Friday, March 18, 2011

Ultimate Apathy: How to kill a universe

The return of Mark Millar to the Ultimate universe he helped establish a decade ago held some promise at first. The entire line had almost sunk into oblivion under the weight of dozens of mediocre comics and some shockingly awful work from Jeph Loeb, so it wasn’t like things could get any worse.

And they didn’t, but they didn’t get that much better either. Millar is now barreling ahead with the fourth story arc in his new Ultimate Avengers, but the first three have not been as thrilling as hoped, with terrible pacing issues, extremely light characterization and some surprisingly clunky dialogue.

The comic has failed to send the Ultimate comics back to the chart positions they enjoyed during the early days of the comic universe. While it is unclear how much of this is due to apathy over the entire line, lingering distaste from the last few mundane years, or the painfully obligatory 33% increase in cover price (which is the primary reason I never got back on board), the Ultimate comics have never looked more unnecessary.

There were signs of stodginess right from the start – The Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man did look fresh and interesting and shiny in that first year or two, but Ultimate X-Men was hamstrung by the decision to bring in Andy Kubert as lead artist. Kubert is a fine enough superhero artist, but his style of glossy scratchiness was nothing new at the turn of this century.

Ultimate X-Men did go on to cover a lot of interesting ground, but often shifted between major events with a glib shrug, and none of it felt important. The series started with an innocent person being shot with a death ray sanctioned by the US Government and never really looked like it was willing to deal with little things like the consequences of questionable actions.

Ultimate Spider-Man has been happily doing its own thing for a long time, thanks largely to Brain Bendis’ willingness to stick with the idea and take it in his own idiosyncratic directions. There have certainly been ups and downs in the story of Ultimate Spidey, including some notable failures to really offer something new, but it has remained immensely readable.

The most successful reinvention initially looked like the most cynical, especially when it was lumbered with its weirdly unwieldy title, but The Ultimates turned out to be more fun than anybody anticipated.

Much of the credit for the success of The Ultimates rightly goes to Bryan Hitch, who took the lessons he had learned on The Authority and applied them to this new version of the Marvel Universe. He drew some surprisingly kinetic action scenes, showed a command of body language that he had only hinted at before and gave everybody some terrific haircuts.

Meanwhile, Mark Millar managed to create something that still stands as a high water mark in his career. It still featured many of his most irritating quirks, such as everybody calling everybody else ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ instead of anything actually imaginative and the usual shameless homages, but it was also a new way of dealing with these old characters.

Putting superheroes into a real world setting is usually doomed to failure from the start, but The Ultimates worked thanks largely to these creators and the fact that the world they crafted wasn’t bogged down by decades of backstory.

But most of all, The Ultimates felt big, because it took the time to lead up to its main events. By the time Thor makes his appearance during the battle with the Hulk at the end of the first storyline, Hitch’s crackling art and the power of the moment combined to produce something extraordinary.

There is little extraordinary in the Ultimate Avengers, no matter how hard it reaches for it.

Perhaps it’s the choice of artists. They’re all great superhero artists, but there has been nobody truly special who can influence the entire look of the project to such a powerful degree as Hitch does.

There are also definite pacing issues, with things not given time to build, as if Millar is so keen to get to the point he can’t be bothered with any of the build-up that worked so well in The Ultimates. Ultimate Avengers hits the ground running, but is all the worse for it, shooting its load early and leaving any climax deflated.

Along with this weirdly jarring pace, Millar is also well out of tune with the zeitgeist on this current project. The last act revelation in Ultimate Avengers 2 that there was a satanically connected figure in the White House was a real misstep by the writer. It might have flown a few years earlier, but when it comes to evil in the White House, after years of an administration that happily condoned torture, nobody wanted the new power to be even worse than that.

Combined with wildly unlikeable characters who are taking lazy selfishness, unjustified arrogance and unshocking violence to ludicrous extremes, and it’s no wonder the current series has failed to fire in the sale charts. And given Millar’s tendency to immediately lose any interest in any of his projects that don’t instantly connect with a wide audience, it’s unlikely to get any better, no matter how much Marvel is trying to convince people that another superhero death is actually important.

I genuinely wanted to like Ultimate Avengers, but in the end it’s just another average superhero comic in a market that is saturated in them. The Ultimates really did feel like something shiny and new, Ultimate avengers just feels like the same old shit.

With the rest of the Ultimate universe titles languishing in more Loeb mediocrity (that also manages to be astonishingly late – seriously, whatever happened to the Ultimate X title?), it could be a good time to give up on the whole idea.

There is nothing wrong with reducing the entire line back down to Ultimate Spider-Man, and let that play out to its natural conclusion, because there isn’t much else on offer in this world.

1 comment:

Adrian Kinnaird said...

Agreed! I felt that 'Ultimates' Vol.1 was easily the most influential comic series of the past decade (and saying that about a Marvel comic is something). Yet nothing Millar has done since has lived up to that promise.
I've read the first two new arcs of 'Ultimate Avengers', and found them to be brief and uninspired, almost like they were 'phoned in'.