The State of Marvel's Ultimate Universe

Ten years later, is the Ultimate Universe still living up to its promise?

Late last year, Ultimate Spider-Man reached its 150th issue. That issue wasn't just significant in that it marked a major milestone for the series, but also in that it celebrated the tenth anniversary of the entire Ultimate imprint. It was ten years ago that Ultimate Spider-Man #1 gave readers their first taste of a younger, more modern Peter Parker in a rebooted Marvel Universe.


The Ultimate line has experienced plenty of ups and downs in the years since. Books have come and gone, characters have been killed off en masse, and the Ultimate Universe has struggled to move beyond the devastation of Ultimatum. As the Ultimate line rings in 2011 with major new storylines like "The Death of Spider-Man", we've decided to examine the imprint as a whole. What factors were responsible for the line's early success? How well are the creators building and growing the line? What needs to be addressed in the coming months and years? Here we explore the past, present and future of the Ultimate Universe.

Accessibility

One of the primary reasons the Ultimate Universe was created in 2000 was to more directly target new readers and those who had drifted away from the comic book industry. Particularly during the '90s and especially with major franchises like X-Men, readers complained that many books were bogged down by excessive continuity and were frustratingly inaccessible. A rather unglamorous moment for Marvel came in 2000 when an issue of TV Guide featured a short comic designed to introduce readers to the X-Men comics as they existed at the time. Woefully confusing and overcrowded, this story probably did more harm than good as far as attracting new readers.

Marvel's initial Ultimate books fought to counter the idea that comic readers desired stories that built upon 40 years of continuity. Series like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men retained the essence of the originals but streamlined the concepts and rebooted their respective characters as modern teenagers. Readers could dive into Ultimate Spider-Man with issue #1 and know that no prior reading experience was necessary.

The Ultimate line has continued to place an emphasis on accessibility over the years, albeit not always as successfully as it might. Problems have arisen over time with the continuity of the Universe, with some stories directly contradicting the events of others. For instance, the account of the deaths of Peter Parker's parents in Ultimate Origins contradicts what readers saw of the Parkers in the "Venom" arc of Ultimate Spider-Man. The nature of Tony Stark's abilities in the two Ultimate Iron Man mini-series seems to differ wildly from what readers have seen of the character in the various Ultimates books. Ultimate Marvel Team-Up alone has so many incongruities that many readers consider it to be out-of-continuity.

While it's disheartening at times that an imprint founded on the notion of accessibility and being built by a few creators has so many continuity snafus, the effect these snafus have on overall accessibility is sometimes overstated. Does a new reader really care if time seems to pass far more swiftly in the Ultimates books than it does in Ultimate Spider-Man?

Particularly after the events of "The Ultimate Clone Saga", Ultimate Spider-Man has become a series that allows new readers to jump on board with relatively little struggle. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Ultimatum overhaul was that each surviving series was granted a fresh start. The increasingly convoluted Ultimate X-Men made way for the far more accessible Ultimate X. And with a stronger emphasis on limited series rather than ongoing books, casual readers are given a greater incentive to try something like Ultimate Comics Avengers.


Realism

Most creators and fans would agree that the Marvel Universe is a place that has one foot planted in reality. Characters battle outlandish threats, but they also struggle with more human conflicts and deal with the mundane as often as the supernatural. Part of the brilliance of the approach applied by creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was to make heroes more flawed than readers had seen. Peter Parker struggled every bit as much with landing a date and paying for Aunt May's heart medication as he did fending off attacks from Doctor Octopus.

From the beginning, the Ultimate Universe aimed to take this emphasis on realism one or two steps further. The Ultimate Universe is meant to be even more grounded in reality. Characters are revised or conceived based on modern sensibilities. Peter Parker is no longer a freelance photographer, but a part-time web designer. Doctor Strange is a world-famous magical performer. Thor was viewed as a crazy hippie with delusions of grandeur until proving his godly heritage. Years before Civil War floated the concept in the regular Marvel Universe, the Ultimate books tackled the notion that no government would allow super-powered vigilantes to operate unchecked and unregulated.

