Monday, September 28, 2015

Ultimate Marvel

I know, it might seem a bit early to do a retrospective of the Ultimate line of books. Hell, they only ended this year and that's because the Ultimate Marvel universe is getting folded into the regular one. This is something that has actually bothered some people who think the Ultimate line should continue on as its own separate entity. Where do I fall on this? Well, that's been hard to gauge as I kinda stopped reading the Ultimate line after Jeph Loeb took a steaming shit on it with Ultimatum, what may be one of the single worst comic things I have ever read. Worse than Rob Liefeld's writing and art, worse than the vast majority of shitty New 52 books that DC crapped out, and even worse than a comic about a superhero that rapes people.

You think I'm joking, but this is a real comic that even has an animated adaptation. Welcome to my world.

Jeph Loeb made me simply stop giving a shit about the Ultimate Marvel line all on his own by writing two mini-series featuring characters acting completely out of character, meaningless shock deaths, and a lot of terrible writing in general. This one man ruined my enjoyment of an entire universe. Do you realize how hard that is? I actually read Image Comics during the 90s and kept up with the bollocks going on over in the Extreme Studios line of books without ever feeling like I should give up on them as a whole. It's even worse when you think about the fact that Loeb actually is a good writer. This is the man who wrote Batman: The Long Halloween, what I personally believe to be the greatest Batman story ever written.

Frank Miller and all of his fanboys can feel free to fight me over the fact that I have better taste than they do.
Yes, light those torches and sharpen those pitchforks because I am honestly sitting here and declaring that The Long Halloween is a better story in every way than The Dark Knight Returns. So, being that Loeb clearly knows how to write characters well and can weave together a story that is worthy of critical praise to no end, it makes the half-assed work he did for the Ultimate books all that more insulting to the readers. And we all noticed too. Many people walked away from the line and critics tore apart both The Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum for all the above reasons and more. My personal biggest gripe is the fact that one of my favourite Ultimate Marvel characters, Pyro, got treated like shit. He was written completely out of character to the point where he was literally nothing at all like he'd been depicted in the Ultimate X-Men book. In the regular Marvel universe Pyro was a villain, but over in the Ultimate one he was an X-Man who always cared about doing the right thing. He was selfless and he used his powers even though they caused him to have burns all over his body constantly. Jeph Loeb turned Pyro into a rapist.

Because you can totally see how a guy can go straight from being a selfless hero to a rapist henchman, right?
This version of Pyro was originally written by Robert Kirkman during his run on the Ultimate X-Men book and it was probably my favourite thing put out of the line up to that point. Some people hated it, but I loved Kirkman's work on there and he made me care more about the X-Men he had in his run than I cared about any of them prior to that. Kirkman is a great writer and he's always done well with characters, especially in groups. The Walking Dead isn't just popular because it's got zombies but because it has a cast of characters that Kirkman makes you get attached to. And yes, I understand that different writers can have a different vision for a character....BUT IT HAS TO MAKE FUCKING SENSE. Pyro being tossed into Magneto's group of evil mutants made zero sense and it reeked of a writer who had done absolutely no research on these characters beforehand. Pyro got the shaft and so did a lot of other characters and with their deaths, I felt like the line itself may as well be dead.

Maybe one day we'll talk about Kirkman's run in detail, which will probably be littered with more Loeb-based bitching.
But I finally decided it was time to go back and read these books that came after Ultimatum, as the Ultimate universe is becoming a part of the regular Marvel universe following the Secret Wars event. As such, here's a primer on what these books actually: the Ultimate line of books was Marvel's way of trying to bring in new readers. It was a completely new and separate entity from their regular universe, which meant it offered a chance to start fresh. Familiar names portrayed in a new way, basically. It meant they could have Spider-Man be a teenager, Gwen Stacy could be alive, the X-Men could wear black leather, and Hulk could eat people. No really, Ultimate Hulk has eaten people. It was this version of the Marvel universe that gave us the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury. Other notable changes that occurred prior to Ultimatum:

  • Colossus was gay.
  • Dazzler was a punk rocker rather than a disco singer.
  • Cable was Wolverine from the future.
  • Captain America was kind of a dick.
  • Juggernaut had a thing for Rogue.
  • The Fantastic Four were teenagers who went to the N-Zone to get their powers.
  • Dr. Doom had goat legs and acid-vomit. Seriously.
  • Apocalypse was a voice in a guy's head.
  • Spider-Woman was a clone of Spider-Man.
  • Gwen Stacy died and got brought back via alien symbiote.
  • Green Goblin was a big hulking monster who was on fire all the time.
  • Spider-Man and Kitty Pryde dated.
Sabretooth was also just a shittier version of Wolverine too. He wore ear necklaces.

