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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: Marvel and a Load of Likely Unwelcome Criticisms

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Word is Grant Morrison may be doing an Ultimate Fantastic Four. What can I say?

Wow. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly draw more blood from a stone, they manage it somehow. Other than the occasional banter on a message board, I usually keep any thoughts about Ultimate Marvel to myself. I’ve been one of the most cynical people over the supposed industry “savior” since its inception and have long since said my piece. However, this latest rumor has me scratching my head more than usual. I mean, how many of these creator-specific monstrosities are they going to pump out before the house of cards comes down? What happens when the trendy originators of these books, Millar and Morrison, take off? Marvel doesn’t seem to realize that it’s Stan and Jack’s toys everyone grew up with reading and wants to play with. I don’t see the next generation of comic creators beating down Marvel’s doors to write Millar’s X-Men and Avengers. Why, because of two really exciting years of the creator retelling everyone else’s stories? They exist as a completely redundant product, neither complimentary nor adding anything the regular books are missing. They depend on the already diminishing hardcore reader market, no different from random X-Men title #15 or Spider-Man core title #6. Marvel just markets it differently.

Ultimate Spider-Man is the only book actually helping to create synergy between the related titles. We don’t have a teenage Spider-Man. More to the point, we need a teenage Spider-Man with the film coming out. But these other titles… why? The late Ultimate Marvel Team-Up lacked any real consistency, trading a regular art team for alternating artists with more independent styles. More importantly, it failed to link Ultimate continuity in any rational sense. Considering Millar’s disinterest in using the Team-Up incarnations of characters in his books, it appeared as if the other half of the line was working against the title. Despite Bendis’ claims that it was a consistently solid performer, sales were on a consistent downward spiral. The loss between December and January was estimated at 10,000 orders on the direct market, a staggering 1/3 of their total loss since the book came out only eight months prior. Plunging at that rate, the book would have undoubtedly created a lot of embarrassment for the so-called hottest line in comics. To anyone with an eye on the market, cancellation was inevitable.

Ultimate X-Men stands out as an estranged cousin to the x-books, considering Morrison’s changes to New X-Men in order to match the first motion picture more closely. And in proving that you don’t need to major in continuity to run a successful X-Men title, it astounds me that Morrison may be considering the launch of his own Fantastic Four title. The only rational answers I can find for this action is because his previous collaborator Mark Waid already took the reigns of the original title or that he intends to add similar violent/sexual tones to his book that Millar uses to make himself look “edgy” or “fresh”… or both. I’m just wondering how many times people can rehash the same formula over and over again before people begin to realize these creators are becoming artistically confined within the popularity of their own concoction. Oh well, there’s a lot if’s and when’s on this subject… so I’ll just retire it and move to the next one…

Also in the news, Ethan Van Sciver voluntarily departed from his fill-in duties on New X-Men. He wants to pursue projects where he can work at his own pace, penciling at a level he feels is more up to his caliber. I for one applaud his choice, as we’ve all seen how much reputation damage can be achieved by doing rushed art on the X-Men titles. Just look at the criticism Brett Booth and Leinil Francis Yu received despite acknowledged editorial “influence” and late scripts. I’m very excited about Van Sciver’s replacement project, which happens to be Jean Grey’s first mini-series. The Icons project will run 4 issues and the writer, who has yet to be announced, is definitely one of my first choices.

Other upcoming Icons books in the pipeline include Brian K. Vaughan’s 4-issue Chamber series. I loved his work on Vertigo’s latest (alas retired) Swamp Thing monthly, but I felt his Cyclops book failed to do anything more than a by-the-numbers character study. At least it was well received enough by the guys upstairs to get traded, as no one seems to be missing Rogue. Luckily Vaughan has a new creator-owned monthly lined up for sometime later this year, Y: The Last Man. It details the story of one man and his monkey, the last male survivors run by a planet of women. Intriguing, especially considering his ability to write strong female leads. More recently, Marvel.com teased readers with an image of another project by the writer, a mysterious MAX project called The Hood. His art partner is none other than Kyle Hotz, fresh off his creator-owned Agency mini-series with Paul Jenkins, which definitely sparked my interest. You may also know Hotz from his recent work with Jenkins and Fabian Nicieza on several issues of the Incredible Hulk. Hopefully we’ll discover more about the series soon.

Speaking of departures and new projects, Joe Casey has been relieved of his Uncanny X-Men duties. Anyone who didn’t see this coming is either out-of-the-loop or fooling themselves. I can’t say I’m sad to see the change, despite my love for his run on Cable (with Jose Ladronn) and Wildcats (with Sean Phillips). The stories were rather bland and failed to convince most folks that it was anything more than by-the-numbers social commentary with previous X-Men plots redone as backdrops including the Mutant Massacre and Freedom Force. I drew the line after I saw a recent Wildcats plot recycled for the 2001 Annual. Though I have had to reassess my expectations of Casey, I still look forward to his plans on both Wildcats 3.0 and Hip Flask (again with Ladronn). Supposedly, both Casey and Phillips will be receiving an X-related mini-series of their own next year… 2-1 odds it’s an X-Corps spin-off. Never can have enough X-books, can we? *groan*

The good news is that Casey’s replacement is U.S. War Machine extraordinaire, Chuck Austen. Even more fortunate is that we’ll be getting Austen the writer, not the artist. It’s not that I haven’t seen some good pieces in the War Machine series, but I was confused more often than not about what was actually going on. Fulfilling the art duties will be the usual trio: Ron Garney, Sean Phillips and Aaron Lopresti. But before this starts looking like an Austen-bashing segment, I’ll get back to what’s really important. U.S. War Machine was good. Really, really good. Though it had to bend continuity a little bit, that never became a problem. The book decided to address racism as an issue, which remained the underlying theme to the entire series. Not only was it handled well, it never came off as too blatant or subtle. We had action, humor, great characterization and an important message over all. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the tendency for comic writers to use characters or serious issues as a token plot. Scott Lobdell’s Northstar comes to mind, which brings me to my next point.

Austen released some preliminary information on the plans he has for Uncanny X-Men. At first I balked at the mention of his willingness to explore Northstar as a homosexual and play off the idea for character conflict. Having read U.S. War Machine, I’ve not only dropped those worries… I actually look forward to the approach. His sense of maturity and appreciation of personal interaction between cast members is unusually deep for someone so new to the larger superhero market. We’ve seen… what… at least 10 writers in the last ten years try and write consistent character-driven stories for the X-Men? We’ve seen how hard it is to balance proper development and action at the same time. This book isn’t JLA or Avengers… most of these characters see little to no attention outside the core team titles. If they’re not expanded upon there, they remain two-dimensional for the duration of each creator’s stay. Storm became a cipher for much of the nineties, Rogue became an extension of Gambit and Wolverine became a walking answering message. Where’s Frank Miller when you need him? Anyway…

With Van Sciver and Austen being more properly utilized, perhaps I can look past the lunacy of the Ultimate titles for a bit. The books sell enough to keep Marvel happy, and they do turn that money into trade paperback budgets. I just wish they would actually PRODUCE the trades. But that’s a discussion for another day… for now I’ll just hang around the message boards and wait for the inevitable backlash springing from my heresy of criticizing Ultimate Marvel. See you there.

Born and raised in Tampa, FL, Drew Reiber is a part-time student with aspirations of someday writing those comics he so loves to rant about. You can find his best friend’s column on the history of the blues at (http://hometown.aol.com/nolansnewsstand/), or Drew’s occasionally featured other comic-related column. It carries a similar name, but features different content. I swear.


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