Marvel’s Ultimate Comics Universe reborn: so what now for the Ultimate Universe?

Once a shot in the arm for the comics industry a little over 10 years ago, the Ultimate Universe appears to have stagnated. Seb wonders where the imprint can go next…

For the first half a decade or so of its existence, Marvel’s Ultimate Universe did a largely excellent job of fulfilling the remit set out for itself when it launched in a blaze of publicity (and high-selling comics) in the year 2000 – to be an exciting, vibrant, accessible entry-point for new and contemporary interpretations of some of comics’ most iconic characters.

Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man was a youthful, consistently entertaining take on the Spidey mythos, while Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s two volumes of The Ultimates set a template not only for 2000s-era superhero comics, but for multi-million-dollar-grossing movies as well (for one thing, they’re the sole reason Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury).

But as the decade drew on, somewhere along the line the imprint lost its way. While Ultimate Spidey continued its excellence unabated, elsewhere the likes of Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men stumbled through a succession of uninspiring creative teams and even less inspiring storylines.

The real nadir, though, came when Jeph Loeb arrived in 2008 – first to do a third volume of Ultimates that showed little to no knowledge of how the characters had previously been established, and then with the truly wretched Ultimatum, a miniseries that for no good reason wiped out a huge percentage of the line’s characters amid a torrent of violent, adolescent schlock.

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The intent was for Ultimatum to be followed by a triumphant relaunch, with a number of titles getting new #1s and the whole line rebranded as Ultimate Comics. However, while Spider-Man continued to be a critically acclaimed series, sales across the imprint as a whole failed to pick up, and left-field moves such as the return of Millar for a new Ultimate Avengers series, and Loeb and Art Adams’ unconventional Ultimate X, met with poor reception and crippling publication delays respectively.

It didn’t help that adding “Comics” to the imprint’s name led to all sorts of confusing title issues, particularly as on the covers themselves the word was missing – so a book solicited as “Ultimate Comics New Ultimates” would appear on shelves under the heading “Ultimate New Ultimates”, and so on.

Now, though, Marvel are trying again – and with a multi-pronged assault following the conclusion of the current and much-hyped Death Of Spider-Man storyarc, have announced a number of new titles and creative teams in what could well be the last-ditch attempt to rekindle interest in the whole Ultimate idea.

Over the course of last week, Marvel announced a variety of new series, with exciting creators plucked from their current “up and coming star” ranks, along with a bold new direction for Spider-Man. Unlike the post-Ultimatum relaunch, there’s no mega-crossover event promising to rip up the pages – simply a fresh outlook and new blood on the creative side, all taking place under the Ultimate Comics Universe Reborn banner.

So let’s have a look at where the Ultimate Universe looks to be heading in its second decade – and whether it stands a chance of recovering its glory days.

Ultimate Comics: Ultimates

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Yet another confusing name aside, this nevertheless has a good shout at being the new lynchpin of the relaunched Ultimate Universe. Written by Jonathan Hickman – making waves at Marvel for his Fantastic Four and S.H.I.E.L.D. work – and drawn by Esad Ribic (whose name sounds like an anagram of something, and who drew a couple of excellent issues of Ultimate X-Men in its early days), the big question over this is just how much it will tidy up the mess of the two conflicting S.H.I.E.L.D. teams currently playing out in Mark Millar’s Ultimates Vs. New Ultimates.

Interestingly, it’s been stated that the cast will include Nick Fury (currently leading the black-ops Avengers team) and Thor (currently a member of the headlining Ultimates), suggesting some kind of merging/reconciliation. Other characters named include the Bruce Banner Hulk (not seen since Ultimatum), Spider-Woman and Hawkeye – but there’s no mention of Iron Man nor current Ultimates leader (and possible traitor) Carol Danvers, while it’s been explicitly said that Captain America won’t appear.

