Stan Lee created the template for a lot of comics I loved for a very long time. Beyond that, he was a very prominent figure in those comics, at least in terms of the tone that Marvel put forward. He was the cheesy ringmaster in the text pieces, the company’s head cheerleader. Even when I was six, he never seemed as young to me as he seemed to feel, but there was a weird charm to that. So what if he was using made-up lingo that would seem out of date and awkward coming out of the mouths of people 20 years younger? He didn’t convey any cynicism to me, though whether that was because my radar for such things hadn’t yet developed, I can’t say.
He still doesn’t really convey any cynicism to me, though his bombast does strike me as even more awkward now than it did then. (It’s kind of like seeing snippets of Hef with a trio of girlfriends a quarter of his age, though it’s nowhere near as creepy.) Time hasn’t really seemed to pass for Lee, at least in terms of his enthusiasm for trying new things. He’s continually busy, tinkering around with DC’s characters in those “Just Imagine” books a few years ago, hosting a reality show, animating Pamela Anderson, and so on. So it’s unsurprising that he would eventually get around to manga.
The result is Ultimo (Viz). Lee provided the concept, and the story and art were executed by Hiroyuki (Shaman King) Takei, with inking support from Daigo and painting duties executed by Bob. It’s serialized in Viz’s Shonen Jump over here and as Karakuridôji Ultimo in Shueisha’s Jump SQ in Japan. That kind of exposure indicates that it clearly isn’t just a vanity project or a courtesy to a comic-book legend. It’s a serious commercial effort by all concerned.
And Lee is even more present in the narrative as he was in those old Marvel Comics. He provides the introduction. There’s a photo of him in a yukata. He even inspires a character, Dunstan, who sets the whole plot in motion. And still, somehow, none of this is creepy, except for possibly an end-note interview where Lee urges readers to “buy as many copies of Ultimo as [they] possibly can.” Keep your collector’s speculative mentality to yourself.
I’m fond of Lee, I really am, and nothing here changes that. He’s got the same huckster sense of fun with just enough sincerity underneath. But fondness aside, part of me was hoping that Ultimo would be a train wreck. This isn’t because I wish ill to anyone involved, but because the combination of Lee and manga enticingly suggests a lot of ways things could go wrong. (I think every generation deserves its Broadway musical version of Carrie, don’t you?)
Sadly, Ultimo is competent, mildly odd action shônen about fighting robots. Given Takei’s participation, it would have been competent and mildly odd without Lee’s participation. In my experience with Takei’s work, he’s given to unsettling character designs that straddle the line between cute and creepy, and that’s in evidence here. Unfortunately, it’s the most interesting aspect of the book.
Anyway, here’s the plot: a long time ago, Dunstan decides to create powerful robotic dolls that would answer the eternal question: “Who’d win? Good or evil?” The dolls re-emerge in the present day and align themselves with reincarnated versions of the people they knew back in the feudal era. They fight. And we seem to be set to meet a bunch of other robotic dolls that personify a variety of gradations of good and evil. That’s about it, aside from some teen-angst garnish about our hero, Yamato.
The battle between good and evil is ubiquitous in action shônen, and the interest comes from the ways the creators dress it up. Stripping the concept down to an action-figure version doesn’t doing anything to enhance the core idea. Yamato’s woes are kind of generic, though I always feel at least a little bit sympathetic for reincarnated characters of a certain type. The poor bastards never stood a chance, what with the centuries-old destinies to replay and other people’s unfinished business.
As I noted, Takei’s character designs bring the most to the table in terms of the actual comic. He doesn’t seem inclined to do straight-up cool, throwing in some kind of unsavory note to each aspect, and his robotic dolls are very much in that vein. They’re delicate and monstrous at the same time, and the unnerving experience of looking at them helps compensate for the fact that they don’t really have much in the way of personality.
Basically, my problems with Ultimo are my problems with generic action shônen. I can recognize the competence of its execution without being particularly interested in the characters or outcomes. Aside from the novelty of watching Lee interface with manga outside the narrative is the best reason to read the book, and that doesn’t add up to much.
(This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)