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Once upon a time, Marvel had two major universes struggling for control of Marvel Comics future. In an interview, Joe Quesada (EIC of Marvel) was asked if they would every end the regular Marvel Universe in favor of the Ultimate Marvel Universe. This was a time when Marvel fans actually had to worry about the Ultimate line taking over as the new continuum. This was at a time when Ultimate Spider-man usually held two of the top ten sales spots with Ultimate X-Men hogging another. Can you imagine, no more Universe 616? What if every story from Marvel was based in the Ultimate Universe? Why didn’t that happen? When did the Ultimate Universe stop being Ultimate?
At the beginning of the Ultimate line there were two writers and two artists: Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-man and Mark Millar and Adam Kubert on Ultimate X-Men. Essentially both titles were retcons (retroactive continuity) of their Marvel Universe counterparts, but so much more at the same time. The line grew with the addition of The Ultimates aka the Ultimate Avengers, then even further with Ultimate Fantastic Four. These books all have two things in common: Mark Millar and Brian Bendis, the godfathers of the Ultimate Universe. They created a modern retelling of everyone’s favorite Marvel characters. The beauty was the continuum. No longer messy with decades of old stories and mismatched time-lines, everything was in the same world. It was new and interesting to see classic characters explained not by magic or by being in the wrong place at the right time. Everything was connected and affected everything in the world. It was so wonderfully crafted. The Hulk was created to replicate the super soldier serum that made Captain America. Mutants DNA was unlocked for the same reason and Wolverine became Mutant Zero. There was a logical explanation for everything.
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All good things must come to an end. Bendis and Millar remained on Spider-man and the Ultimates respectively, but they graduated to the big leagues and were invited to play in the regular Marvel U. With this change the two universes began to reflect each other. Spider Woman became popular in the regular Marvel U so she was created and forced into the Ultimate MU. How the Ultimate Hulk got his pants was explained, so the regular Marvel U felt the need to also explain his pants. Robert Kirkman was blowing up on the comic scene with Walking Dead and Invincible and was offered Ultimate X-Men. Regardless of the Kirkman Manifesto and his well documented thoughts on creator owned material, Kirkman and Immonen’s run on Ultimate X-Men was horrible. Stuart Immonen’s art was cartoony and loose, which was the opposite of the realistic style of the Ultimate books. Soon all of the Ultimate books became a dumping ground for new talent, rather than the beginning formula of talented experienced artist with talented up-and-coming writer. When Warren Ellis took over on Ultimate Fantastic Four, there was an excitement of what he was going to do with the book. The level of enthusiasm was restricted, leaving hallow stories and half fulfilled ideas.
In Loeb We Trust
Two things truly marked the end of the Ultimate lines dominance in comics: Ultimate Power and Jeph Loeb. Ultimate Power was the first universe cross-over for the Ultimate line. Before that it was its own world and didn’t have any messy parallel earth business to be bothered by. By adding the Supreme Power universe they stripped any realism that either universe had and made them just a typical comic world. Neither Universe benefited from the cross-over, nor were they ever the same. Then there’s Jeff Loeb. I truly don’t believe Jeff Loeb ever understood the Ultimate line. His idea of realism/maturity was a sex tape of Tony Stark and the Black Widow leaking onto the internet. This is the women that Tony loved and was betrayed by leaving him emotional scared. However, on the first page of Ultimate’s 3, Loeb has him brushing it off like it’s nothing. Not that he played it off as nothing, but that it literally meant nothing to him. Then in typical Loeb fashion there’s a murder and new character revealed at the end of every issue. I call this the, “Cliffy Loeb” and it’s something that has spread at Marvel since he began working there.
Cliffy Loeb: When the cliffhanger of an issue reveals a new character that has not been a part of the story previously. i.e. The character first appears on the last page.
If you don’t believe me then read Daniel Way’s first six issues of Wolverine: Origins or even Bendis’ Secret Invasion. Every issue ends the same way. Marvel writes a perfect example for me on their own site. Loeb came into the Ultimate Universe and essentially killed it with Ultimatum. At Comic Con ’09, he said on a panel that he didn’t realize that there was no reset button and that everything that had transpired couldn’t be undone. Usually I would call that marketing bullshit, but I think he really thought he could just wish it all better and start over. That was the charm of the universe, that there was no reset. Peter Parker dated Kitty Pryde and it would never be undone. Jean Grey dated Wolverine first and slept with him before Cyclops ever expressed his feelings for her. The Hulk ate people and went on a rampage through New York until Captain America kicked the crap out of him. Hawkeye’s family was killed and remained dead. Then Magneto picked up Thor’s hammer and destroyed the world, literally.
Where do you go when you re-launch a line that was a re-launch? I can’t say that I know, but I’m not sure Marvel knows either. Bendis continues writing Ultimate Spider-man seemingly to hold the record for the longest run on a single title. Millar returned to the Ultimates only to make it more slap-stick than real. Afterward, Loeb took over on Ultimate X-Men and Ultimates. Both of his first issues read like the same book. Each has a mismatched narration that had nothing to do with the mediocre story. It’s as if he finally figured out what the Ultimate line was all about, a little too late. The Ultimate line is never going to replace the regular Marvel U. After all, the Ultimate ideas were moved to the regular Marvel U. I guess DC was right about not needing an Ultimate line; they probably would have mishandled it the way Marvel has.