The scene: a country road in twelfth-century Japan. The players: Yamato, a bandit with a Robin Hood streak; Dr. Dunstan, a Westerner in sunglasses and a flashy yukata; and Yamato’s gang. The robbers surround Dunstan to search his cart for anything of worth, settling on two large crates. Though Dunstan warns them that the consequences of opening the boxes will be dire — “if you wake them, you will die,” he explains — Yamato ignores his advice, prying off the lids to discover what look like two porcelain boys. Both figures spring to life, with Vice — the “ultimate evil one,” in case you didn’t guess from his name — slaughtering six robbers in short order. Though Yamato is badly outclassed — he has a sword, Vice has a variety of lethal powers that would be the envy of the US military — he vows to defend his friends. Yamato’s brave gesture gives the second doll, Ultimo, an opening to jump into the battle and send Vice packing.
Flash forward to the present: a teenage slacker named Yamato is searching for a one-of-a-kind birthday gift for a pretty classmate when he stumbles across an odd-looking puppet in an antique store. Though Yamato has never seen the puppet before, he’s overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu. Much to his surprise, the puppet’s eyes open, and he lunges forward shouting, “Nine centuries, Yamato-sama! Ultimo missed you very much!” Before Yamato can fully ponder the implications of Ultimo’s outburst, Vice appears on the scene, forcing Yamato and Ultimo into a bus-throwing, glass-shattering smackdown in the streets of Tokyo.
Given Ultimo‘s pedigree, it should have been one of 2010’s must-read manga — a tangy, peanut-butter-and-wasabi pairing of superhero titan Stan Lee and cutting-edge manga-ka Hiroyuki Takei. Instead, Ultimo turned out to be more of a PB&J affair, competently executed but utterly forgettable. Takei, who’s credited with the script, relates the story at a brisk but comprehensible clip, introducing a large cast of characters that includes Yamato and friends in both their present-day and feudal incarnations. The time shifts prove surprisingly effective, adding a level of visual interest and narrative complexity to a premise that might otherwise seem like a low-budget Gundam-Nutcracker crossover. Even the fight scenes are carefully staged: the kicks and punches and “crane swords” convincingly connect with their intended targets, with lethal results.
Though the story is skillfully presented, the dialogue is rather artless; it’s peppered with bathroom humor and sex doll jokes that only an eleven-year-old could love, and weighed down by Dr. Dunstan’s windy speeches. (Sample: “Five senses reach into five dimensions and four limbs extend into four dimensions. That adds up to the power of nine dimensions.”) Dunstan’s monologues could be intended as an affectionate send-up of superhero comics, I suppose, but the humor is so low-concept that it seems a stretch to call these passages parody. More disappointing still is that co-creator Stan Lee seems to have little-to-no hand in the actual script — a shame, given his talent for writing earnest yet snappy dialogue that’s well-suited to stories of teenage boys juggling world-saving powers with more prosaic concerns (e.g. wooing a pretty classmate).
The art, like the script, is a hit-or-miss affair. I’m not a big fan of Takei’s hyper-stylized character designs — the super-pointy elbows, the triceratops hair — but recognize his skill as a cartoonist; like Eiichiro Oda or Takehiko Inoue, he’s extremely good at distilling his characters’ personalities to a few distinctive visual markers that make them easy to read, as the Dr. Dunstan character attests. (Dunstan is the spitting image of Stan Lee, only with better hair and an even more dazzling grin.) Takei’s attention to detail doesn’t extend to the female character designs in Ultimo, however. The high school girls look like Bratz Dolls with bobble heads, bean-sprout bodies, and alarmingly young faces, while Yamato’s mother, the one mature female character introduced so far, looks about eighteen. (She’s supposed to be 32, which begs the uncomfortable question of just how old Yamato is supposed to be. He looks about eighteen.) Perhaps the biggest disappointment are the karakuri doji, or mechanical boys. Though their basic appearance is rather fragile and feminine — both wear cropped shirts and harem pants — Vice morphs into a Decepticon wanna-be whenever he initiates combat, begging the question of why it was necessary to establish Vice and Ultimo as products of feudal Japan and not, say, refugees from a distant planet or former members of MC Hammer’s entourage.
The bottom line: Ultimo isn’t bad, just bland, a so-so shonen tale that never makes full use of either creator’s true talents.
Review copy provided by VIZ Media, LLC. Volume one of Ultimo will be available February 2, 2010.
ULTIMO, VOL. 1 • ORIGINAL CONCEPT BY STAN LEE, STORY AND ART BY HIROYUKI TAKEI • VIZ • 216 pp. • RATING: TEEN (13+)