Re-Inventing Marvel’s Ultimate Line

Since its inception in 2000, Marvel's boasted that the Ultimate Universe was the classic stories of the Marvel U set in modern times. It was an incubator for the ideas & creators that filtered out into the Marvel U as a whole — in effect becoming the new Marvel brand of Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas. But now eleven years hence with those ideas out in the open, the comics line that the Ultimate brand has grown into is something that's not quite a shadow of its former self, but not something different.

Maybe it's time to tool with the Ultimate line.

Marvel's Ultimate line was launched as a custom-build on-ramp for new readers to enjoy the company's most visible characters through innovative, modern storytelling unencumbered by the publisher's 50+ year publishing history. The line began with Ultimate Spider-Man, which has remained the line's flagship for the past eleven years. Soon after that titles debut, Marvel followed it up with Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and the the blockbuster hit The Ultimates. Although anecdotal evidence points to some new readers signing up to the Ultimate line, by-and-large the majority of its readership tends to be long-time fans embracing the concept.

As it stands today, the Ultimate line is a shadow of its former self. Although Ultimate Spider-Man remains the bell-wether for the line, and is one of two remaining ongoing series with the recently . The Ultimatized itterations of the Avengers — Ultimate Avengers and The New Ultimates — have transitioned from ongoings to miniseries, and the mutant contigent seems to be on the shelf with the series Ultimate Comics X's last issue coming out in August 2010. Marvel is currently working up for a line-wide event dubbed "Death of Spider-Man" helmed by two of the founders of the line, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, but as a whole it seems the line is fighting to regain the footing it had in the height of the early 2000s.

So what would you do? Here's some ideas:

#1 Stop competing with the Marvel U: At its launch, the Ultimate U developed as if Quesada, Bendis, Millar & Jemas were rebooting the Marvel U. But with the success of that, that creative vision — and those creators — moved to become staples of Marvel's primary line, voiding any sense of uniqueness. The line pioneered the modern type of super-hero storytelling — but now that the entire super-hero genre in comics has adapted that, maybe they should think up the next innovation? This leads to my next point…

#2 Find Tomorrow's Creators: Why not reach out to new creators like Marvel did in 1999 when it turned to new creators who weren't Marvel stalwarts? What if the Ultimate line was for the young bucks — or "Young Guns" of comics — finding creators just coming into their own like Bendis & Millar were in 1999, and capture that zest and that excitement. Maybe someone besdies Marvel's Architects of their main line. You can see efforts of that with the artists chosen in the relaunched Ultimate Comics Spider-Man David LaFuente and Sara Pichelli. Maybe more of that is in order.

#3 Innovate in Story and Creators but also Release: At its launch, the Ultimate lines very aggressively pursued the burdgeoning bookstore market. But today, it's largely treated in the same fashion as other titles. But what if Marvel did its digital experimenting with the Ultimate line? What if the entire line became was releases simultaneously in-print and online, with a supplimental back-up story crisscrossing the line exclusive for the print editions.

#4 Design For A Future: When the Ultimate line started, its cover design differentiated itself from the pack with those omni-present vertical bars. Inside showed additional design tweaks to Marvel's then-current stamp. But now those innovations have become the norm, so maybe a new design aesthetic is needed. Think of the way Rian Hughes' design work informed British comics in the 1990s. Marvel's got an talented in-house designer in Jeff Suter — maybe given him the run of the show, or perhaps pick the brain of Jonathan Hickman … or go outside with someone like James White to bring a definite — and defiant — new look and feel to the U ltimate line.

#5 Series of Series: At its best, the mortality rate of an ongoing series is high. Essentially, it's an ongoing series until publishers say its not. The promise of an 'ongoing series' is an informal agreement between the publisher, retailer and readers that it's un-ending, that you'll never run out of good ideas. While I'm not saying Marvel will ever run out of ideas — or creators who have them, perhaps adopting the Hellboy model of a series of miniseries, would give definite arcs as well as re-curring #1s to promote as jumping-on points.

What do you think — what could Marvel do to recapture the zeal of the founding days of the Ultimate universe?


  1. As long as the ultimate line is here in some form or fashion i’ll be happy but you’re right they do need to branch out to new creators. putting jason aaron on cap and the artitsts you mention is a move in the right direction

    oh and i would kill for day and date digital ultimate comics

  2. They’re already doing #5 with everything other than Ultimate Spider-Man, I think we’re only going to see more of it going forward.

  3. I actually agree with pretty much ALL of those arcs. I also like the idea of the set length mini series, a la Hellboy, you mention. I’ve been saying that Marvel aught to be adopting that approach more for the past couple of years. It certainly can work.

