If today’s newest teaser from Marvel Comics is to be believed, the Ultimate Marvel Universe will soon be no more. As time stretches on the comic book imprint's fifteen year life might just be reduced to a footnote in the now seventy-plus years of 'modern' comic book history: its impact one that is purely superficial. Superficial, but not to be dismissed or ignored, as the superficial is the first aspect of anything that gets noticed and the last that is ever forgotten.
Hey Kids, Comics!
Comics are a business first and foremost and the creation of the Ultimate Marvel Universe was a decision made in that vein. In the industry's endless quest to acquire new and younger readerships, Marvel devised a plan to shed decades of continuity, often claimed to be intimidating to new readers, while not upsetting their loyal and extremely vocal fans. Rather than hold a 'Crisis-style' event and reset everything, then Marvel President Bill Jemas and veteran Marvel talent Joe Quesada tapped an up and coming writer named Brian Michael Bendis, who had attracted a large following with his small-press work, and veteran Spider-artist Mark Bagley to not only 'relaunch' the company's signature character, Spider-Man as the kind of person that is more like the young readers of the day, but also to reach them in new ways including an, in the end unsuccessful, strategy of printing comics in a slick, rack-ready magazine/periodical format to reach readers who might not broach the threshold of their local comic books store.
Today, the relaunching of comic books is a common practice. Even if the whole universe isn't reset (or it is, in the case of DC's New 52), the practice of restating a comic from that eye-catching issue #1 has been largely accepted by comic readers. Each of these 'softer' resets (like Marvel NOW!, All-New Marvel NOW!, and now… Avengers NOW!) allow new talent teams the freedom to take familiar characters in new directions that have found a good middle-ground between slavishly following the past and throwing it all out the window.
Creating for the Trade
The Ultimate Marvel Universe was the first national showcase for the storytelling technique derisively referred to as “decompression.” The classic example is the origin of Spider-Man himself, told within a handful of panels and pages by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1962, but taking six whole issues in the Bendis/Bagley year 2000 iteration. As the Ultimate Universe grew, the practice became more and more viable within the line (the infamous two page long, nearly silent discussion about how The Thing poops in Ultimate Fantastic Four), and outside of it.
The debate that this technique started still rages today. Writers who use this style could well argue that slowly paced stories allow them to build their worlds better, allow big moments to land and to portray their characters as more than spandex-clad punching machines. Ultimate Tony Stark's life as a high-functioning alcoholic socialite was explored, Ultimate Captain America's “Greatest Generation” clashed more starkly with the modern age, and the “mutants as minority group” theme that ran in the background of the classic X-Men comics was in the forefront in Ultimate X-Men. It made for some great storytelling all that might have been lost in the race to the next thrown down with Ultron or Magneto.
On top of that, the five-to-seven issue story is perfect for publishers to collect in a trade paperback (back to those business reasons), and the Ultimate Marvel printed their stories in that format very quickly and prodigiously. This in-turn allowed them to sell their books in another marketplace for new readers: giant book stores, that is, before digital bookstores replaced the them and digital books replaced (or at least supplemented them - for now) those.
While the story telling might have been slower, the actual stories told came much quicker. Ultimate Marvel had at the time 60 years worth of stories in their back-pockets to reference for their fresh new universe. While not every story told in four-color was on the level of “The Master Planner Saga” or “Kraven's Last Hunt” or even near it, Ultimate Marvel seemed to burn though the canon as fast as it could. For example, instead of the three hundred and sixty issues of Amazing Spider-Man that were printed before the character of Carnage was introduced, Ultimate Spider-Man got there in sixty. Ultimate Marvel went though Galactus so fast they had to do it twice, Jean Grey became Phoenix in less than a quarter of the time, Wolverine’s real name debuted in an Ultimate Universe crossover event about as quickly as possible after it was revealed in Origin, and the Ultimate version of the Fantastic Four was rebooted in-universe twice before their got their own series. Notably, each story retold was done with the kind of editorial freedom that allowed for twists, variations and new character beats including lasting deaths.
However, the result of Ultimate Marvel's “best of” approach might have been its leading contributor to its downfall. Original stories with familiar characters, each now with years of background stories, could already be found in the 'classic' books. And while killing your stars is great for a bump in attention, the holes they leave behind would have to be filled with the dwindling supply of legacy characters that the whole line is leveraged on.
Comics around the turn of the millennium were drawn, consciously or subconsciously with the big screen in mind. Action was drawn 'widescreen;' big panels with egregious amounts of detail that leaped off the page. Characters were unique and expressive and the idea that they were 'cast' in their roles took off. Never so much as when Samuel L. Jackson was 'drawn in' as Ultimate Nick Fury, a choice that had a permanent impact on pop culture (and even saw a similar character reverse-engineered into the main Marvel Universe). The Marvel Cinematic Universe existed on paper as Ultimate Marvel long before Iron Man hit theaters. That will be the Ultimate Marvel Universe's ultimate lasting impact. Could the MCU have come into being exist with out the the UMU? Maybe, but a better dry run could not have been asked for.
Ultimate Marvel (2000-2015?) is survived by its father, Marvel Comics, brother the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will be remembered by true fans of the form.