Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ultimate Marvel: Redundant?

When the Ultimate Marvel Universe was launched in 2000, the regular Marvel Universe was a highly problematic place. Quality of the product and sales were both down. Company President Bill Jemas and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada The idea of the new line was to enable a whole new wave of creators to tell stories completely free of the decades of continuity and editorial missteps that now hobbled the mainline universe and the creators working on it.

Well, eight years have passed and now the mini-universe which has grown in both books and characters, is now saddled with continuity of its own, which, in my opinion, has not been very well-managed. From a core universe of three books, Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate X-Men, the line has expanded into four regular books including Ultimate Fantastic Four and a whole slew of miniseries. Of the two creators who launched the books, only Brian Michael Bendis remains, with the likes of Mark Millar, Adam Kubert, Mark Bagley, and Bryan Hitch having moved on to other things.

While he remains the writer on Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis himself, along with Millar, is now one of the pillars on which the mainstream Marvel Universe now stands. (Incidentally, Bendis can claim the sole distinction of having the only comic book published in the 2000s to have gone for over 40 issues with sales in excess of 100,000 units, namely New Avengers.) Morever, because Bendis and Millar have moved over to the mainstream Marvel U, they've bought their "edgy, hip and relevant" sensibilities with them, and as a result the Marvel Universe has taken on a lot of the characteristics that used to be unique to the Ultimate universe with events like Civil War and now Secret Invasion. Sales are good, and even fan reaction to the latest miniseries, so it's clear that the Marvel Universe is a much healthier place than it was when Jemas and Quesada created Ultimate Marvel.

Going back to Ultimate Marvel, it appears, from a creative standpoint, to have taken a nosedive. The line's flagship title, The Ultimates, has, in the hands of new series writer Jeph Loeb, gone from wall-to-wall action interspersed with scathing political commentary to a pastiche of its former self with absolutely infantile dialogue (think of the worst of the 1960s dialogue mixed with the worst of the Rob Liefeld-era Image Comics dialogue, and that's now how the characters talk), gratuitous and meaningless guest appearances by such grossly overexposed characters as Spider-Man, Venom and, of course, Wolverine, and next to no respect for anything that has previously been established. Worst of all, it appears that Quesada is now putting the fate of the line in Loeb's hands, as indicated by some recent solicitations that shows that Loeb is writing several of the line's annuals in addition to the planned miniseries Ultimatum, which is meant to revitalize the line. Sales of Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, once right up there with the big boys, are barely blips on the radar, and Ultimate Spider-Man, even though it still has founding creator Bendis on board, isn't much better off.

It seems to me like the Ultimate Marvel U has served its purpose of generating interest in Marvel characters again in time for the release of their movies, as was the case with Spider-Man and the X-Men. The unofficially dubbed "616" or mainline Marvel universe is now as healthy as a horse, while Ultimate U has gone from looking like the "New Year Infant" to the "Outgoing Year Old Man" in its nine-year run. The Ultimates is the only title that seems to have any real durability at the top end of the sales charts, and it really seems to have very little left that make it any more "edgy" and "relevant" to readers than the mainline Marvel Universe. I'm sure the question on the minds of Marvel fans is what exactly the company's long-term plan for the line is.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hollywood vs. Comics: Let's Get it On!

Forget any perceived/contrived battle between Iron Man and The Dark Knight. This summer a much more momentous battle is taking place which could determine the future of comic book movies in general: the battle between the studio making a superhero movie without a comic-book origin, and the comic-book company making a Hollywood blockbuster without a Hollywood studio.

In one corner, we have Marvel studios which has come out with two self-produced movies this year, the first being the wildly successful Iron Man and the second being the somewhat more low-key Incredible Hulk. In the other corner, we have Hollywood, which has had varying degrees of success with its comic-book free superhero movies, the best of which would have to be The Incredibles while the worst of which would have to be the abysmal My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The latest addition to this line of comics-free superhero movies is Sony Pictures' Hancock, starring Hollywood's closest thing to a sure thing, Will Smith.

Iron Man and Incredible Hulk carry impressive budgets, casts and overall production value. The Incredibles won two Oscars, while Hancock stars the most successful movie star in Hollywood today, and boasts the visual effects talents of multiple-Oscar winner John Dykstra (Spider-Man).

