Super heroes are supposed to make the world safer, a job they perform regularly in Marvel Comics' Ultimate Universe. However, their introduction into the world has resulted in unintended consequences, not the least is the creation of a superhuman arms race. So while heroes like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man exist in the Ultimate U, instead of protecting the world as members of the Avengers, they instead work together as the Ultimates, a super-powered arm of the American peacekeeping and intelligence agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D.
For a long time, the power of the Ultimates meant that America was the top global superpower in the world, but recently, a new entity has emerged, intent on eclipsing America's position on the world stage. They are the Children of Tomorrow, an advanced, high-tech society led by hero turned megalomaniac Reed Richards who is turning the nations of Europe into a massive structure known as "The City," and the South East Asian Republic, which is now a mutant sanctuary ruled by two immensely powerful brothers.
The rise of these powers has left the American people feeling leaderless and utterly threatened, especially after Reed Richards detonated a powerful bomb in the middle of a joint congressional session as it was being addressed by the president. The U.S. Government and the Ultimates have scrambled to recover from this attack and are desperately searching for a way to stop Reed Richards, but can they? And even if they do, how will they deal with the political instability that now threatens to destroy America? For the answers to these questions and more, we spoke with Sam Humphries who began co-writing "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" with Jonathan Hickman as of issue #10, and will take over as the book's sole writer with July's issue #13 after having co-penned a story which has featured the art of Luke Ross, Butch Guice, Leonard Kirk and Patrick Zircher.
The destruction of Washington occurred in the final pages of "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #9, so for his first issue, Humphries was presented with a unique opportunity -- develop a sitting U.S. president as a character in a Marvel Comic. In "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #10, Humphries and Hickman introduced Energy Secretary Howard, who was sworn in as President on the first few pages of the issue. Previously, presidents in the Marvel Universe had been depicted as actual real world sitting presidents or faceless figures, so this is a major change of pace for Marvel fans.
"Presidents are usually not prominent characters in books, so it's an opportunity not to just develop the kind of character, motivation and background it takes for one to become president, but this is a guy who never thought that he was going to be president," Humphries told CBR News. "This is a guy who is secretary of energy, and by the forces of fate finds himself thrust into this role. It's not the story of someone who always dreamt of being president, but perhaps someone who never wanted to be president and now has to lead America in what is perhaps its most challenging time."
President Howard has only been featured in one other comic since his debut, "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #11. In those two issues, readers got to see that Howard isn't a bad or evil person. He's just in over his head when it comes to his new duties.
"In my mind, Howard is an idealist. He's an energy secretary in a period of time where our nation's energy policies are becoming more and more progressive. He's the right man for the job at the right time. You see that he's touring a wind power facility in issue #10," Humphries said. "However, he's not necessarily the right man for the job of being president. Reed Richards took out a huge chunk of Washington DC, killing the President and Congress. Howard is thrust into a role that he's not prepared for. It's something he doesn't have any background in. He may have been an excellent energy secretary, but now he has to switch gears quite a bit."
Part of this means dealing with global figures like Reed Richards. In issue #11, readers saw Howard try to bargain with Richards, and the ruler of the Children of Tomorrow was very smug about it. Ultimate Reed Richards has always had an ego, but since his forces began their successful campaign against Europe and the world, that ego has been growing. In fact, he now shares certain traits with the arch enemy of his counterpart in the Main Marvel Universe reality -- Doctor Doom.
"What's always fascinated me about Reed Richards and Doctor Doom in the 616 is how close those characters are to each other and how they share many of the same passions and interests. They also share the same motivation at times, and really, it's just that one or two things in their lives sent them on vastly different paths. It can come down to a whole nature versus nurture debate," Humphries said. "Are the traits they have something they were born with? Or are they something that developed over time because of events like Doom's tragedy with his mother and the lab accident in college? Or was Doom just born a megalomaniacal, brutal super villain?.
"There's just something about the Ultimate Universe that works differently," Humphries continued. "It's akin to a fundamentally different law of physics in that things are a little bit harsher in the Ultimate Universe. They're a little bit more dangerous. The stakes are higher. Day to day life just has a different edge to it. It brings up a question that's interesting to play with when you write these characters, and that is, are these characters just living in a different world and that's what makes them different from their 616 counterparts? Or is there something fundamentally different about this version of the character that we're seeing?"
