Pipeline: Marvel's Ultimate Comics Problem

Tue, June 11th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

MARVEL'S ULTIMATE UNIVERSE PROBLEM

It dawned on me recently that I left Marvel's Ultimate Universe at the end of the first "Ultimate Spider-Man" series. It was a combination of factors that did it:

  • Marvel's decision to stop publishing the series in my favorite format, the oversized hardcover with 12 issues in it.

  • My own cut back in weekly comics purchasing.

  • Disillusionment with the way the line was heading, with big crossover events and major deaths.

  • The constant churn of creators on the series. "The Ultimates" has had how many different writers now?

  • The death of Peter Parker.

It's a sentimental and nostalgic thing, perhaps, but that last one was probably the straw that broke the camel's back.

However, there's one more factor that I didn't notice until just recently. The line was created to have a small number of titles, with two or three on-going series and a rotating book or two filling it out. Then "Ultimate Spider-Man" had its third first issue. "The Ultimates" has had so many first issues now that I couldn't tell you what order they fell in if you showed me all their covers. So went the rest of the line.

Here's my proof. During comiXology's Marvel #1 giveaway a couple months back, I downloaded every Ultimate first issue I could click on. Here, now, is that list:

The Ultimate Universe catalog now reaches over 40 discrete titles, many of them indistinguishable from one another.

That's 43 different titles. If I wanted to pick up on the Ultimate Universe as of the end of Stuart Immonen's "Ultimate Spider-Man" run, in what order would I read the books? Good luck figuring that out. At least "Ultimate X-Men" kept the same numbering sequence even when it was going through its lengthy list of writers -- Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman and Brian Bendis included. Or, at least, it did for a fairly long time.

Heck, if I just wanted an entry point into the Ultimate Universe, where would I start? The correct answer would probably be with the Miles Morales "Ultimate Spider-Man" series, right? Which one is that? "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" volume 2. As opposed to "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" volume 1, which was all about killing Peter Parker. As opposed to "Ultimate Spider-Man," which was the long-running series that ended with "Ultimatum," which is where I personally believe the Ultimate Universe gave up and rolled over. It was a crossover book that existed to kill a bunch of characters and, er, I'm not sure what else.

After that, what do you read? "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" or "Ultimate Comics New Ultimates"? And how are they related to the no less than three separate volumes of "Ultimate Comics Avengers." Funny enough, there's a fourth series there titled "Ultimate Comics Avengers vs. New Ultimates". At what point did the snake eat its own tail, exactly?

I don't know about yours, but my head is spinning. I almost wish they did just call them "Ultimate The Ultimates" volumes 1 - 5.

The Ultimate Universe lost its uniqueness from the regular Marvel Universe, both in content and in publishing plan. Then it got treated as a proving ground for the "regular" titles, instead of a destination of pride in and of itself. That's a shame.

But, hey, it was fun while it lasted.

TWO QUICK REVIEWS

I love Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's "The Manhattan Projects". It's the one book I read on a monthly basis that's never failed to surprise me and make me laugh. Hickman's writing is far out in left field with this project, and Pitarra's line work sells it hard. Issue #12 gives us the origins and revelations of Enrico Fermi, carrying on from last issue's final page reveal. It's tragic, it's hilarious, and it's a neat explanation for some of the things that have come before. Hickman outdoes himself, as usual, in piecing things together in a satisfying way. That includes the cover, which this month is a cool stereotypical alien head, to match the story inside.

Special credit also has to go to Jordie Bellaire, whose coloring style defines so much of the look of this title from month to month. She goes from subtle shadows to stark contrasting primary colors to better separate the scenes, and it works. It's as much a defining part of the look of the series as Pitarra's fine line work.

The exterior scenes on the moon very subtly use an off-black tone for the sky to help the word balloons pop off of it, not to mention the solid black lines of the characters in the foreground. It's a neat trick you don't appreciate until you think about it for a second.

Rus Wooton's lettering fits in beautifully, too. He makes the mixed case lettering look good, but also has a few different looks in this issue. There are the inverted caption boxes with status updates throughout the issue. There's the layered lettering to overdub new dialogue over previously seen pages. Harry Daghlian's inverted word balloons are easy to read, with a nice thin white outline to set it apart from the backgrounds. He even gets the chance in this issue to throw some sound effects in.

You get 25 pages of story this month, in addition to the usual three pages of title sequence. It leaves off any ads at the back of the book along with the usual character roll call, but it's a worthy trade off.

Oh, and Einstein is a badass.

"The Manhattan Projects" #12 is in stores this week.

