The other new universe

Recently I mentioned that I’d been reading Marvel’s New Universe comics from the ’80s, which proved to be a fascinating failed experiment: The New Coke of comics, if you will. Well, I never managed to finish off the series. The second half of the New Universe – the post-Pitt books – abandoned the few things I found interesting about the New Universe to become this sort of grim, dreary slog. On the plus side, it also marked the point at which Marvel editorial culled most of the genuinely awful books (except, for some reason, Justice), but the shift to a more martial tone and away from the “strange people trying to make their way in the world” theme felt too contrived… not to mention cliché.

So, after I dropped those books, I decided to move along to Marvel’s second attempt to create a new universe, the Ultimate Marvel books. I’m not sure why they didn’t just do the Ultimate thing in the first place. Most New Universe books were thinly veiled knockoffs of existing Marvel franchises anyway, so Ultimate’s approach of rebooting those franchises feels more honest.

I finally finished reading through Ultimatum last night, and I have to say: What a terrible, terrible way to end a large-scale shared universe. I mean, yeah, I guess that continuity is still going, but I have no interest in keeping up with it beyond Ultimatum for exactly the same reason I dropped New Universe after The Pitt. “Let’s kill everyone and make things, like, super dark and violent” is such a lazy form of writing. Ultimatum took a long-running narrative thread that spanned across seven or eight years of a shared universe – Magneto’s determination to spark a war between humans and mutants – and ran with it. Ran with it right off the rails and into the ground.

The premise behind Ultimatum was great; Magneto finally went all in on his decades of threats by changing the Earth’s magnetic polarity, intending to extinguish the entire human race and repopulate the world with his mutant exile population hidden safely above the Savage Land. But the execution of that plot completely sucked; for some stupid reason, Magneto’s global cataclysm only amounted to the flooding of New York. Because, hey, that’s the only city on the planet, if Ultimate Marvel is anything to go by.

Dozens of characters died in the flood. Realistic, I guess. But… in a universe where death rarely gives mulligans, the mass extermination of characters whose lives had been developed over the course of years of stories in a gimmicky mass event with little to no closure just feels cheap.


(Ultimates Vol. 3, which led into Ultimatum, was also pretty wretched and made almost zero sense. Did Joe Madureira learn the art of visual storytelling from Alex Ross or something? Because, like Ross, he has no idea how to construct a narrative through pictures.)

But much more damning was just how cynical the whole thing felt. The characters who weren’t slaughtered pretty much all became instant murderers despite years of preaching their high-minded ideals. The book’s asinine attempts at shock value – like The Blob eating Wasp’s corpse, provoking Giant-Man to bite his head off – weren’t clever or interesting or even gritty, merely childish, and they spoiled nearly a decade’s worth of frequently excellent storytelling. And even if those plot beats could have been handled well, their inane dialogue (“Tastes like chicken”) merit nothing but vast contempt. By the time noble, hardcore peace advocate Cyclops blasted Magneto’s head clean off his shoulders only to be gunned down by an assassin a few days later, I had long since ceased to care. Murder, murder, murder. Oh, look, Magneto just snapped Xavier’s neck. Oh, hey, The Thing crushed Doom’s head like a grape. Ah, and there’s Dormammu squeezing Dr. Strange until his body explodes in a bloody mess. Cool. Murder. Who cares about telling a good story in an interesting way when you can just rack up a graphic body count and make good guys all edgy and stuff?

Writer Jeph Loeb’s atrocious handling of the whole thing made me pine for the comparative maturity and subtlety of Mark Millar’s writing, which is really saying something. The real capper, though, was Loeb’s dedication at the end of Ultimatum, thanking all the people who had labored to create the Ultimate universe over the years – because nothing says “thanks for all the hard work” like flushing their efforts right down the toilet, I guess? Pathetic. But in fairness, this was clearly a large-scale business decision that many people signed off on, so it’s not like Loeb is exclusively to blame. Lots of people deserve contempt for managing to run an entire line of books into the ground.

Ultimatum truly disappointed me, because there was a lot to like about Ultimate Marvel up until that point. Collectively, the books did a fantastic job of recasting classic Marvel tales in a contemporary context. It helps that top-tier talent like Warren Ellis help pilot the thing in the early days, and while it wasn’t always subtle about its overarching narrative theme of “superheroes reimagined for a post-9/11 world,” that ethos made Marvel’s books feel timely in a way that they hadn’t since, well, the days when Timely had recently become Marvel. SHIELD took on a major role in all the books, perhaps well-intended but often amounting to an indiscriminate blunt instrument of America as a militarized surveillance and police state. The fact that everything in the Ultimate universe wound back around to Captain America and the world’s desperate attempts to recreate that single success of the World War II super-soldier program turned that character into an anchor for the entire line, Ultimate Marvel’s Superman — the calm center of the universe, even when he was being really poorly written by certain authors. That being said, I very much appreciated the way later writers made fun of Millar’s self-congratulatory handling of Cap’s idiotic posturing and dumbass lines like “This A doesn’t stand for France.”

