Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Ultimates 3

The first and second series of The Ultimates were both important titles. They helped establish Mark Millar as a major name at ‘The House of Ideas’, effectively setting him up to become one of the biggest writers in comicdom a few years later. They affirmed that Marvel’s Ultimate line was to be considered synonymous with the very best the company had to offer. And they were amongst the finest books turned out in the first decade of the century. A great deal of good was done by Hitch and Millar’s Ultimates books.

Naturally Marvel was keen to keep the title going. Unfortunately, for them and us, Millar was less keen to remain involved. Feeling he’d told all the stories he wanted to with the Ultimates team and wanting to work with different characters, both Marvel properties and his own, Millar declined an invitation to write The Ultimates 3.

The company was tasked with finding a new writer for the series. What they needed was someone familiar with the first two series, and the characters used in them, who was keen to do something new and exciting that followed on from Millar’s work. Ideally they would have given the book to a young writer who’d proven themselves on an expendable title or two who could have used The Ultimates 3 to establish themselves in the same fashion Millar had.

Instead it went to Jeph Loeb.

New ideas are not Loeb’s strong suit. Where Millar gave us a fresh and interesting take on well-worn characters, making them feel new again, Loeb did everything in his power to rework them to be more in line with their traditional portrayals. Which spectacularly missed the point of the Ultimate line, of course. Cap goes from being a man out of time to a generic square-jawed hero, Black Widow becomes a sex kitten double agent, and Thor inexplicably starts chatting like a Shakespeare character, ignoring the eco warrior theme he’d had under Millar. There are other examples. These are simply the worst.

Along with his complete non-understanding of the title’s original appeal Loeb also failed to provide an interesting storyline. Where Millar had provided fittingly large scale plots involving alien invasion and Nazi criminals (it’s more inventive than it sounds, I promise) Loeb tells the tale of a sex tape and a sentient robot butler. These are not subjects that should be off limits to comics, but they are subjects and storylines that should have been off limits to an incredibly successful action title being produced by Marvel.

He also went overboard with cameos and continuity. This is a trademark of his. We were “treated” to appearances by the likes of Spider-Man, Magneto and Sabretooth, the pointless debut of Hank Pym’s Yellowjacket garb, and the addition of Valkyrie, Wolverine, Black Panther and others to the team so that Loeb can play at writing mysteries (which he seems to think he’s rather good at, which would make him wrong as well as a poor writer). None of it adds anything to the story beyond a cheap thrill. The continuity was worse, mostly because Loeb didn’t have sufficient knowledge of what had gone before. At times it’s as though he thinks he’s writing for Marvel’s regular continuity, which, again, completely misses the point of the Ultimate line.

Adding to the woe was the exit of artist Bryan Hitch alongside Mark Millar. To my knowledge he’s never stated why he left The Ultimates but it would seem safe to assume he wanted fresh work. As good as Millar’s Ultimates scripts were it’s easy to imagine Hitch wanting to draw something else.

Replacing him was Joe Madureira. He’s not a bad artist but his work was so different from Hitch’s that it failed to feel like the same book. And as it was presented as a continuation of what had gone before that was a bit of a problem. His artwork just didn’t gel with the tone people were expecting.

At the time it was clear that The Ultimates 3 was a terrible comic series. Loeb and Madureira were entirely the wrong people for the task of continuing the sterling work of Millar and Hitch and they produced something bad. With hindsight it’s worse than simply being a bad comic. With hindsight The Ultimates 3 is where the entire Ultimate line took a dive in quality that it never recovered from.

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