For a title that was one of the most revered of the early 2000s, The Ultimates suffered a major blow to its reputation with the forgettable Ultimates 3, and despite a strong start neither of its more recent replacements – Millar’s Ultimate Comics Avengers or Loeb’s Ultimate Comics New Ultimates – were able to claw back much in the way respect, acclaim or sales. A lot, therefore, will be riding on this – the question is whether a slightly unconventional set of characters will be able to capture the readership’s imagination the way the more “classic” original Ultimates lineup did.

Ultimate Comics: X-Men

Ultimatum left the Ultimate Universe with a terrible paucity of mutant heroes remaining, with almost the entirety of its “classic” X-Men lineup (including Xavier, Cyclops, Wolverine and Nightcrawler) killed. Ultimate Comics X, by Jeph Loeb and Art Adams, represented an interesting attempt to do something different with the idea of mutants in the Ultimate Universe – introducing an entirely new set of characters with connections to their X-Men-based forebears (including Wolverine’s secret son, and a heavily-in-disguise Jean Grey).

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However, despite a cautiously positive critical reception, it’s only managed to release four issues since early 2010 – and looks now to have dropped off the radar entirely, in favour of Nick Spencer and Paco Medina’s relaunched X-Men title.

This could be the most exciting prospect of the entire relaunch – Spencer is one of the most thrillingly inventive new creators in comics at the moment, juggling his creator-owned Morning Glories and Infinite Vacation series with star turns both at Marvel (Iron Man 2.0) and DC (Jimmy Olsen, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents). The Ultimate Universe has been crying out for a “proper” X-Men book for some time now, and although many major names are missing, Spencer will still be able to call on the likes of Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Rogue and Johnny Storm for a story set in what he calls “a very Days of Future Past scenario”. The book will also apparently expand upon Ultimate Origins’ revelation of the mutant race actually being the result of a government bio-experiment.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man

The one title not getting a new writer – when the title gets a new number one (for the second time) following the pivotal issue #160, Brian Michael Bendis will still be writing it, just as he has been since the very start. The very excellent Sara Pichelli, having drawn a few issues of the recent run, will also be staying on as main artist with the relaunch.

Despite this continuity of creative team, though, Ultimate Spidey nevertheless looks set to undergo the biggest change in its eleven years of existence. Marvel have already given the wider press the news that, after the end of Death Of Spider-Man, there really will be someone other than Peter Parker wearing the Spider-Man costume – and a new, redesigned costume at that. I initially had my theories that it might still be the same character, given a change of “real life” identity (due to the ongoing saga of an escaped Norman Osborn), but the really rather touching Joe Quesada variant cover revealed recently suggests that this really might be the end for Peter.

Which frankly leaves us none the wiser as to who’ll be taking over (the released picture of the new costume didn’t suggest that it’s filled by the distinctly female form of Peter’s clone, Jessica Drew), nor as to whether or not it’s actually all that clever an idea to tamper with one of the publisher’s very best comics in such a major way.

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In addition to the ongoing series, two new miniseries have been announced that will help ease the transition into the “new” Ultimate setup. Ultimate Comics Fallout, written by Bendis, will focus on the immediate aftermath of Death Of Spider-Man, while Ultimate Comics Hawkeye will be a companion piece to Hickman’s Ultimates – though the writer claims it will tie into X-Men just as much.

It all makes for a potentially quite exciting relaunch slate – although we have misgivings about the possible goings-on in Ultimate Spider-Man, there’s no denying that the imprint as a whole needs a huge shot in the arm, which Ultimatum and its aftermath spectacularly failed to provide. This might well be the last throw of the die – if sales don’t pick up, Marvel might start to wonder whether the whole thing is worth dropping – but if Spider-Man can continue its excellence, and the new writers can bring fresh ideas and energy to the table, then the loyal fans who’ve stuck with the imprint since the beginning could just get the reward of a healthy and engaging universe once more.

Although they should really ditch the Ultimate Comics brand while they’re at it.