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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ultimate Marvel comics

(I apologize for talking so much about comic books lately. No more after this for a while.)

Marvel started their Ultimate line of comics in 2000 with Ultimate Spider-Man. I think the best way to describe it is as a remake of their superhero comics and universe. The Ultimate comics started their continuity from scratch, retelling old stories as the regular Marvel comics do new things. There were two good reasons to do this. It was mainly done to sell to younger readers, who might be put off by the complicated continuity and unfamiliar status quos of the regular books. It also tried to approach the stories from a more modern sensibility, rather than being simple homages and rehashes. That way, they could justify selling it to people who were already reading their comics.

Eight years later, the Ultimate comics don't seem to have any reason to exist. Stories better geared for kids are being published in the Marvel Adventures imprint, where the stories are all done-in-one, as opposed to six-issue arcs. That line started in 2003 (and was restarted in 2005), and occasionally yields surprisingly fun and whimsical (if tame) stories. The Ultimate comics have told so many stories by now that their continuity is almost as hard to follow as the originals, and the status quos keep bouncing around in a struggle to stay fresh. And the original Ultimate architects (Brian Bendis and Mark Millar) have moved up to the regular Marvel universe, where they're doing stuff that feels as fresh as anything they did in Ultimate. So on both sides, Ultimate Marvel is redundant.

The editors are trying to deal with this in a few ways. First, they've brought in new blood: Aron Coleite, Joe Pokaski, and Jeph Loeb, all from the TV show Heroes. (Actually, Jeph Loeb has just been kicked off Heroes. From what I've seen of his comic work, I think it was deserved.) Though some of their work seems too reminiscent of Heroes plotlines, Coleite and Pokaski both seem to be very good writers. The other thing they're trying to do is raise the stakes. They're doing that with a Loeb-written miniseries called "Ultimatum", in which much havoc is wreaked. I wasn't impressed by it at all. The editors say that they want the Ultimate comics to be a place where big things can happen that wouldn't happen in the Marvel Universe, but I don't think that's enough. Fine, the Earth could blow up tomorrow in the comics. But that wouldn't give them any more reason to exist.

Here are my thoughts on each of the Ultimate comics.

Ultimate Spider-Man

This was the first one, and if it hadn't been good there wouldn't be any others. There are now 127 issues, not counting specials and miniseries, and they've all been written by Brian Michael Bendis. This series is good not because it was a particularly good idea to remake Spider-Man, but because Bendis is just really good. He's taken a lot of old plot-driven action stories, and reworked them into character-driven stories. And in order to make that work, he took characters that were usually paper-thin, and made them believable, likable, flawed, and interesting. His versions of characters are often much different than the originals, but it works. It's his version of Spider-Man, and when he tells stories I've seen before they're always much more dramatic than I remember. Bendis loves to experiment with his situations and storytelling techniques, but his characterizations are so good and relatable that it's usually still palatable for the masses. And he's also really good at long-term plotting, subtly setting lots of stuff up which he then pays off fifty issues later. His one major weakness is action scenes. Whenever Spider-Man's punching someone, it feels like the book's just going through the motions. Bendis was a very strange choice for the comic, and no one else could have done it better.

With all that praise aside, there isn't that much point to the series. The Amazing Spider-Man, which has been three-times-a-month for a while now, is just as good. It's got Dan Slott, who co-writes my favorite superhero comic ever (Avengers: The Initiative), and it's got Marc Guggenheim, who's been doing the fantastically fun Eli Stone TV show, and it's got Bob Gale, who wrote Back to the Future. So it's not like if Bendis called it quits there wouldn't be well-written Spider-Man. What the series has going for it are two things. First, it gives me a little of the teenage soap-opera I've been missing since Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane ended. Secondly, there's a subtext to everything that happens in the entire series, where the American government is brewing up a genetic war. Every super-powered character's origin is tied to that idea, which gives this whole big ongoing series cohesion. And it's interesting enough, under the surface. Trouble is, it's been 127 issues, and that still hasn't built up into anything major. It still feels like it could erupt at any moment, like how the show 24 tries to feel like at any minute nuclear war will break out. But how long can that be dragged on for before it goes somewhere, and you move on? (Bendis has just written a miniseries which brought the theme to the surface.) It doesn't really feel like it's going anywhere. Peter Parker is still 15, just as he was when the series started. As much as the editors would like me to feel like anything can happen, I don't believe the war's going to start for real and I don't believe Peter will graduate school and I don't believe he'll get married.

