What’s Wrong with the Ultimate Universe

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.


[Warning: this meanders quite a bit, towards no real destination]

It occurred to me that last week’s post may have read as though I’m totally against continuing stories, which isn’t the case. I read a lot of comics, where continuing series are the standard, and many have been around longer than me. (Series with a continuing creative team, or at least writer, tend to be different beasts, and not what I’m wittering on about below)

Long running series have both good and bad points. And shared universes tend to exacerbate the bad points, making them things that need to be accepted, ignored, or retconned (retroactive continuity is the rewriting of history to say that something never happened. If you’re lucky they’ll give a reasonable explanation of why people thought it did).

I recently reread Daredevil stuff from the last decade, from Bendis’ run through to the Shadowland stuff (which is a few years old now, so not really spoilers). The main idea behind Bendis’ run is what does it look like when a superhero has a nervous breakdown. It uses the character’s history under previous writers, building on your emotional investment with the characters.

The serial nature of corporate IPs opens it up to interesting interpretations by successive creators. Some are good, some are simply servicing the IP, a situation not helped by the monthly schedule: they have to have a story out even if it’s not a good one.

This was played with during this period, with each writer leaving the character in a worse place than they found him, for the next writer to carry on. Bendis left him in jail, his identity public but unproven; Brubaker destroyed his life even further, and left him taking command of the Hand, a cult of assassins he’d fought for years; Diggle left him shattered after the events of Shadowland, which kind of marked as far as he could fall. When the series relaunched under Waid, Daredevil’s trying to get back to what he used to be, but his recent history continues to overshadow his actions.

While I felt the Shadowland stuff didn’t quite work, mainly by being turned into an event, overall the sequence held together even with multiple writers. Using the character’s history to build the story on adds to it in a way a standalone story which introduces you to that history can’t. That’s what ongoing series do at their best.


[Rant Interlude: Franchises]

One of the less good parts of corporate owned IPs is the danger of over-franchising of successful properties. I’m looking at you, X-Men. There was a time, probably longer ago than I now care to remember, when I could have named every X-Man. There have been so many associated titles out over the last couple of decades, introducing so many mutants, most of whom are now considered X-Men, that it’d be difficult without a good degree of study.

Franchising tends, from my experience, to run greater risk of substandard work than much servicing the IP. And then new stories build on stories that you haven’t read. At least the advent of digital comics and increased collecting of stories solves the problems even a decade ago of not being able to get hold of the stories referred to. Whether you’d be grateful to get hold of them is another matter.

Franchises run the risk of diluting your investment.

And I’ve ranted about Events previously, so don’t get me started on that again.

[End Interlude]


Series with ongoing characters can build up an investment that keeps the reader with the story, obviating some of the set up required (although you still need to consider new readers). Pragmatically, it can also keep readers with a series, which is why publishers seem to prefer series to stand alones. As a writer you also get invested in characters and see further places their stories could go.

But I find I’m often more interested in new stuff than revisiting old stories. Sometimes they do call me back fairly strongly, and the stories still have things to say. But pragmatically speaking none have yet sold well enough to really draw any number of readers back, so my time’s better spent on new stuff that might draw new readers. I would like to make a living from this, then I can write the further adventures.

Crossover Events

(I’m mainly talking comics here)

I like crossovers. I’ve even got plans for a crossover involving characters from some of my books, although that’s a fair way off.

I also (in theory) enjoy crossovers in comics, although many recent ones have been disappointing. I’m not talking about the small crossovers, where a character appears in another characters’ comic, but the Crossover EVENT comics.

I find them more successful where they’re relatively contained, such as some of the X-Men Events of recent years (Messiah Complex, Utopia, X-Nation, Second Coming) where the story runs between regular issues of the comics.

Where I find them less successful is when there’s a mini-series, with regular series having side-stories which are allegedly not needed to enjoy the main story (examples include Secret Invasion, Siege, Fear Itself). Even those I enjoy feel a bit rushed in the mini-series, since they need to allow space for the associated series to fill out the story. It feels like you’re only getting the bare bones of the story, which can affect the pacing.

Sometimes it can’t really be helped. Overall I liked the idea of Secret Invasion, and the flashbacks in other series showing how the plot occurred behind the scenes for the past few years worked for me. But they would have slowed the main series down too much. Could it still have worked with a meatier story in the main mini-series? I think so. The background stuff just enhanced the overall story.

A subcategory of events is the alternate world stuff (Age of Apocolypse, House of M, Flashpoint, Age of X). While I enjoy some alternate world stories, Events often leave me cold. No matter how much they supposedly affect the regular continuity, they never really feel like they matter that much. (And since Flashpoint was simply a story rationale for rebooting the DC Universe, which included CANCELLING SECRET SIX, it in my view wallows at the nadir of such events.)

Okay, most Events are there mainly to serve a marketing purpose, trying to get readers of one comic hooked on others. So should they get judged on different criteria? Not really. They don’t usually get priced any cheaper, and the fact that some Events are enjoyable means that there’s nothing inherently bad about the type of story.

They usually seem to fall apart when there’re a number of creators working on parts of the main story, and lack of communication and organization cause problems. Final Crisis on its own felt fairly self-contained if memory serves, as long as you ignored the events in some of the lead up titles which contradicted elements of the set-up (but since I didn’t read all of those I found the main series relatively enjoyable).

The main thrill of a crossover is characters crossing over into each other’s stories, though, and having them interact. Which isn’t to say that should be the focus, since a weak story just to allow two characters to interact will leave the encounter unsatisfactory. Ideally the story should have a reason for all the characters to be involved, and all should have something to do other than just interacting.

With a firm control over the story, though, and using only characters who have valid reasons to be involved, crossovers can be fun, and I really want to do one.