The next month is going to be an exciting one for Ultraman fans. The first episodes of the latest series, Ultraman Z, are about to broadcast. Tsuburaya is releasing new content for fans in preparation for the 55th anniversary of the first appearance of our favorite hero from the Land of Light. More and more content, including Smashy City’s Ultraman update and quality products such as the latest set of collector pins from FanSets, is coming every day.
The most exciting news for fans is Marvel’s upcoming The Rise of Ultraman. Announced last year and in production since that time, audiences got a tantalizing glimpse with the release of the Alex Ross cover for Issue #1 in the June 16th Diamond Distribution solicitation.
This is not the first time that Ultraman has appeared in the form of sequential art. Several manga—from Ultraman: The First to Ultraman Story 0—have explored the origin of the series, either updating or translating it for fans and non-fans alike. The latest manga, entitled simply ULTRAMAN, was so popular that it led to the Netflix television series, Anime ULTRAMAN. Such is the hero’s popularity that we’ve seen him—and the entire tokusatsu genre—lovingly parodied in such comic book content as Kaijumax. Ultraman’s grasp on the world is strong indeed!
It is the amazing depth of this property, now well into its sixth decade, that allows for such examination, especially in the form of comic books. Unlike so many other media, those working in graphic novels, manga, and comics are only creatively bound by their imagination. Stories can take place anywhere and even any when.
Numerous adaptations of popular franchises have failed to attract their fanbases or those of the medium, of course. They simply weren’t built for comic books, which require:
Abstraction – By their nature, comic books reflect our real world in the form of art. Some embrace realism while others prefer caricature, but both use a mixed language of art and verbiage to mimic the real world. The content that works the best is that which allows for these two forms to work together, paradoxically revealing “truth” by exaggerating it.
Breadth – Comic books work best when they can show the entire spectrum of the human experience. While superheroes and horror get much of the press, just as much wonder can be by brought by showing the subtleties of romance, heartbreak, and familial drama with single strokes of a pen (digital or analogue). Successful titles embrace themes that tie readers together beneath the artwork that intrigues them to keep reading.
Complicity – Yes, readers are captive to the intentions of the storytellers’ work on the page, but this is unlike television or film. Audiences must “move” the characters in their minds between the gutters of the panels. The best creators know how to pull an audience into the story beyond the constraints of the art. Their imaginations are fueled just as much as by what is not shown as what is.
Ultraman has all of these things and more. It is a galaxy-spanning mix of space adventure and superhero action, leavened with optimistic questions about humanity’s role on this planet and beyond. The fantastic depictions of Kaiju via tokusatsu conventions have been compared to kabuki or opera, crafting a language that allows audiences to see beyond the limitations of their television. Finally, there is the complicity of the audience: tying together characters, stories, series, and entire dimensions into a broader universe that was created to feel as wide as the Milky Way but as concrete as any other story world.
Remember that this is a story that, as has been stated elsewhere, is no mere adaptation. Like Marvel’s titles in the Star Wars and Halo universes, the Ultraman that will be appearing on store shelves in September is a canonical figure in its franchise story world. He may one day fight next to other heroes of the Inter Galactic Defense Force, either in the pages of a comic book or broadcast on televisions around the world. The creatives behind this content aren’t fighting to fit Ultraman into the borders of a panel or a 16:9 screen; they are allowing the story to embrace whatever platform upon which they appear.
This is great for fans and non-fans alike. How many readers have considered picking up a title only to reject it due to the massive amount of story that might be “required” to understand it? How many fans have dropped a book because there has been yet another “reboot” that abandons plot threads to which they wanted a satisfying conclusion?
A new entry point into the Ultraman story universe gives something for both. Those who are unfamiliar with the Hero of Light can pick up this comic book reinvention with the confidence that its abstraction and breadth will inspire their imaginations in such a way that doors will open to allow them to visit untold hours of storytelling across the Ultraman universe. Those who are familiar, meanwhile, will be able to dive right in and dream about how these elements will tie into the broader franchise.
This is the kind of work that Starlight Runner Entertainment has been pushing for since its foundation in 2000. Successful transmedia and multimedia story worlds must embrace a medium’s strengths and flaws; comic books cannot and should not ape the experience of a television series. Such works must also impact the broader story world. Fans want stories that matter to characters they care about, whether these stories are big or small.
Marvel’s The Rise of Ultraman has the ingredients of a great comic book and those of a powerful extension of a global franchise. I, personally, cannot wait to see what its creative team has in store for the series and for the form.