I gave "Garth Ennis' Red Team" #1 a hard time because it was a comic book filled with talking heads. The entire issue was scene after scene of people sitting in a room or around a table chatting. The second and third issue (released last week) aren't much better, but I'm over that. That's the style for the book. It effectively gives you a denser reading experience, more like you're reading an illustrated novel than a sequential narrative. It's a good story that's reeled me in. That's all that counts.

Ennis' story of a police team that runs its own missions in taking out the worst of the bad guys is a nuanced thriller. It's "The Shield" for comics. After three issues, the lead character's personality is well established, and the episodic narrative has already started to break off from how the series started. It's not going to be repetitive. They're covering a lot of ground fast, and teasing us to the point of where the wheels might start to fall off this particular wagon. You can see the cracks showing, but now it's only a matter of time before we see how things fall apart. I'm fascinated by it, and count it as one of the series I most look forward to from month to month.

PIPELINKS

  • The New York Times last week covered the fall-out from the big win for "Blue Is the Warmest Color" at Cannes. Of interest to Pipeline readers is that the movie is based on a French comic, which will be released here in the States in the fall.

    The first interesting point is how much the author of the graphic novel didn't like the movie. She was never invited to the set. Her emails were never answered. And when the movie won top prize at Cannes, she wasn't thanked. Some things in the comics world just never change, do they? The movie system tramples over yet another cartoonist.

    The other part that gets thrown in at the end is the political aspect of it. How much of the movie's win was a commentary on political issues of the day in France? I suspect a lot more than anyone involved will ever cop to.

  • I can't tell you how tempted I was to hop an immediate flight to Los Angeles last week when I heard about this publicity stunt: Jump into a replica of Uncle Scrooge's money bin!

  • The instantly legendary Paul Jenkins interview from last week included this choice quote, since reblogged too many times to count:

    DC is in the toilet right now. It reminds me of the way Marvel was just before we did Marvel Knights. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the similarities and connections.

    It means that in another year or two, DC will attempt, on a small scale, to start a creator-driven line of books free of editorial interference, starring "second tier" or disused characters. The editors will be creators first, bringing their friends in and giving them enough rope to hang themselves trying new things. Those will be the books everyone is talking about, and that editorial team's style will be incorporated into the main DC line, one family of books at a time. And a lightning rod of a publisher will come in from another hobbyist venture and polarize the comics community while making some great comics.

    That would be nice. I'm not holding my breath, though.

    It would also mean starting the "Ultimate DC" line of titles. This time, I believe an "Ultimate" line would eventually replace the main line of titles, as the New 52 doesn't seem to be what many were hoping it would be.

  • There are certain books I want to read. Books I wish I had read. Yet I know I never will. I've tried many times, but I can't get excited enough about them to commit to reading them. Or, I've tried to start but my attention goes elsewhere. A lot of newspaper comic strip compilations are like that for me, in particular. I'm not sure what the block is in my mind, but it's there. It's a little frustrating, but I bet I'm not alone. It's like, we all wish we could claim to have read the complete works of William Shakespeare, but how many of us have? I just can't get into them. And so I'll never be a successful Jeopardy! contestant. I can live with that.

  • Carl Barks and Jack Kirby started their comics careers in earnest in their 40s, creating a ridiculous number of awesome characters and now-familiar concepts. Is there a natural tendency towards creation in your 40s, rather than the curation of your 20s and 30s? Is there a natural age at which you stop serving others' trademarks and start making your own? If so, there's a large number of modern creators currently in their 40s who will be making some ridiculously awesome comics in the years ahead, as they leave Marvel/DC and venture further out on their own.

  • I wish I had the spare change to back more Kickstarters. I'm missing a ridiculously large number of awesome-looking books and it's killing the comics part of me.

  • Pondering: The rise of Kickstarter's comics population is directly attributable to the failings of the Direct Market. Would anyone use Kickstarter if the Direct Market was a reliable and workable system created for something more than distributing comics produced by Marvel/DC?

  • You know Zynga as the publishing house responsible for on-line games like "Farmville" and a whole host of copycat "Me, Too!" games that attempt to manipulate people into sending them month. They used to be a huge part of Facebook. They went public, and now their stock is fading fast. They had a round of layoffs recently. Many employees were offered good severance packages if they stuck around for a couple of months to ease the transition and train their replacements. Those employees refer to themselves as "The Walking Dead."

  • A Brazilian hospital treating kids with cancer has repackaged their chemo IV bags as "Justice League Superformula," with Warner Bros' cooperation. They've even done up special comics for the kids. It's the kind of story that breaks your heart and then melts it.
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TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, ultimate comics, dc comics, red team, the manhattan projects

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