2 Apr 2008

Thought Balloon: The Ultimate Goodbye.

By Matt C

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time deciding whether or not to drop a title from my pull list. It should be an easy decision of course, but it’s often anything but. I’m not talking about those books you’ve tried for a couple of issues, decided it’s not for you and left, I’m talking about those (usually ongoing) books you’ve invested a considerable amount of time (and money!) in. You’ve spent a long while, possibly years, getting a particular title on a regular basis when all of a sudden you’re aware of a thought floating around in your brain, telling you that maybe it’s time to bin it. The thought’s probably been there for longer than you’d care to admit, kept at bay by the various excuses you’ve concocted to combat it:

“I’ll wait until the end of this storyline and then decide.”

“I’ll wait and see which creative team they’ve got lined up next.”

“It’s just hit a rough patch, I know it’ll get better soon.”

“Well, it’s been good in the past so I don’t see why it won’t be good again. Someday.”

“I can’t miss any issues! I have to complete my collection!”

“But I always buy X-Men/Avengers/JLA/Superman (delete as applicable) even when it’s been shit. I can’t not buy it! It’s the X-Men/Avengers/JLA/Superman (delete as applicable)!

That latter excuse I know I’m not alone in using (too) many times in the past. And how ridiculous an excuse it is, paying money for something you don’t enjoy just because you “always buy it”!

I’ll get to the point. I read Ultimate Spider-Man #120 a couple of days ago and although it was a pleasant read I came to a firm decision when I finished it: that would be the last comic from Marvel’s Ultimate line that I’d buy. To be fair, it has been the only Ultimate book I’ve still been buying having dropped the others some time ago, but it still wasn’t an easy decision to make. I’ve been getting Ultimate Spider-Man since #1 came out back in 2000 (was it really that long ago?) and I’ve derived a lot of enjoyment from it, but it was clear that the time had come for me to knock it on the head. Why? Well here are a couple of reasons I’ve come up with in an attempt to justify my decision:

Reason 1: I’m going to be a dad this summer (!), so there’s got to be a certain amount of purse-string tightening, and that means I’m going to have to be a bit more stringent when it comes to what gets included in my weekly pile. Not sure how that’s going to work out because no matter how many titles I drop there always seems to be a new bunch waiting in the wings, ready to take their place, but that’s the plan anyway. This is the personal reason based on my own circumstances (although I’m never likely to say I’ve dropped a book for “personal reasons”!), so let’s look at Reason 2 which maybe a few more people can relate to…

Reason 2: the Ultimate Universe just ain’t what it used to be! This won’t really come as a surprise to anyone, even diehard fans. Although not exactly doing badly, the Ultimate line isn’t the sales juggernaut it once was. With the exception of The Ultimates, all the core titles have been steadily slipping down the charts, and I’m sure retailers will be cutting their orders for Ultimates 3 (if they haven’t already) following fan reaction to the risible first couple of issues. There are a number of identifiable factors that have contributed to their diminishing readership. Firstly and most obviously, the core Marvel Universe in is in much better shape than it was eight years ago, far more creatively potent now than in the 90s (and I’m referring to the Universe as a whole, not individual titles) and with sales to match. The creators that brought the Ultimate Universe to prominence (Bendis, Millar) have since moved onto the regular Marvel Universe where they get to play with the real deal characters, not the facsimiles. And, where the Ultimate Universe was once felt fresh and free of continuity baggage, it is now – predictably and inevitably – accumulating its own continuity making it’s accessibility more or less on a par with the regular Marvel Universe.

To put it simply, it’s just not that exciting any more.

I don’t mean there’s no excitement to be found, I think that the zeitgeist has passed. It’s almost as though the Ultimate line has served its purpose. It brought in new readers, it brought back lapsed readers, but how many of them have now moved onto the core Marvel titles? I dropped Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four not because they were bad books, but because I was no longer invested in the Ultimate Universe in the same way I once was, and honestly, do I really need to read about two different versions of the Fantastic Four anymore?

I will still fondly remember a lot of Ultimate books and I doubt I’ll be removing them from my collection any time soon. That issue of Ultimate X-Men where Wolverine was dispatched to “take care” of a young mutant who couldn’t control his destructive power? Utterly brilliant. The issue of Ultimate Spider-Man where Ultimate Gwen Stacey buys the farm? Heartbreaking. The Ultimate Fantastic Four issues where we all thought the inevitable crossover with the regular Universe was about to take place only for us to witness the birth of the Marvel Zombies? Genius. Unfortunately I haven’t seen anything in any Ultimate book to match those stories in some time. I guess the final straw for me when it came to the Ultimate Universe as a whole (barring Spidey) was the abysmal mishandling of Nick Fury – possibly the best character to be introduced in any book in the line – in Ultimate Power. That and the “is-this-a-joke?” first issue of Ultimates 3.