Here's what I think they should have done. They should have set out with the intent of telling the whole story, from start to finish. Bendis should have plotted out 150 or 200 issues to cover the entire life of Spider-Man, from superpowers to growing up to having a family to premature death. They shouldn't have thought of this as an ongoing to be preserved for future writers, because that's what Amazing Spider-Man is for. They should have let Bendis loose, to do whatever the characters told him needed to be done. And the result would have been the definitive Spider-Man run.

I don't know how much can still be achieved at this point. The pace has been set already. I guess the best thing is to just keep doing the series as they're doing it for as long as Bendis wants to do it. I can't argue against an excellent comic coming out month after month. Though, it might be nice if Bendis moved on to something new. Is he really going to be on this for ten years straight? Wowsers.

The Ultimates

The Ultimates are a re-envisioning of The Avengers, who in a clever twist are not idealists. They're run by the American government, and used to fight their wars. It's a cynical story where most of the team's problems are caused by their own incompetence, and where they spend more time worrying about their image in the media than they do fighting supervillains. This has a very different tone than the other Ultimate books- not only is this not really for kids, but the visual style of the characters and the way they're characterized and the long chaotic action scenes are all more like big-budget Hollywood movies than like the usual comic books. The original Avengers series is just the inspiration- this really is its own thing.

Or was, I should say. Series creator Mark Millar wrote 26 issues, then left. That's when Jeph Loeb took over, and undid all the interesting work Millar had done. He made all the characters closer to their Marvel Universe versions, he made the storytelling more conventional and dull, and in general every reason to care about the series was taken away. I don't blame Millar for leaving. He told the story he wanted to tell, then went to the Marvel line and injected his brand of quasi-politics, cynicism and "Hollywoodiness" there with the big "Civil War" crossover. His run on The Ultimates had a satisfying ending, which is so rare. More importantly, if he had stayed on the routine would have gotten really old. That cynicism is now really common, even in regular Marvel comics like The Thunderbolts and Avengers: The Initiative, and in both those cases it's being done better than he did it. So I think it's good that he left when he did. But Jeph Loeb was absolutely the wrong person to follow him.

Again, I wish they had paid off the war they were hinting at. Millar hooked me with the idea of using superheroes as soldiers. So what's that like? What does a war look like where one side has superpowers before the other? What's the new world order like? What are the politics to all this? That's where the series needed to go. It needed to get more serious, not less. They needed to get -and this will sound bizarre to anyone who's familiar with his work, but they needed to get Jonathan Hickman to write this. To plot out a believable alternate history, in a world where wacky Marvel characters like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and the Hulk exist.

Loeb has taken all the characters in such cartoony directions, that I don't see how it's possible to get to that anymore, short of starting over as a different book. He's turned The Ultimates into "The Avengers Lite", and now I think the best thing to do is just cancel. Which they may actually do, after Ultimatum. I'm hopeful.

Ultimate X-Men

Now here's a series that never had a reason to exist. When Mark Millar started it, it was already just a bland imitation of the original X-Men stories. There's no twist, there's no subtext, it's just X-Men. Again. There have been some excellent writers on it: Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman. None of them could get to a point where there was a point. It had a big convoluted soap-opera with all its many characters, but that's what X-Men has been known for since the 70s and Chris Claremont did it better. The characters often act in ways that are surprising, but not ways that are more interesting than the original incarnations. This book doesn't feel like any writer's personal vision, it feels like a diluted rehash of better and more memorable stories.

What it should have done from the start was rethink the whole concept of the X-Men, because I think the problem stems from the originals. In the sixties, they were just another bunch of superheroes. Since then, the cast has gotten larger by the hundreds, and writers have used them as a metaphor for all sorts of oppressed minorities, but still I don't think the X-Men have found focus. They started out as superheroes like any others, so no matter how much you add on top that's what they'll still be. Their stories will still be about fighting this guy or that guy, about cleverly using this power against that power. I think there's a real problem with all the regular X-Men books, where even excellent writers write stories which only long-time fans could care about. So a remake was not just a way to get money, it should have been seen as a way to figure out how to make the X-Men work on a basic level. Start with just the original six characters, find a way to make them work and seem like a good idea, and only then start incorporating elements from later years. Slowly.

Here's how it should have worked. It should not have been an action-packed adventure, it should have been a tense drama. Brian K. Vaughan would have been perfect had he started it. The twist would be that most mutants can't control their powers. They genuinely are dangerous to society and themselves, which makes the whole persecution angle much more interesting on a fundamental level. It wouldn't be about fighting or being generic heroes, it would be about hiding and trying to survive. The only one with a reasonable amount of self-control would be Professor Xavier, and even he would be very scary for the rare occasions where he loses control. Imagine, being protected and taught by a guy who could erase your mind by accident. That's creepy, and that's the sort of thing it should have gone for.

