Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Revisiting Ultimate Spider-Man

I recently got the opportunity to revisit the Ultimate Universe - the Ultimate Spider-Man series, to be specific. When Marvel launched their Fresh Modern Take of their classic super heroes, I stayed on the side lines - unimpressed by what they where offering. The quality and success of the Ultimate line of comics, though, eventually persuaded me to give it a try. Thanks to an affordable and awesome Barnsandnoble Hardcover, collecting nearly the first 40 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, I was able to familiarize myself with what I had missed. (That Hardcover is no longer available on their site. Sorry!) Bendis' fresh take on Spider-Man was, in retrospect, revolutionary. He brought all the qualities and nuance of an indy creator to a company owned character. His long-form of storytelling set a new standard for comics, for years to come - which he's both famous and infamous for, "decompression". Stories where set around 6 or so issues, telling a longer and more fulfilling story. (Comic book decompression, though, backfired when inappropriately used - stretching out a storyline for longer than it needed to be, just to sell more books) What I really liked about the book, and which Bendis himself has stated is a key reason the series was so successful, was that it essentially stood alone, as its own product. No company tie-ins, or appearances in other titles -- Bendis was able to do anything with his version of Spider-Man, and wasn't hampered by company tie-ins.

This kind of isolated, but freeing, storytelling led to some truly classic stories.

Mark Millar and Adam Kubert's Ultimate X-Men proved equally as successful as Ultimate Spider-Man - setting Marvel's Merry Mutants in a much harsher, modern day era of suspicion, racism, and terrorism. Like much of Millar's work, it felt uncompromising - and his run of the series pretty well solidified the other half of Ultimate Universe.

Ultimate Fantastic Four, initially written by Bendis and Millar, with art from Andy Kubert, saw a younger version of the FF as part of a Government Think Tank operation. The idea of a young prodigy Reed Richards actually worked. The title stumbled, though, when it introduce Doctor Doom - who never matched the same greatness of his regular 616-counterpart. Mark Millar, though, came back to the title with Greg Land and transformed the series into an interesting, fast paced, science fiction series - introducing a zombie-hero universe, for instance.

The true masterpiece of the Ultimate Universe, though, had to be Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's "Ultimates" - (Ultimate Avengers, just without the word "Avengers") Bryan Hitch's art was truly stunning - and well worth the wait needed, for him to complete two 12-issues series on the title. This series basically defined and refined the idea of comic books matching the scope and feel of the blockbuster summer movie. The realistic, and always bombastic, reinterpretations of classic characters made for some of the most compelling storytelling yet. Captain America was a soldier truly out of time - Tony Stark, Iron Man, was a drunk socialite genius, and Thor was a (presumed) delusional hippie, with the power of a god! You probably saw many aspects of the Ultimates in the Marvel Movies; the most direct example of that being...

Everyone's favorite Super-Spy: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury! Jackson officially leant his likeness to Hitch's drawings - and cemented his place as the only actor able to take on the role in the movies.

So -- if the Ultimate Universe was so great, why did I eventually leave it? Well - Marvel began to publish around 4 different titles a month. Ultimate Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Ultimates -- with a mini-series thrown in every now and then. While being "new reader" friendly was the mandate at first - the weight of continuity began to collect on all the different series. After Millar was done with X-Men and Ultimates - both series went in different creative directions. No longer was it about having a modern "reader friendly" version of these characters - it became about having a small, but contained universe - with only around 4 books required to read. I actually wrote a letter to Marvel, about just that -- which I think they listened to, because later they labeled all 4 titles as the "Gold Standard" of comics. They might have listened too much, as Spider-Man and the X-Men began crossing over in one event after another - until the continuity became just as bad as the regular Marvel Universe. Bendis participated in these gatherings, but managed to keep his series above the fray, or by using events to his advantage.

Thats where Jeph Loeb and David Finch stepped in - with the disaster-movie series "Ultimatum". Basically, if the Ultimate Universe was no longer fresh and easily accessible - it would act as the sandbox creators could do ANYTHING to the characters, that they otherwise would never be allowed to do with their non-Ultimate counterparts. Magneto essentially enacted a doomsday plan - to launch a massive tidal wave on New York City. (Given the recent real-world event, of Hurricane Sandy, this story takes on a whole new feeling) The city is simply devastated - and a majority of characters are either killed or broken down. The X-Men where probably the worst hit - with Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Rogue, and others being the few to survive.

The big kicker, at the end of that mini-series - was an atom bomb of a revelation: the mutant gene was not natural; it was instead created in a government lab, and released onto the populous. Mutants, essentially, where the unnatural recipients of a government made disease! That, really, just blew my mind - how awesome and interesting the idea would be! Basically, after Ultimatum, mutants became illegal - sent to camps, killed, or tortured - a new level of persecution before unseen. The left-over X-Men's story has continued on in different ways; one, though a son of Wolverine, and the surviving X-Men. I've only glanced at what Nick Spencer has done with Ultimate X-Men - but every time I see some of it, it shocks me how amazingly dramatic the series as become.

