Marvel Comics has just relaunched its Ultimate line of comic books and it hasn't exactly set the market on fire. The new Ultimate FF was well reviewed but its sales were pitiful. What was once a byword for excitement and innovation has become tainted after ludicrous plots. poor characterisation and, basically, gaining a reputation for not being as good as it once was.
There are three solutions.
Just keep on doing what they're doing, with relaunch upon relaunch, repeatedly losing viewers and increasing the taint of Ultimate that even if they bring in new exciting creators and comics, each will be infected with that taint. Not even wunderkind Jonathan Hickman could save this puppy.
Or create some really radical superhero comic books – the original collection of series, especially The Ultimates, offered Marvel readers something new, fresh and different, by getting the sparkiest of talents to totally recreate the Marvel universe in a way that hadn't be seen and with a very different tone, that had proved successful elsewhere. Warren Ellis has a reputation for taking on dead ducks and having a good go at bringing them to life (Stormwatch, Counter X, Avatar Press, Newuniversal, Moon Knight) – and maybe reinventing the books so they tell truly shocking stories, closer to the work of Avatar Press, say, might do the trick.
But that is very risky and carries the risk of backfiring, tainting the very Marvel universe properties it is trying to revive. When the Ultimate line was launched, Marvel were in bankruptcy. Now they are owned by Disney. It's a very different world.
So, what we need is a non-risk way to revamp Marvel's Ultimate line in a way that will make decent revenue again, offer an actual alternative to the Marvel universe to avoid cannibalising sales, find new audiences and maybe bring them into the Marvel fold.
Reinvent the Marvel Universe to be in the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In many ways The Ultimates was the inspiration for those first movies, this would just be taking things back to basics. Now Marvel Publishing are famously separate from the Studios in terms of any lines of decisions – I accidentally spoiled a senior exec on the death of Coulson in Avengers just because I presumed he'd know. And there would have to be a degree of control from Kevin Feige's offices. Someone like Jeph Loeb would be ideal to oversee this – he's nuts deep into the continuity of the world thanks to Agents Of SHIELD, and has written for the Marvel and Ultimate Universe of comics – even if that included the much derided Ultimates 2, which some see as the beginning of the rot. Add Arune Singh and Steve Wacker, recently moved from Marvel East to Marvel West, and you have a very involved and committed creative editorial base.
Marvel has repeatedly been unable to turn the interest in their characters in film and TV into comic books sales in, say, the way that The Walking Dead has. One in every two graphic novels that Diamond Book Distributors sells is Walking Dead, and it regularly tops the charts. Part of that is because the comic book actually informs the TV show, you can see clues and hints as to where it is going.
Marvel have attempted to publish a few comics in the Cinematic Universe, adaptations and prequels to the movies, but in a pretty much half-hearted, two issue format. They are spin-offs, they never actually affect the main event. And can be ignored.
Tying the Ultimate comics line to the cinematic universe will bring in the existing comic book fans and the TV and movie viewers – but not all of them. And while SHIELD is criticised for low viewership, that still means millions of them, and likely the folk who are really dedicated to following the story. They are already used to going from one medium to another.
If Jeph Loeb can ensure the kind of cross continuity that SHIELD and Winter Soldier had, introduce a character in the comic that then appears in the TV show, seed future plots and then have the comic reacting to whatever is on the screen on Tuesday night, on Wednesday morning, you may have a real drive and interest for greater sales. Let the SHIELD Classified show reflect it as well, just as The Talking Dead occasionally does with the comic, and you have real potential for creating a critical mass.
There are other opportunities as well. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can't use the FF, X-Men, or Spider-Man – but the comics can. Keep a Miles Morales Ultimate Spider-Man in the Ultimate comics, and introduce him in his non costumed form in the TV/Netflix shows as a side character, with a knowing audience. Create a School For Registered Gifted Youngsters which can then be referred to in the TV shows. And put a Baxter Building in the New York.
As Marvel are about to launch a bevy of TV/Netflix shows, let the comics pick up the continuity gaps that this proliferation with inevitably cause – which itself will make for another reason to read the comics.
Marvel Publishing will have to surrender some control to Studios. But it could benefit both wings of the company. And a successful comics version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe might just develop an audience who can then move onto the Marvel Universe Proper.
It's just a thought.
Cartoon by Sean Williamson for Bleeding Cool.