In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
While DC Comics has pushed the universal reboot button a number of times, with the Flashpoint/New 52 push being the biggest one, Marvel has generally stuck to smaller-scale character level reboots. They are very attached to their long-form shared universe continuity, pruning it here or there to fit the ever-changing sliding timescale. Some events are changed to fit the changing eras, but overall the majority of what has happened to characters remains in continuity in some way.
In the early 2000s though, the company found a way to have and eat their proverbial cake.
Thus came the birth of Ultimate Marvel, a rebooted side universe with a roller coaster of a life.
The ’90s were a rough time for Marvel as the bubble began to burst in various areas, the company declared bankruptcy, saw many of its creators leaving the company behind for others, sold off media rights to its biggest characters/teams, and had to deal with internal strife from editorial shuffles and layoffs. To top it off after numerous years at the top of the sales chart they saw themselves fall down and DC took the top spot (sales positions also being the stimulus for DC’s mega reboot over a decade later).
A few moves were made in the comics realm to try and revitalize the company and bring things back. One of those ideas was the Ultimate Marvel publishing initiative.
It was a simple idea, relaunch all their most notable characters into a universe where they are all young and just beginning in a modern era. New titles like Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, and Ultimates would allow readers new and old to dive into these iconic characters’ lives without having to have read decades of backstory books. Make them fresh and new but still stick to the types of principles and core ideas that made Marvel characters different than DC characters.
Over time tons of Marvel characters got the Ultimate reboot treatment, many getting their own titles, and the universe saw a ton of shuffling creators and evolutions before it was brought to an end with 2015’s Ultimate End miniseries (part of the publisher wide Secret Wars universe reshuffling event series).
The Nitty Gritty:
In the beginning, it was very much a success as the initiative paid off and brought the company far more attention again, as these younger depictions of iconic characters were new reader-friendly and either found ways to tell new stories or new remixed versions of stories already told. Shiny new versions of beloved characters were only one part of the equation.
As noted before DC Comics had attempted various reboots that came with certain time travel or multiversal shenanigans to lead to fresh takes for titles. Often the thing that dragged these down was the fact that it changed the main books, wiping away stuff that some readers were fond of. With Ultimate Marvel, Marvel President Bill Jemas made the choice to forego that sort of confusing change. These new books with younger characters would just launch without explanation of why they were all younger because they would run concurrent to the usual Marvel books which would continue to tell the shared universe full of continuity stories they always had.
At the same time, the move was made to try and court younger and up-and-coming creators to work on these books rather than turning to some of the usual hands at the company.
After taking pitches from others that were rejected (one of them reportedly being just a modern re-tread of Amazing Fantasy #15), Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada made the call to freelance comic writer/artist Brian Michael Bendis and asked him to make a pitch. At the time Bendis and Marc Andreyko had been making some waves with their true-crime limited series Torso, which helped both of them find their footing in the comic industry as bigger things began to come to them. Bendis’ pitch was accepted, he was paired up with veteran artist Mark Bagley and the rest is history (the duo worked together for 111 issues which for a time was the record for most consecutive issues by a writer/artist team).
While Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the most fondly remembered aspects of Ultimate Marvel, the series was a bit of a hard-sell at first. It hit as #15 on the sales list upon debut in September 2000, but Jemas began a heavy publicity push that saw sales creep up. Millions of copies were distributed to chain stores like Walmart and the media began to pick up on the publicity and word spread more.
It would be Ultimate X-Men though launching in December of 2000 that would hit number one on the sales chart first, as Jemas and Quesada tapped the controversial Mark Millar to tackle that book with artist Adam Kubert. Soon after he would also be the one behind the launching of the Avengers reboot known as The Ultimates with artist Bryan Hitch, which eventually became heavily part of the DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Eventually, Millar, Bendis, and Kubert launched Ultimate Fantastic Four once the universe was selling very well and was proving to be quite the success. Cracks began to form though, as they often do.
It was clear that the two men’s styles somewhat clashed. Bendis worked focused a lot on finding ways to tackle stories/characters of old, while Millar’s work heavily focused on tearing apart/critiquing those old archetypes. There was some hope and whimsy in the Spider-Man stories alongside the drama and angst, while many of the X-Men and Ultimates stories were gritty, dark, gross and often the heroes were just the absolute worst as human beings.
This war of how to approach a reboot, unfortunately, became very much the foundation of the universe from start to finish, no matter who was in the driver’s seat.