Up until Ultimatum, Ultimate Marvel even handled events and crossovers well – a true rarity in comics. The “Galactus” story was a thread that ran throughout the entire line for something like a year, building up to a world-shaking event that had lingering aftereffects. Ultimate X-Men wasn’t necessarily my favorite book in the line – Ultimate Fantastic Four was, Greg Lands’ infamous habit of tracing porn when drawing Susan Richards notwithstanding…


…because as a fan of old John Byrne/Walt Simonson-era Fantastic Four, the Ultimate rendition of the team hit all the right buttons for me (up until Ultimatum turned everyone into assholes, that is). Nevertheless, Ultimate X-Men did a phenomenal job of reworking decades’ worth of X-Men concepts into a more grounded reality. Although certain plot lines felt underdeveloped and too reliant on familiarity with standard Marvel continuity (e.g. the Hellfire Club/Phoenix story), seeing outlandish Chris Claremont concepts like Mojo and Majestrix Lilandra reworked into more down-to-earth renditions kept things surprising and fun despite their familiarity. I genuinely enjoyed the new spins on the big ’90s X-crossovers like X-cutioner’s Song (Stryfe as a home-grown terrorist with a skill for causing turmoil in those around him) and especially Age of Apocalypse (which put an interesting spin on Cable, built on a long-running thread involving a much less take ridiculous take on Mr. Sinister, and culminated with a cheeky, and mercifully small, nod to Onslaught).

By and large, Ultimate Marvel managed to tread a careful line between fan fiction and grand reimagining, and I’m glad I finally took the time to read the books.

But the way it went off the rails, in such a juvenile and pandering fashion, reminds me why I stopped reading mainstream comics so long ago. Most of them are terrible, and the relatively few good ideas that sneak through will eventually be destroyed by less capable people, because corporations care less about creative integrity or the talent of individuals than about milking a brand for all it’s worth. It’s nice that Marvel can learn from its mistakes to some degree, though; I’ve been picking up the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye trade paperbacks, the first super hero comics I’ve bought in years, and that run really is about the creative team. It doesn’t make me want to read any other Marvel books or follow any other heroes, but that standalone feel is a big part of why I enjoy it. I just hope to god they keep Jeph Loeb far, far away from it.

14 thoughts on “The other new universe

  1. I was *all about* the Ultimate books from the start, up until Ultimatum hit – which is when I walked away from the line in disgust in favor of Marvel’s mainstream titles. I didn’t return to any of the books until Bendis replaced Peter Parker with Miles Morales a couple of years ago, which was actually a really solid relaunch. Even that eventually bored me, though, and I moved on again.

  2. I really loved ultimates vol 1 and 2 and I agree with you about how vol 3 was terrible. Ultimate Spider-Man was pretty good early on before the movies stole everything that was good about the series over and over again.

    If nothing else though, the Ultimates heavily influenced Avengers: Earth’s Mightest Heroes before the suits could ruin the good things the series did. Unfortunately that meant that the entire series was cancelled for something that fits closer to the avengers movie franchise to sell more toys, but at least we have two very good seasons of super heroes.

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this. I really love the Ultimate universe but its low points are so terribly disappointing and really sour the mood of the whole line. I would also like to recommend the Miles Morales origin story before you totally free yourself of Ultimate. I think the average american has seen “the spider-man origin” 2 dozen times, so it’s cool to see one of the weird ones.

  4. I loved the Ultimate line for years. It gave me the ability to follow an entire universe with its own continuity (and neat riffs on mainstream Marvel ideas), but only pick up three or four books a month. I was saddened and disgusted by Ultimatum’s cheap, almost vindictive “shock” storytelling. If Marvel was trying to drive me away from the line, well, it worked.

  5. Wow, glad to hear I wasn’t alone in being utterly repulsed by Ultimatum’s wretchedness. I’ll be sure to give the Miles Morales Spider-man a look — the way you guys are describing it brings to mind Spider-man 2099, which I really enjoyed and which seems to have some spiritual similarities to the the new book (unconventional origin story, Latino protagonist).

  6. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe, is worth a read; it gives a bit of insight into Marvel’s (and DC’s) various reboots. — that’s an affiliate link; hope I’m not being crass by putting it in somebody else’s comments section. At any rate, the book’s recommended whether I get a few pennies for a referral or not.

