At the moment, the Ultimate Universe is being wound down. Of the three ongoing series, Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men have already ended, and Ultimate Spider-Man’s last issue shipped last Wednesday. Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, the six-issue miniseries with a notorious three-year-long hiatus between two of its issues, just wrapped up, and the crossover event comic that’s supposed to serve as an official end of the line, Jeph Loeb and David Finch’s Ultimatum miniseries, is slowly but surely reaching it’s final issue (the fourth issue just shipped last week, and there’s one more left to go).
After that, there’s just a couple of special with the word “Requiem” in the title, and then in August Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics: The Avengers will launch, although whether or not this will be a brand-new start to the Ultimate Universe or simply a re-branded continuation with a couple of new #1’s remains to be seen.
But either way, it will mark an end of sorts of Marvel’s Ultimate experiment.
When the line launched in 2000, the concept was simple enough: Start over for new readers, with modern comic book storytelling techniques, a fresh 21st century aesthetic, and 40-years worth of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.
While I don’t think anyone at Marvel was ever impolitic enough to say so, the Ultimate line was essentially the opportunity to do Marvel Comic right; excising that which dated the original stories in favor of something fresher, approaching the properties the way Hollywood was just then preparing to approach them (If I’m remembering correctly, the X-Men film had just come out, and Spider-Man was about to).
Without repeating myself too much, I think the Ultimate line worked extremely well at the beginning, with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar each helming a pair of titles (Ultimate Spider-Man andUltimate Marvel Team-Up for Bendis, Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates for Millar).
Unfortunately, the concept couldn’t quite last a decade, for a variety of reasons. Bendis as his collaborators, Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen, did incredibly admirable work on Ultimate Spider-Man, but Millar left both of his titles much more quickly.
Those who followed him on Ultimate X-Men seemed far too intent to introduce too much of the things that made the moribund Marvel X-Men franchise moribund, sucking the specialness out of it. Ultimate Fantastic Four was a mess from the start, with different creative teams every six-to-twelve issues. Too many artists of too many styles and levels of ability were drawing Ultimate books, diluting the brand’s association with quality.
And then Jeph Loeb came, and destroyed the Ultimate Universe.
Well, that was actually his stated goal with Ultimatum, but before Ultimatum #1 even shipped, it seemed Loeb was breaking the line, and probably not on purpose.
Loeb is, of course, a very popular writer whose written some pretty great comics and some pretty terrible ones; a writer who is either smart or lucky enough to have worked with some of the best super-comics artists in the business.
When he attacked the Marvel universe, he was coming off a particularly bad stretch of comics-writing for DC, a time in which he was one of the four writers for the Superman line, and then Superman/Batman and Supergirl. In fact, his last Superman/Batman story arc was about the two title characters fighting barely veiled analogues of Marvel’s Ultimates characters. In retrospect, it almost seems like his “Vengeance” story arc was simply a try-out for a gig writing for Marvel’s Ultimate Universe.
Once there, it was announced that Loeb would be writing the next two volumes of The Ultimates, volume three with the once super-popular deadline-challenged artist Joe Madureira, who had left comics for video games, and volume four with his Superman/Batman collaborator Ed McGunness.
At some point, plans changed, as Ultimates 3 became simply a five-part miniseries (the first two volumes were each 12 issues, with a 13the added to the second volume), and the fourth volume cancelled, as apparently the Ultimate Universe’s days were numbered.
Having just recently read a trade collection of Ultimates 3 that I borrowed from the library (which is really the only safe way to read it), I think it’s clear that, once Marvel published Ultimates 3 #1, they had no choice but to destroy the Ultimate Universe and either scrap the line and start over, or at least re-brand and re-number it in an effort to pretend the story never existed. It is that bad.
In fact, I think it may be the worst comic I have ever read.
I’ve been giving this some thought and, while I can think of some really, really bad comic books, all of them seem to fall short of the extent of Ultimates 3’s badness.
For example, 1993’s Darker Image #1 featured the most appalling, creatively bankrupt story I’ve ever encountered: Rob Liefeld’s “Bloodwulf” short story, which was nothing more than a blatant Lobo rip-off story, more poorly drawn and more poorly written than any Lobo story ever produced. But then, it was just a short story, only a few pages long. It was just a repulsive, soul-destroying black hole of a comics story, but, at the end of the day, it was just one-third of a comic book, and amounted to no more than one more embarrassment in Liefeld’s very embarrassing bibliography.
Or Death’s Head II, did any of you read that? Holy shit was that a terrible thing. But it was an early ‘90s comic book, and was terrible in many of the ways it was stylish to be terrible and, again, it was just a few issues, a blip of abysmal comics.
In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, there’s no excuse to publish comics as terrible as Ultimates 3, certainly not comics that are part of the Ultimate line, which was premised on not being as shitty as the worst Marvel comics.
