Don't Get Me Started - Ultimate Shelf Life

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Does cool have a lifespan? Is zeitgeist a term in the moment, or in the eye of the beholder? Can something retro be cutting-edge?

There have been issues raised here and there among fandom regarding Marvel Comics’ Ultimate line becoming too much a product of its time because it is outwardly strident in its commitment to be hip and current. Some feel that the snappy dialogue, tattoos, piercings and mousse will render the Ultimate Marvel Universe line “dated” and subject to current comics shelf life theory. Newly produced retro-fare like Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine are sadly floundering in sales despite capturing that old style feel perfectly. By contrast the way collected reprints of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury: Agent of Shield are flying off the shelves, the concept of it being “dated” hasn’t seemed to enter the equation of its own success in the slightest.

Comic fans are a reverential lot when it comes to our passion and we seem to have unlimited esteem for the stylistic history of the medium we cherish. We honor its past by looking beyond artistic and literary generation gaps to collected editions and reprint volumes and enjoying the stories as written for their time. Steranko was THE cutting-edge visual stylist in his heyday and fans haven’t wasted any time in their zeal to devour his classic Nick Fury tales 30-odd years after they were originally published. If ever there was a comic that was stylistically of its time it was Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. Many would argue that it was actually ahead of its time, and that is apparent when compared to other publications in the spinner-rack at the time, but hold up a cover of one of those old Nick Fury books next to the images of youth market TV (like American Bandstand) and poster art from the late 1960s and the similarities of the graphically abstract look and palette of each are noticeable. Collected editions like the Steranko run bring with them the reputation of being classic stories, so certain sales expectations due to estimable demand are a given. Ultimate Marvel comics are burdened with having to newly establish their own reputations in order to be successful and worthy of someday reprinting in trade paperback form. Can such a requirement be fulfilled if a product is “dated”? If the success of the Fury collections is any indication, the answer to that question is evidently “yes”. However, Pop Culture is a fickle beast and the masses that comprise it lumber through the sights, smells and sounds of current entertainment tastes while simultaneously thriving in its short-term memory environment. Hot product is consumed in mass quantities in the initial offering and eventually ignored at the next serving because something else has tantalized the appetite of the devourer.

In the comics world, the span of time for a monthly publication’s salability has been approximated by no less an Authority (sic) than comics guru/curmudgeon Warren Ellis as being about a week - or as many working days a shop remains open between the Wednesday a book is first displayed with the week’s new arrivals, and the following Wednesday when it is either pulled off prime shelf-space completely, demoted to the rack provided for that month’s offerings or relegated to the back-issue bin.

Certainly a book like Ultimate X-Men remains stylistically relevant longer than short-term application of Mr. Ellis’ theory suggests. However, when that theory is extrapolated over time, the argument might be made that as a result of having been too reliant on flashy production, current fashion and linguistic trends to catch a young audience’s eye, the X-Men Trades may seem passť on bookstore shelves in, say, 5 years time.

By then Pop Culture and fashion will have fixated elsewhere and War will have occurred (no doubt intertwined in their media presence and presentation), current fashion and retro-chic leanings will have replaced the youth markets’ collective obsessions with some new look or status symbol. In addition, techno-wizardry will have further advanced the online comic business and subsequently blurred the line between comics and animation even more than it already has. Many feel online comics are a threat to the paper and staples format traditionally associated with comic storytelling and question whether online and/or computer-based comics will replace them altogether. Remember when personal computing first began? Many thought paper itself and books in particular would go the way of the Dodo. Books continue sell just fine thank you, because they are tactile. There’s something more personal about cradling what you’re reading in your hand, turning the page and smelling and feeling the paper and words on it. It brings one closer to the story and the format is far easier to curl up with than a bunch of LCD displayed FlashMedia-fueled binary code. Comic books can also be easily lent and referenced. Opening up a comic is far quicker than having to boot one up. Besides, in a world ever more reliant on gadgets, something as simple and virtually unchanged like a comic book seems quaint and charming. In addition, comics are limited in their initial offerings. Online comics cannot be traditionally collected and hold no value as such. People like the collectability of things -hence the retro movement.

Comics like those in the Ultimate Marvel Universe will still be around in their classic form in 5 years time because of these reasons and due to the fact that comics have survived fashion trends before. The fans have suffered through Rob Liefeld’s silly ponytails, gigantic guns and ridiculous amounts of body armor during the ‘90s and other comics fashion embarrassments prior to that. So, yes, the Ultimate line of comic books is very much a product of their time. However, they are produced with a built-in historical reference in the form of the Marvel Universe Proper and its attendant fans’ expectations of its events of historical precedence to fulfill or outstrip, before a script is even written. Having built-in underpinnings and tools of inspirational reference like that are a both a luxury and a wealth of subtlety waiting to be tapped for a clever creative team – writers in particular. Because the subtext lent by the history of the MU Proper and the ability to approach a more diversified range of issues and motivations out from underneath the auspices of the Comics Code and the weight of years of labyrinthine continuity has been placed in the hands of some of the most talented people in the business, UMU comics are distinctly of their time creatively as well as timeless in their characterizations, so the chances of Marvel publishing a classic tale here and there in the UMU are rather high, given the talent involved, freedom they are allowed and the depth of previous characterization and storytelling at their disposal.

UMU stories are smart, sexy, have snappy dialogue, excellent characterizations and resonant themes. The first three qualities have a certain shelf life, but the latter two are what make a story timeless. These qualities are nothing new at Marvel. Gwen Stacy's death in Amazing Spider-Man #121 is as heartbreaking for me to read in all its four-color, alliterative glory 20-odd years after the fact, as it was the first time I read it...and that was 8 years after it was originally published. That story is as timeless today as it was when it first hit the racks because the well-conceived characters were treated with the respect accorded them and because talented people handled it so very well.

The players in the Ultimate Marvel Universe are iconographic enough that even with updated (and in some cases – vastly different) characterizations, they literally write themselves because of the knowledge of the classic or movie version of said character(s) a fan brings to the reading, and as scripted they remain familiar yet pliable enough that creators needn’t feel constrained or overly adherent to the MU classic mythos. Many main, peripheral and/or supporting characters can be pointed in a direction by the established motivations and parameters of their counterparts in the MUProper as well because they all have distinct life experiences and character definitions (usually in the form of clay feet) that can also be tweaked to suit UMU needs while retaining their classic feel. Ultimate comics can be enjoyed by the new reader -who gets a solid story -and by older fans who gets that same solid story and all the little asides and references hidden in the dialogue and action that are just between those “in the know” and the writer.

Essentially the Ultimate line doesn’t appear to be any more or less dated than any other currently produced line of comics, and sales of both the monthly and Trade publications of Ultimate adventures indicate the quality of the story-telling contained within them is high enough and the fans are enjoying them enough, that they will hold up as well as any comic series over time. One person’s dated is evidently (or eventually) another person’s charm. That in itself is a huge argument to extended comic book shelf-life theory. Although one needn’t look past Steranko to know that classics are referred to as such for a reason –they never go out of style.

Special thanks to Doug Strong for sparking my opinion in this matter.

Copyright 2001 Mark A. Bittmann

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