher. Rather than addressing the Allie issue directly, the statement made by Dark Horse president Mike Richardson instead focuses on how insulted he was by Asselin’s article that broke the story.
“We at Dark Horse will renew our efforts to make sure that our company is never again mentioned with regard to this type of occurrence,” Richardson writes, and his language is important here. He’s not saying Dark Horse will take steps to ensure its employees stop harassing people, but that steps will be take to ensure Dark Horse is no longer mentioned in regard to harassment, which could easily mean that the publisher will work even harder to make sure these kinds of stories don’t go public. It was a disappointing response to the problem, ultimately drawing more attention to the broken system that prevents these companies from being truly inclusive.
So what does this all have to do with The Ultimates #6? This standalone issue by writer Al Ewing and guest artist Christian Ward follows Galactus as he starts to investigate the mystery of who has chained Eternity, “the living sentience of the cosmos.” But underneath this cosmic story is a message about the difficulty of progress within a system structured to prevent it. It’s a fitting metaphor for the struggle faced by people that want to see positive change in the comics industry, specifically superhero comics, the most dominant and problematic section of the industry.
The sheer act of buying a Marvel or DC comic presents a moral dilemma when you consider how these companies have treated the people who created their characters and concepts. Organizations like The Hero Initiative have to exist because there’s no financial safety net for the men and women who created and contributed to the legacy of these superhero characters, some of which are bringing in billions for these parent companies each year. Most of those past creators are straight white men, and superhero comics haven’t changed much in terms of representation on or off the page. White men get to write whatever characters they want, but women and people of color almost exclusively write about women and people of color. (Becky Cloonan’s upcoming The Punisher series is a rare exception, which is why it’s such a noteworthy debut.)
How about LGBTQ+ representation? There are some openly queer creators at Marvel and DC, but it’s a rough few weeks for queer characters headlining their own series: Angela: Queen Of Hel ends this week while Midnighter has its grand finale next week. Marvel’s handling of Angela in general has been very shifty, with Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso refusing to label the character as LGBTQ+ despite the first issue of her current series confirming that she is in a romantic relationship with her companion Sera, a trans woman. By not putting a label on Angela, Marvel alienates the readers who desperately want a character who has a queer label and firmly represents the queer community, and it’s frustrating to see the work of Angela’s creators actively undermined by Marvel’s editor-in-chief.
I wrote about the uphill battle for representation in superhero comics back in September of last year. Just as that month’s Agent Carter #1 was given extra complexity by the cultural context of its release, The Ultimates #6 becomes something deeper because of the events surrounding it. The issue begins with an interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus pushing a giant rock up a mountain, never succeeding but always trying. The creative team uses that as a jumping-off point to explore the challenges of fighting for change within a system that is aggressively working against it.
Since his creation, Galactus has been one of the greatest threats in the Marvel Universe, but he has been transformed from world-eater to lifebringer as part of The Ultimates’ goal to solve “the ultimate problems.” He’s the only white man on the team, and he’s the ultimate ally, defying the authority of the universe to help the women and people of color that successfully sated his hunger. Currently, that assistance takes the form of his investigation into the bondage of Eternity, which leads him into conflict with the personifications of Chaos and Order, who are unhappy about what Galactus’ fundamental change means for the current balance of the universe.
Ewing’s story isn’t intentionally addressing all the aforementioned issues, but his general commentary on the reluctance to let superhero concepts change and grow can easily be applied to the larger superhero comics industry. Galactus’ conversation with Order and Chaos is all about him refusing to bow to these former authorities, and he reveals that his evolution has made him more powerful than the forces trying to restrain him. Galactus punches Order in the teeth in the issue’s most dramatic moment, and that splash page cements Galactus’ position as the ultimate opponent to the flawed order of the universe.
Ewing makes it clear that the ensuing battle between Galactus, Order, and Chaos is a metaphor and a clash of idea more than a clash of actual cosmic beings. Applying that metaphor to the last week, Galactus represents the people who have come forward in hopes of shutting down the current Order of companies that protect harassers and damage the entire industry in the process, and Chaos can be seen as the people that commit, accept, and excuse this abusive behavior. Order and Chaos don’t want anything to get in the way of their beneficial symbiotic relationship, but something has to change if there’s ever going to be any true progress.
After his triumph against Chaos and Order, Galactus is invited into the quasi-reality created by Owen Reese, the Molecule Man, who was responsible for recreating the Marvel Universe following at the end of last year’s Secret Wars event. This is when Ewing gets into some heady material concerning what it means to reboot a superhero universe, but the most important part of this scene comes at the end when the myth of Sisyphus returns to the narrative. Reese talks about how the rock always rolls back to the bottom, but questions if the bottom is where the rock is supposed to be. “According to tradition and gravity and the will of the gods, that’s where it’s going,” Reese says. “But does that really mean it’s where it’s meant to be?”
As Galactus heads off to continue his investigation, Reese wishes him good luck and tells him, “Don’t stop pushing.” This final sentiment is paired with a dramatic splash page showing a mysterious figure pushing an object up a mountain, ending the issue by emphasizing the difficulty of the struggle, but also the importance of pushing forward regardless. Looking at this issue as a metaphor for current events in the comics industry, this final moment can be interpreted as a show of support for all the people fighting for progress in superhero comics. In the context of Ewing’s script, this progress means allowing superhero characters and concepts to evolve instead of relying on the same old ideas, but the themes of this issue resonate on a higher level because it came out this week.
There’s so much potential in superhero comics, which we see realized in many of this week’s standout superhero books: the deeply personal Batman #51; the metatextual, psychedelic The Ultimates #6; the ambitious Choose-Your-Own-Adventure The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6; and the conclusion of Valiant’s Faith miniseries, the first solo superhero comic with a plus-sized female lead. There’s a lot of good out there, but it’s overshadowed by the bad, and the industry still has a long way to go as agents of change try to push the rock of progress up the mountain. The struggle may seem futile, but as long as people don’t stop pushing, maybe lasting change will eventually, finally happen.