Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Ultimate Reading Experience

Every decade in comics has it's owns characteristics, whether it be the space age elements of the 60's, the growing realism of the 70's, the grim and gritty 80's, or the stylistic excesses of the 90's, that defines them above else. It may be too soon to tell, but the 00's may be characterized by the character reboots that put characters in a simpler time and setting, of which the greatest and most popular could arguably be said to be Marvel's Ultimate line.

The relevance of the Ultimate line cannot be understated or ignored, for it both reinvigorated a fan base and brought in new readers. Myself? I fell somewhere between those two categories. Hit the jump to read my experience with the Ultimate line.

The Beginning

I had always read comics, my father made sure of that. He bought me trades early on in my life, things that no little boy could resist reading, such as DC vs. Marvel (or is it the other way around?), The Death of Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Lobo (yes, I was exposed to ultra-violence early on) among many others. I was a comic reader, but only of whatever he would buy me. I had no idea of much of the surrounding universe or the extended character stories, although I knew they were out there. I would always be left off a little confused because I couldn't find out the rest of the story behind these characters and I always wanted to know everything (yes, I was that kind of child). A strange side effect to all of this was that I missed out on some of the 90's more maligned stories, such as The Clone Saga and Knightfall that to my knowledge were never properly collected. My reading habits would pretty much stay the same for several years because of this.

The Ultimate Age

Flash forward to somewhere around 2002 (I was 14 or 15 at the time), and I find myself in a KB Toys, of all places. I don't remember what I was doing in there, exactly, probably accompanying my family on one of the many mall trips, when I found a spinner with various magazines. Inside it, I found some comics that were priced at $1 each and on that spinner were books with the X-Men and Spider-Man on the covers, so, being free to buy on my own for once without my father doing the choosing, I decided to buy them. These comics were Ultimate Spider-Man #1, #11, and #13 and Ultimate X-Men #7 and #9. And that's how my relationship with the Ultimate Universe started with just 5 measly dollars and a random encounter in the spinner of a toy store.

Small side note: In case you are wondering, I found out today that the version of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 that I have is actually a reprint exclusive only to KB Toys, which is printed on cheaper paper. I'm not sure if this makes the comic more or less valuable than a regular copy.

Let's talk about these issues for a little bit, as they left quite an impression on my young, teenage mind.

Ultimate X-Men

Ultimate X-Men just blew my mind away! Issue #7 is very Nightcrawler-centric, where he attempts to escape the Weapon X complex, and also features Wolverine investigating an older facility of the same organization.

Issue #9, on the other hand, had Nick Fury doing his best James Bond impression as he infiltrated an enemy complex while the entire X-Men team was captured and being used as living weapons.

I missed the transition from one issue to the other, but one thing was clear: these were not the X-Men I knew from 90's animated series (I don't remember if I had see the X-Men movie at this point or not), nor the ones I knew from my previous reading experience, which, admittedly, didn't include that many X-titles at the time. The way they acted was different, yet these were the characters I knew. The cynic in me now would see this as a blatant attempt to make these characters more movie-ready (specially considering Mark Millar's track record, although he barely had a 'record' to speak of at this point), but, at the time, it did it's job graciously, bringing another reader into the fold.

Ultimate Spider-Man

The same thing happened with Ultimate Spider-Man. I, like everybody else, knew the origin of Spider-Man, but seeing it retold in issue #1 had a profound effect on me. Watching it happen in a modern setting made it all the more real, more dangerous, especially with Norman Osborn's machinations against poor 15-year old Peter Parker.

Issue #11 had Spider-Man go after Kingpin, only to get his behind handed to him by Electro and, while I didn't know how the fight ended for some time (because I was missing issue #12), I knew he made it out alive because he was just fine in issue #13. Still, I wasn't accustomed to seeing Spider-Man lose or being as green as he was in these issues, which made them all the more refreshing and new to me.

In case you are keeping track, issue #13 was the "Confessions" issue where Peter revealed his best friend, Mary Jane, that he was Spider-Man and, in the process, led Aunt May to believe they were actually having sex. Many people argue that this is one of Brian Bendis's finest comic writing moments and I'd be hard pressed to disagree. It's such a wonderfully choreographed scene with great dialogue that feels absolutely real.

