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Ultra: Seven Days

I am rarely amazed when it comes to comic books. I suppose I have very little business being jaded at the tender age of twenty-two, but I’ve been reading comic books for more than a decade and during what I consider a unique era in graphic literature. I didn’t grow up in the forties, when Superheroes were perfect paragons of virtue, and I didn’t grow up in the Kirby/Lee era when we saw our superheroes finally become people rather than archetypes. I missed out on the seventies underground/indie movement and the eighties anti-hero deconstructionism.

I cut my teeth on the last real trend in comics that I can remember: the bulging boobs and biceps period, which soon ended and gave way to something uniquely interesting. It gave way to nothing. Now, we are at a point in the comic book industry where we don’t really have a guiding trend or a leading artistic style. Different genres have finally started to (re)penetrate American comics, with a bevy of smaller publishers, like Oni, Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Devil's Due, managing to hang in and even compete at times with the Big 2.

Superheroes are still the bread and butter of the industry, but we often find that we have to tell superhero stories in increasingly distinctive ways; superheroics through the eyes of cops (Gotham Central, Powers), love stories with a superheroic bent (Love Fights), and metaphysical exploration through superheroes (Promethea) aren’t the norm of comic book superheroes, but they are the books we often applaud and award. We’re seeing the end of trend marketing and the beginnings of a time when everything will be comic book material, at least as far as I can tell. It also means that the superhero story can be anything, come at you from any angle, a point well demonstrated by the Luna Brothers’ pop-culture comment Ultra.

The line between superhero and celebrity have been crossed in the world of Spring City, where superheroes work in conjunction with law enforcement officials, and lead very public lives. Pearl Penalosa, along with her friends Liv and Jen, are three of the city’s premier superheroines, living publicly with their identities. The benefits are not having to hide one’s secret identity and drawing a rather steady and hefty paycheck. The drawback is the status of celebrity they have to deal with. Hounded by photographers and recognized in the streets, they live life under the scrutiny of a paparazzi’s camera. This and several other factors have lead Pearl to be lacking in the companionship department, but one visit to a run down psychic has her hoping for the best, as she will find love in the next seven days. Until then, her career as Ultra soldiers on as one particular pyrokinetic begins making trouble in the heart of Spring City.

Perhaps the best aspect of the book is the Luna brothers’ pacing for the story. Taking place over eight volumes, each comic is pretty much a day, or rather day-in-the-life, to Pearl, as the reader follows her through a week. The Lunas know this isn’t a flashy superhero-clashes-with-villain comic, but a quiet and intimate character driven story with Pearl at the center, and the slow pace they take with the book gihlights this fact while not boring the reader. The Lunas slowly reveal the characteristics of Spring City and their world where superheroes live openly to the reader, never forcing inordinate loads of exposition onto the reader just to move the story along. It’s quite organic as it unfolds the details of the narrative.

I am glad that I’ve read this in collected form though; the slow pace plays well when the story is collected, and I imagine that reading these single issue by single issue would prove somewhat tedious.

Their characterization is great. Pearl comes off as a competent, strong woman, who is just a touch lonely. This is an incredibly realistic portrayal of the superhero world and it is especially reflected in the brothers’ characters. Liv’s frankness concerning sex and Jen’s proclivity towards altruistic endeavors come through easily with the characters, and while some have drawn parallels between Sex and the City and Ultra, one could not be farther from the truth. Sex and the City is stocked full of stereotypical female characters (the Slutty One, the Traditional one, etc.) that never seek to go outside their own preset framework. In Ultra, the characters skirt closely to that line of demarcation concerning stereotypes (especially Liv or “Aphrodite”), but never become two-dimensional.

The story itself is very much a week-in-the-life story of the main characters, but there are several subplots running through the narrative that the Lunas resolve well or leave the reader to imagine. In fact, even Pearl’s superheroics are not the main focus of the story, more a secondary plot point.

Of note is the design of the book. Jonathan Luna (his brother Joshua handled co-writing and layout) has designed a great little work. His costume designs match the story perfectly and Luna understand the varying angles of a camera are similar to the angles on can achieve when drawing in a panel. His many uses of a variety of “shots” in the comic help keep what might have ended up being a talking heads book from becoming such.

The Lunas understand layout and nowhere is that better expressed than in the cover designs and chapter breaks within the comic. Each cover is meant to mimic a modern magazine: everything from Time to Rolling Stone. Each cover is excellent and what’s more, each magazine carries a mock personal interview with whichever character appears on the cover, providing even more insight to the characters. Luna’s facial work reminds me of Daniel Clowes’ work, with thick line work and emotion drained a bit, but colored very well.

Overall, this is a great comic and quite satisfying in both reading and monetary department, running at about $17.95. Ultra, with less to do with superheroes than it has to do with the people behind the masks, with all its commentary-laden fake articles and magazine covers, still manages to be a great story and is well worth the parting with cash.

Ultra: Seven Days

Robert Sparling

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