Reed Richards will find himself engaged in a major face-off with the Ultimates in issue #12. Humphries couldn't reveal if this would be Richards' final confrontation with the team, but even if the Ultimates do manage to bring down Richards and his Children of Tomorrow, there are still other enemies waiting in the wings; like the Ultimate Universe incarnation of Marvin Flumm, who in the 616 Marvel reality is best known as the super villain Mentallo. Flumm recently began plaguing the Ultimates when he wrested control of S.H.I.E.L.D. away from Director Nick Fury before attempting to arrest the former director and his team.
"I think Ultimate Flumm is pretty different from his Marvel Universe counterpart. They both started off as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but our Flumm is not going to put on a goofy helmet and tights," Humphries said. "We're going to treat this character like any other character in the Ultimate universe, which means we're going to put him in a different context and see what really makes him tick."
Flumm managed to arrest several members of the Ultimates shortly after seizing control of S.H.I.E.L.D., causing the remaining members to go to ground in order to escape his hounding. In "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #11, Hawkeye, the Falcon and the current Black Widow (Monica Chang) arrived at a secret California base created and funded by Nick Fury, which housed a clandestine West Coast branch of the Ultimates.
"This is, of course, the introduction of the Ultimate Universe incarnation of the West Coast Avengers, a team and book that both Jonathan and I loved. And really, who wasn't a fan of that book?" Humphries remarked. "This was something that came out of a thought process attached to Nick Fury, which is, what does Nick Fury do when S.H.I.E.L.D. is taken away from him? What happens when forces beyond control remove him from power and then turn the organization against him? Nick Fury has seen this happen before. He knows that former directors of S.H.I.E.L.D., especially when they're placed in times of tumultuous chaos, don't have long shelf lives. Knowing this, Nick Fury, being the man with the plan at all times, would have been thinking ahead. For him, that means not just thinking linearly in one direction -- he's thinking of many different branching paths. The West Coast facility is an ace in the hole for Nick that can pull him out of any number of situations that he might get into."
This isn't the first time Fury has set up his own branch of the Ultimates. When Carol Danvers was given control of S.H.I.E.L.D. several years ago, Fury created his own black ops version of the team whose ranks included members like Hawkeye, War Machine and the Punisher. Humphries believes Fury's paranoia and penchant for creating his own teams says some things about the character's psyche.
"Nick doesn't trust anyone else in the world to run this security force. It's not a power grab -- he just understands the weight of running the Ultimates and running S.H.I.E.L.D., what that means for millions of lives around the world, and he doesn't trust anyone else to do it," the writer said. "On the other hand, I think there is some ego at play. He started the Ultimates. He put them together and he ushered in this new era of global security. He doesn't want to hand that off."
While readers saw the inside of the West Coast Ultimates base in issue #11, they didn't learn the identities of the team members. That's something that will be remedied in future issues of "Ultimate Comics Ultimates." Humphries explained, "We will return to the secret West Coast facility. Beyond that, I cannot say."
While the Ultimates were learning about Fury's West Coast facility sinister and shocking events were unfolding across the United States. In issue #11 readers saw that thanks to political chaos in America the Lone Star state of Texas has decided to truly go it alone and has declared itself a republic independent of the United States.
"These are events that have grown organically out of what Jonathan has been writing for the past year or so in the title. This is all a result of the political instability that Jonathan created with the South East Asian Republic, and in Northern Europe with Reed Richards and the City. It's arrived on American shores in a very explicit way with the destruction in D.C.," Humphries said. "Not only is America in a new geopolitical position, but as a result of the attack, it has to cope with internal instability as well. This is a thread that will become the center piece of the title throughout the 'Divided We Fall' story line which starts in July. When you see things brewing different areas of the country, and the title of the event is 'Divided We Fall,' you kind of get an idea of what's about to happen."
With American power becoming eclipsed and some of its states declaring their own independence readers might see similarities to what happened in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. That's not exactly what's happening in "Ultimate Comics Ultimates," but Humphries feels it's a fascinating and interesting comparison.
"The Soviet Union was an empire that was made up of many different countries that had been independent only a few decades previous. It was a collection of different cultures that had been autonomous for centuries. At first it was held together by the ideology of Communism, and then by a brutal near-dictatorship. Once that structure collapsed, everything splintered apart," Humphries remarked. "So the question here is how is the situation in America different from the situation of the Soviet Union? What is holding these different states together? What is holding together these different points of view of what America is, and what it should be, and what it should do next? What is holding us together and how is that in trouble?"