Superhuman powers tend to have a somewhat more plausible explanation in the Ultimate Universe. Peter Parker didn't spontaneously receive powers from a radioactive spider. Instead, the spider's bite acted as a catalyst for Peter's dormant mutant gene. Many other characters gained powers through various offshoots of the Super-Soldier Program. In short, the Ultimate Universe is not a place where heroes gain power through magical amulets or bolts of lightning.

Even when it came to costumes, the comics strove to offer suits that a person operating in the real world might conceivably wear. The X-Men immediately donned black leather costumes not dissimilar to those seen in the live-action movies. Bryan Hitch's Ultimates costumes were functional rather than flashy.

Realism is another area where the Ultimate books slowly seemed to lose their way over the years. Writers stopped focusing as much on attempting to re-imagine familiar Marvel concepts and make them work within the confines of a more realistic setting. As books like Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four introduced more familiar villains, the villains themselves began to differ less and less from the originals. Characters like Thanos and Apocalypse and concepts like the Cosmic Cube began to chip away at the realistic tone of the Ultimate U. Stories like Marvel Zombies and Ultimate Power further blurred the line between the Ultimate Universe and the regular Marvel Universe by introducing cross-dimensional travel and allowing characters to cross from one universe to another.

To be clear, we're not suggesting concepts like these have no place in the Ultimate line at all. The imprint would be rather boring if it only ever focused on realistic superheroes and grounded settings. The catch is that the Ultimate line demands a certain approach to storytelling. Whereas Marvel's standard universe is influenced by a mixture of science fiction and fantasy-based elements, the Ultimate Universe needs to be predominately sci-fi-oriented. Ultimate books require a certain logic to character motivations, powers, technology, and conflicts that normal Marvel books don't necessarily need.

This is an area the line has struggled with and continues to struggle with in the present. Of the four current, core Ultimate titles, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Ultimate X do the best job of maintaining a realistic, grounded tone. Ultimate Comics Avengers and New Ultimates, meanwhile, are less consistent in this regard. New Ultimates currently features a conflict with an Asgard that is every bit as fantasy-based as the classic Marvel version. Ultimate Comics Avengers is dealing with supernatural topics like vampires and Ghost Rider. Again, we don't intend to argue that these concepts have no place in the Ultimate Universe, but when they aren't modified to suit the more realistic tone of the imprint, they tend to feel incongruous and out of place. If Ghost Rider isn't going to be significantly modified or re-imagined in his transition to the Ultimate Universe, why introduce him at all? And that brings us to our next topic.


Originality

Marvel's current stance on the Ultimate Universe is that it's a place where anything can happen. Their new slogan seems to be "there are no rules". This is as opposed to the traditional Marvel Universe, where many characters are constrained by the need to remain consistent and unblemished for future generations of readers. It will probably never be possible to permanently kill off Wolverine in the standard Marvel Universe, but it is possible in the Ultimate Universe. Ultimatum proved that much, at least. And thanks to the ominously titled "Death of Spider-Man", readers may soon be facing a universe where Marvel's two biggest heroes have both been eliminated.

The increased focus on "anything can happen" in recent years comes as an acknowledgment that his hasn't always been the case for the Ultimate line. In the early years of the line, series like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men routinely offered interesting, modernized takes on familiar heroes and villains. But as time wore on, the act of "Ultimizing" characters became commonplace and almost formulaic. Even worse, the books showed little success in terms of introducing wholly original characters. Fans didn't exactly latch onto new additions like USM's Geldoff and UXM's Magician.

Originality is key to the Ultimate line. Again, if a familiar character isn't going to be significantly altered in the transition from the regular Marvel Universe to the Ultimate Universe, why bother at all? Why feature a place like Asgard so prominently in the Ultimate Universe if it's functionally identical to the traditional version and offers no real new avenues for storytelling?

Ultimate writers don't need to ask themselves whether the Ultimate version of a character is superior to the original. It's too much to expect that a relatively new creation is going to surpass a version with 40+ years of quality storytelling behind them. However, writers should ask themselves whether the characters in question are different enough that they offer something new to readers. Is Ultimate Peter Parker superior to classic Peter Parker? Not necessarily, but he is unique enough that Spider-Man fans can find plenty of enjoyment out of both. The best Ultimizations are the ones that can stand apart from the originals and offer something new to fans. Characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Venom, and Nick Fury stand out from the original source material. Others, like Wolverine, Daredevil, and Doctor Doom never veered far enough from the comfortable territory of their predecessors. Or perhaps more accurately, what differences were present at the beginning seemed to fade over time.

