One of Japan's greatest heroes gets a slickly produced, but slightly frustrating American comic debut in The Rise of Ultraman #1 (opens in new tab). Offering readers a crash course in the weird wonder that is the various Ultra Series, a staple of the tokusatsu genre that includes shows like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai (a.k.a. Power Rangers), The Rise of Ultraman #1 holds newbies slightly at arm's length.
Written by Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom
Art by Francesco Manna, Espen Grundetjern, Ed McGuinness, Michael Cho, and Gurihiru
Lettering by Ariana Maher
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Though a nice mixture of the various Ultra shows, distilled into a neatly packaged #0-esque Marvel-ized introduction, Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom's first issue for this series seems a lot more focused on the things around Ultraman and not too terribly much on Ultraman, and his new human host Shin Hayata, himself.
While that has some charm to it, especially the pair's take on the S.H.I.E.L.D.-like United Science Patrol (one of the core aspects of Ultraman narratives) and the kaiju-filled world it protects, the real details and pop of the classic shows are frustratingly obscured behind redacted narration captions. Also missing is the trademark Ultraman vs. Kaiju fighting that capped off most episodes, which is sure to vex long-term fans expecting to see Ultraman suplex Bemular (who does have a cameo here, happy to say) or another new monster right out of the gate. Though handsomely rendered, both in the main pages and the fun backup stories that bookend the issue, and containing potential for fun, The Rise of Ultraman #1 is a frustrating 1st issue but a great 0 issue.
Starting with the good, The Rise of Ultraman #1 looks phenomenal. Bathed in rich, Ultimate Universe-like colors by Espen Grundetjern and allowed rich expressionism by the pencils of Francesco Manna, along with Ed McGuinness, Michael Cho, and Gurihiru on the backup pages, The Rise of Ultraman #1 is a tremendous visual experience. Though the backups have more obvious charms, like the broad comedy of 'Kaiju Steps' (a sort of company safety video starring a United Science Patrol Cadet and lesson dispensing mini-Kaiju Pigmon) and the moodiness of the black and white origins of the Science Patrol, Manna and Grundetjern's main pages have a few layers to their craft and execution.
For one thing, the pair really lean into the more broadly emotional character models of manga and anime without ever outright aping the style or form of anime – a trap a lot of American adaptations of Japanese properties fall into. Instead, using the relative grounding of the script, the pair give readers a solidly 'realistic' visual introduction into the world of Ultraman and the Science Patrol through solidly (but rarely 'showy') set pieces and exposition scenes. The pair also show they aren't afraid to use the visual language of another genre to enrich their own work. The language in question is the language of horror, as the issue's first introduction to a Kaiju in this series plays more like a PG-13 monster movie and less like a theatrical, spark-filled fight on Kamen Rider. It's a neat jolt of tension in the middle of a fairly expository first issue, one I hope the series makes more use of in the future.
But this, unfortunately, brings me to the things that don't work about The Rise of Ultraman #1. Namely Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom's slightly hamstrung first narrative. Taking on the introductory heft of a 0 issue, this number 1, admittedly, does have to introduce us to a lot of characters and world building. And all told, that stuff works! Our leads - highly studied and ambitious USP Cadet Kiki Fuji and her roustabout, but also technically capable best friend Shin Hayata - both have a charming dynamic thanks to Higgins and Groom. They also feel like textured characters amid a rich world, which Higgins and Groom also work to sell the coolness and danger of.
However, with world building comes the odd decision to redact a lot of the finer details in the captions. The intention is to telegraph that the United Science Patrol is hiding things (something Higgins and Groom do already in the cold open, dialogue exchanges, and shady way the officers of the USP carry themselves), and while that comes across, it reads very clunky and might actually alienate newer fans trying to find purchase with the new entry point.
There's also the odder choice to withhold an actual Ultraman transformation until the next issue, which plays more to me like a zero issue move than a first issue one. Especially since most Ultraman pilots always end with our lead (in this case Shin) making contact, transforming, and then beating down a Kaiju. Though these are certainly unexpected feints for a #1, and ones that allow the creative team to grow the series outward in presumably later arcs (which haven't been solicited yet), I worry about how that will read to people looking for an accessible and 'whole' Ultraman experience.
Which, regrettably, makes The Rise of Ultraman #1 uneven. Though gorgeous throughout and chocked full of charm and weird bits of texture, the story isn't that accessible for those not up to speed on the character.