The 90’s were a rough time for the American comic book industry, particularly Marvel. Actions such as flooding the market with new #1’s (who didn’t have eight copies of that Jim Lee X-Men #1 cover), essentially caused the industry to crash. Fans left in droves, dropping the base from millions to a few hundred thousand. Even after selling the film rights of many popular characters (a move that still haunts them today), the company still failed to turn a profit, declaring bankruptcy in 1997. All of this, coupled with the poor book quality, which was overly dense and nigh impenetrable, forced Marvel to try something different. Thus the Ultimate Universe was born.
Starting in 2000 a continuity free book was launched called Ultimate Spider-Man, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art from Mark Bagley. The mission was simple, update Spider-Man’s origin for the modern era while telling a story that was easily accessible for new readers. The book was a critical and sales success. A year later another title was added, Ultimate X-Men, with Mark Millar writing and Adam Kubert on pencils. In 2002, The Ultimates from Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch followed. These three books often met or surpassed the sales of the mainline counterparts. Considering the pedigree of talent, which also included Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman, Andy Kubert, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka, it’s easy to see why. In 2004, Ultimate Fantastic Four was added, with Bendis and Millar launching the book along with Adam Kubert.
While the mainline books were fantastic, titles I recommend people should read today, there were a few misses as well from some miniseries. Ultimate Daredevil and Elektra, leading into Ultimate Elektra by Greg Rucka was decent. As was Ultimate Extinction, featuring Galactus, by Warren Ellis. These were poor reads by relative comparison, neither doing enough to change the dynamic from the original books. Still, the quality was high with the four main books.
Rumors abound that the proper Marvel universe (616 for those in the know), was to be replaced with the Ultimate Universe (1610). An ad in 2006 featuring the characters proclaiming “Ultimate Marvel: The Gold Standard” only fueled the fire. While the quality of the mainline books had improved, the Ultimate U was praised more by critics and fans alike. Like many things though, as time went on, blemishes started to show.
Books like Ultimate Iron Man, Ultimate Vision, and Ultimate Human hurt the line. Quality on the mainline books had started to slip with creative changes. Bendis started a pattern in Spider-Man where he was ultimising characters. Creative changes on X-Men and FF saw many older stories adapted, each widely ranging in quality. The final nail for many came with The Ultimates 3 by Jeph Loeb and Joe Madureira. This was a detrimental blow after the conclusion of the amazing Ultimate 2.
Though Ultimates 3 was largely responsible for the decline in quality, two other books also played important parts. First there was perpetual joke Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk by Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame). What was to be a six issue bi-monthly miniseries, starting in December 2005, took nearly four years to complete. Issues 1 and 2 released as schedules. Issue 3 was solicited 9 times before the series was cancelled. Marvel proclaimed they would not resolicit the book until all issues had be scripted. The final issues released in May 2009.
Finally, there was Ultimate Origin, a six issue miniseries from Bendis. The book told the origin of many staples in the Universe, such as how mutants were created by the government with Wolverine being the first mutant. While this was fine, there were many contradictions about what came before, such as Spider-Man’s parents being present during the Hulk’s creation. Odd considering Bendis has been the only writer of Ultimate Spider-Man.
Something needed to be done. Marvel decided to hit the reset button with the event book Ultimatum by Jeph Loeb and David Finch. This was easily the worst book the Ultimate line had produced.
So ends the History of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, part 1 (look for part 2 soonish). Which were your favorite Ultimate books? Think Jeph Loeb single handed destroyed the line? Comment below!
Many more Ultimate U posts to come.