The first issue of this series was so different from what Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch had done with the Ultimates, it was difficult to gauge exactly what qualified this as an "Ultimates" series, anyway. Some of the characters seemed to have the same names as the Millar/Hitch version, but they behaved completely differently. They looked different. They sounded different. And after four issues, that's still a problem, but Jeph Loeb throws in a plot twist that may lead to some explanations: the team has been replaced by robots!
Well, at least some of the characters turn out to be robots, and Loeb gives us plenty of other twists and turns in this frenetic story. Although maybe "story" isn't the right way to put it. "Series of events" might be more accurate.
"Ultimates 3" #4 opens with a flashback where we find out how Magneto set up shop in the Savage Land all those years ago. We see L'il Pietro and L'il Wanda -- we even meet L'il Ka-Zar and L'il Shanna (and that adorable L'il Zabu). The toddlers are wide-eyed and adorable -- excessively so -- but the opening sequence showcases Joe Mad's art far more effectively than the rest of the issue. It's "colored" with a grey wash, and unlike the rest of the comic, it doesn't suffer from Christian Lichtner's tendency to make everything look like the side of a sleazy white van, circa 1983. It's not just the airbrush effects that detract for the artwork, it's Lichtner's use of sickly colors -- greens and yellows and reds and purples, all swirling in a garish mess. Marvel blamed printing problems with the look of issue #1 -- is that still their excuse? Or is it possible that Lichtner just has bad taste in color schemes?
I do like the energy of Joe Mad's layouts and character work. His figures are exaggerated, but that's his style. Although it's jarringly different than Hitch's work on these same characters, I think it fits the tone of Loeb's script. Loeb is skilled at writing for his artists -- showcasing their assets well -- and they make a good team, if all you're looking for is a bunch of dynamic poses, gritted teeth, and menacing stares. But there's not much here besides the action bits and the "shocking revelations."
Here's the plot of the issue: after the Magneto-crashes-in-the-Savage-Land-in-the-past flashback, we get one page of present-day exposition, then cut to Captain America (a robot!) smashing Iron Man (a robot!) and Hank Pym appears, from inside Robo-Cap's mouth! (It's almost impossible to describe the events of this comic without ending every sentence with an exclamation point!) Hawkeye shoots a bunch of guys, then Sabretooth attacks! Fight! Juggernaut attacks! Etc. Etc. Et cetera!!!
It's customary for superhero comics to have slugfests and action scenes, and it's to be expected in the climactic portions of the story arcs. But this tempo -- fight after fight after fight -- has been the standard since the first pages of the first issue. And it's not exhilarating. Or fun. It's just the comic book equivalent of someone yelling in your face for ten minutes every two or three months
Loeb seems willing to explain the inconsistencies between this series and the previous ones, and Joe Mad is attacking these pages with ferocity, but it's not enough to make this series very good. It makes something like "Countdown: Arena" seem like a complex exploration of the superhero genre in comparison.