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Earlier this year, writers Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom, together with artist Francesco Manna and Michael Cho, launched an ambitious new project at Marvel Comics: A reinvention of the classic Japanese hero Ultraman that offers a new interpretation of his origin story for a new generation of readers.
The Rise of Ultraman is a stirring, large-scale attempt to capture some of the magic of the original Ultraman series on the comics page, but it's also a concerted effort to bring new layers of depth and detail to the story of Shin Hayata, who transforms into the legendary Kaiju-battling hero after merging with a strange alien entity. Pulling it all off meant Higgins and Groom had to do their Ultraman homework, but it also meant they had to be patient, which is why Ultraman himself barely appears in the first issue of the miniseries.
"I was worried about it, yeah," Higgins told SYFY WIRE when asked if he had any trepidations about withholding the giant kaiju action from the series debut. "But at the same time, each story and each interpretation of a character is a specific case to be treated as a specific case. And in this specific case, there is so much world-building required, so many characters and character dynamics that we feel are very important that we wanted to make sure that, first and foremost, we were leading with the world-building and the characters that are foundational to this concept and what ultimately make fighting the big giant monsters matter and cool. And that just required a little bit more of a slow burn upfront."
Now, with two issues of The Rise of Ultraman out in the world, enough groundwork has been laid that readers can finally look forward to fighting giant monsters. SYFY WIRE is pleased to reveal three exclusive pages of kaiju action from The Rise of Ultraman #3 in the gallery below, along with exclusive commentary from Higgins and Groom on how the series got here and where it's going next.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for The Rise of Ultraman #1 and #2 below**
In crafting their slow burn approach to Ultraman's origin story, Higgins and Groom came to realize that they needed to make their version about more than Shin Hayata and his personal journey to merging with an alien entity that grants him powers. To that end, they chose to devote a lot of energy in the early pages of the miniseries to the story of Shin's best friend, Kiki Fuji, who has in many ways excelled beyond Shin's achievements so far. When we meet the two of them, Kiki is the one who has achieved their shared dream of joining the secretive United Science Patrol, while Shin exists as more of an outsider. That juxtaposition, and the strong friendship that persists at the core of it, gave the writers a key dynamic that would propel their version of the Ultraman story.
"I think that's something that came out really early in the development process for us was in trying to find a grounded story for Shin and a story that would really put him at the heart of the human drama and not just the sort of alien-scale drama," Groom explained. "Having Kiki as his opposite number in a lot of ways as the person who did make it into the USP, who has a different perspective on quite a few things, but still is his closest friend in the world -- and no matter their differences, they will still always be there for each other -- allowed us to move through this crazy journey that we're going on, which will only get exponentially more crazy as we go, but still have this very human friendship at the heart."
Part of that crazy journey thus far in The Rise of Ultraman is an extended sequence in the book's second issue in which Shin, having just made contact with the alien entity known as Ultra, is essentially taken into an isolated mental space where he and Ultra are able to actually have an extended conversation about what their impending merge will mean. It's a sequence that allows for a lot of worldbuilding, but also helps set the emotional stakes for the action to come. For Higgins and Groom, the moment represented a key opportunity to do something they've attempted to achieve throughout The Rise of Ultraman: Take something from the franchise's past and expand on it in new ways.
"It's interesting 'cause it is a thing they do technically in the first episode of Ultraman, the show. This moment happens, the Ultra takes Shin inside this sort of liminal space and gives him the power of Ultraman," Groom said. "But I think because of the differences in medium and of era, it is a much more straightforward situation where the Ultra basically just stands there in like 45 seconds, lays out the whole deal says 'Here's your Ultraman powers. Get to it.' Whereas we saw an opportunity to really mine some drama in the idea that these two beings have to reconcile all that they are, all that they've experienced, and all of what they think about the world."
As we enter The Rise of Ultraman #3, Shin and Ultra have merged in some form, though it's not yet clear if that process was completed entirely successfully. Meanwhile agents of the USP have gotten wise to what's going on, but while they'd love to have Shin in their corner, Kiki also needs her best friend to come through for her as the Kaiju close in. With that tension, Higgins and Groom teased that we'll also start to see some answers to the many questions raised by the events of the first two issues.
"The beginnings of the answers will start coming in issue three, and start to show just how planned out everything has been thus far," Higgin said. "And the second thing I'd like to bring up is that Ultraman fights Kaiju in issue three!"
Groom added, "There will definitely be some Kaiju being punched by an Ultraman, which I think we're all very excited about."
Building up to the Kaiju fights of issue three has been a key narrative priority for Higgins and Groom, but they're not the only members of the Rise of Ultraman creative team who've been working toward this moment. Their primary series artist, Francesco Manna, has also been crafting the various visual components that will begin to unfold on a grand scale in the issues to come, something Higgins and Groom have already seen behind the scenes.
"Francesco's work is stunning, plain and simple, and we feel incredibly honored to be working with him as an artistic partner on this book, along with Espen [Grundetjern], who's doing all the colors, beautiful colors," Higgins said. "But what I asked [editor Tom Breevort] about was how he knew that Francesco was ready to make the jump because prior to Ultraman, Francesco had been doing some fill-ins on Avengers and some other books here and there, and we really liked his work on the other books that we had seen, but the jump from what he was doing on those books to what he's doing on Ultraman is, for lack of a better term, leveling up. And I'm always fascinated by where the ceiling is for a creator, if they're put in the right situation. And Tom basically said that he kind of just had a feeling that if you give Francesco a book that's his own, to start building out a visual identity for, he will rise to the challenge as Mat and I have risen to the challenge as well on the writing side. And it really is kind of a gut feeling as an editor, but I just was really struck by that. And I think that when you look at these pages, especially going into issue three, and some of the stuff we're seeing just now coming up for issue four, they just get better and better and better."
The Rise of Ultraman is a five-issue miniseries that, as the title implies, aims to give us a new version of the Ultraman origin story and then wrap things up. But to craft their new take on the material, Higgins and Groom worked with Ultraman's home base, Tsuburaya Productions, to develop a complex backdrop for their story that involves a great deal of worldbuilding, multiple storylines, and characters with rich backgrounds. With all that in mind, does that mean more Ultraman could be on the way? Here's how Higgins sees it for now:
"What I think we can say, because we have said this before, is that when building out an interpretation of such a beloved franchise, it was important to us that while we were pitching, taking some really bold swings with what our version of Ultraman would look like, it also meant conveying to Marvel, as well as Tsuburaya, that we had a plan, and that some of the changes we were looking to make were not being done off the cuff," he said. "And so that meant Mat and I, having a lot of long conversations and working up some really big documents to convey our Ultra-plan and vision for the franchise, if we are fortunate enough to do more after The Rise of Ultraman. So we actually have quite a bit that we have mapped out, and by quite a bit, I mean several years' worth of material. Whether we get to do that or not, time will tell, but there has absolutely been quite a bit of discussion and planning that has gone into this."
The Rise of Ultraman #3 is in stores November 4.