    Basically Shooter had the idea in the 1980’s to kill or retire all of Marvel’s characters, creators rebelled and went to the press, there was a backlash, and we got the New Universe instead. (And then DC wound up doing its line-wide relaunch in Crisis on Infinite Earths, in what sure looks like an effort to make DC more like Marvel.)

    In the 1990’s, Marvel tried something more like what Shooter had described — killed off most of the Marvel characters in the Onslaught story and then relaunched them in the “Heroes Reborn” universe — but that failed too. I got the impression at the time that this was always planned as a one-year gimmick, like Age of Apocalypse or what-have-you, but Howe seems to believe that if it had been more successful it would have stuck around as the new status quo, and Howe’s talked to a lot more people who were actually there than I have.

    The Ultimate Universe had Marvel trying to split the baby and keep the original Marvel Universe intact while simultaneously relaunching everything in a separate line. And that finally worked, at least for awhile.

    I think the Ultimate Universe was a victim of its own success in some ways — it became too much like the original Marvel Universe, and vice-versa. It stopped being interesting and new; it started dealing with the same kinds of “you can’t do that” editorial mandates that the original Marvel Universe had to deal with. (Millar and Hitch wanted to kill off Iron Man and Nick Fury at the end of Ultimates; Marvel said no because there was an Iron Man movie coming. Not sure why they were okay with killing off Wolverine right before a Wolverine movie came out a year later; maybe because he was already a firmly-established character outside of comics fandom in a way that Iron Man and Fury weren’t yet.) Meanwhile, the OG Marvel Universe looks a hell of a lot like the Ultimate Universe now — from the costumes to the plots –, largely rendering it redundant.

    I never read Ultimatum. I got the impression that some of what was wrong with it may have come from Jeph Loeb’s then-recent personal tragedy of losing his son, but that’s just conjecture and frankly a little uncomfortable to suggest.

    It looks like they’re doing much the same thing again — big shakeup event trying to goose the Ultimate line into selling well — but despite how huge a word dump I’ve just written on the subject, I haven’t been paying much attention.

  7. The Ultimates line is heart breaking, I got into it thanks to the Ultimate Spider-Man game, picked up all the trades for Ultimate X-Men and Ultimates, they were soo good. I loved everything in Ultimate X-Men until I dropped off just due to the Cable arc (I think I had caught up to the current series and never got the trade when it came out). It was such a fantastic series and everything I wanted from X-Men at the time. Ultimates got me into the Avengers, I wasn’t reading anything Avengers related before that, and once I got past Ultimates 2, I moved straight to the New Avengers stuff and was hooked from there.

    And of course the Ultimate Spider-Man stuff was great, just everything that Spider-Man should have been for the line. Its a real credit to Bendis that he was able to keep the series going and be able to adapt with each new FU Marvel threw at the line and just keep the series trucking along. Heck I would say I enjoyed it even more post Ultimatum with the whole Aunt Mays house for Misfit Teenage Superheroes they had going on, just adding Iceman and the Human Torch to the mix mad things fun and different.

    I think the main faults with Ultimate was part of how it was started to be a new line for people to jump onto without having to worry about 40 plus years of backstory. By the time Ultimatum hit the line was nearing 10 years of its own history that was getting heavy, plus mainline Marvel was becoming more and more like Ultimate so something had to be done. Ultimatum was not the way to do that and just ruined everything that made the series great. I’m not saying its been all bad since then, the Spider-Man stuff was still fun, but everything with The Ultimates and X-Men just made me stop caring about them and even though I did keep reading, it just hurt to see how it all ended. Why did horrible series like those get to live while good stuff like Exiles get flushed down the toilet :(

    Oh Jeremy, dunno if you’ve read them yet, but if you are looking for a series of titles that standalones and is amazing, I suggest all the recent Marvel Cosmic stuff starting with Annihilation, hands down my all time favorite series of Marvel Comics ever, everything from Annihilation to the The Thanos Imperative, pretty much everything shown here

    Just looking at that I’m getting urges to re-read all of it.

    • Hm, interesting. I’m not usually much for the cosmic stuff, but I’ll check it out.

  8. Add one more suggestion you at least follow Ultimate Spider-Man further if you were enjoying it: to date it’s only had the one author, and the book’s never really had worse than a slow period if you ask me. (That said: he’s terrible at events. Don’t bother looking up how the just-finished big Ultimate crossover ended. Or that it existed.)

