Sunday, August 12, 2007

In Defense of Marvel's Ultimate Universe: Part One

I should probably call this "Some Thoughts on Marvel's Ultimate Universe," since "Defense" is a pretty strong word for the rambling thoughts I'll surely have as I reflect on these comics, but I do feel that Marvel has done a good job with the Ultimate Universe. I don't, however, really understand Marvel's motivation for expanding the Ultimate line the way they have. Well, I do, but I'd like to hope that they have some kind of vision other than just, "it will make us money because fans will have to buy two different Fantastic Four (or whatever) titles per month, instead of just one." The basic premise for the universe is that it's an entry point for new Marvel readers. Comics people can pick up without having to know the immense continuity of the real Marvel Universe. Except, who are these supposed people? Younger readers, presumably, but then why is Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's The Ultimates so clearly adult in content? And it seems to me that much of the pleasure of the Ultimate Universe is seeing how the creators play with the traditional characters and storylines from the original Marvel Universe. If you don't have that frame of reference, are the Ultimate Universe stories as interesting? Or maybe they are MORE interesting because then it all seems fresh and new?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I have found myself reading the Ultimate Universe comics since the line's inception. I've read every single Ultimate title, with three minor exceptions--I somehow missed, or unconsciously ignored the first two parts of the Ultimate Daredevil Trilogy, and I gave up on the atrocious Ultimate Adventures after a single painful issue, but I have every other Ultimate comic book. Sometimes I feel like selling my entire Ultimate collection on eBay, and other times I feel quite glad to have read pretty much everything so far (and I want to read more). You might say, "well, he could still sell his Ultimate collection right now and keep reading the new ones as they come out." But, no, I can't do that. Either I'm in or I'm out. If I sell the set, I'm out. For good. And I'm not ready to take that step because I think the Ultimate Universe is an experiment that has worked overall, and quality stories have resulted.

Ultimate Spider-Man is the crown jewel of the Ultimate Universe. It's not sensational and splashy and much-anticipated like its younger, petulant brother known as The Ultimates, but it's been consistently good on a monthly basis. Hell, it's been more than that. It's been the best sustained look at Peter Parker that we've ever seen. The Lee/Ditko/Romita issues are classic and fondly remembered (and adored by me as I gaze upon the Masterworks reprints), but Silver Age creators (or the teams that have followed) didn't have the time or inclination to provide the type of close, deliberate look at Peter Parker's life that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley have given us. The classic Spider-Man issues established Peter as a character, but where they suggested the pain and conflict of Peter's dual life, Bendis and Bagley bring it to the fore. I'm not particularly a fan of Bagley's style, and I'm much more excited about what replacement artist Stuart Immonen will bring to the book, but the book has been good for well over 100 issues, and it's not because of the revamped Green Goblin (which I think is a misstep) or the portrayal of the Kingpin (which is well-executed) but because, in many ways, this is the quintessential Peter Parker: Year One (told not in a short mini-series, but in extensive, nearly daily detail over the course of the series this far). I've dipped in and out of the core Marvel Universe Spidey titles over the past several years, but Ultimate Spider-Man is the only one I've bought every single month. Because it's the only one worth reading regularly.

Ultimate X-Men is a different story. True, I've continued to buy it each month while the same can't be said for its mainstream X-Men counterparts (which I buy sporadically, even now). But unlike Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men has been wildly inconsistent in tone, concept, and execution. The source for such inconsistency is easy to spot: Five different writers and about a dozen different artists in less than 90 issues, while Ultimate Spider-Man has had one writer and one artist the entire time. Ultimate X-Men has gone through several different phases. The first phase, the Millar years, was a Michael Bay movie with mutants. And it was fun, and interesting, even with the strange fashion choices of Bobby Drake in a do-rag and Wolverine with a soul patch. Chuck Austen wrote a little Gambit story somewhere in the mix, but like Chuck Austen's writing, the character of Gambit is not worth wasting time on. Bendis took over after Millar and turned the book into another character study, spotlighting a few heroes here and a few heroes there. Going from Michael Bay to David Mamet can be jarring, so Bendis seemed to restrain some of the more stylized aspects of his dialogue. But it was still a relatively low-key run on the title. Then Brian K. Vaughn and later, Robert Kirkman, came along. Their intention, it seems, was to retell as many of the classic X-Men stories as possible (although they seemed mostly inspired by the late 1980s/early 1990s tales, and I don't know that I should call that era "classic"), bringing in everyone from Mr. Sinister, to Longshot, to Lady Deathstrike, to Cable and Bishop. As it stands now, with the X-Men disbanded and several different mutant groups running around trying to fill the void, and with a zillion subplots running through the title, Ultimate X-Men is a bit of a mess. But here's the catch. The art has been astounding lately. Better, I think, than what we're getting on the core books most of the time. Ben Oliver and Yanick Paquette have been doing great work, but it's overshadowed by the relatively uninteresting web of plotlines. I think the comic can be salvaged once the X-Men reform as a team and the book shifts its emphasis back to Xavier Mansion, but right now it's a pretty-to-look-at jumble of ideas.

