Saturday, 1 September 2018

The Rise and Fall of Ultimate Marvel (Part 1)

As someone that truly got into comic books during the early-to-mid 2000s, the Ultimate Marvel universe is something that held a dear place in my heart for many years. In fact, Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is not only one of the first comics I ever remember truly reading issue by issue, but still one of my favourites today.

In this two-part series, I want to take a look at the rise and fall of Marvel’s Ultimate universe. In this video, we’ll look at the state of Marvel Comics in the years leading up to the new millenium, the factors which led to the company launching a new, reboot-like universe, how the early issues of this new series were received, and the impact they had on the larger world of Marvel.

While the Ultimate Marvel universe didn’t premiere until the release of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 in October of 2000, the factors which led to its creation can be traced back throughout the previous decade. As we’ve touched on in several videos prior, the 1990’s was a difficult time in Marvel’s history, and by late 1996, the company found itself in financial disarray, forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

While the company was rescued from extinction by a consortium led by Toy Biz co-owners Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, it was clear that in order for the Marvel to return to its former glory, major changes had to be made. One of the men who led Marvel Comics in this period was Bill Jemas, a former lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who had worked with Perlmutter and Arad during the takeover, and essentially served as Marvel’s unofficial publisher during this time. For instance, one of Jemas’ first acts after the takeover was to replace Bob Harass, then-Marvel Editor in Chief, with his close friend and writer, Joe Quesada.

The fact that Jemas, who had made his name as President of the trading card company Fleer, was not a so-called “comic book guy”, in comparison to those who had previously led Marvel Comics could’ve been seen as an advantage, as Jemas wasn’t afraid to break the consensus long established by writers and editors with an untouchable affinity for the comics. 

Case in point, Jemas determined the main factor in Marvel’s declining sales: the company was “publishing stories that were all but impossible for teens to read — and unaffordable, to boot.” To solve this, Jemas proposed a hard reboot on the Marvel Comics universe, resetting the status quo back to how it was in the late 1960’s, and allowing readers to return to a more streamlined and familiar universe.

While Quesada was initially sceptical of Jemas’ proposed reboot, he eventually relented, and the pair set about their so-called ‘Ground Zero’ initiative. The pair knew this had to be a well-thought out and executed plan, in order to have far more longevity than the failed-Heroes Reborn relaunch the company had attempted years prior. 

Heroes Reborn, the literal embodiment of "ugh 90's comics"
In Jemas’ mind, they had to “turn our middle-aging heroes back into teens”, in order to relight the fire which had burned so bright during the company’s heyday, and win back their young-adult audiences who had both grown out of the camp and silliness of the genre’s Silver Age, and grown tired of the overly gritty and uninspired Dark Age.

Nevertheless, the spectre of Heroes Reborn hung heavily over Jemas’ and Quesada’s heads during this time. If the company was to reboot its characters and jettison decades of storytelling, would it be possible to do so in a way that didn’t upset long-term fans, the same way Heroes Reborn had? While Quesada questioned how they would explain this change in continuity, similar to how DC comics reset their universe with a Crisis, Jemas proposed to simply relaunch their most iconic books with little-to-no explanation; no convoluted sci-fi explanations, just the basic and classic elements of the characters.

As a result, a compromise was made: Jemas’ idea would be put to the test: Spider-Man and the X-Men would receive new #1’s with a hard reset, but Marvel would continue to publish their original series’ with their continuity intact. These new, reimaged stories would take place on a separate continuity from their established counterparts, and would allow Marvel to make bold changes to beloved heroes without affecting existing mainstream continuity. And with that, the nucleus for Marvel’s Ultimate Universe had been born.

With their premise decided upon, Marvel set about finding a writer to bring their new universe to life. Several months went by after this point with little success (Jemas at one point compared their search to kissing frogs, but with little sign of a prince), until Joe Quesada made a fateful phone call to a then-unlikely solution, a largely independent and unknown writer named Brian Michael Bendis.

As my good friend Auram's Comics would say, "BENDIS!"

Bendis (who had made his name writing Jinx, a crime-noir reimagining of the Sergio Leone film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) had a mutual friend with Quesada, artist David W. Mack, who had recently worked with Joe on his Marvel Knights imprint. Mack had actually recommended Bendis to Quesada previously, and with this in mind, Quesada asked Bendis to pitch a contemporary rendition of Spider-Man’s origin. With Quesada’s recommendation, Jemas hired Bendis to write the first instalment of their new universe, and what he gave them in return was about to change everything.

When writing the script for his new take on Spider-Man, Bendis intentionally strayed away from heavy callbacks to the iconic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko origin, with his script instead reading more like a pilot for a millennial teen drama  than a '90's superhero comic. On the other hand, Bendis also sought to avoid the easy trope of leaning heavily on contemporary culture, and immediately dating the series. While this was a modernised version of Spider-Man for the new millennium, it had to feel natural in order to succeed. The best encapsulation of Bendis’ success is in the final page of Issue #1. 

Throughout this 45-page introduction, Bendis had resisted introducing the iconic costume, any mention or suggestion of a real villain, and even the use of thought bubbles, making the title feel very grounded and human… until the very last page, where we see Peter discover his new abilities, hanging upside-down from his bedroom ceiling. All he has to say? “Whoa. Cool.”