Ah well. That's a whole different series. This one is pointless. It should have been cancelled long ago, and it's not too late to do so now.

Ultimate Fantastic Four

As with the original Fantastic Four, this is about a small team exploring wacky dimensions and fighting over-the-top villains and all that other generic superhero stuff. But it started out different from the Marvel Universe version in several ways. Most obviously, they changed the characters from adults to kids. That gives it a sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm which you wouldn't get in adults. More importantly, the tone was changed from anything-goes fantasy to more grounded science fiction. The first issue begins with Reed Richards, as a younger kid, discovering another dimension. Almost everything in the first eighteen issues (one story by Bendis and two stories by Warren Ellis) follows from that set-up. The heroes' powers and the main villain's powers and the initial plots are all tied to that dimension and the rules about how it works. The fact that there are rules at all differentiates this from the original, and I think there was potential to surpass the original. For my tastes, I think fictional science with rules is much more entertaining than fictional science which the writers make up as they go along. The first eighteen issues are fun, and all sorts of crazy things happen, but none of it feels like it's coming out of nowhere. So when Reed comes up with a brilliant invention, it's not just a plot device- it's a puzzle he solved, where you saw all the pieces to start with.

Then Mark Millar came on. He wrote four three-issue stories, and in that time he completely undid the series' potential. No, he did that quicker. Right from his first scene, where they're suddenly time-traveling back to the time of the dinosaurs, calling themselves "The Fantastic Four" and acting like jaded adults. Millar felt that the appeal of FF is that any craziness can happen, and maybe there's something to that. But that's not where this series should have gone. (Incidentally, he's writing the regular Fantastic Four now. He's writing it exactly as he wrote UFF, and it's not any good.) Once you say that Reed can invent anything as the plot dictates, and they're not acting like kids anymore, and there are no rules, what's the difference between it and the original? Why bother with an Ultimate version at all? Them looking younger isn't such a big difference to the kinds of stories you're telling.

It's not like Millar's stories were good on their own terms, either. He kept to a very rigid formula: Issue 1: set-up. Issue 2: The Twist. Issue 3: resolution. In each story, The Plot Twist was the only reason for the story to be told. To his credit, the twists were clever. But there was nothing but the twist. For instance: The first story started with Reed Richards discovering the original Marvel Universe in the multiverse and having a pleasant inter-dimensional chat with the original (and older) Reed Richards. All amusing enough, but there was no plot. Then in issue two, The Twist: it's not the Marvel Universe after all- it's another alternate reality just like it except that all the superheroes have become zombies. The communication was a trick, to let the zombies into the Ultimate Universe to feed some more. In issue three, they close the portal and prevent a zombie invasion. This doesn't feel exciting so much as feeling like it's clearing the stage for the next story and twist. It's a story which Mark Millar can feel proud about as he tells his friends what his clever plot twist is, but it's not a story that's good.

That's where I lost interest, so I can't say how current writer Mike Carey is doing. I don't usually care for Carey's work, so I doubt I'd be impressed. It should have built up rules slowly, adding in one or two new concepts whenever the writer ran out of stories and then seeing how those concepts played against everything else that had been built up. It should have been a series that started out simple and got progressively more and more complicated and interesting, which isn't really for kids but would sure have been fun. (There's no way Warren Ellis would have stayed on for more than twelve issues, and I think Adam Warren would have been the next best writer.) At this point that's not possible anymore, so I think the series should like UXM be cancelled posthaste.

At this point I think it's fair to say: The Ultimate Universe is a failure. In eight years it has failed to find its footing, and I don't think Ultimatum is going to change their approaches significantly. The "genetic war" angle is an interesting one, but the longer they wait to pay it off the less fresh it'll be. Already the Marvel movies have co-opted the theme, making it seem more like a staple of the genre and less like an edgy twist. I'm still interested in specific Ultimate comics. Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly going to continue to be excellent. And there are the occasional excellent stand-alone Ultimate miniseries, like Warren Ellis' somewhat-recent Ultimate Human and the infamously-long-delayed Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk by Damon Lindelof. I'm also cautiously optimistic about Mark Millar's new undertaking, "Ultimate Avengers", which won't actually be an Avengers book so much as an ongoing stream of big crossovers using whatever characters the writer feels like using. I think that's a cool idea, saying to a writer: "Here's the universe. Have fun. Just leave it somewhere cool for the next guy."

So here's what I'd like to see: Five or six Ultimate comics for Jeph Loeb, just to keep him away from the main universe. Ultimate Spider-Man, given the opportunity to do whatever it wants. And Ultimate Avengers, with unpredictable stories of varying length and scope. Just those three writers, and everyone else should write for the main universe.



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