Hellfire and Brimstone

by Michael David Sims

23 December 2002


Ultimate X-men #21-25 - Hellfire and Brimstone

(Marvel Comics)
US: 31 Dec 1969

Beyond the BANG and WHAM of Batman

Marvel was bankrupt, and they had three options: auction off iconic characters such as the X-Men and Spider-Man to cross-town rival DC Comics and close the doors forever—or—produce better comics books.

But, no matter how good the comics are, no matter who the creative team behind the book is, thanks to the 1960s Batman television show, comics gained an unfair reputation as being campy schlock for children.

So how do you get people other than geeks and children to buy comic books? How do you burn away a reputation that has plagued an industry for over 30 years? Simple: produce a Grade-A feature film based on one of your properties. DC Comics did it with the early Superman and Batman films, but could Marvel do the same thing to save its hide?

Marvel’s earlier attempts produced such gems (note the sarcasm) as Captain America (staring Matt Salinger, son of J.D.), Dolph Lundgren’s slurring Punisher, and Roger Corman’s never released but often bootlegged Fantastic Four.

Get your hands on any of those films and you’ll see why Marvel’s stock nearly went the way of the dodo.

No one would have guessed it, but lurking just over the horizon was Marvel’s savior: Blade. Marvel was so sure of Blade‘s eminent failure that they didn’t even want their company’s logo anywhere on the poster.

Thing is, it exploded. Wesley Snipes as Blade pumped so much money into Marvel’s pockets that they could finally afford to make the highly anticipated X-Men feature film. Aside from that, however, Blade proved to millions and millions of people that comics could be dark and brooding and for adults. The stench of the 1960’s Batman was starting to wear off.

Before the 2000 release of the X-Men feature film, Marvel rehired longtime Uncanny X-Men scribe (and some would say god) Chris Claremont. They figured, with the surefire success of the film, everyone and their mothers would be drooling to buy both the Uncanny X-Men and the X-Men, and who better to have on the book than the man who wrote 200+ issues?

Good idea, but? Claremont’s new stories were so confusing, longtime fans and editors were left scratching their heads, begging the question, “WTF?” So when new fans picked up the book, they were disappointed to see that none of the character looked like or were acting like their movie counterparts. Woops!

In the meantime, Marvel’s new President Bill Jemas had a stroke of genius: reboot Spider-Man. Erase everything. Those people that shuddered at the 35+ years of continuity of Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man now had a Spider-Man book to call their own.

Within days of Ultimate Spider-Man #1’s release, copies of the book were selling on eBay for $50+ dollars. Variant covers scored $100 or more. Professionally graded copies pulled in over $200.

Marvel was out of the rough. With new Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada at his side, Bill Jemas did two things to the X-Men. First, he turned the characters in the two core titles into leather-wearing carbon copies of their movie selves. And then he gave them the Ultimate treatment.

For the first time ever, the X-Men were young, hip, and stylish. They acted like normal teenagers. Err? as normal as normal can be when one can pop three unbreakable claws from each hand, shoot optic blasts, control the weather, turn into ice, are covered in blue fur and so on and so forth. In fact, they’re so hip, one half expects them to be shilling name brand eyewear, designer leather boots, hair care products, and Apple notebook computers. Thing is, the book’s written so well, one almost wouldn’t mind if Cyclops, in mid fight, took a moment to inform us about his brand new ruby quartz sunglasses.

Though the Ultimate line of Marvel comics exists in a whole other universe than the mainstream titles, similar events and characters tend to pop up. Case in point, this arc. Not only has Mark Millar bonded the Phoenix Force to Jean Grey, as was done in Uncanny X-Men #101, but he’s also introduced The Hellfire Club as Xavier’s shady financial backers and a new Brotherhood of Mutants who disarm Pakistan and India of their nuclear arsenals not because they want peace, not because they themselves want to rule (though they do), but because they want their names and pictures in the papers.

In a world where pop idols are born via phone-in polls, where fans can become their favorite performers, and a multi-platinum diva can admit she’s a crack addict (coincidentally days before the release of her new album) one has to expect that their comic book heroes and villains would want the same things, especially when they’re simply teenagers trying to cope with puberty, sex, and superpowers. (If anyone’s ever nailed comic book teenagers better than Mark Millar, I haven’t seen it.) And really, that’s what this latest arc is all about: the ever-changing landscape of teenage relationships and instant celebrity status.

With the release of at least three Marvel movies in 2003—Daredevil, The Hulk, and X-Men 2 (or more simply X2)—one can easily expect more of Marvel’s comics to get the ultimate treatment, and, for better or worse, become as young, hip, and stylish as the Ultimate X-Men.

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