The thing is, I still like Ultimate Spider-Man and there’s a good chance I’ll pick up the trades, but there’s no urgency to it anymore since I don’t much care what’s going on outside of that particular title. I will go as far as to say that it’s probably Bendis’s most consistent book – you can guarantee it’ll be a decent read – and that’s something coming from me, someone who regularly rants and raves about the inadequacies of his current, more high profile books every week. So, I’m probably not completely done with Ultimate Spider-Man but I am done with the monthlies, and it’ll take something of exceptional quality to drag me back to any other Ultimate book.

That’s my rather longwinded reasoning for turning my back on the Ultimate Universe (in the monthly format at least) but I’m curious to know what others think, whether they still believe the titles are viable and whether they think the books have a certain future ahead of them. The 'Comments' section below awaits your thoughts.


Justin B. said...

You just described exactly what has become a monthly (or so) crisis for me of "what do I drop now that there are six new titles I need to get?"

I gave up on UXM and UFF a while ago for many of the same reasons you mentioned but Bendis has seemed re-invigorated with his latest arcs with Stuart Immonen so I'll still be reading USM for the forseeable future. Plus, the Ultimate "event" minis aren't anything near as big as they used to be. The Ultimate Galactus trilogy sputtered a little at the end but started pretty strong. But more recently Ultimate Power was a pretty big dud and is anyone even reading Ultimate Human? Like you said "the Ultimate Universe just ain’t what it used to be!"

The near future outlook for the rest of the Ultimate U doesn't look so good either with Jeph Loeb having a larger role in things with his Ultimatum series and another Ultimates volume in the wings. Loeb is just about the touch of death these days as far as I'm concerned and the Ultimate U doesn't seem to be any different, although to be fair it was in a decline before he arrived.

Good stuff Matt. Now, what's replacing USM on your pull list? :)

PS - congrats on the upcoming baby. Prepare to have your life change in more ways than you can ever imagine, both wonderful and maddening (but more often than not wonderful).

Unknown said...

Great article mate. I'm in agreement with Justin here, but I get the feeling the Ultimate Universe has something to contribute. Ultimate Power was a mess, but the Ultimates could be brought back to somewhere approaching decent by the right writer. I think one of the major problems for me was the previously tight and logical continuity was ruined by an abundance of crossovers and events, giving the same problem the standard Marvel Universe had.

I'm only getting UFF at the mo, and the current arc is below par, but it has it's moments. The constant delays didn't exactly help either, and A list writers/artists being replaced by B list fare or simply those who aren't right for the title.

My interest is waining, but I still think there's some decent titles in there somewhere.....

Matt Clark said...

What's replacing USM on my pull list? It's like Hydra: cut one off and two rise in its place!

As to whether any one's reading Ultimate Human: one of my friends has raved about it and while I'll usually pick up anything by Warren Ellis, after being burnt my his Ultimate Galactus trilogy (a slow build to... nowhere in particular) I'm steering clear of his Ultimate work. I may be losing out, but you can't read everything!

And Matt T, I know you're holding out hope for a return to form for Ultimates, but with Loeb on the book for the forseeable future it doesn't look too promising!

Ian said...

Great piece Matt. I've had to drop a number of titles over the past few years,including a number of Ultimate titles, for the same reason as you (doesn't matter how hard you plan for it, fatherhood just eats money!!!) The only Ultimate title left on my list is Wolverine vs Hulk and I'm not entirely convinced that it will ever come out anyway....
It just seems that the big events in the MU currently (Civil War, Secret Invasion etc) would have taken place in the Ultimate Universe if they had been written 6 or 7 years ago. If they can now happily take place in the proper universe what do you need the Ultimate universe for? All the edginess and unpredictability which made the Ultimate line so interesting has gone and now they're just typical Marvel books with slightly different continuity, which is rapidly just as convoluted as the original.

Unknown said...

I'd completely forgotten about Wolverine/Hulk! It may come out in the next few years, but who cares if we already know the outcome of the characters? It seems like the Ultimate Universe has just turned into the Marvel equivalent of the DC Elseworlds, which succeed in limited runs but quickly lose the novelty value.
FF has certainly got to the point where every arc has a slightly different take on a mainstream villain. It needs far more ingenuity than following the same path each time that seems destined to bore the readers.
In my humble opinion the Ultimate U needs a kick up the arse or an all-ending apocalypse.