Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Marvel's "Ultimate Comics" relaunch did the things that DC should have

The only way you haven't heard about the DC Comics relaunch is if you've been living in the wilderness or you don't care about superhero comics. Either way, all you need to know is that DC restarted all 52 of their comic lines with the new #1 issues and varying changes to the characters and universe ( did a full look at the line, which can be found here). Similarly, you probably heard about the new Spider-man, who (stop the presses!) wasn't white. This new Spider-man appears in Marvel's Ultimate Universe as part of another reboot, where previous stories can be ignored and all the issues start over at #1.

Marvel launched the Ultimate universe in 2000 as an alternate continuity where they could retell familiar characters and storylines with a new spin. This reached its zenith with Mark Millar's take on the Avengers in The Ultimates 1 and 2 before crashing down with the Ultimatum storyline that killed half the characters. The line continued as Ultimate Comics for a few years, but sales were down and only Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis continued to do well, though Mark Millar's return the universe with Ultimate Comics Avengers is worth the read in my book. So Marvel decided to reboot the entire line again, but this time they didn't kill twenty famous characters, they just killed one. It was a gutsy move, killing the character that kept the line running for ten years, but apart from generating some free publicity, it highlighted the true strength of the Ultimate universe: Characters can die, and they'll stay dead.

The relauch consists of just four titles: Ultimate Comics Ultimates, Ultimate Comics Spider-man, Ultimate Comics X-Men, and Ultimate Comics Hawkeye. Of these, Hawkeye was a limited series, which just wrapped, so it's just three monthly titles. Why do I prefer this to DC's 52 new titles? First, it's far easier to read four issues a month than to read 52. Of course, DC probably doesn't expect you to read every title, but that's part of the problem. Because the titles don't work together, as a reader I have no reason to pick up other issues.

My Ultimate Comics story goes something like this: I'd never purchased comics on a issue-by-issue basis, preferring to pick them up in trade or omnibus form. However, I heard about the Hawkeye series, and since he's my favorite Ultimate character, and I knew I'd only be committing to four issues, I decided I'd give it a try.
From that first issue, I immediately realized the story related as much with X-Men as it did with the Ultimates, and I couldn't resist picking up the #1 issues of those series. From there, it was a no brainer to grab Spider-man as well, after hearing excellent reviews and figuring it too would also work with the other lines (as it did with Ultimates member Spider-Woman appearing in issue #4). The new Spider-man is actually turning out to be the strongest piece of storytelling in the relaunch, and if you're worried about the handling of a new Spider-man taking over immediately from Peter Parker, don't be. The transition is handled particularly well. A new Spider-man isn't the only change in the lineups. There's also a new Wolverine, and a new lineups for the X-Men and Ultimates.

This brings me to the real distinctive thing about the Ultimate relaunch and universe in general: It is different from the stories you've seen before. When the line first started with Ultimate Spider-man, it was simply a retelling of familiar stories. We saw a drawn out version of Spider-man's origin, and new takes on his villains, like Venom and the Green Goblin. However, in the last few years, the storytelling has diverged from retellings with Ultimatum, which left many characters dead, and then the most recent Death of Spider-man books, and the dramatic turn of a well-known character in Ultimate Comics Doomsday. Though the relaunch has demonstrated the license to play loose with the previous continuity, these major events are still recognized, and we have an X-Men line where Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde and Quicksilver are the leaders of various mutant factions, while Captain America has quit the Ultimates. In short, when you read one of the new Ultimate Comics titles, you're reading a whole new story.

With the lines working together, you have every reason to pick up all three every month, and that's where DC went wrong. The titles I've read give me absolutely no reason to pick up others. Plus, it feels like I'm still in the middle of a story, with no real way to know what is supposed to have happened or not happen.

Finally, there's the recent announcement that line is going to start shipping with digital comic codes in February. Here's the cover for Ultimates #7, showing the return of Falcon, so that's exciting. Unlike DC, the digital comics come at no extra charge, which seems fair since the digital copies cost the company nothing to give away. It seems like a great way to draw attention to the line, as well as attracting users to the digital store and local retailers. As far as I can tell, this is a win/win situation, and that's why the Ultimate relaunch works. It manages to make all the piece work together, and be better for the cooperation.

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