  4. I agree that the ultimate’s need for a redesign. The current aesthetic with the white bar and type masthead is an ok idea….a nice attempt at unifying the line, but its not that aesthetically pleasing and way to0 easy of a solution. It has all the appeal of storebrand generic at the supermarket. It might as well say “comics” on it. 

    They do need to go outside of comics to find a great designer to rebrand. They are in in NYC for goodness sakes…its not hard to find someone! The big mistake with comics design is that they always look to their own, which is bad because you’re recycling the same ideas and aesthetics. Good letterers or cover artists does not make a good graphic designer. Hickman is good, but he’s good at designing his own book…designing a masthead for a series of publications is a completely different story. Its a system vs a one-off. 

    Marvel would be wise to look to a designer with publication redesign experience. someone on the periphery who can bring fresh eyes like DC did with Chip Kidd or the other designers they use on their absolutes.

    I think Marvel should look at how they handle the Icon line and approach Ultimate as its own brand that stands out on the cover art direction and a solid masthead/logo that really looks like its on a different level that everything else on the stands.  

  5. The last issue of Ulitmate X was going to come out last August, but it never came. I haven’t see or hear anything new. I hope we don’t have another Ulitmate Hulk vs Wolverine here.

  6. I thought the ultimates 1 & 2 were awesome, in fact they were great and it felt realistic, which is what I was looking for at the time. Right now it all feels like the mainstream Marvel U so I stopped reading it completly, i don’t want super heroes, i want persons

  7. Fantastic article, really well written and articulated. I hate the ultimate line and haven’t bought anything under the banner. Never have, never will. I love the decades of continuity and I hate the Ultimatised versions of characters, with maybe the exception of the Ultimates Thor (costume looks less ridiculous).

  8. Is/was the Ultimates an all-ages line (yes, I used that dreaded word)?

  9. It seems like they are doing all these things with their Astonishing line. The problem is continuity. When you have line of books that have been going on for 11 yrs like the Ultimate line, there’s a continuity that develops. from what I can tell the Astonishing tittles have taken that away. As much as I love Ultimate Spider-Man, that is their ONE good and ongoing tittle. They wanted to clean house with Ultimatum, though that just seemed to make things worse. It may be time be time to put it to bed for now.

  10. @NaveenM – Oh, God, no. Never. Perhaps that Ultimate Adventures with the Nite Owl knock-off, but no, never. Especially if you are referring to ‘The Ultimates’ from Millar, if that was all-ages, no wonder Kick-Ass and Wanted went to those dark places…

    I have stuck with Ult. Spidey since the inception, from Bagley to Immonen to LaFuente to Miyazawa to Pichelli…  It is the only comic I have stayed up to date on for every single issue my entire life. As long as the story remains constant and strong, I will not waver. I plan on telling that to Bendis personally at C2E2.

  11. Ultimates 3 killed the whole thing, I think the’yre trying to hard and relying on shock value recenlty (killing of and/or making a villian out of every charachter).

    Continuity is too obtuse, we got the Ultimate Doom mini-event, the Death of Spiderman event, the ultimates and ultimates avengers lines have been struggling hard to make sense, and don’t get me started on ultimate x, and all of these contradict each other on one point or another, or at least are not synched enough.

    Ultimate Spiderman may very well be the only good thing remaining. And they’re killing him.

    ps. also, Ultimates3 took everything that I liked out of Thor. And that’s when they lost me.

  12. @RPG – Thanks. That’s what I figured, with Bendis and Millar writing them. But I wonder what the point is in having a line designed for new readers, if it’s not geared for kids. Seems like a fairly redundant line, in that case.

  13. It’s become something too valuable to take risks on.

  14. @Pichelli – I point you towards the Marvel Adventures line, good sir. Nice, safe storytelling, digest-sized collections. That’s where you go for the all-ages stuff.

  15. @NaveenM  Aiming for new readers doesn’t always mean aiming for kids. New readers can be anyone who doesn’t read comics on a regular basis or at all. From the start it seemed the Ultimate line was aimed at high schoolers and college aged young adults and it worked i think. A lot of my friends got back into comics through ultimate spider-man or ultimate x-men during their senior years in high school or the first few years of college.

  16. i think something the ultimate line of comics can and should do is create new characters or dream to go places that 616 marvel can’t. I mean after ultimatium spider-man took this in stride by offing the king pin and starting the current mysterio arc, along the way spidey wasn’t dating mj, jjj became his #1 supporter, and captain america wanted to jail him.

