A friend of mine recently handed me Marvel’s collection of its first Ultraman miniseries, The Rise of Ultraman, and told me I might like it. Entering a niche as dedicated as the Ultraman fandom can be intimidating for a noob, but this trade paperback by Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom has proven to be a great read-of-passage for a beginner like me.
The Rise of Ultraman was a 5-issue limited series released by Marvel Comics in collaboration with Tsuburaya Productions last year. The book is engaging right off the bat with electric colors, courtesy of Espen Grundetjern, that are reminiscent of the 1960s pallet of the classic Ultraman television series (bits of which my Ultra-fan friend showed me on the Ultraman Official YouTube channel), not to mention the dynamic illustrations by Francesco Manna and Michael Cho.
The pace is cinematic and fast-moving without compromising the clarity of background information (which was greatly appreciated for someone who might not be completely familiar with Ultraman lore). It’s pretty hard to adapt such a complex universe without seeming forced or patronizing to those who already know what’s up, but I think Higgins and Groom have done a really nice job of setting up context in the first act.
The comic is both immersive and fresh. It made me feel like I’ve arrived somewhere I’ve been before even as an Ultraman novice with no real nostalgia for the franchise. Maybe that has to do with it beginning in media res, jumping right into an action sequence as if grabbing me by the arm and pulling me directly into the Ultraman universe. It balances the whimsy of adventure and the seriousness of the story’s subtext.
Awesome Kaiju reveals and witty dialogue juxtaposed with weighted moments revolving around the true values of the Ultra and their desire to break unnecessary cycles of pain inflicted by species across the multiverse. Intense battle scenes but not without the alternative slower, down to earth moments of character development and the growth of healthy relationships.
The Rise of Ultraman knows itself completely and that confidence helps support anyone navigating it with a fresh set of eyes. It’s a fully developed story world with backgrounds that are intricate and elegant and character designs that are quirky and endearing. If you’re getting to know characters like Shin Hayata and Kiki Fuji for the first time, I don’t doubt these introductions will leave you wanting more. Fuji is lovable for her curiosity and allegiance to her values and morals. Her thirst for knowledge and pursuit of truth charges the movement of the story and had me wanting to put together the bigger picture alongside her.
The book itself breaks the fourth wall, hiding things from the reader by cryptically scratching out certain words in the text boxes, forcing us to question the narration and giving us a little bit of Kiki’s own perspective. We’re in, but if we want to get all the way in, we have to accompany her. Hayata is also very likable from the jump for his perseverance, valor and friendship to Akiko. He serves as a vehicle to help us understand the true mission of the Ultra, which is what the core of the story is really about.
The best part is that the book is generous to both protagonists by offering them almost equal exposure. The A plot and B plot are both vital and well developed, revealing both a conspiracy and a cosmology from multiple perspectives. From what my more Ultraman-experienced friends tell me, we don’t learn very much about the Ultra’s perspective and personality in the original series. But in The Rise of Ultraman, we get to know the Ultra as a separate being. The difference between him and your standard Marvel superhero is that the Ultra really doesn’t seem interested in sticking his nose into human affairs. He’s there to deal with Kaiju, and that’s pretty super, but through his interaction with Shin, he seems to be trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s that we need to rise above our need for shortcuts: power, pollution, tossing our problems into a magical void until it explodes.
To do that it means we’re going to have to end our cycles of bad behavior and unlearn things, but there are a few signs throughout the story that humanity might be up to the task. We were already bravely fighting Kaiju many years earlier as Ultra Q, as revealed in the backup story of the first issue. (More Q please!) And both Shin and Kiki seem to impress the Ultra enough to give him hope about Earthlings.
This speaks to the Collective Journey narrative structure that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for exploring. As I’m told, Ultraman, historically, has been an epic example of standard Hero’s Journey storytelling: monster arrives, humans fail to stop it, Ultraman destroys it. But The Rise of Ultraman offers a newer, more inclusive and more thoughtful set of perspectives. Sure, there are still awesome battles, but this story seems to be asking why these monsters are here in the first place, and what we are doing to perpetuate them.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say that The Rise of Ultraman respects the themes that’ve been woven throughout the Ultraman franchise since the very beginning as I understand it, while continuing to broaden and modernize the representation of the Ultraman universe. It encapsulates the energy of the classic series and serves as a fantastic jumping off point for anyone interested in diving into the story world that “makes the impossible possible and never gives up till the very end.”
My conclusion, in case it isn’t already obvious: if you’re an Ultraman noob or know one, Marvel’s The Rise of Ultraman TPB gets a strong recommend, and I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel series collection, The Trials of Ultraman, coming out later this year.
Evangelia is a New York-based freelance writer who draws underground comics, loves anime, and is working on her first novel.