The Ultimatum Wave had a big impact on Spider-Man's universe. He desperately helped save as many civilians as he could - an act of awe-inspiring heroisim not unnoticed by J. Jonah Jameson, who made Spider-Man a beloved hero of New York City, reversing his longtime suspicion of the young hero.

The biggest reason for all this change and destruction, to once successful variant properties for Marvel? Sales, simply put, where slipping. This was not helped by Mark Bagley's departure from Ultimate Spider-Man -- even though he put in 110 consecutive issues - beating Marvel's old record of 102 consecutive issues held by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Bagley more than deserved a break from the series -- and Stuart Immonen stepped in and delivered in spades. Still, it wasn't enough.

So Ultimate Spider-Man rebooted with a new #1, and a new artist who stunned everyone with his manga-esq style in Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #3. David Lafuente delivered a style of Western-Manga that everyone was trilled about. It just looked stunning, and worked excellently with Bendis' writing.

I dropped the series at issue #7 - as I originally disliked the changes happening to the title. Bendis essentially took Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, Ice Man, and put them in the same house as Spider-Man. Included in that bunch where Gwen Stacy, Kitty Pryde, and Mary Jane. Aunt May essentially turned her place into a half-way house for homeless super-heroes. I thought it seemed too much like "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends".

Anyway - it was at that point that I have been lucky enough to be able to get TPBs and Hardcovers of the issues I had missed! There is some truly awesome stuff that came out after I had left -- like Kitty Pryde being forced out of school, at gun point, just because she was a mutant - and later the Ultimates taking an active role in trying to train young Peter Parker in being a better Super Hero.

I also got a mini-series "Ultimate Doomsday", which Bendis did together with artist Rafa Sandoval. They put together a mystery, or sorts, of an unknown enemy attacking and destroying the Ultimate Universe. The story actually centered around the remains of the Ultimate Fantastic Four - who since Ultimatum had split off in different directions.

Ben Grimm, the Thing, comes back into Sue Storms life - declaring his love for her. She had recently broken up with Reed Richards, which all-in-all turned out to be a pretty good thing, as the mastermind behind the whole plot turned out to be Reed Richards. An explanation wasn't really given, as far as motivations for going evil -- but the dynamic way Bendis wrote this collapse of the Fantastic Four, I really didn't care.

The relationship between Ben Grim and Sue Storm really surprised me; in addition to changes, like Ben Grimm evolving into a new state - where he's glowly and strong, and instead of a rocky-Thing.

Anyway - my journey back to the Ultimate Universe, though, might be short lived - as coming up will be the Death of Ultimate Spider-Man. Sales simply did not rebound, like Marvel was hoping, and so they brought back Mark Bagley to draw Ultimate Peter Parker's last stand, before tragically dying.

The series rebooted, once again, with a new protagonist Miles Morales - a half-black, half-hispanic Super Hero, who decided to try and live up to the inspirational (and now public) legend of Peter Parker. Killing off and replacing a white character with a minority raised some eye brows, but from all accounts Miles Morales won over fans and critics, as not simply being a replacement for Ultimate Spider-Man, but someone trying to live up to the ideals Peter Parker lived and died by. I haven't read the series, but I might back track again someday to see what I missed here.

I did, though, get a taste for what Bendis was doing with this new character when he released a mini-series "Spider-Men" - which saw regular 616 Spider-Man, cross over into the Ultimate Universe and meet Miles Morales. Bendis and Marvel have sworn, up and down, that they would never have a Regular Marvel Universe crossover with the Ultimate Universe. They called the idea creatively bankrupt. Still - they said such things before Ultimatum, and before Ultimate Spider-Man's death. What resulted was touching and wonderful story, allowing Miles Morales to meet his hero in the flesh.

I've heard rumors about a Marvel Universe/Ultimate Universe crossover that could be in the works - but this time, the plan being to end the Ultimate Universe entirely. As far as a creative experiment, I can't fault Marvel for wanting to go out on a relative high-note. Most likely something will be done to include a Miles Morales in the regular Marvel Universe. I'm just speculating, though!

I don't know if I'll read any further than Peter Parker's death - but I'll definitely be on board for any End of the Ultimate Universe mini-series. It sure has been nice to revisit, and catch up on what I had missed. Its rare you get a contained, and intricate character drama, all in one title. Sure glad I joined in and was able to read such wonderful stories.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Comic Book Review: Action Comics #19

After the conclusion to Grant Morrison's wonderful run on Action Comics, it came as quite a disappointment when I heard upcoming writer Andy Diggle was leaving the title because of editorial interference. I don't know exactly what kind of interference was happening - but this first issue certain looks like it was messed with, on some level, to meet the set-upon expectations of DC's "WTF" month. See - Diggle's first issue was suppose to be issue #17. That got pushed back, and then again with issue #18, as Grant Morrison needed more room to conclude his epic. So suddenly Diggle's first issue needed a "WTF" moment to slap on the cover -- and this is what we got:

Really, Jimmy Olsen is Superman's greatest enemy? Stupid as it sounds - I believe this Jimmy Olsen/Enemy idea was forced into the story, were it otherwise didn't belong. All just so DC could pull a lame "gotcha" moment. At $3.99, readers deserve better than this. Heck - on page count alone - clocking in at 25 pages of story, this issue underwhelms in both terms of content and quality.