    In Ulitmate Enemy/Ultimate Doom The Thing lost his rocks and professed his love to sue storm, and Reed Richards appears to have become a interdimensional villian obsessed with proving he is better than doom

    While I haven’t kept up on other titles as much New Ultimates see’s nick fury in the throws of what one can only assume is a bid to become his own super power in this “super hero arms race” as such he has a bunch of questionable people backing him up.

    The Ultimate avengers is really where things start to wain in my opinion as such I really dont’ read it often. But while they have an edge to them sure they still seem like a stereotypical superhero team, They don’t seem to deal with the grand problems they use to. And every issue that goes by sees them act more like the original avengers. I remember when ultimates started how thor was an enviromental activist(*cough* terrorist *cough*), his hammer was huge and had an axe like back, Hulk ran around talking about being horny, PYM was creepy as all hell, etc..

    I haven’t read any ultimate x after the 2nd issue, it just felt too much like an “OH SHIT WE KILLED WOLVERINE AND HALF THE COOL MUNTANTS”  book and they were eager to fix this. I really hoped for better than whoops after ultimatium and hopefully we can still get there. I should probably wrap this up now, I’m sure I will think of something to add later.

  17. I suggested to stop “killing characters

  18. @RoiVampire  – Well it’s good to know that strategy had some positive effect. And I do agree, it doesn’t need to be about kids only for new readers.

  19. Why don’t they let Jeph Loeb do a big event that showcases all the characters. It can have major consequences and it’ll show that Ultimate Marvel is different than the main one. There’s your solution!

  20. the interconnected miniseries thing is a great idea.

  21. Other than buying Ultimate Spider-Man solely because it was a number one issue, I never really bought issues from the Ultimate line. I  read Millar’s The Ultimates and really dug it. I am friends with a comics shop owner who didn’t mind me sitting and reading the issues there in the store.

    Reading those issues I little by little realized a couple of things:
    1) They were first for readers to jump in and not worry about continuity, now  it has its own continuity like everything else so that advantage is gone.
    2) The Ultimates had that mature, cinematic feel to it.  That cinematic look  worked only through Hitch and Millar to me is just in there writing “shock factor” stuff now.
    3) Ultimatum was meant to wipe  things clean. Today supporting characters that usually would never get their own series are dead, but the big commercial guys like Spider-Man, Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and The FF are still around. Only big name who stayed dead was Wolverine, but I’m possitive Loeb was gonna bring him back if he actually continued the Ultimate X series.(Besides, wasn’t Ultimate Cable actually Wolverine from the future, meaning he had to have lived)
    4) The tone of the Ultimate line was nice and normal until The Ultimates came and shook things up with it’s real-world feel. Today that unique feel is now part of the normal 616 Marvel U.

    To me after Ultimatum, the should have just started over again. Fresh ideas from fresh writers starting from the beginning all over again. The Ultimate 1610-verse  should have closed and nobody should be allowed to come back to it. And what ever would have came after shouldn’t even be called “Ultimate” but something else…so there.

  22. Haven’t bothered with any ‘ultimate’ stuff since the debacle of 3, picked up Ultimate Cap though, purely because it’s Jason Aaon – good so far.

  23. i think everyone should forget about the ultimate universe. Forever.

  24. Why not translate it into a range of graphic novels. Give a core group of people control. the lack of monthly issues would allow tighter storylines to be told whilst concentrating on a key plot line but also allow the comics to drift off once in a while to do ‘Ultimate Alpha Flight’ then return to a new york based spidey/Avengers title. Not to dissimilar to how sci-fi series like Doctor Who and Battlestar tell a continuing storyline but moving off every now and then.

  25. My thoughts on the ultimate line are simple perhaps a story idea that revolves around someone re-powering the ultimate universe, fresh innovative creators like Hickman, Van Lente, Stegman & Pichelli whislt retaining say Ultimate Spider-Man as the back bone title and perhaps a small number of core books with a spotlight done in one style book that looks at singular characters or teams existing in the rebooted UMU

  26. As a comics reader who came back to comics BECAUSE of Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-man vol 1 trade I can attest that it shouldn’t be changed. He did a lot of really creative things, somethings that worked, others not so much.

    If ANYTHING should be changed is everything Loeb has done TO the Universe.

    Retcon the shit out of Ultimatum, Ultimate X, The Ultimates (from vol. 3+), and the other peripherals (except for Ultimate Adventure) and the universe will once again be FAIRILY manageable.

  27. @Mangaman  Couldn’t agrre with you more. Came into comics on the back of Ult SM, Ultimates and Ult X vol. 1 ( as well as Ultimate Allience 1, yes – it can happen, I was 18 and had never read a US comic in my life), thought they all fit together really well. Some people did not like Ultimates under Millar, but as you say, the moment they let Loeb near it he ruined it.