Ultimate Spider-Man heads toward Ultimatum, away from Coherence

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With Ultimatum #5 coming out this week, it seemed like an ideal time to do some thinking about something I noticed when reading the last Ultimate Spider-Man collection:

 

Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 21: War of the Symbiotes
By Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, and Wade Von Grawbadger
Marvel – paperback, $15.99

Ultimate Spider-Man had a pretty good run, didn’t it? Twenty (twenty!) volumes of user-friendly soap opera and superheroics (or ten if you’ve followed it in the annual hardcovers, my preference until volume ten inexplicably cost the same $40 as the very long volume nine, despite being the shortest volume to date*), with a good share of laughs and “oh shit” moments along the way, illustrated in a clear and appealing, if unexciting, style. This volume is where it starts to come crashing down, and it’s a shame, because it isn’t due to anything native to the book itself.

It’s not Stuart Immonen’s art—this is only the second Ultimate Spider-Man book I’ve read that was entirely drawn by Immonen, and it’s a very different look than Mark Bagley brought to USM’s first 111 issues, but it works for me. Immonen’s is a more frenetic, angular look, but the characters are recognizably the same, while still bearing his stamp, and he brings the same acting chops and storytelling clarity.

It’s not Brian Bendis’s story, which advances the soap opera satisfyingly, catching up with what’s become of Gwen Stacy’s clone while continuing to actually make me care about Venom and even Carnage. Bendis has managed, up through the 128th issue, which this volume ends with, to give nearly every storyline elements that make them personal for Peter Parker without making it seem as though the world revolves around him—while the emotional component is enhanced by the Venom organism’s connection to him, his presence isn’t unrealistically necessary for the threat to emerge. It makes for a compelling read, and feels like a genuine threat while moving the overall story forward in several ways.

So what’s the problem? In a way, it is Bendis’s writing, as he likely could have avoided the issues I found in the script, but a lot of it needs to be directed at the decline of the Ultimate universe as a whole. The first indication that something was wrong with the story was how confusing I found the multiple levels of flashbacks in the story, a surprise considering how well Bendis has handled the device in other stories, notably Daredevil’s “Underboss” arc. Even within this story he effectively played with a similar device, showing Gwen’s escape from Shield’s Triskelion base after an explosion that has no explanation. I was momentarily confused, but remembered something similar, and looked back at a previous volume of the series to find the same scene played out earlier, with Gwen actually appearing, but subtly enough that it hadn’t registered with me at the time.

After puzzling it over awhile, I realized that the problem in this case is that most of the differences between the different moments in time are things that took place in other series. For instance, we see Nick Fury in one chapter, but the in another someone refers to him being missing, which is completely befuddling. It turns out that he was traded, I think, with someone from the Squadron Supreme universe in the Ultimate Power crossover, which I did not read. I don’t remember this ever being mentioned in USM before, and nowhere in this volume, including the recap page at the front, is this explained. If this is the only Ultimate book you read, as in my case, too bad.

It seems, in retrospect, that Ultimate Power may have been the beginning of the end. As far as I’m aware, it was the imprint’s first event promising to affect the whole line. It was also, perhaps not coincidentally, the first time that Jeph Loeb touched the Ultimate universe. Admittedly, he was only one of three writers (including Bendis) involved in Ultimate Power, but his writing for the imprint has since consisted of another line-wide crossover, Ultimatum, and what in retrospect amounts to its prequel, Ultimates 3, so he is a prime mover in the increasingly crossover-dependent nature of the Ultimate universe. Furthermore, while editors and other writers were surely involved in plotting out the current course of the Ultimate line, Loeb receives my ire for this quote from the September, 2009 issue of Comics Buyers Guide:

“We all felt, after eight years, the [Ultimate universe], which had once been unpredictable, was tilting toward stories where it wasn’t all that different from the [Marvel universe].”