(Those are the only two comics I can think of that were perhaps worse than Ultimates 3; I’m sure there are many more, but I do try not to read godawful comics, so I don’t have any other candidates. If you have any suggestions for The Worst Comic Ever, please feel free to let me know in the comments).
The environment in which Ultimates 3 was released really accentuates it’s complete lack of quality. It was written by Jeph Loeb at the height of his popularity, wooed away from DC Comics. It was drawn by Joe Madureira who, okay, may not have actually ever been all that great an artist, but if this was enough to bring him back, it must have been pretty special right?
And, of course, it was the follow-up to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s 25 issue of The Ultimates which, despite it’s sizable and numerous flaws, just may have been the most influential and oft-imitated comic of the decade. Following Millar and Hitch on their signature work was an unenviable task, and looked at from a certain angle, the fact that Loeb and Madureira were chosen to follow the pair makes a certain kind of sense.
If Marvel would have just found a writer capable of writing superheroes as if they were the stars of big, dumb Hollywood movies, and make them a little more edgy than their “616” counterparts (and maybe throw in some pop culture references), and an artist who could do hyper-detailed, photorealistic art, then the new team would likely have just seemed like a watered-down version of Millar and Hitch. Whether they were actually worse, or just as good or even better, the perception would have been that they were paler imitations, simply by virtue of coming second.
So Marvel chose a writer who writes nothing like Millar, and an artist whose style is diametrically opposite of Hitch’s. That I can understand.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out very well.
Loeb ditched the attempts at relevance. There were no politics, no pop culture, not even realism; in fact, Ultiamtes 3 is even less realistic than your average Marvel Universe story. He likewise abandoned Millar’s attempts to think of new conflicts, or at least new spins on age-old ones, retreating to old stand-by Marvel villains and plots (And like Ultimate X-Men’s Robert Kirkman, Loeb seemed to be trying to pack in elements from the Marvel Universe version, so in this series we get the same old Ultron and his same old relationship to the Pyms, we get the Yellowjacket costume, and the return of the superhero costumes over ribbed, leather work clothes, the Ultimates aren’t with the government but are back to being freelance superheroes living in a mansion, and so on).
The one aspect of Millar’s Ultimates run that Loeb did keep was the edginess, and he exploded it, trying to out-outrageous Millar, and while he does provide a lot of outrageous stuff (Incest on page 14!), it’s not grounded to anything serious, grown-up or real, and thus comes across as a juvenile attempt to be “mature.” Some aspects of the book read like a 14-year-old’s attempt to write a really cool comic book for the 1993 comics market.
As for Madureira, I haven’t followed his career as closely as I’ve followed Loeb’s, and I honestly don’t know if the work he does here is better or worse than the comics work he’s done before. It’s not very good though. In fact, it’s fairly awful, and there are some pages of this book that must be among the worst lay-outs in comics history.
But if you want the opposite of Hitch, you’ve got it with Madueira. I like his style and character design just fine as static images. He’s probably a pretty good cover or pin-up artist, and he’s certainly an artist I’d love to get sketches from. But he’s not much of a storyteller, and seems completely bewildered with what to do with a comics page, but we’ll get to that later.
See, I know I’m throwing around some pretty sweeping pronouncements here, which is why I want to devote a great deal more attention to Ultimates 3. It is a really, really, really rather bad comic book, but I think it’s a significant one, and so I want to try to back up those sweeping pronouncements.
But so as not to make this post ten million words long, or to bore you to tears (You’re not actually reading every word of this are you? You’re skimming my post right? I’d skim me if I were you; I talk waaaaayyyyyy too much for a blogger, if you ask me), I’m going to divide the series up.
So this week is Ultimates 3 week on Every Day Is Like Wednesday. We’ll be taking a look at one issue of the series each day, from Monday through Friday.
Two more things before we call it a night.
First, the trade collection, published as Ultimates 3: Who Killed The Scarlet Witch? (Er, spoiler altert! Someone kills the Scarlet Witch!), opens with a rather curious two paragraph synopsis:
Iron Man.Thor. Captain America. The Wasp. Hawkeye. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assembled together to handle situations no other team could. Once kept under the thumb of the United States government, billionaire playboy Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) decided to take the team on t heir own, housing them in his private Manhattan mansion on Fifth Avenue.
That’s all stuff you’d probably know from reading the first two volumes of the series, and seems like legitimate catch-up, re-cap material. But then there’s this second paragraph:
Joined now by the Black Panther, Valkyrie, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, the team deals with conflicts that are both internal and external. Until six weeks ago, Valkyrie was an ordinary 19-year-old groupie, dreaming of being a super hero, yet she now possesses the powers of a goddess. The ever-silent Black Panther keeps to himself, with the exception of a yet unexplained bond with Captain America.