Another big question raised by the situation in America is what can the Sentinel of Liberty do about it? Humphries will start to answer that question in July's "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #13, which kicks off the series "Divided We Fall" story arc and features the return of Steve Rogers as Captain America. Rogers gave up the Cap identity in "Ultimate Comics Fallout" after the death of Peter Parker, but with issue #13 he'll once again wield Cap's trademark shield.
"I love writing Ultimate Captain America. He's a character that's very different from me. So it allows me to put on a different hat and have some fun. The thing I like about Ultimate Captain America is that he has all the ideals of 616 Captain America, but doesn't stop as much to make speeches about it." Humphries said with a laugh. "He's a little more taciturn. He's a little less worried about inspiring the world and is more worried about getting things done."
The Ultimate Universe's Captain America will still be the take no prisoners super soldier readers know and love when he makes his return in "Ultimates" #13, but the death of Peter Parker has changed him. "I think Peter Parker's death is one of the most significant experiences in the life of Ultimate Captain America. It ranks right up there with being frozen in the ice and becoming Cap in the first place," Humphries said. "When you're out there as a super hero, whether you're dressed in the flag or an armored suit or a skin-tight S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit, what you're doing is really on the edge of human behavior, even in the Ultimate Universe. You've got to have some pretty strong convictions about what you're doing when you're making these split second decisions about life and death, because there's no play book for this kind of thing; you make it up as you go along.
"The death of Peter Parker has shaken some of those convictions for Captain America," Humphries continued. "It's caused him to doubt why he does what he does. It's not just that he's wondering if being a super hero is the right thing to do, but whether being a super hero is the right way to do what he wants to accomplish," Humphries continued. "So the death of Peter Parker has really forced him to reconsider everything he's done since they freed him from the ice. We see that in the fact that he's gone off on this vision quest in the wilds of America, trying to refocus and find himself."
Humphries is unable to reveal anything about the specific incident that causes Steve Rogers to reclaim the Captain America identity, but the writer hinted that the Sentinel of Liberty has a difficult time dealing with America's new political landscape. "'Divided We Fall' is a story about Captain America coming back when America needs him most. That's going to be a little complicated for Cap. It's one thing for him to say, 'America is in trouble -- it's time for me to come out of retirement.' It's another matter entirely for him to actually navigate the series of crises gripping the country," Humphries explained. "What does America need from Captain America? Why is he there? What can he do to combat the crises that are mounting? Those are all important questions in our 'Divided We Fall' story. The political instability in the Ultimate Universe is coming to a head in America right as Captain America comes back. So we'll see a lot of threads that have been brewing in the Ultimate Universe all come together at once."
This latest volume of "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" began with the destructive rise of Reed Richards and the Children of Tomorrow. In "Divided We Fall" Humphries will follow that story up with a tale about political instability and the possible destruction of America as we know it. So there won't be any breathing room in between the two major stories and Humphries doesn't plan to let readers catch their breath between future tales as well.
"This is a book you should not read before you go to bed unless you want to stay up for the next two hours. I'm only exaggerating a little," Humphries said with a laugh. "The scope of 'The Ultimates" is partly what defines this book and its relationship with the other two titles in the Ultimate line. I'm working with two amazingly talented writers in Brian Wood, who writes 'Ultimate Comics X-Men,' and Brian Michael Bendis who writes 'Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.' We've got an amazingly talented editorial team. We've got a really good groove going with 'Divided We Fall,' which is a big story with a giant crisis and three different perspectives. 'Ultimate Comics Spider-Man' is about Mile Morales. It's the perspective of a boy and he sees what's going on through a different set of eyes than the characters of 'Ultimate X-Men,' which is kind of the street level book about outsiders. Then we've got 'Ultimate Comics Ultimates,' which is the widescreen view from 10,000 feet and above.
"This book can encompass anything and can go anywhere, and can accommodate any character. So my job is to make that scope come alive. My job is to take the central story and make sure that we can see if from a different perspective from what the Brians are doing. So, no, I'm not going to let up," Humphries continued. "I'm excited to do everything I can with this book and I'm ready to tear some shit up. With all the changes that are happening I would say the one piece of advice I can give to readers is don't get too comfortable with the status quo as it is right now."
"Ultimate Comics Ultimates" by Sam Humphries, Jonathan Hickman and artist Luke Ross goes on sale June 27.