This reveals either a fundamental misunderstanding of the mission statement of the Ultimate line or a dramatic change thereof. The stated purpose of the Ultimate universe was not to be different from the Marvel universe, but to be simpler. This is a crucial distinction, because, as originally introduced, the Ultimate universe was intended to appeal to people who didn’t necessarily already read other Marvel comics, who would have no idea from the contents of a story alone how closely it matches developments in other Marvel comics. In other words, the only way a reader would be aware of any similarities between the stories of the two lines, and would therefore see this as a problem, is if they were a Marvel Zombie who reads both, supposedly not the target audience of the Ultimate line. Either Marvel’s editors and writers have forgotten the purpose of the imprint, or that they are admitting it has failed, and are giving up the pretense of trying to sell it to anyone other than existing Marvel fans (the fact that the above quote comes from a fairly insider publication implies the latter).

I remember when commentators began rumbling that the Ultimate universe, after a certain number of years, now had too much continuity to work anymore. As a reader of USM alone, I found this ridiculous. Sure, earlier I referred to points like Gwen Stacy’s clone and the return of Venom, which sound daunting if you’ve never read the series. But that’s not a problem if there’s an obvious place to begin. While a new reader would have no idea where to start reading the Marvel universe Spider-Man, USM has, in print, a book labelled “Vol. 1.” Unlike the main imprint’s Spider-Man, there’s only book so labelled, and if a new reader likes it, it’s not hard to figure out that the next place to go is the one labelled “Vol. 2.” Before this one, no volume of USM has ever required an understanding of anything other than what’s happened in previous volumes, and most have done an adequate job of explaining even that. This is the first where I was made aware that not reading other Ultimate books meant I was missing something.

And it will likely only get worse, now that Ultimatum has crossed over into the next several issues of the previously standalone USM, which was recently delayed for the first time, while it waited for Ultimatum and its perennially late writer to catch up. This is a violation of the original Ultimate universe’s mission statement and a betrayal of its readers (inasmuch as these things matter; it’s not a health insurance company canceling your insurance once you get sick or anything—trying to keep perspective here). None of this is meant as a complaint about the contents of Ultimatum—I don’t care about its contents. My complaint is that Marvel is insisting I care, despite the fact that I read no other Ultimate books.

The whole thing reminds me of my recent experience reading JLA Deluxe vol. 2, the second hardcover collection of Grant Morrison’s seminal run on the Justice League. It opens with the “Rock of Ages” storyline, the first chapter of which ends in a cliffhanger related not to anything in the story, but to the unrelated Genesis crossover that ran through all the DC comics at that time. Chapter two waves it away, the whole thing nothing more than a jarring, irritating distraction from the real story. Ten years later, Morrison’s JLA is still being reprinted and reread, while I can barely remember what Genesis was about. Which are we more likely to be rereading ten years from now: Bendis’s original run on Ultimate Spider-Man, or Ultimate Power and Ultimatum? I don’t think I’m stepping out on a limb to say that the latter two will be forgotten long before then, but hopefully they won’t have marked the beginning of the USM’s decline and a slide into irrelevance, as they’re far more intrusive than Genesis, which affected only a single issue of JLA before even DC forgot about it.

If the next Ultimate Spider-Man collection is driven by Ultimatum rather than the series’ own ongoing story lines, there’s little reason for a reader like me to even bother with it, at which point it becomes easy to lose interest in coming back if the upcoming relaunch—with its new #1, foil cover, and other insider-club markers—remains preoccupied with the aftermath of crossovers. Loeb and the Ultimate editors may claim that they are “destroying” the Ultimate universe in order to save it, but they’re actually performing the much more mundane act of simply ruining it. In so doing, they’ve likely lost a reader, one who leaves reluctantly, but has been told only hardcore universe-freaks are wanted.

I guess that wasn’t really much of a review of the book at hand. Anyway, it was okay—would have been better if some crossover hadn’t left a slime trail through the middle of it.



* Sidebar: I’m certainly aware that times are tough, but no other publisher has been as brazen as Marvel in raising prices. I was amused in the latest Previews to find that the upcoming softcover edition of Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventures is $25, the exact same price as the hardcover released only a year before. I’d waited for the softcover, since I wasn’t interested enough to shell out $25—now I guess I won’t be buying it at all unless I find a really great sale somewhere (that’s the only reason I bought the absurdly priced tenth volume of the USM hardcovers: my store had it at half price). Back to article »

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