There are several lead-ins to this particular incarnation of the Ultimate Universe. At the very beginning, you had the architects of the Ultimate Universe, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, creating three major titles: ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, ULTIMATE X-MEN and THE ULTIMATES. While Bendis stayed on Spidey for its entire run to date, Millar rotated creative teams on UXM and THE ULTIMATES, which was their flagship title. After about five years, Marvel felt the inexplicable need to shake up the status quo of the Ultimate U by teaming with hack writer extraordinare Jeph Loeb to create Ultimatum. It killed a great many of the major players in the Ultimate U, and it upset many fans, not because they actually DID do something to shake up the status quo (as they claim to do in all of their "event" comics), but because it was done in such a poor fashion. The backlash was extraordinary, and Millar came back to THE ULTIMATES for a much lesser version of the two major arcs he had done previously with Bryan Hitch. And Bendis was still doing a good job on USM, but something needed changing.
Then came Ultimate Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man Fallout. THIS was the event; not ULTIMATUM. Not only was it extremely well done, it brought about real change in the Ultimate Universe that seemed organic, and things went back to the beginning. We had a new Spidey with Bendis' Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Vol. 1. We had a new X-Men team with Ultimate Comics X-Men By Nick Spencer - Volume 1, and we had a new outlook to THE ULTIMATES.
Aside from his work on FANTASTIC FOUR, I was totally ignorant of anything Jonathan Hickman had done before, but since then, I've gotten to know his work quite well and he's become a major talent at Marvel, as well as in the independent world. I was also ignorant of Esad Ribic's art, but once I saw the first few pages of his work in this book (which also appeared in the afore-mentioned FALLOUT), it was clear that something special was at work here.
As the scene opens, The Ultimates are fragmented. They're still reeling from the death of Peter Parker as well as dealing with the fallout of a power struggle within the structure of SHIELD and a traitor within their ranks. Iron Man, Hawkeye (who got his own limited series that ties in to this book as well as X-MEN Ultimate Comics Hawkeye) and Thor are still very much on board with Nick Fury, as well as some of the new members, but Captain America has left the team. Suddenly, a new threat called The Children of Tomorrow emerges. They leave massive destruction and death in their wake in their intent to claim Earth as their home, claiming to be a massive evolutionary leap. Also seen as a threat to The Children is Asgard, which is totally obliterated by them as well. Thor's god-like powers are absent, and Iron Man sees Stark Technology being used against The Ultimates. To add to complications is the "father" of The Children is a very deadly foe from the past of the Ultimate U, as well as the rising of a mutant superpower in The South-Eastern Asian Republic (aka SEAR). Even more complications arise from a secret society of extremely wealthy individuals influencing world events... a cabal that Tony Stark became a member of, as well as the noted absence of several other heavy-hitters from The Ultimates' past, particularly Captain America and The Hulk.
The most important thing about Jonathan Hickman that is necessary to understand is that he is a very high-concept writer. He loves new ideas and new civilizations and big science. With his other books like FF (Future Foundation, his spin-off of FANTASTIC FOUR), and his independent projects like THE RED WING and the current THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, it's abundantly clear he never EVER goes for the lowest common denominator (as team books from the other side of the aisle are doing with alarming regularity). Now I am never one to criticize someone for being too high-concept. I would much rather someone put a lot of new ideas into a book than just phoning it in with a paint-by-numbers team book (see Justice League Vol. 1: Origin (The New 52) for that stuff). However, when the constant flurry of ideas begins to get in the way of the storytelling, is when the reader starts to get lost. The biggest problem here with ULTIMATE COMICS ULTIMATES is that Hickman can do the high-concept with the emotional resonance and deft storytelling combined. This book does that, but it's split down the middle. Issues range between excellent to not-so-good. It's not as uneven as some other titles can be, because it never fails to be smart.
Esad Ribic's art is continually eye-popping. He brings a great range of emotion to his facial work, and a dynamic movement sensibility. One of the potential problems with major releases of monthly comic books are deadlines, though. In the past, you had more of a "wait until it's ready" attitude that was frustrating but ultimately rewarding, and that showed most especially with Millar and artist Bryan Hitch's extraordinary work on their first two volumes of THE ULTIMATES. In the current Marvel vs. DC climate, there is no option. It has to be out on time if it's a major book and rarely does the writing suffer, but occasionally the art suffers. Sometimes Ribic's art seems rushed in a few panels and in one of the issues of their current run, there is a vastly inferior stand-in for this book (whether or not that stand-in appears in this collection is unknown to me). Again, that's less about the talent of Ribic, which is obvious, and more about the publisher's willingness to sacrifice part of what can make a book work to its greatest strengths for the ability to get an issue out every four weeks.
In final analysis, there is nothing I would rather new readers to do than to pick this collection up, because while it may at times be a little too calculating, I'd rather that new readers read a book that had more smarts than less. And Hickman and Ribic's run on THE ULTIMATES certainly isn't short on smarts.