The Ultimates and its sequel, The Ultimates 2, have been the superstars of the Ultimate Universe, both in terms of fan reaction and sheer spectacle. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have created a frankenstein hybrid of hyper-realism (in the artwork and attempts at characterizations) and super-hero excess (in the plots, in the technology, and in some other attempts at charactization). It's an Authority-style revamp of The Avengers, but with more heart, and that's what makes it work. By creating a human scope for the super-human deeds, the comic resonates the way Ultimate Spider-Man does, but with more action, more explosions, and more "hey, that's cool" moments. The gigantic flaw the The Ultimates was the ridiculously inconsistent release schedule, which forced us to wait for a year to get the final issue of the second series. But now that Millar and Hitch have finished it up, it's safe to say that not only is it an outstanding addition to the Ultimate Universe, but The Ultimates is flat out one of the best comics Marvel has produced this decade.

Ultimate Fantastic Four, the youngest of the three ongoing series, could have potentially suffered from the inconsistency of Ultimate X-Men, since it too has shuffled writers and artists many times. But Ultimate Fantastic Four has been suprisingly consistent, and consistently good. The changes to the FF origin, made by initial writers Bendis and Millar, effectively updated the team for the new millenium and created an interesting dynamic for the team in the context of the Ultimate Universe. Instead of the "first family" or elder statesmen (and woman) as they are in the classic Marvel Universe, in this incarnation they are the prickly, precocious young guns, with Reed Richards as a teen genius. It works quite well. And throughout the series, whether in the hands of Millar, Bendis, Warren Ellis, or Mike Carey, the team has had one consistent goal: to explore the wondrous nature of the universe. So the book has been filled with strange science and weird places and cool ideas (with the exception of one terrible Diablo two-parter). And the book launched the concept of the Marvel Zombies, too. Ultimate Fantastic Four has created some continuity problems in the Ultimate Universe, since before the series was launched other characters referred to the FF (and even met them) as if they were basically the same as they were in the classic Marvel U (as if they were older, and owned the Baxter Building, etc). So that type of internal inconsistency seems to shatter the very core of what the Ultimate Universe was supposed to be, but it's only a few references, and continuity errors are bound to happen sooner or later when you're dealing with many writers over a period of several years. Nevertheless, Ultimate Fantastic Four has been a good comic, again consistently better than the regular Marvel Universe version.

Ultimate Team-Up was the ultimate (no pun intended) concept book. Each issue would feature Spider-Man teaming up (hence the name) with another Ultimate hero, and each issue (or arc) would be drawn by a guest artist who was outside the Marvel mainstream. It was, in many ways, an indy showcase book, where writer Brian Michael Bendis could play with his independent comics pals (and dream collaborators) and slowly define the rest of the Ultimate Universe (which was basically just Spider-Man and the X-Men when this series was launched). This book was inconsistent because of such a concept, and the artistic styles varied so wildly it's shocking, but it's a very cool book that was cancelled too early. I loved it as it was coming out. Look at some of the artists involved: Matt Wagner, Phil Hester, Mike Allred, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Totleben, Dave Gibbons, James Kochalka. These are some of my favorite artists in the history of the medium, and they got to work on this book (Gibbons and Kochalka minimally, but the others drew a full issue or two). [Note: I realize that those aren't the best names to demonstrate the "indy showcase" nature of the book. How about Jim Mahfood? Chynna Clugston-Major? Terry Moore?] Because Bendis used this comic to show his Ultimate versions of various heroes who later appeared in true Ultimate revamps, this series is a big problem for Ultimate continuity. When Spider-Man teams up with the Fantastic Four, they are NOT the same version as the team from the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic. Neither is the Hulk, or Iron Man, apparently, or Nick Fury, if I remember correctly. This comic was fun while it lasted, even with the continuity problems, yet it was doomed as an Ultimate title because it didn't take itself seriously. And that's something every Ultimate title apparently must do. Besides this book, the rest of the Ultimate line should have a banner on the covers which reads: "This Comic is Deadly Serious. Seriously."


Alan Williams said...

The basic premise for the universe is that it's an entry point for new Marvel readers. Comics people can pick up without having to know the immense continuity of the real Marvel Universe.

I haven't read much of the Ultimates line, though I also understand the premise to be what you said (and I quoted above). The only problem I have with the "entry point" thinking is this: Unless the stories are going to present static characters, the Ultimate line will continue to build its own continuity, which will in time make this a difficult entry point for readers (though the continuity won't be as complex as the mainstream MU).

When the Ultimate line originally started, I thought maybe Marvel had planned to build up a new universe in there and, if sales were better on the Ultimate books than the regular books, find a way to phase out the mainstream books and make the Ultimate books their focus. But that hasn't happened.

Timothy Callahan said...

Yeah, I forgot about that idea, but I had EXACTLY the same thought when the Ultimate line first started. "Maybe this will replace the main universe." Kind of like the way DC's Silver Age replaced the Golden Age universe, except Marvel was maybe trying to do it concurrently.

I don't know if that ever was the intention, but I'm sure it would have happened had sales been astronomically higher on all the Ultimate books.