Jemas was ousted from the company in 2003 after numerous controversies surrounding publishing choices, public comments about the competition, public fights with Marvel creators, and issues with character depictions that were making it hard to sell some studios on those characters for adaptations. The Ultimates 2 was running into trouble with massive delays because of Hitch’s slower artistic style, causing aggravation in the audience. Marvel tapped Orson Scott Card to tackle an Ultimate Iron Man story which was very disliked, to say the least.
At this point, the majority of the popular Marvel characters had been Ultimized with some getting their own mini-series like Daredevil/Elektra or their own arcs in other books like Deadpool. The original books were also getting higher in their issue counts and the whole idea of this being an easy to get into world without continuity was beginning to fade as there were now years worth of stories built into the world. So Quesada turned to Jeph Loeb for a dramatic Hail Mary play. Millar left (for a bit) after Ultimates 2 was completed leading to Loeb and Joe Madureira launching Ultimates 3 which took the controversy, ultra-violence, and overly sexual nature of Millar’s run and cranked it to an 11.
Out of this short-lived series, which was not received well at all, was born the much-reviled 2008 Ultimatum event story (with David Finch on art) that saw Magneto cause a tidal wave that hit New York City. Many characters from various books were killed, some in utterly disgusting grotesque ways, and all of the books came to an end before the event was over. Comic book torture porn might be a good way to refer to this storyline since there were close to 30 confirmed dead characters and a handful of others that seemed to die but later were revealed or retconned to have survived.
If one could point to a moment where the Ultimate Universe’s fate was sealed, this would be the moment.
In the wake of Ultimatum, the line saw a relaunch that changed it from Ultimate Marvel to Ultimate Comics and each of the relaunched books had that new name at the front of their title. Bendis continued to write the relaunched Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series, Loeb tackled Ultimate Comics New Ultimates rebuilding that team, while Millar returned to do Ultimate Comics Avengers but it didn’t hit the same way as his previous run.
Shortly after the line was relaunched again following The Death of Spider-Man storyline which saw Peter Parker die and led to the debut of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man in 2011. Ultimate Comics Ultimates was launched too from the up-and-coming Jonathan Hickman and art by Esad Ribic. Unfortunately (for the Ultimate line) that series did so well and Hickman’s star rose so much with his concurrent work on the mainline Fantastic Four, he was pulled to tackle the Avengers/New Avengers mainline books.
There were a number of stories from these times that continued to try and reinvent the Ultimate Universe from Captain America becoming President, Galactus from the main Marvel line coming to wipe out the Ultimate Universe (after the Bendis written Age of Ultron event), the death of the main Ultimates/Avengers, and Ultimate Comics X-Men that eventually told a story somewhat like the current Krakoa era but very different.
There was even an attempt to bring up sales with Spider-Men from Bendis and Sara Pichelli that brought the main and Ultimate universes together at last through the Spider-Mans of each world, Peter and Miles meeting. After all that there was one final attempt to revitalize the line with a Miles book relaunching, a younger team of Ultimates and the return of some of the Fantastic Four members in a new mini. It all fizzled out, not helped by the fact that 2011’s Flashpoint/New 52 was competition since it was essentially DC Comics version of doing an Ultimate reboot but to their entire publishing line.
By the time Bendis and Bagley reunited to do the aforementioned Ultimate End storyline that ended the universe, it was almost a mercy killing. The reboot that began as a solid idea that saw success became too bloated and a victim of its own success and mismanagement by the very end. It didn’t say gone long as Bendis found ways to hint at its rebirth in his last stories before he left Marvel in 2017, and Donny Cates & Ryan Stegman picked up that baton with their Venom run, and in Miles current title (Secret Wars saw him shifted to the main universe as Spider-Man still) he’s tackled some threats from his old universe.
Whether this reboot was good or not overall, is not a simple question. Quality of stories over all those years is going to be a subjective thing for the vast variety of people that read them at the time or later. There was over fifteen years’ worth of stories and moments after all, with some high highs and some low lows. Constant creator shuffles, editorial choices, and the constant attempts to revitalize things were going to lead to iffy spots.
Overall though it would be correct to say that this reboot was objectively a success, even with those dark marks in its history. We can see this success to this day, even though the universe stopped being a published feature.
Over a decade later Miles Morales is still swinging around as Spider-Man, more popular than ever as he makes the leap to various other media too. The umpteen billion-dollar making Marvel Cinematic Universe owes much of its foundation and structure to the Ultimate Marvel universe. Poor events, roller coaster sales, and other issues were not enough to make this experiment of a universe go down as a failure or bad choice.
Next Week: A spoiled game of war leads to death, but retcon brings triumphant resurrection