 Now, the thing to understand with the early books from this line is that their are two separate vibes, mostly because two writers essentially ran the whole thing. Either you had the fun side of things with Spider-Man and his friends or you had the grim uber-gritty X-Men and Ultimates books. The Ultimates were the ridiculously named Ultimate version of the Avengers. Where the Avengers name actually makes sense...the Ultimates name is really just silly and I never liked that naming in the least. Brian Michael Bendis handled the fun side and Mark Millar handled the grim side, which really shouldn't shock anyone. I like Bendis alright. His work can be hit or miss, but his work of the Ultimate Spider-Man book was always great. Mark Millar...yeah, I'm not a fan. As a writer he tends to only write characters who are generally complete assholes and it makes it really hard to care about people when all you see is them being complete assholes. The man is a pessimist to the extreme and i really would prefer not to read superhero books devoid of hope or joy. For example, he created Kick-Ass. You all know that one, right? Mostly because of the movie, which was the story of a young man who wanted to follow his dream of being a crimefighter and it proved to be more dangerous than he realized. The movie was dark but overall was a fun sit. The comic was a lot different though, as Millar was essentially wanting to highlight how stupid being a costumed crimefighter is and how dumb fans are for even dreaming about being one.

Because nothing is better than calling your audience a bunch of losers, right?
The original comic ends on a complete down note with the hero being rejected by the girl he loves after having survived torture and nearly dying at the hands of the mob. It is a story that is devoid of any and all joy. There were two other mini-series that followed it up and I never read either of them, because I honestly didn't care to read Millar's negative worldview anymore. I'll stick to the silly movie, thanks. Ultimatum was this big event Marvel put together which, apparently, was meant to be the end of the Ultimate universe. But somewhere along the line that decision changed and we got what we got. But, even bearing that in mind, it doesn't excuse how horribly it was written or the fact that almost none of the characters were written in character. In the aftermath of it, the world of that universe was reeling. Magneto wiped out many lives with a massive tidal wave and this meant the senseless deaths of many important fan-favourite characters. There was a new X book from Jeph Loeb, which wasn't awful, despite how awful his other Ultimate work was.

Maybe he just needed to work with a better artist? Because Art Adams never disappoints.
It focused on Jean Grey (now calling herself Karen Grant) as she gathered a small group of mutants after most of the X-Men died during Ultimatum. Among her group is Liz Allen, a friend of Spider-Man, and the Hulk. Yes, the people-eating one. She manages to give Banner control of himself, thus he joins her group. And he also seems to exit this group off-screen at some point, as it's the only time he's ever with them. Don't you just love interesting ides that are made completely pointless? Why is it interesting? Well, because she posits to him that he may actually be a mutant himself, as in this reality it was revealed that mutants came to be as a results of government experiments. this means that being a mutant is essentially seen as a disease caused by the government. But Hulk vanishes from the group and it's never really brought up again, so who cares. Maybe he was just afraid she'd get in touch with Colossus and he'd get hit on by him.

Mark Millar felt it necessary that we know Hulk's stance on sexuality in the most subtle of ways.
We also got the son of Wolverine, Jimmy Hudson. This is important because it's them getting a character with a similar power set who can be portrayed somewhat differently. Wolverine himself is one of the many characters who died off in the big awfully written event book. Jean's group was being helped by Nick Fury, as he wasn't a fan of how the government was handling the mutant situation. They were literally rounding up all mutants into camps, because that's worked out so well in the past, right? Alongside this book, we also got a new Spider-Man run by the exact same writer, Bendis. It had Peter's buddies Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake (Human Torch and Iceman) move in with him and it was a pretty fun period in the overall series. It was interesting to see Peter cope with having a bigger family, so to speak. There was some forced drama that I thought kinda bogged things down when his identity was stolen and Gwen broke up with him. I chalk this up to someone in editorial wanting him to be back with Mary Jane. Personally, I preferred him with Gwen in this universe. She's always felt like a stronger character and has done more in support of his dual life.

Yes, I know, this from later on but it still highlights how supportive and strong she's always been.
Ultimate Mary Jane honestly always felt like too much of a Mary Sue. She had some moments, sure, but she's never been given as much focus or care in how she's characterized, so I always kinda felt like she was more of an afterthought. That being said, I'm very much pro-Mary Jane in the regular Marvel universe and I think the whole deal with the devil to make Spider-man and her not be married thing was beyond stupid. But that's a gripe for another time, so back to business. This second Ultimate Spider-Man title ended with the death of Peter Parker as he battled Norman Osborn on his front lawn. He died defending his family and it was a very emotional read, as was the aftermath book. I honestly teared up. this lead to Miles Morales picking up the mantle. Who is that? Well, he's another teenager who happened to get bitten by a spider from the same lab and it also gave him spider powers. He even got some bonus power Peter didn't, such as a venom sting and the ability to make himself go invisible all Predator-style. He had his best friend, Ganke, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, and Peter's Aunt May all supporting him as he stepped up. Even Nick Fury gave him his approval, offering him a uniform to wear. If I'm going to be completely honest, his stories were actually more fun and interesting than the initial Peter ones.

