A little over a month ago, for no reason in-particular, I decided to embark on a re-read of the entirety of the Marvel Ultimate Comics line. All of the issues are available on Marvel Unlimited in publication order, so I decided to go for it. Why Ultimate Comics? The Ultimate line holds a special nostalgic place in my heart. I first started seriously reading comics at around 10 or 11 years old. That just happened to coincide with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men. In fact, I think the first comic I bought since I was 5 was the first collection of Ultimate Spider-Man. The Ultimate line has its flaws, but to a young me it was the coolest thing I’d ever read.
I fell out of reading comics during high school and college, only to return in full around 2012, which happened to coincide with another Ultimate Comics milestone with the launch of Miles Morales. It felt a bit like coming home that these comics I remember so well from a decade earlier were still going strong and had fewer continuity barriers to entry. I’ve mostly caught up in the years since 2012 (in which comics have become and stayed a central part of my life), but have never endeavored to do a full re-read of these comics that were so formative for me. I figured now was as good a time as any to see how they held up. I remember them fondly, if somewhat up and down.
I’m going to use the blog as a running diary of some thoughts I have at intervals through my adventure. I’m not reading Ultimate Comics exclusively, so it’s going to take me a while, but I’m enjoying it so far and I thought it was a good idea for a blog series. Without further ado, here’s my thoughts on things through about the first 15 volumes of the Ultimate Comics line. Some spoilers are likely, so consider yourself warned.
Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1-4
This is the proverbial Big Bang for the Ultimate line. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley launch the line in big fashion. It’s no accident that all these years later and this is probably still the highlight of both creator’s careers. There are a few spots where it feels dated and clunky, but on the whole it’s incredibly good comics making, especially when comparing it to the material that was hitting the shelves in 2000 alongside it. Bendis mixes his strong bent for character work and conversation with big set pieces and Bagley re-imagines the Marvel Universe for modern times. The Green Goblin plays a very heavy role in these early volumes, and the series as a whole, but I appreciate the times when Bendis plays with your expectations from the 616 universe. He inverts the death of Gwen Stacy and the fear of Kraven the Hunter in ways that paid-off for me. My favorite issue of the first 4 volumes is number 11. There isn’t a Spider-Man scene in the issue. The entirety of the issue is Peter and Mary Jane sitting in Peter’s room as he reveals his powers and identity.
Ultimate X-Men Vol. 1-4
Shortly after Spider-Man launched, Mark Millar and the Kubert brothers followed with Ultimate X-Men. In typical Millar fashion, this series is a bit more concerned with being modern and cool than Ultimate Spider-Man. That leads to a greater sense of feeling dated, as the things that were cool in 2000 and 2001 aren’t the same things that are cool in 2020. It’s also a bit more edgy and violent. None of this is necessarily bad, but I do think I enjoy it a bit less than Spider-Man. There are still some great sequences and issues. I really like the Weapon X arc and there’s a standout issue that follows Gambit from the Ultimate universe. It’s still a solid re-imagining of the X-Men’s bonkers continuity for a new generation. I also appreciated some fill in art from Kaare Andrews.
Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1-3
I’m not going to sugar coat this, these 3 volumes are absolute trash. You can read a more in-depth review of the second volume from me here. The real problem is that Marvel gave Bendis the keys to define and introduce a huge number of characters to the Ultimate universe. These introductions and characterizations are almost always in opposition to how the characters will be re-introduced later. The editorial office clearly wasn’t sure the Ultimate line was going to bloom the way it did and Bendis does a lot of work that gets retconned later. The stories are also mostly very bad anyway. It’s cool to see a line-up of artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Mike Allred, but otherwise this is all bad. Don’t read this unless you’re forced to at gun-point.
The Ultimates Vol. 1-2
This is the series often credited with shaping Marvel Studios’ movie universe. Re-reading it for the first time since watching the Avengers, it’s hard not to see the similarities. Mark Millar is writing and Bryan Hitch is bringing his wide-screen, cinematic art, giving the book a truly modern feel when compared to what was on the shelves at the time. Like with X-Men, Millar is very concerned with making this seem hip. There’s some cringe-worthy moments that come out of that tendency two decades later. But the first volume is very solid. The second volume is where you see the seeds that form the Marvel movie universe. Black Widow and Hawkeye show up to round out a team that will be familiar to fans of the movies and there’s seven issues worth of action and intrigue. It’s a really astonishing read. Volume 2 is the best of any of the Ultimate comics I’ve made my way through yet on this re-read, and frankly it seems like it’ll be tough to top.
This was just as weird as I remembered. It’s a six-issue satire of Batman. No, really, it’s just Batman if instead he was into Owls. I’m not sure what purpose it really serves in the Ultimate line. Marvel seems to have agreed, seeing as it doesn’t appear to have been collected in print since 2005. It’s also not even really that satirical. There isn’t a lot of commentary on Batman, it mostly just ends up being a rip-off. The Ultimates show up. If memory serves, this thankfully gets shelved and never brought up again for the rest of the decade-long existence of the Ultimate universe.
That’s it for round one folks! I’m looking to diving deeper into Spider-Man and X-Men, getting to the launch of Ultimate Fantastic Four, and reading some more Ultimates in the next wave.