Sunday, August 15, 2004

Editor's note: Jim D. recently purchased a copy of Marvel Comics' "Ultimates". He asked me for a few words of explanation, and then suggested I copy the e-mail I wrote him on Marvel's Ultimates line and post it here, so post it here I shall.

To explain Ultimates is to understand Marvel's past few years as a company.

A few years ago Marvel got a new President, Bill Jemas, and a new Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada. Marvel had been really struggling during the late 90's, and was trying to figure out how to resolve what they perceived as the problems with their current titles. They brought in fresh blood in the higher offices (with Quesada brought in from his mature reader line of Marvel Knights to helm the ship. I don't recall where Jemas came from).

Both X-Men and Spider-Man were (as you will constantly hear about) mired in 40 years of continuity. This made it difficult for new readers to jump in. And even if they did go back and buy old issues, often those stories were dated and didn't make sense if you wanted to say a character was only, say, 30 years old.

For example, the Fantastic Four's origin is tied directly to the Space Race. Sue Storm states "we need to beat the commies!" And then they jump in a space capsule.

So, rather than jettison the ongoing series, Marvel launched Ultimate Spider-Man (pre-movie) to retell the origin of Spider-Man and reintroduce the villains with more updated origins and costumes, etc...

For example, Venom in the original series is tied to Secret Wars, a mini-series from 1982 or so. Secret Wars isn't coming back, and it's kind of lame to point to a series that's 20 years old and outside of the actual Spider-Man titles for reference. Ultimate Spider-Man gave Venom a new origin and tied it more closely to Spider-Man.

Sounds lame, but they assigned a top writer and artist to the project. The rest is history.

I've also wondered if Ultimate Spider-Man wasn't a safety valve for Spider-Man in the "post Clone Saga era" in order to bring back readers who swore off Spider-Man forever.

After Ultimate Spider-Man became a #1 seller, they tried Ultimate Team-Up to introduce "Ultimate" versions of classic characters. Ultimate X-Men followed, then Ultimates.

I pick up the trades of Ultimate Spider-Man. I pick up the trades of Ultimates (mostly because the actual issues have come out very erratically. 13 issues in 2.4 years?). I don't care for Ultimate X-men all that much, and only read the first trade before abandoning it. It seemed almost like a Mountain Dew commerical to me. But I'm generally off X-Men altogether these days. Ultimate FF is definitely the greatest departure from the source material. It's interesting, but it's very different in a lot of ways.

These comics sell very, very well. However, I'm not sure they've expanded sales to "new readers" as intended, and they stand the chance of dropping the value of the source material instead of enhancing it.

On the whole, I don't think this has been either good or bad. The Ultimate line was the success story of the short reign of Bill Jemas before the board fired him for continually insulting readers, retailers and pretty much everybody who came in his path. Not to mention Jemas went out of his way to turn the friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC into Marvel tossing direct insults at DC staff, comics, etc... ruining forty years of cordial relations. Plus, he launched multiple lines which nose-dived, re-wrote whole scripts himself, and was doing other s**t which was kind of insane. Further, Ultimates drove content into a PG-13 direction which the board considered not good if they wanted to expand the market out of retail stores once again and draw in kids. (editor's note: Jemas also began making moves to jettison the old titles and would only sell Ultimate line versions of the characters for various projects. You can still see Ultimate Wolverine turn up in some odd places. You can see how the PG-13 thing, plus putting Wolverine on a towel for 5 years olds might not fly.)

If you can't tell, I couldn't stand Jemas, and I find Quesada (still at Marvel) to be immature and obnoxious. (editor's note: for clarification, Quesada routinely takes credit for the success of all things Marvel whether or not he had anything to do with them. Ie, the success of the Spider-Man movies... He also keeps up the middle-school taunt of calling the Time Warner owened DC Comics "AOL Comics")

I suspect Quesada's days are numbered as well. The success of Marvel has almost occured in spite of these two rather than because of them.

Really, they can thank Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar for pulling their fat out of the fire.

I feel like I can read both Ultimate Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man without too many worries. I've never liked Avengers, but I find Ultimates interesting when I read, so that's a success in my book.

Anyway, none of the series are more than a few years old, so you can probably find all of their trades at the local comic shop without too much effort, and you'd then have the complete series.

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