When my father saw that I was so interested in these comics, some time later that year, he bought me the first trades of both series and I was beyond hooked. I didn't follow the series in single issues because I had no idea where to buy them (I would only find out years later that there were a couple of comic book shops in my city), so, instead, I read the collections as they came out. I'd read these collections over and over again, to the point of almost memorizing each book.

Ultimate Galactus

About two years later, with my ultimate comic reading in full boom, I found out that the library also had these collections available for free, among several other Ultimate books. It was through these comics that I started to care about who wrote and illustrated the stories, something that I had never cared for before. I started to see what other works Mark Millar, Brian Bendis and Warren Ellis had written, which led me to the Ultimate Galactus trilogy. It was completely foreign to me, something unlike anything I had ever seen or read before: the scale of the threat , the gut wrenching reality of the events and the desperate reactions of the heroes. Despite some people disliking it, claiming it to be one of Ellis's worst efforts, it still holds a special spot in my comic reading heart.

And Beyond!

With my comic addiction at full throttle, I started to look for information online about current stories and characters. I even started to join discussions with my growing knowledge of comic books. In a matter of months, I had devoured all that there was to read from the Ultimate line and made my way to the rest of the Marvel and DC Universes that I had left years ago. Soon enough, I was hunting garage sales and book faires for back issues that looked interesting,and I started to catch up on some of the events that I missed. Eventually, once I had my own money, I started buying single issues again.

For all intent and purposes, the Ultimate line turned me into the heavy comic reading person that I am today. They were my gateway drug into this addiction that now takes up most of my time (and money), and I am sure that I'm not the only one that was equally affected by the Ultimate line. Feel free to share your stories regarding the Ultimate universe, and how they affected your reading habits, and your thoughts and hopes for the future of the line as it transitions to Ultimate Comics.

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Prime Minister Whaley said...

I got into the Ultimate line when Barnes & Noble released the ridiculously huge Ultimate Spider-man anthology. It was about $45, if I recall, and the only reason I was able to get it was because my then-girlfriend's (now ex) parents, who are crapfaced rich, bought it for me. I also read issues here and there as a kid, mostly Spider-man, so it was fun to read a story that I could stick with for more than 2-3 issues. I never read past that anthology, and I no longer own it, but it was what let me know that comics can be part of a larger fantasy world, rather than bits and pieces of stories. It changed my whole outlook on comics in general. While I can't say it got me back into comics (that would be credited to Geoff Johns' Sinestro Corps War many years later) it did give me confidence in the industry enough to try it again down the line.

Matt Ampersand said...

Ridiculously huge Ultimate Spider-Man anthology? Did they release an Omnibus, or are you talking about the hardcovers (around 13 issues each)?

brandon said...

i now feel very old.

i was a subscriber to the original marvel star wars series back in the 70s and superman was already dead and alive by the time i was driving - lol.

the only ultimate comics i even own are hulk vs wolverine. i read a couple issues of spidey but that's it.

i picked up reading singles again with GL rebirth back in '04 so this era is kind of a GL era for me. though, walking dead and other series will probably be re-read by me more than any other the GL stuff.

Matt Ampersand said...

@brandon: Sorry I made you feel old. Don't worry, doesn't sound like you are Soylent Green material. Yet. *sinister laughter*

Anonymous said...

B&N realeased a huge collection of the trades available at that time in an oversized hardcover format. I think it was 30 some issues.

Dawson said...

Wow, this extremely similar to my story. I originally started reading comics when the Onslaught Saga starting coming out, I must have 10 at that time. Unfortunately, I couldn't get all the comics because I didn't know most were only distributed to specialty shops. I never finished the saga.

Many years later, a friend asked me to go with him to a small comic-con. There, I bought the first Civil War single, which I loved. After that I bought the first Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men trades on Barnes & Noble and I was hooked. I now get about 50% of the main Marvel Universe titles each week, and probably everything in the Ultimate Imprint.

Chad Warren said...

The Barnes and Noble Limited Edition collected the 1st three Ultimate Spider-Man HC's. I sold all my single editions (1-50) at the time and bought this big boy and then proceeded to buy the Vol 4 HC and up to and including the Vol 9 HC (Clone Saga). I thought that was a good stopping point for me since that is where I stopped in the 616 universe but I am tempted to buy the Vol 10 because of the villians who die (my attempt at no spoilers).