Jemas and the executives over at Marvel were thrilled with Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man, and anticipated the series to be a big hit. In fact, Jemas had so much confidence in the book’s ability to sell that he made a bold move: he argued that one of the reasons why comic sales began to slump in the mid 1990’s was the rapid growth of the comic book stores, believing that taking the titles away from the general public and into niche shops damaged the long-term success of the industry. Therefore, Jemas pushed for Marvel to distribute Ultimate Spider-Man to major chain stories (such as Walmart and Payless Shoes), and allow audiences who wouldn’t usually buy comics the opportunity to do so.

While the sales figures of the first issue don’t sound all that incredible (estimated at around 55,000 copies), this risky strategy proved to be a smart one, creating intrigue and buzz around Marvel’s new series from places which wouldn’t usually discuss graphic novels. Instead of relying on Wizard Magazine for publicity, Ultimate Spider-Man #1 received glowing praise in Entertainment Weekly. Even despite its modest sales figures, the Ultimate Universe was well and truly on the map, with the stage set for a huge commercial success now that they had established the brand. So, what came next? Ultimate X-Men

Ultimate X-Men was a project Jemas and Marvel wanted to get off the ground for as long as they did Spider-Man, but struggled to find the correct writer to launch the property (even rejecting Bendis’ own pitch for the series), before settling on another unlikely choice, a Scottish writer famous for his work on Judge Dredd, Swamp Thing and the Flash, Mark Millar.

Millar had recently began his run on the DC-Vertigo series ‘The Authority’, and had garnered a reputation as a unique and somewhat-controversial writer, one not afraid to tackle taboo social issues within his work, and infuse heavy amounts of his own political views within them. This came into play greatly in his later work, but it seemed to be a good fit with X-Men, a team already known for their political and social undertones.

Millar's run on 'The Authority' proved a seminal moment in his career
And with that, Millar brought the harsh-realism undertones that had worked so well on The Authority and Dredd to the X-Men series; he outlines his thought process towards the series in a 2002 interview with Sequential Tart, stating that "you're not competing with Cartoon Network on these books; you're competing with 'Buffy'...Superhero comics aren't adult, but they shouldn't be written for five-year-olds either." 

However, in comparison to Bendis, who intentionally tried to deviate from the traditional Spider-Man mythos, Millar’s take on X-Men did this seemingly by accident. You see, while the writing style of Millar might have (on paper) fit the X-franchise very well, the writer was actually largely unfamiliar with the extended X-Men lore, ultimately basing his iteration of the team off the recently released motion picture, which included dropping the popular, vibrant X-Men costumes in favour of a more militarised and uniform black attire.

Despite this though, the initial sales proved Ultimate X-Men to be a hit, with Issue #1 doubling the sales of Ultimate Spider-Man’s first issue (estimated at around 115,000 copies). The success of Ultimate X-Men proved to Jemas and Quesada that their approach towards the Ultimate Universe was working. And with that, came the big coming out party of the title, marketed as a huge summer blockbuster on the page, as Mark Millar teamed up with Bryan Hitch to create The Ultimates.

Released in September 2002, the Ultimates is a very different series from its predecessors, both in terms of Marvel’s Ultimate line and the classic Avengers comic series. When asked to summarise the series, Hitch proclaimed it to be a "widescreen, cinematic composition", a live action Avengers blockbuster brought to the pages. In a sense, it did just that, introducing many elements later adopted in the 2012 Avengers motion picture (including the villainous Chitauri, a Samuel L. Jackson inspired Nick Fury), but despite this, the new version of Earth Mightiest Heroes as created by Millar was noticeable departure from the classic version of the team.

As we discussed prior earlier, Mark Millar rose to prominence thanks to his controversial work on The Authority, and his penchant for infusing real-world social issues into his comics. And there are few better examples of Millar doing this than in The Ultimates; reimagining the Avengers as a Government paramilitary task force led by a somewhat-rash and nationalistic Captain America. In fact, one of the book’s most famous lines saw Cap declare “Surrender? You think this letter on my head stands for France?”

 To complete the set, Ultimate Thor was depicted as ambiguous as to his Asgardian heritage (or just an insane man with alien tech), Iron Man was an excessive alcoholic billionaire (which, albeit, isn’t too radical a departure), and Hulk a raging cannibalistic monster who (when not murdering hundreds of innocent civilians) threatens to murder Freddie Prinze Jr. (yes…) for going on a date with Betty Ross, and when stopped by Thor, states “Thor’s hammer makes Hulk horny for Betty.”

And this is where my problems come into frame. You see, Millar’s desire to inject social commentary and political themes into his work is admirable, and when executed properly, can make for incredible stories (see: Civil War). However, it’s questionable as to whether subverting the traditional iterations of the Avengers in order to discuss themes of nationalism and the War on Terror was necessarily the correct strategy when introducing these new versions of the characters. 

I’d argue that foremost, Millar had to present new-yet-familiar depictions of the Avengers that the readership could genuinely connect with (much like how Bendis did with Ultimate Spider-Man), and then once the audience has bought into the characters, then use them to discuss larger issues. The difference in tone and style between Bendis and Millar is a little jarring, and as the sole two contributors to the Ultimate Universe at this point, could’ve raised a real issue, with the world presented in Ultimate Spider-Man feeling incredibly different from the one established in Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates.

Regardless though, The Ultimates was a commercial success, with Issue #1 estimated to having sold almost 150,000 copies. In terms of commercial reception, the Ultimate Universe was 3 for 3 in its new titles, and as a result, began to grow bigger and bigger. The rise this line of books achieved in its early years was meteoric, but with that, a steep decline would follow suit.

Watch the video here:

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