Again, the current crop of Ultimate books have offered both successes and failures in this regard. The deaths of so many A-List characters in Ultimatum may have been an effort to inspire Ultimate writers to explore new faces. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man has since introduced the mother/daughter villains The Bombshells. Meanwhile, The Chameleons differ enough from the original Chameleon that they too might as well be considered new creations. Both pairs of villains stand alongside the supporting character Kong as legitimately worthwhile additions to the Spider-Man mythology. Ultimate X also features a new team of young mutant heroes coming together. While it's true the team does include the son of Wolverine and a disguised Jean Grey, this series shows perhaps the greatest potential for introducing new characters and offering a story that couldn't be told using Marvel's traditional lineup of characters.

Still, there are cases where originality isn't as strong a focus as might be hoped. Far from offering a tale that couldn't be told within the traditional Marvel Universe, the plot of Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 is unfortunately similar to that of "Curse of the Mutants" in X-Men Vol. 4. That's not to imply one is ripping off the other, only that a vampire-centric story set within the Ultimate Universe should be able to take a different, more unpredictable form. Meanwhile, the deaths of Wolverine, Daredevil, and Doctor Doom have all led to new characters taking up those same mantles in one form or another. So again, why kill the originals off in the first place?

Not to belabor a familiar point, but with the Ultimate imprint only offering a handful of titles each month, there's no need to publish stories that can't somehow take advantage of the freedom and lack of restrictions the universe offers. The issue of accessibility in Marvel's traditional universe is no longer as pressing as it was ten years ago. Readers no longer need to rely on the Ultimate Universe to simply provide streamlined versions of favorite heroes. The imprint has the freedom to move in many different directions now, and for the sake of maintaining reader interest, it needs to choose one.

Talent

No publishing imprint can hope to succeed without a pool of talented creators to draw upon. There are many reasons DC's Vertigo imprint has remained so successful over the years, but above all the success is thanks to Vertigo's ability to draw in creators with worthwhile stories to tell.

The Ultimate Universe has been able to boast big-name creators from the very beginning. Writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughan, and Robert Kirkman have all enjoyed extended runs on various series. Those writers have been joined by many A-List artists, from Mark Bagley to Bryan Hitch to the Kubert brothers. The Ultimate imprint has even played host to writers who don't normally work in the comics industry, including Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof and novelist Orson Scott Card.

Of course, while the names attached to Ultimate books are usually recognizable, some writers have met with more success than others. Bendis and Millar have arguably done more to build the Ultimate line than any other creators. What should be remembered is that neither writer was quite the hot commodity in the industry in 2000 they are today. At the time Bendis was just transitioning from independent, creator-owned comics to his Marvel work. Yet something in his writing must have struck a chord with Marvel's editors, and they handed him the keys to a fresh Spider-Man kingdom.

There's a lesson to be learned from the beginnings of the Ultimate line. As much as A-List creators can sell a book through sheer name value, it's more important to focus on the creators who can bring the best ideas to the table. If the Ultimate Universe is meant to be a haven for creativity, the best writers are the ones who can offer the most original ideas.

Unfortunately, even following this simple rule isn't an automatic recipe for success. Brian K. Vaughan is certainly one of the most original voices in the industry these days, but his Ultimate X-Men run proved underwhelming for many readers. The same could be said for Vaughan's successor Robert Kirkman. Vaughan's Ultimate X-Men lacked the originality and vitality of his concurrent Runaways stories. Kirkman wasn't able to bring the same compelling character conflicts and twists seen in books like Invincible and The Walking Dead. Were the writers held back by editorial constraints, or did they simply find it more difficult to work with pre-existing characters in an unfamiliar universe? It's hard to say what was to blame, but these runs made it clear that some writers are better suited to the Ultimate imprint than others.

Currently, the Ultimate line rests in familiar hands. Bendis, Millar, and Loeb handle the bulk of Marvel's Ultimate output, and this arrangement has remained constant since the conclusion of Ultimatum. Can the Ultimate Universe truly thrive without fresh blood being periodically injected? Luckily, Marvel has added one new voice to the mix and will introduce another early next year. Jonathan Hickman recently concluded his stint on Ultimate Thor, and Jason Aaron is currently working on Ultimate Captain America. These two writers should hopefully do their part to prevent the line from growing stagnant over the long run.

