Saturday, February 7, 2009

Interlude: Loeb On The Ultimate Line

We interrupt the special programming of "The Eternal Debate" to bring you this news report. Sadly, it has to do with much maligned Jeph Loeb. Rokk , when I started this blog, gave me some friendly and good advice: "Be careful not to become an Internet echo chamber". He is right, it is very easy to be just another snarky jester in the ocean of snarky jesters that is the Internet, but I just read an interview with Jeph Loeb from the New York ComicCon and I face-palmed from the stupidity of this man. Allow me to elaborate, and for that we have to travel all the way back to early 2001...

In 2001, Marvel decided to create a new line of comics: The Ultimate Universe. The whole point of the Ultimate Universe was to re-imagine classic Marvel characters such as Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers without any of the continuity baggage that they have been lugging around for the past 40 years. The experiment, at least in the early years, was considered a wild success, it became a popular, commercial, and critical success. The two biggest masterminds behind the new Ultimate Universe were Mark Millar, writing Ultimate X-Men, and Brian Michael Bendis, writing Ultimate Spider-Man. Following the down-to-basics success of these two titles, Marvel expanded the line and created The Ultimates: a re-imagining of Marvel's beloved Avengers. The Ultimates received two mini-series written by Mark Millar where characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, Wasp and Hulk operated as government agents (working for SHIELD) and every one of them had very distinct personalities (especially when compared to their mainstream counterparts). The series was very politically-minded without coming across as downright preachy, entertaining without coming across as just eye-candy, and interesting but very new-reader friendly. I personally loved both mini-series and would recommend them to almost everyone (the only exception being old-school Avengers fans who might not like the new interpretations and their personalities). But then, tragedy struck...

Alright, so maybe I am exaggerating a bit, but Jeph Loeb was giving the helms of a new mini-series concerning the Ultimates. The new series was very, very, very bad. The characters just became cardboard cutouts of their former selves, moving through the motions without any of their previous personalities. Questionable writing is nothing new and something that all comics readers are in someway used to in one way or the other. Jeph Loeb almost completely ignored everything that happened during Millar's run, turning the Ultimates more and more into their original versions in the 616 Marvel Universe:
  • Ultimate Thor started speaking in "ye olde" speak and carrying a stone hammer instead of the usual battle metal axe/hammer combination he had before.
  • Ultimate Wolverine and Ultimate Spider-Man make an appearance. At the time, Wolverine and Spider-Man were also part of the New Avengers.
  • Ultimate Pyro went from being a hero to being a villain.
  • Ultimate Scarlet Witch lost control of her powers, just like in House of M. Her outfit also resembled her mainstream version.
  • Ultimate Wasp stopped being Asian (without explanation) and became the de facto leader.
  • Hank Pym went from using the codename Giant Man to using Yellowjacket instead.
That is just off the top of my head, I am sure there were more disregards for the stories that came before. Of course, this isn't always inherently a bad thing: Alan Moore on his first (or was it second?) issue in his legendary run of Swamp Thing completely changed the character to great results. The problem raises from the fact that Jeph Loeb is no Alan Moore. The writing in Ultimates 3 was as subtle as a bull in a china shop, full of cheap "shocking" moments, and with atrocious dialogue. For some mysterious reason Ultimates 3 sold well (I'm blaming Joe Madueira, the artist), but the series was almost universally panned by critics. Marvel additionally gave Loeb another mini-series called Ultimatum, a continuation of the events in Ultimates, in which many of the original characters are dying left and right and the writing continues to be equally underwhelming. During an interview with CBR, Loeb had this to say:

"The problem became that – specifically pointing to what Bendis was doing on the Avengers – he took some of what Mark [Millar] had done and made them much more dark and unpredictable than they'd ever been before, and that book took off...justifiably. But pretty soon, the line between what went on in the Marvel Universe and what went on in the Ultimate Universe became very blurred, and you didn't have that same unique quality that the Ultimate Universe had when it was first born. So that needed to be addressed. That was what we first set out to do, and I had an idea as to how to do that...called "Ultimatum." "

A fair idea. If the two universes are too similar, they become somewhat redundant and something needs to be changed. The problem rises from something else he said:

"Well, "Ultimates 3" took it out of the political arena and made it closer to what the Avengers originally were. It took place in Tony Stark's world. It was run by Tony Stark, and it was put in a place where the conflicts were internal. The Scarlet Witch was murdered, and everyone reacted to that. The villains they were up against were superhero villains. They were not characters that were recreations or rethinkings of characters that had been in the Marvel Universe."

In case you are not following, Loeb did not like that the Ultimate Universe and the 616 Universe were too similar, so his solution was to make Ultimates 3 as close possibly to the 616 Universe as he could. Flawless logic! To make matters worse, instead of making the Ultimate characters grow to be different, his solution is to kill as many characters as possible and have the survivors deal with that. This is not an incredibly original idea and when you couple it with the fact that his writing is horrendous, I fear for the future of the Ultimate line. If anything, at least I know that I am not the only one that feels this way. In an unrelated interview , Mark Millar was talking about the possibility of other writers exploring the world he created (much like he co-created the Ultimate Universe) in the pages of Old Man Logan:

"One thing I have noticed sometimes is that whenever something is successful – and this is at DC and at Marvel – then there's always a cheap, shoddy follow up by the wrong creative team usually. And then there's an even worse creative team to come and follow them. And then the thing just dies on its arse."

Well, there you have it, my personal rant is over. We now return you to your scheduled program.


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  2. I agree with you totally. I'm a DC fan but I was practically in love with Millar's 'Ultimates'. Sadly, good things don't last forever. I hope it is true that Millar will return to the Ultimate Universe after 'Ultimatum'.

    Anyway, I love the blog. Very analytical. Keep up the good work!!

  3. Kozmik, Millar did mention that he is going back to the Ultimate Universe (I think for Ultimate Avengers, but don't quote me on that)

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words.

  4. I recall hearing Millar will return to the ultimates as well.

    Well done, Ive seen people go from loving ultimates to wondering what is going on, the same goes for his hulk series, and that wolverine arc with sabertooth.

  5. amd098 (and Kozmic), here's the link to another interview that Millar did.

    The book is going to be called Ultimate Avengers. Color me excited.

  6. dude, i really really like your blog. And I kind like this wall of text post that you do. How about wring a post about Blackest night & speculating what might come down there.

  7. @ zoora: Thanks. I might do a post about Blackest Night eventually.