I imagine this is how the fan reaction to my statement might go.
I think the reason I feel this way is because Miles is a new character altogether. He's a fresh start. There are no direct ties to anything for him, as he's new. Sure, they throw in some new versions of classic Spider-Man villains for him to face, but they're also new people. They're not the same characters in either name or in motive. I'm also a sucker for legacy characters. I love the Justice Society of America comics and how the team has always been like this gateway from the old to the new. Seeing a mantle getting passed on makes me happy, especially if it is done well. Miles Morales is a great idea and a great character. But, with every good there comes some bad. And Mark Millar was still around to shovel some more of his nonsense our way. He did this by actually doing some Ultimate Avengers books, which just makes it seem even more dumb they didn't just call the Ultimates that in the first place. Here the Avengers were essentially a black ops team of amoral assholes lead by Nick Fury.

Millar writing about assholes with powers. What an original idea that totally hasn't been done to death.
There were three Ultimate Avengers mini-series and one crossover book which featured them battling it out with the Ultimate while Spider-Man was dying. The crossover book was actually the strongest one, where the others were really just boring to me. It's not because I don't like the idea of heroes who kill or a black ops group. I am a massive fan of the Punisher and loved Justice League Elite. The boring thing is Mark Millar's writing style. He seems only interested in trying to shock you rather than making a story that is good. It's why we got Captain America being initially characterized as a dickhead soldier and why Hulk has been shown as whiny guy who eats people. Millar doesn't write characters, he writes caricatures. Someone mentioned recently that he's a writer who tries to inject black humour into his work. The problem is that for me to accept that would mean that I'd have to say his writing is funny, when it never really is. It's dark, sure, but never in an amusing way. It's dark in a way that seems devoid of humour and feels like it's coming from a place of hate for the genre and the audience. And France. He seems to hate France.

The page that launched a million memes.
Yeah, I had to bring that up, otherwise people were going to badger me about it. Going back a bit, Millar's work on the Ultimates served as the introduction to the Ultimate version of the Avengers characters. Millar was the worst possible person to handle this. The characters were all horribly unlikable and it highlighted how much Millar doesn't seem to get the idea of them. They did get fleshed out later on by better writers who managed to give them characterizations beyond being a group of powerful assholes in costumes. The Ultimates books didn't really grab me though, even after other writers took over. Maybe because Millar just left me not really caring all that much? I couldn't tell you for sure, but I read them so I could give this all as much effort as I could muster. After Millar, we got a shift in things as we got a focus on the unrest in America in all three books going at that time (X-Men, Spider-Man, Ultimates). Captain America became disillusioned after Peter Parker's death, blaming himself, and disappeared in the outer reaches of the country. A self-loathing mutant took over government sentinels to lead an anti-mutant movement that was dominating most of the country, and Reed Richards decided to go crazy and be the biggest villain ever.

With his head like that, I can't help but wonder if he'll end up narfeling the Garthok.
Yes, I haven't really talked much about the Fantastic Four here, have I? Their book was alright, but it wasn't really what I'd call phenomenal. The art was pretty terrible for the most part and I hardly cared about them because they didn't really feel different enough from the regular book to truly stand out. The most different things about them were their origin, the fact they were teenagers, and that Doctor Doom has goofy goat legs. This is also the version of the Fantastic Four that Fox decided to use as their model for the horrible Fant4stic film, except that they went to far off the rails there that it's barely noticeable. this is why I didn't want to spend too much time on talking about them too, because it invariably leads me back to that movie and how bad it was. The comic was better, but it wasn't exactly something that really stood out as a shining achievement either.

Except for ol' Goatlegs. He's beautifully silly and I love him.
So, yeah, Reed went bad and tried to do lots of bad things. He got stopped, then he learned nothing from that and proceeded to do even worse things, before getting stopped again. Among those bad things he did was the complete destruction of Washington D.C. via a bomb he put on a person he grew himself and the destruction of a large portion of Europe. Ultimate Reed is a fucked up guy. Anyway, Kitty Pryde led a mutant uprising in the southwest while Captain America came back to try and fix the quickly falling apart country. Thor's son manipulated people in power to secede their territory from the U.S., causing a new civil war and he also got Hydra and made them into a serious threat. Captain America got elected president, Kitty saved tons of mutant lives, most of those mutants turned around and took a cure offered by the government that would allow them to be regular humans, and Thor ended up having to kill his own son. That last thing was especially sad, because the other gods were all butchered by Reed Richards. Fun times.

