Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Ultimate Universe Repeats Itself On Me

A few years ago, Marvel rebooted the Ultimate Universe. This wasn't the first time they'd done so, I don't think, but it caught my attention this time because they were paring the whole thing down and only releasing three titles in the line: Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate X-Men. At the time, I had never read any Ultimate comics at all. When Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe, I wasn't paying very close attention to comics, and when I got back into them again the idea of keeping track of two different continuities from a single publisher was more than I wanted to take on. It was hard enough figuring out what I'd missed in the primary Marvel and DC Universes without adding a third convoluted history to the mix. By the time the three-title-only relaunch took place, though, I was all caught up, and actually eager for a good entry point to the Ultimate books. Three titles wasn't much of a commitment, so I started following all three books from the start, and for at least a few months, I was really impressed.
     Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic did some badass high-stakes superhero storytelling right out the gate on Ultimates. Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli did equally strong work but on a more slow-moving and personal level in Ultimate Spider-Man. And while Nick Spencer's narrative for Ultimate X-Men never gripped me as tightly as the other two books, there were some interesting ideas that had the potential for great payoff, and a cool twist on what it means to be a mutant in the Ultimate world in the first issue that kept me coming back for a while. It was a surprisingly varied yet unified trio of comics, and it stayed that way for a decent stretch. X-Men was the first book to bore me, but that's what almost everything I've ever read by Spencer does---pulls me in with some cool concepts and then spins its wheels until I bail. That's exactly what happened this time, and then Spencer got replaced as writer anyway, so I lost interest completely. Ultimates stayed fantastic for its first arc, by far the best of the Ultimate line, but then the creative team suddenly changed there, too, and all the awesome work being done was thrown out the window for something far less brave or worthwhile. It didn't happen overnight, but in short order two-thirds of the Ultimate Universe lost all its steam. Ultimate Spider-Man was the only thing left.
     I'm not a very big Bends guy, but something about his work with Miles Morales was exceptionally appealing to me. And when Pichelli left, the just-as-talented-at-the-time-and-even-better-now David Marquez was brought in, so the art never slipped or shifted too dramatically. Ultimate Spider-Man was the only consistent comic in the group, and eventually it was the only one left on my pull list. And it stayed good for a long time. There were some low points, but nothing truly godawful, and even when I wasn't into the story it always looked great. Then in a final moment of glory, the series introduced Ultimate versions of Cloak and Dagger, and they were exactly as cool as I wanted them to be.
     Right around that time, when Cloak and Dagger were showing up and Ultimate Spider-Man was generally back at the top of its game, Marvel rebooted the Ultimate Universe again. First came Cataclysm, which I didn't read all of because the stuff I did read was fairly junky. In the aftermath of that event, though, came three new titles, and they all excited me.
     Firstly, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man was just a continuation of the Ultimate Spider-Man I was already enthusiastically reading. Bendis and Marquez stayed on, and the narrative essentially continued from where it had left off before Cataclysm took over. Then there was All-New Ultimates, which also featured Miles Morales, along with the aforementioned Cloak and Dagger, some other great members of the Ultimate Spider-Man supporting cast, and Kitty Pryde, who was the best character from the issues of Ultimate X-Men I'd read. So based on the cast alone, I was excited, and I'd heard only amazing things about writer Michael Fiffe. Finally, Ultimate FF, written by the reliably inventive Joshua Hale Fialkov and starring, among others, Sue Storm and Machine Man, an old and new favorite of mine, respectively. I don't know their Ultimate iterations all that well, but I wanted to get to know them. So as before, I decided to pick up all three books in the line, to give the entirety of the Ultimate Universe another shot at getting me on board.
     It took considerably less time this time around for the Spider-Man book to stand out as the only one of the three I care to stick with. Ultimate FF was just a frustrating mess. It was visually muddy, and the story mostly revolved around arrogant, violent men ignoring Sue Storm's pleas for peace and reason. I gave it three issues, and in that space it offered only one likable character, and she was given the worst treatment, so I walked. All-New Ultimates was better, but Fiffe seems to focus more on the teenage elements than the superhero ones, and I always prefer a more balanced, interdependent blend. Also, the Miles Morales in that books doesn't feel like the same on that's in Miles Morales, and since it s Bendis' take on the character I've been following from the beginning, that's the one I naturally favor. So after four issues of All-New, I dropped that as well, leaving me once again with only a single Ultimate Universe series on my list. And it's the same one as always, for all intents and purposes.
     I support the idea of containing an entire universe in just three books, but the Ultimate Universe has stung me twice now by not using the small size of its lineup as an opportunity to produce higher-quality material. Even the Miles Morales stuff is exceptionally good but not especially original young superhero fare. The cast and art both hooked me early and have continued to get better, but the stories rarely knock my socks off. I'm sure the event-reboot cycle will happen again, but next time, I'm bound to be warier of reading anything that isn't centered on Morales, written by Bendis, and drawn by Marquez. At this point, that book is the Ultimate Universe for me, and should it ever go away, I might return to a state of fully ignoring that particular alternate reality.

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