However, in the interest of focusing on originality, even these additions may not be enough. For Marvel to truly mold the Ultimate Universe into a dynamic and unpredictable place, they need to pursue more outside writers. Orson Scott Card's Ultimate Iron Man minis are the sort of work the imprint needs to be seeing more of. The best way to craft Ultimate characters who differ from the originals is to seek out writers who aren't necessarily intimately familiar with the source material. Consider Hasbro's G.I. Joe: Resolute animated movie as an example in another medium. Resolute was easily the best attempt at creating a feature-length G.I. Joe project so far, and it was penned by Warren Ellis, a writer who freely admits to having had absolutely no familiarity with the franchise prior to taking on the job.

That's what the Ultimate Universe needs – writers and artists who aren't beholden to tradition and who aren't afraid to take characters in sometimes drastic new directions.

The Future

The Ultimate line seems to be reaching something of a crossroads in the coming months. Peter Parker's life is rapidly deteriorating in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. Ultimate Comics Avengers reaches its fourth and final volume this spring. Both New Ultimates and Ultimate X will be wrapping up their first volumes around the same time. Readers can probably expect a flurry of new Ultimate titles later in 2011.

We know what shape at least one of those books will take. Mark Millar will pen a mini-series called Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates. Accompanying this project is an arc of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. Together, both books are presenting a story titled "The Death of Spider-Man". We expect this storyline will be the driving force of the imprint for much of 2011.

This could be a boon for the Ultimate line. As much as many readers profess to be tired of event comics, an overarching event may be just what the Ultimate Universe needs to attract readers and build excitement. The sad truth is that, despite its consistent high quality, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man sells far less than Bendis' Avengers books. Interest in the Ultimate Universe is waning in some respects, and event comics may be the answer.

Still, we hope "The Death of Spider-Man" is more than a mere publicity stunt. Assuming the title isn't misleading, we hope the Ultimate writers have ongoing plans that spin out of Peter Parker's death. The most likely possibility is that Peter Parker will be replaced by Jessica Drew, his genetic clone, and that the series will continue on as Ultimate Spider-Woman. This could be the start of exactly the sort of intriguing and unpredictable storytelling the Ultimate Universe needs, but it could just as easily be a mere marketing ploy without proper follow-through.

In addition to a clear direction in 2011, the Ultimate line needs fresh, new blood. As mentioned, bringing Hickman and Aaron aboard on their respective mini-series is a start, but will they remain beyond those short projects? In general, more variety is always a good thing. Despite the post-Ultimatum overhaul, the Ultimate Universe tends to focus on the same four pillars that have always driven the imprint – Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and The Ultimates. That leaves vast segments of the Marvel Universe uncovered. Why not devote Ultimate books toward exploring and defining the balance of power among the space-faring cultures of the Ultimate universe? Why not a series that tackles all the supernatural characters that have periodically cropped up, only this time seeking to remold them in true Ultimate fashion?

Also necessary is a more consistent shipping schedule. The Ultimate line has already developed a reputation for lateness thanks to books like Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk and Ultimatum. Shipping delays continue for Ultimate X, and New Ultimates only recently wrapped up its short run well behind schedule. Marvel should make every effort to address that reputation, even if it means waiting to solicit new series until they're fully written and illustrated. It's not as if dozens of books depend on a strict shipping timeline, as is sometimes the case among Marvel's regular books.

By and large, the Ultimate Universe is a more fresh and exciting place now than it was a few short years ago. That isn't to say it couldn't be improved further, but the real challenge at present is renewing reader interest. Sales are respectable, but the general sense of enthusiasm surrounding the Ultimate line in 2002 and 2003 is no longer there. It's a challenge, to be sure. Marvel can no longer rely solely on big-name characters and big-name creators to sell these books. In the last few years alone, readers have witnessed the deaths of the Osborns, Doctor Doom, Magneto and his family, and the vast majority of the X-Men. The Ultimate Universe can only succeed by offering readers bold, exciting stories they can't find within Marvel's traditional universe. In a way, the Ultimate line should be Marvel's answer to Vertigo. Will a storyline like "The Death of Spider-Man" manage that? Only time will tell.