Monday, August 13, 2007

In Defense of Marvel's Ultimate Universe: Part Two

Yesterday, I discussed the major Ultimate Universe titles and explained why I thought most of them were worth reading. Today, I'll continue to (sort of) "defend" the line by looking at some of smaller titles of varying quality.

Ultimate Adventures was a wreck of a first issue. Featuring the quite brilliant artistic work of Duncan Fegredo (completely wasted on this series) along with the authorial stylings of Hollywood's own Ron Zimmerman, the series parodies the typical Batman and Robin dynamic. It's so obviously outside of the Ultimate Universe philosophy of updating Marvel Universe characters for a new audience that it isn't really worth discussing. It's just not part of the Ultimate Universe in any meaningful way, and readers of the series knew that and ignored the book almost completely. The "Ultimate" label was pasted on the title as a marketing ploy, and it just doesn't fit with everything else. I read the first issue and then gave up, and perhaps the series improved in issues #2-6, but I didn't stick around to find out because the first issue was so weak and uninspired. Ron Zimmerman hasn't done much for Marvel recently, and I can't help but assume work like this is to blame. [Note: It could be argued that this book was an attempt to lighten the "Seriously Serious" tone of the Ultimate Universe, just as the Ultimate Team-Up did. If that's the case, the moody and expressive artwork of Fegredo is the wrong choice, and Zimmerman didn't pull off the humor.]

Ultimate Six, on the other hand, was utterly excellent. With a reimagined Sinister Six via writer Brian Michael Bendis and the detailed figure work of artists Trevor Hairsine, this mini-series read like an Ultimate Spider-Man epic, bigger and badder than anything in the regular title. It was later collected and included in as Volume 9 of the Ultimate Spider-Man trade paperbacks, which proves how much it belonged as a companion piece to Bendis's work on the core series. It's well-plotted, full of appropriately fun cliffhangers, and it escalates and scale as the story develops. It reads like Ultimate Spider-Man meets The Ultimates, and that's exactly what it is, and all that such a meeting implies.

Ultimate War, however, by Mark Millar and Chris Bachalo, didn't work as well as one might hope. As a crossover between the Ulimate X-Men and the Ultimates, the series sputters through a series of relatively undramatic episodes culminating in a pointless battle. Although the series attempts to establish that the Ultimate mutants are as hated and feared as the mainstream Marvel mutants, it isn't that interesting. It can basically be summarized as: The Ultimates think the X-Men are on Magneto's side, so they decide to fight. That's it. Four issues worth. It could possibly be read as a twist on the conventional super-hero meetings, where the heroes get together, fight because of a a misunderstanding, and then team up to get the baddie. In Ultimate War, the misunderstanding IS the plot, and it just leads to senseless violence. It's Act I of a larger story, I guess, but where did Acts II and III go? This series feels incomplete and unnecessary, unfortunately. It's not Millar's best work.

Ultimate Iron Man is an interesting case, because, unlike the vast majority of the Ultimate comics, it was written by neither Bendis nor Millar (nor any other young-ish comic book scribe). It was written by sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card (with art by Andy Kubert). Card reimagines Iron Man as a tortured-since-birth Tony Stark, who must wear a type of blue skin-armor to protect himself. The five-issue series is basically just the origin of the Iron Man armor, but Card manages to give the young Stark enough pathos to keep the story from falling into the trap of dull sci-fi techno-fetish. It certainly doesn't read like a typical super-hero comic (even a decompressed Ultimate-style one), mostly because the story beats feel more organic (which is odd to say about a technologically-focused character) and less contrived for maximum drama. As monthly comic book readers, we're so used to the big moments at the end of each issue, that when they don't come as expected, the issues can feel anti-climactic. Card doesn't completely ignore the single issues, but he seems far more interested in the overall character arc of the young Tony, who slowly becomes more vengeful and driven as the tale unfolds. The series ends while Tony Stark is still quite young, far away from his mature days as a member of the Ultimates. A sequel has been promised but remains unproduced. Without the sequel, the story of Iron Man's origin as a "hero" is incomplete.

Ultimate X4 is another strange series, mostly because it's only two issues. How many two-issue mini-series have ever been produced by Marvel? I'm sure there have been others, but I can't think of any. As its title indicates, the series teams the Ultimate X-Men with the Ultimate Fantastic Four (for the first time) as they battle the reimagined (female) Mad Thinker. Written by Mike Carey, who has taken over the ongoing Ultimate FF title, and illustrated by the stylish Pasqual Ferry, it's a fun two issues that's far more Fantastic Four in tone (and plot emphasis) than X-Men. It's good enough, but forgettable like any epic two-issue crossover series might be expected to be.


Chad Nevett said...

The only two-issue Marvel mini I can think of is the Doop/Wolverine one that Peter Milligan and Darwyn Cooke did back when X-Force/X-Statix was still around.

Timothy Callahan said...

I forgot about that, but it's a good one. Anything with Cooke's artwork is good as far as I'm concerned. And Doop obviously rules in every possible way. Wolverine and Doop! What a team!

Steven Withrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Withrow said...

The promise of the Ultimates line has always been about accessibility outside the direct market -- about translating the Marvel macroverse into a more broadly marketable microverse.

And in this regard, only Ultimate Spider-Man has really succeeded.

*Instantly recognizable protagonist cross-marketed through major media
*Engaging, graceful, immediate, coherent, and self-contained storytelling
*Attractive, affordable format (trade paperback) for the superstore and library marketplace
*All without abandoning the direct-market audience

Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four have been far too variable in tone and fragmented in focus to be the "solid product" that USM has consistently been.

And then there's The Ultimates.

The Ultimates is arguably the best recent "version" of the Avengers, but it lacks the brand recognition of Spider-Man and the wider age and gender appeal of USM. It has many of the virtues of USM in terms of storytelling and packaging, but its sights are set on the older, savvier, direct-market reader (a dwindling market) rather than on the younger, newer reader (an untapped, growing market).

It seems to me that as the Ultimates line grows, it grows more and more insular, isolated, irrelevant.

Promises, promises.

Timothy Callahan said...

Yeah, I completely agree, and yet now that it has become this strange Frankenstein monstrosity all its own, can the Ultimate Universe be used to tell good stories that could not be told in the normal Marvel Universe?

If not, then it IS utterly irrelevant.

If so, then I think it's a success whether or not it drastically strayed from its original purpose.