The old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—and comics used to swear by it. For years, things in the big two (Marvel and DC) universes stayed exactly the same, because the companies were terrified of changing the status quo, alienating fans and losing readers. It was equal parts smart business sense and fear of the new.
Sometime over the past five years, though, that notion went out the window and things started changing almost on a whim. Sometimes, it was the thought that the books needed to resemble the movies that were based on them. Or, maybe a new, hotshot writer or editor felt they needed to leave their stamp to cement a legacy. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe is the latest casualty of senseless change, and most fans are left asking, “Why?”
Ten years ago, Marvel—shortly after filing for bankruptcy—approached two relatively unknown writers with a simple idea: Create a new version of the Marvel Universe. The feeling was that the core characters— Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America— were so steeped in continuity that it was impossible to attract new readers. It was a fresh start for a company in dire need of one, and Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar—writing Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, respectively—surprised everyone by staying true to the concept of the original characters but updating them for a new generation.
Ultimate Spider-Man was arguably the most successful of the Ultimate titles— followed closely by Millar’s Ultimates, a new take on The Avengers—with Bendis and artist Mark Bagley teaming up for a Marvel record of 110 consecutive issues. There was always room for a mini-series here and there, but Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and the Ultimates were always designed to be the core titles, keeping things tight-knit.
Then came Jeph Loeb. Loeb felt that the Ultimate universe had become too similar to the regular Marvel Universe, and was in need of a drastic overhaul. For whatever reason, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and publisher Dan Buckley agreed and handed him the reins of the Ultimate Universe.
Loeb used to be a great writer. He wrote the now-classic Batman: The Long Halloween and was instrumental in the creation of Smallville and the first season of Lost. Most impressively, Loeb wrote Commando and Teen Wolf—which alone almost gave him a free pass. He was the head writer and an executive producer for Heroes but was fired after ratings began dropping, and he turned his attention back to comics full-time. Since then, his stories have been lackluster and mostly pointless—think Michael Bay in comic-book form. He took over The Ultimates and changed everything (tone, flow, narrative, characters) so drastically that it barely resembled the previous two collections.
He then unleashed Ultimatum—a fiveissue mini-series that effectively ended the Ultimate Universe and killed off nearly all of the most interesting (and popular) characters—all for the sake of making things a little different. The core Ultimate titles were canceled, and two new ones were launched in their places. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics Avengers are the new flagship titles, and the two writers charged with fleshing out this new version of the Ultimate Universe are Bendis and Millar. Yep, the two architects of the original Ultimate Universe are right back where they started 10 years ago, with fewer toys to play with and bigger expectations to live up to.
Sometimes, it makes sense to destroy everything to rebuild it a little bit better, but when there weren’t any real cracks in the foundation and the walls were still sturdy it doesn’t make much sense. Hopefully, Bendis and Millar can catch lightning in a bottle a second time and Loeb will stay far away from the Ultimate Universe this time around.
Schwarzenegger’s term as governor is almost over. Maybe he can get around to developing Commando 2 instead, to give Loeb something to do. But don’t get your hopes up.