Say what you will about Stan Lee: the man knows how to ride the tail of the zeitgeist. Manly cable teevee the thing? There's Stan with the Stripperella cartoon series. Crappy reality game shows still big? How about Who Wants to Be A Superhero? Manga holding onto its readership? Here's the Man collaborating with Shonen Jump favorite, Hiroyuki Takei. As co-creator and biggest living name attached to Marvel Comics, the guy's gotta be doing okay for himself, yet still he continues to plug away with new projects.
If some of these — like his painful reworking of DC comics heroes in the Just Imagine series — have proved more embarrassing than entertaining, those of us who grew up with Lee continue to hold onto a dim hope that something fresh will come from this once unstoppable comics writer/editor. And so it was that I approached the July 2009 issue of Shonen Jump, which continues the first official chapter of the serialization of Lee & Takei's "Ultimo." (An earlier trial prologue appeared in the September '08 issue, but, judging from what's on display here, it doesn't hurt to have missed it.) As with all of SJ's features, the first chapter features a hefty dose of comics — sixty pages worth — so even if you're not into the other ongoing features (Bleach, Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh! et al), the $4.99 price is competitive with what current mainstream comics are going for these days.
The series concerns two living puppets, Ultimo and Vice, who have been created by a mysterious figure named Dunstan. Dunstan, who shows up in 12th century Kyoto, Japan, wearing eyeglasses that are decidedly not a part of the period, has created these two mechanical boys as fighting embodiments of Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil. "The sole reason I made them," he tells a Robin Hoodish bandit named Yamato, "was to know which is stronger, Good or Evil." He seems blithely unconcerned about the devastation that will arise from this ultimate battle.
Dunstan, as we're reminded more than once, is drawn by Takei as a manga-sized version of Lee himself. If we wanted to get all meta about it, we could look at Ultimo as the writer's attempt at delving into the motivations behind creating and reading superhero fiction. (There's a lot of dialog about whether different secondary characters represent Good or Evil in the first chapter.) At least we could if we knew just how much involvement the comics legend actually had in the series: SJ's credits read "Original Concept by Stan Lee; Story & Art by Hiroyuki Takei," which leads this reader to believe that "Ultimo" is like one of those second class paperback series with a big-name author above the title (Tom Clancy's Ultimo Force, say) and a lesser known writer doing the actual storytelling. This is not to imply that Takei is a second-stringer — his Shaman King remains an entertaining boy's actioner on its own merits — but it does make one question just how much of Lee's actual involvement in the series goes beyond slipping an "Excelsior!" into the introductory note.
All that noted, the first full chapter of "Ultimo" remains an entertaining quick read. The series' living manikins — pointy eared with the pre-requisite flyaway hair and giant metal claws for hands — are visually enjoyable, even if their character delineation is pretty broad. ("You anger me," Vice tells the bandits just before he ices six of 'em. "For that, you die!") In battle, the two demonstrate the ability to transform into dragonish or leonine creatures, which Takei and his assistants illustrate with full-throated glee. I can see these fight scenes shoring up a suitably noisy anime adaptation.
More intriguing as characters are the amoral Dunstan and the heroic bandit, Yamato. The latter, in particular, has a decent amount of flair, but before we get to know him or any of his Merrye Men too well, the two manikins vanish mid-fight, and the story suddenly shifts to 21st Century West Tokyo. There, we meet a teenaged schoolboy named Yamato who pals with a young longhaired boy who's a dead ringer for one of the other bandits. Are they eternal champions or reincarnations of the 12th century figures? Lee & Takei aren't giving that particular plot point away in the first chapter.
I'm invested enough to want to check out the first Ultimo paperback collection when it comes out, though more for Takei's work at this point than Lee's. Still, the fanboy in me continues to hold out hope that Stan the Man will produce something surprising. Perhaps I need an intervention?