Matt Ampersand said...

Ohh, I didn't know about the Barnes and Noble collection. Did it have any extras or was it just like the hardcovers?

Klep said...

Once a long time ago I happened to read the first half of Ultimates. Not sure how or where, but I remember reading Cap's assault on that Nazi base and the fight between Hank and Jan and I enjoyed it.

Years later when I signed up for Digital Comics I wanted to read more of that, but couldn't remember what it was. I soon found it and then quickly devoured everything Ultimate. I liked that the Ultimate universe was a bit grittier, harsher, and more realistic than the main Marvel U. Not that I liked the Ultimate universe better, necessarily, but it was different in a way that I really enjoyed. Ultimates and Ultimates 2 ended up being among the first dozen trades I ever purchased.

Unfortunately, Loeb got ahold of things with the end of Ultimate Power, which I enjoyed up until those last 3 issues where he took up the pen. That story was going well up until that point, and in three issues he managed to turn it into a mangled mess. Then he wrote Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum and I mourned the death of a universe that had, to my mind, previously been almost all quality.

My hope for this reboot is that they are able to return to what the line was before Loeb screwed it up, and that they can undo a lot of the damage he did. Also that they fix Spiderman's head so that he doesn't look like a cartoon.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I grew up in the 80's with a brother who loved Wolverine, X-Men, so I grew up on Claremont. Then I ducked out until late 90's and Age of Apocalypse got me back in, Onslaught was cool, but chicks and then uni took over. Two years after being in the work force my brother bought me a present, I hadn't touched a comic in years, but we both still love zombie-lore in any form. He trawled Amazon for all sorts of crap, but finally settled on buying me the first Walking Dead trade as he had heard good things. I read the first issue in it and wasn't hugely impressed, but man did it get better quickly. This was my gateway, that and the fact that Kevin Smith had written my favourite character, Daredevil, and I had somehow missed out on that fact. I very quickly caught up and now have a large bookshelf devoted to many titles and trades.
The fact that comics are just another way for great stories to get out, not necessarily spandex ones, has gotten me hooked big time, I dare anyone to read Y: The Last Man and not see that it is a stellar story!

As for the Ultimate line, I am not certain that I agree with it, and only bought the Hulk V Wolvie ones because Lindelof is a god, and I am not picking up any of the reboot titles on sale now. I have a small pull list due to imprending marriage and the kids that will undoubtedly follow...though I'm not cutting it out entirely, that would be silly.

btownlegend said...

Ultimate comics is for tourists. I was there when they had no need to reboot the characters.

Matt Ampersand said...

If it wants to survive, the industry needs more of the tourists to decide that they like it enough to come back.

Aaron Poehler said...

Mark Millar had actually been writing professionally for over 10 years by the time Ultimate X-Men started.

Kirk Warren said...

@Aaron Poehler - No one was saying Millar was a rookie. Just he wasn't a big name by any means. Bendis had been writing for many years before Ultimate Spider-Man, too. Many writers start out doing indie work for years before making it 'big'. Millar, in particular, had very little on his resume at this point. Authority, while popular at the time, was about the extent of his track record (he did some 2000AD and other projects during this time, but Authority was about it).

Matt said...

I decided to read/spend money on Ultimate Spider-man based on my enjoyment of Powers, and my dissatisfaction with John Byrne's reboot. I was happy with my choice.

Nash said...

I used the Ultimate line as an "in" for Fantastic Four. Growing up, I had random issues of the original universe FF, but I wanted a fresh start. After hearing about the great Ultimate Spider-Man, I knew Ultimate FF was worth a shot. I went on to collect the whole series and Ultimates and some offshoots like Elektra and the Galactus trilogy.

Ultimatium was a literal disaster. I understand the need to revamp for a new audience but charging more for introductory comics and continuing on with the same lineage doesn't make sense.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Ultimate universe and I hope children will find trades of Spider-Man and FF in their libraries. They were great reads.

mrpeepants said...

Ultimate spidey also played a big part in getting me currently into comics.

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