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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Ultimates Details Surface; Can Comic Companies Learn?

News article courtesy of

Being a fan of corporate-owned comic characters has, especially since the resurgence of the regular crossover event, required a healthy ironic distance. It is inevitable that the creators for our favorite heroes have all either died or moved on, and their rights fall into the hands of freelancers working for entertainment companies. Lowest common denominator is the name of the day, and in the case of the American comic industries, that usually means convoluted multi-title storylines and massive death tolls. The choices a fan have are to complain about it on the Internet, or take it with a grain of salt, focusing on the few comics that are genuinely good while finding ironic bemusement in the majority. The latter is usually a better choice, since the creative turnover of franchise comics means that eventually creators who you actually like will get the reins to your favorites, even if eventually ends up being a long time.

However, there are some decisions the companies make that can't be ignored so easily-- the kind whose implications sour even their good publications. The attached link is one of them.

To talk about the quality of Jeph Loeb's writing at this point would be redundant-- he's been turning in laughably awful stories like Wolverine: Evolution and Ultimates 3 for years now, and while his work has gone from respectable to unprofessionally simplistic and mindlessly violent, he can be ignored. The problem represented by his upcoming comic with Frank Cho, New Ultimates, is that it's making the exact same mistake that Marvel wanted to correct with their Ultimate Marvel line. It's nothing that, aside from superficial comparisons, couldn't be done with the main line; it just confirms complaints that the Ultimate comics are " Marvel-Lite ".

The preview images are the most telling. The conceptual hook for New Ultimates is that it's the big public super-team to the black ops Ultimate Avengers by Mark Millar-- basically, exactly what they were before the big Ultimatum event. Loeb comments that they've cut ties with SHIELD, so they don't even have the " shady government super-cops " hook that helped make Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates series so compelling. The characters appear to be Captain America, Iron Man ( in his mainstream look of solid reds and golds, instead of the more unique, manga-like Iron Man that Bryan Hitch designed ), Hawkeye, Panther, Valkyrie, a woman who appears to be Zarda from the Squadron Supreme universe, Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar and his wife Shanna the She-Devil, and Thor. Yes, the same Thor who died in Ultimatum, now back from the dead. And they're all fighting an army of orcs led by Loki, who's in his original look instead of the civvies his Ultimate counterpart is better known for.

Nothing in these previews looks distinct from anything that could be done in the classic Marvel Universe. The characters have moved back towards more traditional superhero costumes, with only Cap keeping the multi-textured Ultimate look. The villains are monsters from Norse mythology, detached from the unified genetic engineering arms race that drove the best Ultimate comics; they don't even like much more than Sauron's orc legions from the Lord of the Rings. Thor is back, further destroying the notion that characters in the Ultimate Universe can actually stay dead. Loeb mentions in the interview that he prefers to leave the political stuff to Mark Millar, but without the politics, the Ultimate Universe isn't distinct from its predecessor in any meaningful way.

And even the justifications Loeb makes in the interviews-- that this book takes place in a world where the Ultimates are the only super-team-- doesn't have any practical meaning. For one, Mark Millar's Ultimate Avengers still exists, and has its own superhero team ( albeit of less heroic black-ops characters, but still the kind who could save the day effectively ). For another, the mainline Marvel Universe has taken on the same structure of importance, with the Avengers becoming the flagship franchise that influences the line's master narrative. Loeb mentions how here there are no Fantastic Four or X-Men anymore in the Ultimate Universe, but since the FF have never been a classic superhuman police force so much as a group of explorers who gained powers, and the X-Men have completely cut themselves off from concerns outside their species in the modern comics, how is that so distinct?

The most ridiculous aspect is the fact that at the same day this article was published, details were released for Brian Michael Bendis' storyline " Siege "-- which also stars Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, deals with big hero teams getting together after a disaster ( in this case Dark Reign, not Ultimatum ) and also has Norse god Loki as a major villain. And if Marvel truly believes that the Jeph Loeb version of this premise is acceptable as professional work, then it's the audiences who lose.

1 comment:

  1. "The choices a fan [has] are to complain about it on the Internet, or take it with a grain of salt, focusing on the few comics that are genuinely good while finding ironic bemusement in the majority."

    I became seriously annoyed when I found out just how many X-teams there are, plus the Ultimate universe, and the frequent crossover story lines. It just wasn't feasible for me to read everything Marvel ever released, so I ended up doing a variant on Option #2, concentrating on those series featuring mostly characters I know well and like, and occasional single issues from other series that feature important moments in that character's history. (Like, I don't really follow the Avengers, but I have the Avengers issue where Rogue steals Ms Marvel's powers).