This is the version of Reed Richards that got used in the new movie. Remember that.
Reed, Quicksilver, Hulk, and a female version of Kang all band together to fuck shit up for the heroes. They take over the world and actually seem to be making improvements, which are supposed to be to stop a horrible future that Kang comes from from coming to pass. The problem is that it involves essentially taking away a lot of freedom, killing many heroes, and basically making themselves kings of everything. Oh, and it involves mutants being wiped out, which is something Quicksilver didn't initially know. As most evil plans go, it falls apart and the good guys end up winning, but not without shit going wrong too. The new Spider-Man loses his mom along the way and retires, ultimately getting talked back into picking up the mantle again by Aunt May and Gwen Stacy. The Galactus from the regular Marvel universe gets stuck there and tries to eat the Earth, because they can't catch a break. Captain America dies fighting Galactus and Thor sacrifices himself to get the unstoppable being of pure hunger through a portal out of their universe. Kitty Pryde also got to be giant sized and punched Galactus a lot, making people feel much better about mutants. Things get weirder for him when Peter Parker ends up showing up alive and the two fight off Norman Osborn, who was also supposed to be dead. Peter says he's done with that life and he runs off with Mary Jane to go be happy together.

Somehow coming back from the dead also managed to make Peter resemble Arin Hanson, which makes this the second time I've ran across a doppelganger of him.
The young heroes band together as a new Ultimates team, Spider-Man finds out his girlfriend is a part of Hydra, Reed tries to turn over a new leaf after helping stop Galactus, Ben Grimm and Sue Storm have a kid, and the mutants seem to be happy in their own little chunk of America. The last issue of the Ultimate books I read is the final issue of Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man and it leaves on a cliffhanger the leads to the Secret Wars crossover that's been going. I haven't read any of that yet, as I am still horribly behind on a lot of Marvel books but I am getting there. I won't say I'm one of the people who looks at the Secret Wars thing negatively, as I like alternate universe stories and the idea of taking some stuff from various Marvel realities and folding them into the regular universe like Crisis on Infinite Earths did back in the 80s over at DC is really cool, in my opinion. Comics are like that. They have weird shit happening all the time and that's part of the fun. Comics that try too hard to be gritty and shocking end up being tedious, and that's because comics are about escapism. The world we live in can be a horribly grim place where heroes don't always win and people are often assholes. I don't want to read about a world like that. I want to read about people being better than that. That's why I got into superhero books in the first place. I think it's why a lot of people do. We want silly and fun because life already deals us enough dark and grim.

Unless you think making a beloved hero into a symbol of everything he hates about America is cool. Right, Mr. Millar?
Marvel has been putting out a lot of really good books in the last few years that highlight a change in atmosphere. Some have even gone on to say that Marvel has been turning into what DC Comics used to be, as they've been focusing on legacy heroes and showing strong female characters and characters who don't automatically have a more pale skintone. I myself said that DC should've done what Marvel did with the Ultimate line if they really wanted to try to start fresh for new readers. The New 52 ended up being more confusing to many new readers and turned a lot of old readers off altogether. Not that there weren't terrible moments in the Ultimate line, because there were. But those were generally the result of a couple of writers doing a bad job rather than the entire initiative being a bad idea. In a lot of ways, that bad stuff is kinda what a lot of New 52 books were feeling like. Cheap shock value, busy art, bad designs, and a tone that really didn't fit the characters.

But hey, maybe you like seeing stupid things. I'm not here to judge you for having shitty taste.
I feel like Mark Millar is the Eli Roth of comics. I'm just going to let that statement hang out there and you can take it however you want. If you read this article though, you probably get exactly what I mean by it. I don't either man personally and they may be nice guys, but I'm not a fan of either of their works. As a whole, the Ultimate Marvel line was an interesting line of books. It lasted longer than any other Marvel imprint and it has left some pretty solid changes on things. It gave us some good stories and characters, some good art, and I hope some those characters survive being absorbed into the regular Marvel universe.

Like Ultimate Kevin Smith, who is apparently a mutant.
It'd be too much to hope that somehow Pyro gets resurrected as he was, but I can dream. I'm really mostly hoping for Ganke and Bombshell to end up in the Marvel universe proper, as I really dig both of them as characters. Not everything was great, but that's just how it goes. The Spider-Man books are the best ones and the Ultimates books post-Millar aren't bad at all, so I vote for you to stick mostly to those. None of the X-Men books are especially bad either and the Fantastic Four is alright, if a bit forgettable. In the end, I am happy I read it all because it was cool to see how things grew over time. if you want to check them out, I say go for it. Just don't pay for Ultimatum. You'll regret it. Later days, bleeders.

And please, let me never have to encounter a spider that large ever. I enjoy having unsoiled pants.

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