Marvel Comics’ Ultimate imprint has appeared to be struggling for a while now, and my enjoyment of it waning.
It was started as a continuity-free reinvention of the Marvel Universe alongside the regular comics (after 14 years the continuity-free element is pretty much dead), and in the early days did have interesting stuff.
Ultimate Spider-Man has remained consistently enjoyable, likely due to a stable creative team for so long, and the original writer still on the title even with a different lead.
The Ultimates was also strong when Millar was writing it, and has basically served as the model for the Marvel Movie Universe. It felt fresh in its details, as did his run on Ultimate X-Men, where the non-combat bits to do with the school activities felt fresh.
The problems started when other writers came on to the characters who didn’t necessarily give them the same feel. To me some of the titles started reverting to standard superhero tales that you’d find in the mainstream universe, which kind of defeated the purpose.
Not that I didn’t enjoy later writers: Hickman’s Ultimates and preceding mini-series used the setting for truly interesting stories that you couldn’t get away with in the mainstream comics because of how they changed the world. This felt like what the Ultimate universe could really be used for.
But sales possibly didn’t agree, so they did what they always seem to do when the Ultimate comics dropped off in sales: they had an Event.
While some of their Events haven’t been too bad (the Ultimate Galactus trilogy was good, and Ultimate Power was enjoyable), they have become fairly pedestrian. Have a big incident bringing together characters from all books; change some and kill off others. It all gets to feel too artificial. And the Universe doesn’t really have enough characters to go killing a handful at a time in the name of shoring up sales, especially since they’ve resisted bringing characters back from the dead. Events like Ultimatum and Cataclysm just haven’t worked for me.
I think the main problem (for me) is the traditional one for comics: they have to have something out every month, and readers stay with titles, so sometimes a new writer just isn’t going to give you what you’re used to.
Maybe if they’d gone with the original Ultimates way of publishing as mini- or maxi-series, only when they had a particular story to tell, it’d feel more special (although the third Ultimates series shows it’s still a problem when the writer’s changed). I like the approach DC have taken with the Earth One series (though I haven’t tried any of them yet) of producing a graphic novel every year or so.
Maybe if Marvel tried switching the Ultimate Universe to irregular mini-series when there’s a story worth telling, rather than keeping the titles going just to keep something there, they’d keep more readers. With most things collected these days, they don’t need to focus on periodicals, and the Ultimate Universe feels like it could be better served as a test bed for new publication models.
It was originally successful because of the quality, but attrition is inevitable. Maintaining success requires innovation as well as quality. In all writing.