No superhero has received more ridicule than Ultra the Multi-Alien. Even Aquaman garnered more respect during the years when cooler fans denigrated him as the useless Justice League member who swims and talks to fish. Jon Morris includes Ultra in his The League of Regrettable Superheroes, stating “Ultra resembles a mixed-up box of puzzle pieces.” Blogger DataJunkie describes Ultra as a “looney composite of four different species of goofy looking space aliens,” and Wizard Magazine once featured Ultra in its “Mort of the Month” column which highlighted characters of dubious quality. No one, however, has taken lower shots at poor Ultra than late-night host and comedian Conan O’Brien, who in a segment shot at San Diego Comic-Con discusses characters from the DC Encyclopedia who “well . . . they suck”:
“[Ultra] is a fucking mess. I don’t fear this person. One part is chicken foot. This is longer, this leg, which isn’t even a leg. I think that’s just gravy. Then, of course, he unifying principle for all superheroes who are bad – women’s underwear. I hope this person wasn’t just fired, but then murdered, who thought of this.”
Who is Ultra the Multi-Alien, and why do so many remember him this way? Ultra first appeared in Mystery in Space #103 (1965), replacing Adam Strange for that title’s final eight issues. Writer Dave Wood, creator of Dial H for Hero, and artist Lee Elias tell the tale of Ace Arn, a late twenty-first century space pilot transporting tourists from Mars to Jupiter. Along the way, Arn’s ship becomes trapped in the magnetic field of a nearby comet. Arn safely jettisons his crew and passengers, but the comet drags Arn, now in suspended animation, to another solar system where he crash-lands on an asteroid inhabited by the corpse of the criminal Zobra, an unwitting suicide thanks to an accident involving poison gas, and his four henchmen, still living. Before dying, Zobra had distributed a special gun to each henchman. This gun could transform targets into the species of the shooter, also turning them into slaves. Upon encountering Arn, all four fire on him simultaneously. Instead of making him a slave, however, the rays turn him into a composite of all four species neatly segmented into the four quadrants of his body, and containing four separate powers:
Upper right: Ulla (super-strength)
Upper Left: Laroo (magnetism)
Lower Right: Trago (flight)
Lower Left: Raagan (lightning blasts)
Arn takes the first letters of these planets – ULTR – and adds an A representing his name to the end, and thus is born DC’s most bizarre space hero, Ultra, the Multi-Alien!
Ensuing stories in the initial run mirror other space comics of the time. Readers encounter scientific hand-waving and alien scientists with evil weapons, such as Dr. Taxo, Dynamo, Craniac, and Tragg – you get the idea. In the second story, Ultra returns home to Dalesville, USA, and fans meet Bonnie, his fiancée from whom he hides his identity, although she suspects it’s him. Dalesville, a little slice of mid-60s small town settled into the late twenty-first century, acts as home base for Ultra when he’s not racing from one planet to the next. Oddly, in one story parts of Venus resemble the Alviso shore along the San Francisco Bay. Terraforming, perhaps? Those hands keep a-waving. Finally, in Mystery in Space #110, Ultra devises a hyper-converter disc that allows him to return to human form. The final frame of this story shows him with a bouquet of flowers, apparently off to enjoy happily ever after with Bonnie.
Over the decades, Ultra has made cameo appearances in various comics, mostly as the butt of jokes or to inspire nostalgic chuckling among older fans. Nonetheless, Ultra replaced no less a figure than Adam Strange for the waning Mystery in Space. Strange’s stories had started lagging after Julius Schwartz moved on to edit Batman and Detective Comics, taking artist Carmine Infantino with him. Thus, Adam Strange, and Mystery in Space suffered. I reiterate, Ultra replaced Adam Strange! Yes, okay, the stories are weirdly ridiculous, and Ultra flying on the power of one lopsided winged leg or shooting lightning bolts out of his foot plays bathetically, but overall his stories aren’t any worse than Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost, Herculoids, or Frankenstein, Jr.
Most recently, Jeff Lemire has championed Ultra’s memory, once in Vertigo’s one-shot Strange Adventures (2011), and then conceptually in Justice League United (2014) where Lemire changes Ultra from Ace Arn into a genetic experiment belonging to the villainous Byth. Comic fans never will let Ultra die. Bloggers continue writing about him, and comic historians insert blurbs about him into encyclopedias. His strangeness compels many to never forget him, ribbing him while adoring him like film buffs do with Ed Wood. On October 20, 2019, Sterling Cathalia posted an image to the Facebook Back Issue page that crystallizes the feelings held by so many regarding this hero. I’ll give him the final word: