Since the late eighties (and some would say much, much earlier), Marvel Comics has been in a perpetual downwards spiral into the same unintentional camp that plagued the post-WWII titles of competitor DC Comics their characters grew stale and their adventures repetitious. Instead of trying to ameliorate the problem by focusing on polishing its creative output, Marvel in the early nineties relied on cheap gimmickry: holographic images on covers, an overabundance of crossovers, etc. After all, Marvel Enterprises is a corporation; what more could we expect? In 1997, the company finally went belly-up, and, for the first time in thirty-five years, Spider-Man may never swinging again from the rooftops of NYC’s skyscrapers became a very real possibility.
However, as any superhero will tell you, giants are hard to slay Marvel persevered. Its one main strength: The iconic characters the company owned. Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and the X-Men, among others. Hope for Marvel, and arguably the entire comics industry, seemed on the verge of sudden resurgence after last summer’s hit film adaptation of the most popular comic book super team, the X-Men. Well, no one’s quite ready to dish out any cigars. Marvel never adequately capitalized on this film, the largest cinematic comic book success since Tim Burton’s Batman. If an unversed comics reader, enthusiastic after seeing Bryan Singer’s surprisingly good X-Men, picked up a copy of one of the very extensive X-titles, they would have found themselves in the middle of a muddled, subplot-laden storyline with characters wholly unlike those seen on the big screen. Easier simply to buy the video game and pretend those silly items of nostalgia known as comic books never existed.
In an effort to attract new readership, Marvel announced last summer a new line of titles: Ultimate Marvel. The Ultimate titles are specifically addressed to an audience unwilling to immerse themselves into the overly complex and bloated Marvel universe. Each title would represent a new beginning for Marvel’s cast of icons, trimmed down to their essential qualities and refashioned for life in the twenty-first century. A clean slate, where one didn’t have to know Rouge was once Mystique’s protégé or Jean Grey had at one time become a devastating creature known as the Dark Phoenix. (Well, actually, it turned out to be her clone see what confusing place the Marvel Universe is?). Not only are the Ultimate books a revision of Marvel’s leading cast of superheroes, but they also feature creative teams that are downright awe-inspiring. Ultimate Spider-Man features the fine writing of Brian Michael Bendis and the sleek art of Mark Bagley. The second Ultimate book, Ultimate X-Men, is written by Mark Millar of The Authority fame and drawn by the renowned Adam Kubert. Clearly, Marvel is putting a tremendous amount of stock into these titles.
With Ultimate X-Men, what should be just another Marvel flop turns out to be one of the best books Marvel’s published in a long time. Millar captures the essences of the new, improved X-Men with stunning accuracy while tweaking the characters’ histories and personalities enough to succeed in new-millennial revitalization. A few X-Men purists may clamor in protest Storm’s age, Jean’s hair but these are all reflections of what the X-Men would have been had the title been introduced now instead of the early sixties. And, of course, the whole point of the book is to appeal to a new, sorely needed audience who wouldn’t know Magneto from Mr Sinister from a dimpled chad.
Issue number one does a nice job of introducing both the characters and the central theme the conflicts between a new race of super-powered beings known as mutants and society’s fear of the new or different. Cyclops, in his eternal role as the bland Apollonian leader, gathers the X-Men under the wing of altruistic dreamer, Professor Charles Xavier. Their mission, as always, is to protect the oppressed mutant race from fearful humans and poor, powerless humans from hateful mutants. Ultimate X-Men seems to combine the roots of the X-Men as depicted in the original series with that of the movie’s mythos. First villain on the roster is, naturally, Magneto but also, surprisingly, Wolverine, the most popular of the X-Men and epitome of the modern superhero. Marvel’s obviously given Millar more creative license than one would normally expect. They cut him the check and he promises to write a book that’ll get people back into the comic book shops. Could this finally be the salvation that the comics industry, whose future looks as bleak as the long-gone radio drama’s had after the coming of the television, waited nearly a decade for?
As much as the writing and art are top-notch as good the chances are that people who’ve abandoned the X-Men will pick up a copy of the Ultimate Marvel title the problems plaguing the medium will not disappear by writing even the most spectacular superhero comic the world’s ever seen. People will not run out in droves to buy Ultimate X-Men, and, even if they do, the trickle-down theory of readership will not hold water. Reason number one: These “accessible” Ultimate titles are harder to come by than a Republican who believes Gore won the election. Over the course of the nineties, comic book distribution dwindled to a few specialty shops, keeping the medium well out of the reach of the casual, impulse shopper. For all of Marvel’s promises “to expand distribution of the new line to the mass market through nontraditional distribution outlets” (from the company’s press release last summer), the only the bare minimum of copies have been printed and distributed, soon gobbled up by the ever-present hoarding collectors. But all this is the same predictable routine. The real crux of the matter is reason number two: no superhero book will ever save the comics industry.
The modern superhero archetype is so intermingled with the comics medium that few people outside the comics subculture realize that the two are actually innately unrelated. Comics are a medium and superheroes are a subgenre, the main genre being fantasy. Imagine how poorly books would sell if publishing houses refused to stock the shelves of the nation’s Borders with nothing but westerns. Today, if a person wants to see laser beams shooting from eyes or metal claws springing from knuckles, they’ll go see an action movie, preferably one with a fat special effects budget. The superhero genre, at least in comics, is as dead as dead can be, and, unlike the funky dynamics of the comics universe, it will not return from the grave. The last time superheroes came to comics’ rescue was in 1986, when Frank Miller produced Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, both of which more celebrated the death of the superhero than rejuvenated it. The only thing that will save the industry, and with it, Marvel, are new comics. Not new versions of old comics, but ones which address a wide spectrum of audiences and tastes. The old formulas, no matter how re-polished, will not work.
Ultimate X-Men will do well under Millar and Kubert. It is as original as can be, given the recycled material with which they have to work. However, I don’t expect to see Ultimate X-Men on the shelves five years from now. It’ll be a fun ride, and I’ll follow it along. But when Miller and Kubert leave (and do count on them leaving eventually), so will I and most of its readers. People simply are not interested in superheroes anymore, at least, not in their current packaged form. The world has moved on, and Marvel and its mainstream line of campy adventures are nothing more than relics from a time long past.
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