Re-introducing: the Ultimates, the X-Men & Spider-Man

Three new series (and one miniseries) were launched by Marvel Comics this summer, in the wake of the Big Event “Death of Spider-Man”. Before you get too worried, it was Ultimate Spider-Man whose story came to an end – more on what that means in a moment. While providing a rare opportunity for closure to a long-running comics character, this gave Marvel a chance to make something of a splash during a few months when, obviously, big things were happening over at DC.

So why a separate line of “Ultimate” comics? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, there’s a nod to the notion of “accessibility” – the idea that tons of continuity makes it harder for new readers to start with a comic. (Not that continuity doesn’t quickly accrue, of course, which has its appeal as well.) There’s a nod to “raising the stakes” – superheroes can be hurt, they can die, and mutant heaven doesn’t have a revolving door. This “realistic” aesthetic – the initial “Ultimate” comics followed on the heels of the 1999 X-Men movie – also takes cues from the gritty superhero work that we see at Image comics or with creator-owned series, where characters are treated as real people with linear narratives, rather than eternal concepts that show up in numerous stories at once. They can’t all fly, they tend to wear street clothes rather than spandex, and super powers almost always have some kind of scientific explanation.

And sometimes things can get a little unpleasant. Not every character is a nice person – Captain America’s got 1940’s baggage that follows him through the ice, Nick Fury is a merciless old-school spook, and Wolverine is a hired killer.

Before I get to the three new titles – Ultimate Comics: the Ultimates, Ultimate Comics: the X-Men and Ultimate Comics: Spider Man, all being launched with same-day digital through Marvel’s iPad app – I need to mention the stage that was set.  Jeph Loeb, a compelling but problematic writer, wiped the Ultimate slate clean in the 2009 “Ultimatum” crossover, killing off some of the best-known characters in comics, often in gruesome ways, and it got pretty distasteful. So the Ultimate Universe Reborn represents something of a break from that reboot – and it’s only a year later.

So what do we have on our hands?

Three very good starting points, frankly. A very aggressive attempt to make the Ultimate line a legitimate alternative to following the burnished, unchanging main-line Marvel stories.  “Ultimates”, in Ultimate-speak, is the equivalent to the Avengers, the all-star super-team operating under the auspices of S.H.I.E.L.D., incorporating Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and sometimes the Hulk, and fighting aliens, supervillains, and basically anything that’s out to destroy the world.

Jonathan Hickman writes this title, and Esad Ribic draws it; Ribic’s artistic style is compelling, realistic and high-impact, never allowing the suspension of disbelief to break no matter now far out there Hickman goes.  Jonathan Hickman, who is also writing Marvel’s “FF” comic (formerly the Fantastic Four), is also well known for his independent series “The Nightly News”, “Red Mass for Mars” and “Pax Romana”, and is no stranger to weird, dangerous stories which, while still comfortably readable, go places far outside ordinary comic territory, but maintain the characters’ integrity. As “Ultimates” begins, the big-time superheroes are scattered, dissipated and recumbent, while Nick Fury watches global-level threats burst onto the monitors of the high-tech Helicarrier.  Hickman maintains an intense sense of urgency without devolving into frenetics. An outstanding book to read, even for someone that’s never opened a Marvel comic before. (There is also some tie-in with Hickman’s “Ultimate Hawkeye” mini-series, which, for all intents and purposes, constitutes a side-story within this series.)

The X-Men relaunch, on the other hand, strays further from its source material. The “Ultimatum” event saw Professor X, Wolverine, Cyclops and even Magneto killed in a war that left mutants even less-trusted than the usual Marvel scenario. Mistrust and paranoia are everywhere, and Sentinels are everpresent. A few surviving familiar faces – Kitty Pryde, Jean Grey (still alive, for once!), Iceman and Rogue form the nucleus of a new mutant response to this situation. We’ve moved past the question of coexistence vs. conflict; in Ultimate Comics: X-Men, it’s about the desperation of a marginalized group to survive.

X-Men is written by Nick Spencer, who’s also doing amazing work with his Morning Glories series published by Image – something like The Breakfast Club set in an Orwellian Prisoner-meets-Lost nightmare private school – and he establishes character, setting and scenario with remarkable efficiency. Paco Medina’s art is dynamic and invigorating. And the themes jump right off the page.

Of course, the most controversial and in some ways simplest to understand pillar of the Reborn tripod is Ultimate Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli have stirred up considerable discussion, after the “Death of Spider Man”, by introducing a new face under the Spider-mask: Miles Morales, who just plain isn’t white. Before something like this stops being a big deal, it has to be a big deal, and it is. Comic book characters of African or Latin descent tend to be defined by that identity – like Storm, Black Panther or Luke Cage – or marginalized, like Falcon. Female characters face similar predicaments, and that whole debate is burning in the DC “new 52” section, but the fact remains that creating the Miles Morales character amounts to fighting a battle, and I’m glad Bendis and Pichelli took it on.

But Bendis has recently been flexing his character- and story-muscles with the independent series “Brilliant”, getting a chance to take him away from Brubaker/Bay action movie machismo and into down-to-earth, teenager patter. As a consequence, Ultimate Spider-man feels as fresh and authentic a young superhero as Invincible or Static Shock: you can believe that this is a kid, a geeky kid who loves comics, that’s getting a chance to discover his newfound powers a little bit at a time.

And in a way, that’s what the Ultimates line is about. It’s a chance to rediscover familiar character ideas as if they were brand new again. In some cases, it’s exciting when the old, familiar moments show up again. But it’s equally exciting when a new surprise arises, and we see an old idea in a whole new way.

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