And that’s just the beginning.
None of that is anything you’d know from reading previous volumes of The Ultimates, and in fact deals with some storytelling issues. Valkyrie and Black Panther are new to the team, appearing as members in this issue with no explanation to their appearance there. Which is, of course, fine; stories often start out in the middle of the action or a new status quo, and then gradually explain things as they unfold. But Ultimates 3 never really gets to that, at least not in any satisfying way, and its inclusion in this prose introduction seems like an admission by the collection itself, a sort of “Oh yeah, you’ll need to know this stuff, because it’s not in any of the comics.”
And finally for tonight, I wanted to show a few examples of how Madureira’s style and design contrasts with Hitch’s. The latter is a far better draftsman, storyteller and “actor” than the former, but I like the former’s style better. At any rate, he’s clearly a very, very different artist, as his takes on the Hitch-designed characters clearly shows.
Here are the two Ultimates artist's versions of Thor. Hitch draws Thor as the biggest, broadest-shouldered, widest-chested of the characters (except for the Hulk), but he's still more or less just a big, strong, pretty cut human being.
Madureira's Thor, meanwhile, is built like a bodybuilder, or, more accurately, a post-1990's superhero or video game character. Are the muscles in his right arm real muscles that would appear on a real human being? I have no idea. Obviously, my arm doesn't look like that, and I don't read body builder magazines, so maybe they are, but if the arm looks familiar or "right" to me, it's because it resembles other superhero art, not something I've seen seen in real life.
Note also that the leg muscles, abs and neck muscles show through Thor's costume, so that whatever he's wearing, it's tight enough to wrap around individual muscles. That, or it's merely an artistic flourish on Maduriera's part, a way of showing how muscular the character is even if it's unrealistic to do so. Such exaggeration and artistic license is perfectly valid, of course, but, obviously, it's a very different tactic than Hitch employed during his run.
Madureira keeps the costume in tact, and his Thor is basically the same person, only drawn differently; perhaps Madureira's Thor has longer hair and a fuller beard. Also of note is the hammer; Madureira draws the standard Marvel Universe version, whereas Hitch's was some kinda of big battle axe/war hammer combo.
Here are the two Hawkeyes. The Ultiamtes 3 one looks dramatically different than the original, but then Hawkeye is a dramatically different person, having lost his family and apparently his will to livee between his first appearance and the beginning of the third volume. So he's grown his hair out and changed costumes.
The new costume is pretty stupid—the bullseye on the forehead, the weird, stylized H—but it's in fitting with the character, who is presented as pretty stupid in the story, and it's not as awful a costume as his Marvel Universe one, which would have looked crazy out of place in the Ultimate Marvel Universe.
I'm not sure why he has a mask now though. Is he protecting his secret identity? Or is it an intentional nod to the lead character in Millar and Jones' Wanted?
Here's Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch. What I found most notable about their designs is that Madureira completely retreated from the Hitch designs, which barely even qualify as costumes (Witch's particularly; you could probably put that together visiting your average mall), and put them in variations of their Marvel Universe costumes.
I thought that kind of significant because neither of these characters actually have decent costumes in the Marvel Universe. Why doesn't Quicksilver have silver on? Why does he wear green? What's up with the Witch's little tiara/hood/hat/face frame thing? How does it attach to her head? Why does she wear it? These are the questions I wonder about the Marvel Universe versions, and now the Ultimate versions are dressing like them.
Witch's clothes are suppose to be inappropriately skimpy I guess, as a few panels after that Captain America's all like, "Er, why are you wearing lingerie outside like a whore yo?" This scene is kind of funny in that the siblings are about to go Christmas shopping in New York in December, so they decide to wear superhero costumes, and Scarlet Witch is more scantily clad then most people are when they go to the beach.
Finally, here's the Wasp. Um, to the upper right of Cap's face in the Hitch cover; that's the best cover image of her in her slightly more superhero looking costume from Ultimates 2. As you can see, Hitch obviously didn't have a lot of imagination when it came to the costume designs; there's very little difference between what Wasp wears and what Scarlet Witch wears.
Madureira gave Wasp a more colorful costume and added a mask, an odd choice since she has no secret identity.
It's also worth noting that Madureira's Wasp no longer looks Asian, and has longer, lighter hair to boot, but I don't think this was a conscious choice on Madureira's part to obscure her ethnicity. Because his character design is so influenced by anime and manga, if she were supposed to be Asian, she wouldn't necessarily look any more Asian than any of the other characters. And, as this is set sometime after Ultimates 2, there's no reason she couldn't have grown her hair out and dyed it. Hawkeye grew his out, after all.
Thus concludes are preliminaries. Tomorrow, Ultimates 3 #1!