Still, lets look past it - and see if there's something redeemable about this issue? The issue begins a year ago, in the fictional war-torn country of Qurac. Lois Lane is celebrating with Clark her achievements -- which, quite frankly, instant sounds cartoonish -- as she not only got an interview with a captive rebel leader, but managed to rescue dozens of political prisoners while she was at it. How did she do this Super Heroic feat of reporting? She left the safety of the hotel, unlike all the other foreign correspondents. (Any real-life foreign correspondents feel a bit insulted?) It flat out sounds outlandish, and immediately takes you out of the story. There a bit of throw-away romantic tension between Lois and Clark, but is quickly thrown away as Superman is called into action. Lois, though, meet some other reporter, Jon Carroll. I know DC is trying to take it slow, not having Clark and Lois dating - but it annoys me how often that means some other guy is getting in Clarks way. Can't they just be competitive reporters -- does Lois really have to one-up Clark every time, with a new man in her life?

Whatever - this issue quickly moves onto the action, which it thankfully does very well. Its not a complex or long fight - but Tony Daniel's art really works in these moments, as Superman faces off against hovering assault tanks. They give Superman a run for his money with rail gun shots, hellstrike missiles, and sonic attacks - but Superman forges through and takes out the assaulting machines. One of the pilots of the ship lands safely from the wreckage, and takes Superman by surprise because he looks so much like Jimmy Olsen. It's a similarity - nothing more. (Surprise!!!) The pilot isn't able to give up any info on who hired him to do this, as his body explodes into flames; sub-dermal thermite was injected into him, to make sure he never talked.

We move on to the person behind these minions -- that of Lex Luthor. A physiatrist is trying to give an evaluation of Luthor, but is giving an unsatisfactory diagnosis by labeling him Psychotic Megalomaniac. Luthor disagrees, and it then becomes clear that this psychiatrist is actually a prisoner of Luthors - playing some kind of game, trying to get a diagnosis that suits him. Its actually an interesting moment - and in-tune with Luthor and how dangerous he can be. We are then shown how Lex's plan against Superman worked. The robotic tanks where merely a decoy, to hide a dangerous nanites, shot into Superman's body during the battle. Made of Kryptonite, the nanites were able to enter his body - but their true function is not merely to poison him - but to rewrite his Kryptonian DNA. Three weeks later, the nanites are activated, and Superman crashes into the ground - his hand radiating a sickly green - with quickly spreads!

Now, to answer and point something out -- this issue made it clear these events are one year prior to the current time-line. Why does that need to be established? Because in the pages of "Superman", modern-day Lex Luthor has been introduced in a specially designed prison, bearing scars on his face. Solicitations hinted that this storyline might be where those scars are explained - but I'm not entirely hopeful about everything matching up that well. Proof evidenced by Andy Diggles swift departure - I don't think a definitive road-map has been made for the Superman titles.

This issue has many, many faults. In the end, though, it manages to be half-way decent. I do wonder, how much of this is really Andy Diggle's writing, and how much is editorial re-writing? Simply put - the art of Tony Daniel really saves the issue. The downside, though, is that this 25-page story becomes extremely short. Again - I expected better from DC, especially for $3.99. I'm more forgiving, for now - as I'm considering continuing to read this storyline. I'm hopeful DC will announce a new writer to come onto the series. If not, I might drop it after a few issues. Lets at least see what Andy Diggle set up, and wether Daniel can pull the rest off by himself.

As for wether this issue is worth you're time? It is new-reader friendly, with nothing too confusing muddling the waters. The action is quick and satisfying -- but, I only wish, the story had been as robust as the art was. This can be a good jumping on point -- but, in terms of value, the $2.99 Superman title, with Scott Lobdell, provides a more compact and longer-lasting story, and only with 20 pages. That Superman title, though, is more continuity-filled. So there are pluses and minuses to each title. (Or, just wait for Superman Unchained, by Scott Snyder a Jim Lee -- where you're guaranteed to get your money's worth!)

This image is promoted at the end of the issue, with the tag-line "Things to Come..." While I don't mind a different Superman costume - I really simply adore the current Jim Lee designed Red and Blue outfit. Any wardrobe change HAS to be temporary. Whatever the future storylines coming down the pike - they will be without Andy Diggle. I really wish he had gotten more of chance to spread his wings -- as this issue might be the sum total of his work on the series. I have hopes the series and story will improve. If they don't, I will quit the series. I'm simply being hopeful here - so, with or without Diggle, I hope DC doesn't let me down!