By Zoe Tunnell
Cosmic superhero comics have a bit of a bad reputation. That isn’t to say they don’t have a following; many of comics most beloved series can call the reality shaking, galaxy-spanning confines of “a cosmic book” home. However, where they do suffer is in how they are viewed by folks outside of their following. Often derided as emotionless or unnecessarily ridiculous and confusing, they have difficulty finding reliable success and are often whittled down to meet more traditional superhero molds (such as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films) when pushed into the mainstream eye. Which makes the success of Al Ewing and Aud Koch’s Ultimates 2 #8 all the more remarkable.
For context, Ultimates was a 2-volume ongoing series from Al Ewing and several artistic partners (including Kenneth Rocafort, Christian Ward, and Travel Foreman) that brought together some of Marvel’s most brilliant and powerful heroes to tackle the universe’s biggest problems. Wonderfully clever and unafraid to go for some wild swings, the series was a clear highlight of the post-Secret Wars doldrums of the late 2010s, and Ultimates 2 #8 embodies every part of that success in a single, self-contained masterpiece.
The issue, obviously, is excellent. Hopefully, you picked up on that by now! But the reason I’m writing this, and what makes Ultimates 2 #8 something extraordinary, is the balancing act Ewing and Koch perform between cosmic madness and human emotion. The story stars two of Marvel’s most famous and utterly goofy, cosmic mainstays- Galactus and Ego the Living Planet. On paper, a clash between a moon-sized man in a giant hat versus a sentient planet literally named Ego seems like it would be a bombastic clash of the titans that shakes the heavens themselves and slots firmly into the cosmic comic cliche. While some cosmic ridiculousness is on the table, Ewing defies expectations by grounding their conflict in their past, specifically the men they were before they strode the cosmos.
Galactus gets the first treatment, dreaming of his origins as Galen of Taa. It’s a story that has been seen dozens of times over the decades, usually painting his survival of a collapsing reality as a Kirby Crackle filled feat of heroism. In Ultimates 2 #8, Ewing and Koch go for the complete opposite. Galen relives his traumatic encounter alone in a stark white space. He looks directly at the reader, yelling and cowering in fear with nowhere to hide and nothing to pull focus. Equally noteworthy is how Galactus, having gained a new outlook on things after his ascension as The Lifebringer, views his former self. He doesn’t lionize or boast about his pursuit of survival; Galactus casts Galen of Taa as a scared, mortal man simply looking for truth at the end of all things.
This scene embodies the genius behind this issue. Galactus is a large immortal man in a fancy purple pope hat who eats planets, is reduced to his most human and relatable elements. He is eternal, but he is human. He is a force of nature, but he is lonely. He is powerful enough to kill gods, but he cowers in the face of death. Unlike other attempts at humanizing cosmic characters and powers, which often veer into shaving off their unique identities in service of making them more marketable, this recontextualization of Galactus preserves his appeal while giving fans a foothold into his mind.
Equally impressive is the issue’s treatment of Ego, the Living Planet. ( I know he will be upset, but for the sake of my sanity, I’ll just be calling him Ego from here on) One of the goofiest concepts in comics, Ego, is most commonly deployed as closer to a punchline than a severe threat. From his alarmingly horny Marvel Adventures appearances to Kurt Russell’s portrayal in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the big angry planet-with-a-face is a poster child for the lunacy of cosmic comics. While there is some bizarre action to be found (such as Ego’s immune system being endless hordes of massive faceless mud-men), at its core, the conflict is between two very similar men.
When Galactus reaches Ego’s brain, he strips himself of his regalia and is once more Galen of Taa, leaving himself vulnerable but raw and honest. In response, Ego meets Galen on his own terms. Ego gives way to Egros, a scientist whose fate is very familiar. Faced with the destruction of his solar system, Egros enacted plan after plan to save himself and his people, only to survive as Ego, the only remnant of his home. The cosmic devourer of worlds and the living planet, eternal enemies, find common ground over their painful past. How very human of them.
This decision to have the two cosmic titans meet and share a vulnerable, grounded conversation is Ewing’s masterstroke and indicative of why he has become one of the best writers in the business in the years since. The two guilt-wracked, unfathomably old men find companionship where they once found conflict and declare themselves brothers so that they may never wander the stars alone again. Their grandiose absurdity is never erased (the conversation occurs while Galen is touching a literal giant brain), but they are allowed to feel regret and loneliness that render them tangible to readers in ways they rarely have been before.
Of course, without Aud Koch’s art, Ewing’s script wouldn’t have nearly the impact it does. Koch’s command of figure drawing and body language does wonders here, giving weight and emotion to faces the size of continents and primal cosmic forces. While not as flashy as some of Ultimates other artists, her work is a technical marvel. It provides the secret weapon that makes #8 truly succeed, and the emotional journey of Galactus and Ego ring honest and true.
I want to be clear here; I love cosmic comics. Annihilation, Kirby’s New Gods and Eternals, Morrison and Jones’ Final Crisis, they are all some of my favorite series. I also love a good grounded, emotional superhero book built around interpersonal relationships and the drama therein. However, very rarely do the two meet, and things turn out for the best. Thankfully, Ultimates 2 #8 provides such a robust and definitive blueprint for how to have your cosmic cake and eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a whole new generation of creators build off of its foundation. If not, well, Ewing’s got the keys to space now in Guardians of the Galaxy and SWORD, and I’m sure he will be happy to bring us to school again and again until it sinks in.
Writer: Al Ewing
Artist: Aud Koch
Colourist: Dan Brown
Letterer: Joe Sabino
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