Iron Man opened to critical accolades and box-office success. The Incredible Hulk was less warmly received, but was still considered by many to be a step-up from its studio-generated predecessor, 2003's The Hulk.

Hancock, while a genuine box-office success, was met with derision from reviewers and some fans.

So the question arises, between Hollywood studios and comic-book companies (i.e. Marvel only, so far), which player is winning the battle to make a successful, durable movie franchise without the help of the other?

My money's on Marvel.

Hancock may have benefited from some pretty snappy special effects and Will Smith's megawatt charisma, but apart from a brilliant premise it's little more than empty spectacle. It may have made money, but I believe it will go down in history as just another feather in Will Smith's cap, another movie that his starpower sold, rather than something that can stand on its own merit.

Iron Man, however, is something else altogether. It has, in a word, outclassed every single superhero movie that has come before it, in terms of story, character development, AND overall production value, the film is just about beyond reproach. It strikes the perfect balance between fun and gravitas that has eluded even the more ambitious comic book adaptations. Furthermore, it and Hulk have laid the groundwork for SO much more to come. Not only that, it effectively resurrected the career of a man once thought to be one of Hollywood's greatest wasted talents: Robert Downey Jr.

So Marvel, in my opinion, has gotten the message across to Hollywood in general and Sony Pictures in particular that the studios still need them a lot more than they need the studios.

THAT'S a wake-up call that creativity-challenged Hollywood would do well to heed. If they want to come up with really GOOD superhero movies, they should learn that you don't just build a rich superhero mythology at some stupid studio pitch meetings.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wish Fulfillment

My return to comics after several months of doing other things isn't exactly a permanent one but it was motivated by something I never thought I'd have the pleasure of seeing: Chris Bachalo's art in a Spider-Man comic-book.

Now, in the second half of my two decades of collecting comic books, there's always been something that's bothered me. It has struck me that every single A-list artist of the last twenty years or so has, at one point or another, worked on a book starring Wolverine, while the same cannot be said for Spider-Man, who is arguably Marvel's flagship character. The legendary Jim Lee, my favorite example, had never drawn more than a cover or cameo appearance by Spider-Man before he took seemingly permanent residence over at DC, where he has drawn, by contrast, a rather healthy selection of their characters on several occasions. Name any high-profile Marvel artist who's done Spider-Man, and the odds are high that he's drawn Wolverine too. Romitas Sr. and Jr., David Finch, Steve McNiven, Humberto Ramos, and Joe Quesada, to name a very, very few, all drew Wolverine, with Quesada doing enough Wolverine covers to fill a freaking poster book.

Chris Bachalo was once among the Wolverine/X-Men artists who'd never drawn Spider-Man in a mainstream comic book, and that happily changed when he was drafted to join the Brand New Day crew. He didn't quite give me goose pimples of joy like Steve McNiven did last January with his run, but I have wanted to see this guy's take on Spider-Man for a long, long time and he does not disappoint.

The three-part story, written by Zeb Wells, which pits Spider-Man against a Mayan god of mischief and the scientist who unleashes it, and a blizzard, is nothing particularly new or earth shattering, which is just fine with me. After seeing Spider-Man's world turned upside-down and inside out, I could use a little settling into a new status quo. It ties up nicely after the three issues are done without shameless nods to future stories down the line (though they're there if you want them) or hints that "everything will be changed forever." In short, I can go back to not collecting with more or less complete closure.

What I enjoyed, apart from Bachalo's art, which was the main attraction, was how FUNNY Spider-Man was again. Dan Slott did it well, and now Wells, who's actually no stranger to Spider-Man has done a good job, too. It really makes me wonder why J. Michael Straczynski never seemed to know how to make Spider-Man crack wise.

I'd only just been exchanging e-mail with someone asking me if and when I'd get back into comics and even suggested I check out a new Wolverine (ugh) arc drawn by McNiven, which from the outside looking in feels like yet another "The End" story which is silly considering Paul Jenkins practically just did one. Well, I found a reason to pick up some comics again, and I dare say I enjoyed them, though not quite enough for me to decide I'm back for good.