    One thing you need to know about the real downward spiral that hit the Ultimate books at the time was Jeph Loeb got a whole lot of control over the line, and the sharp downturn in a lot of books came from him bringing writers from Heroes (which he helped write) onto some of the Ultimate titles, then swept away everyone’s work with Ultimatum. He is currently in charge(? high-ranked, I forget his title) of Marvel’s TV productions, which explains a lot about the weird disconnect Agents of SHIELD has from the generally-acceptable films.

    Also: I will also suggest trying “cosmic Marvel” out, it basically seems to be something they’re leaning heavily on for some of the next films (and I think they’re going to cut out some of the comic-book-surreal touches in the process).

  9. Yep, Ultimatum is the worst – though I’d say Loeb’s Ultimates Vol 3 is even worse. In fact, it’s all downhill from there – Ultimate Spidey being the only one worth reading. Which is odd, considering how dull Bendis’ work has been everywhere else. He truly does best with a small cast, and somehow he’s ended up on all of Marvel’s team books.

  10. Jeff Loeb has a habit for ruining everything that he touches, even his own good work (see: Dark Victory). Whenever I see his name attached to something, I know pretty well by now that I need to keep away from it. While you’re probably right in saying that more cooks were in the kitchen when they Marvel decided to throw away all of the positive work they’ve done with the Ultimate line, from what I understand, it was still Loeb’s idea to turn Ultimates 3 into the steaming pile of garbage that led into Ultimatum. I could be wrong, but really, I don’t care. We all suffered anyway.

    That Hawkeye book, though, is the cat’s pajamas. Aja’s Mazzucchelli-ean art makes the book by itself

  11. I can’t recommend enough Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men from about fifteen years ago, alled New X-Men although the last arc reads like some kinda weird future Doom Patrol, everything up to that point in uniformly excellent (I mean he manages to make Cyclops an interesting and compelling character, without changing a kick about him, rather playing to his strengths), and although I imagine it would be difficult to not be spoiled of the big twist, it’s one of the most expertly written in comics, period.

  12. Yep, I bought the hardcover version of New X-Men when it first came out. Really liked it… but then the book went out of print and became rare so I sold it and doubled my money on it. But the fact that Marvel immediately went right back on everything Morrison had done pretty much draws a line beneath my complaints here; who cares about one person’s narrative integrity when there’s licensing deals to be maintained!

  13. Ultimate Spiderman was one of the few comics I gave much of a look at (except for Deadpool, which some of my comic book friends liked; I never really found him interesting until he just became a constant pile of jokes because I found the “trying to be a hero” schtick too inconsistent after a while, whereas “sometimes random fun with Cable” was actually interesting). I was never into FF and Ultimate X seemed…off. As for the Ultimates, it struck me as really damn dark between the “Humanitarian” Hulk and the actions of Colonel Fury. Still, I liked the idea of not having to go through a wiki page to understand what was going on. The writing was good, the characters and plot were interesting, some interesting ideas were bandied about (hey, Gwen Stacy’s back!)…

    And then came Ultimatum.

    Spider Man came out okay (even though he was, well, killed a couple years later) with his Team of Misfits, but the lack of familiar characters seems to have doomed the Ultimate books as much as the New Universe may have been doomed by the lack of familiar characters. Forget the fact that Spider Man is Hispanic/Black as opposed to Doctor Octopus (if you don’t know: long story). Cap and a few others recently got offed. Ultimate Reed Richards had an interesting, if apocalyptic, tale with the World of Tomorrow, but it was an odd turn. And the Ultimate Xmen turning out to be yet more Captain America rip-offs doesn’t seem to have changed the They Hate Us narrative. Shouldn’t Spider Man and so many others thus be treated in the same way in that case?

    Ironically, Ultimatum might have been a good roll of the dice that rolled terribly: by getting rid of a lot of characters it would give the book a chance to reboot instead of making a whole new universe for the umpteenth time. There’s already been a 2099 line of comics and a New Universe; it could have served as a chance to reboot the continuity without having to make people buy new books. Instead, it just turned people off of almost all of the books and their replacements. No wonder some people seemed to be rooting for Galactus to destroy the Ultimate Universe…

    Anyone else wondering if they should just scrap the books and make another world? Again?

    Or maybe Doctor Spectrum crosses over again, it turns out he’s the Green agent of willpower, and we have a silly crossover event where Morales becomes a Blue Lightbulb, Pryde a Red Lightbulb, a new Hulk the Red one (Who else would represent Rage?) and etc etc until Ultimate…uh…Norman Osborne becomes the White Lightbulb?

    And then we revive Peter Parker and the lot just to screw with everyone. That reminds me, if we do the revive everyone shtick, is Daredevil 2 still a vampire?

    Hey, it worked for DC.

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