Friday, August 19, 2011

(Ultimate) Spiderman in the News: Much Ado About Nothing.

Comic books have been in the news a lot lately, and all too often, this is as a result of the convergence of our politically polarized society and popular culture, as I wrote about during the “Superman renounces US citizenship” hullabaloo. The latest round in all this centers on an event that the majority of comic book fans seem to care less about, but has appeared on the evening news and in articles written all across the web and old media. This is the biggest story that doesn't really matter to anyone in the geek world. I am, of course, talking about the death of Spiderman and his replacement by a young teen of mixed african-american and latino descent. On its surface, it seems like this is a big story. One of the most popular characters in comics is killed off, and his identity and costume is picked up by a new person.

Miles Morales, the new face of Spider-Man and scourge of racists who don't read comic books anyway. There may be instances of forced "political correctness" worth getting mad about. This ain't one of 'em.

Fact is, most of us couldn't be bothered to care. Most of the people making a big deal of the whole “death and replacement of Spider-Man thing” aren't comic fans. You can tell because there's no mention of the most important word in the whole fiasco. That word is “Ultimate.” The Ultimate Marvel Universe is an alternate, parallel universe unaffected by and that itself does not effect Core Marvel Universe Canon. What this means to non-geeks is that Marvel Ultimates stories are set in a world that by design have no association with the original visions of the characters, their comic books, their stories. Characters in the Ultimate Universe change appearance, origin, powers and personality, and some of the changes are there to “update” characters, while others seem frustratingly arbitrary.

The idea behind the Marvel Ultimates line is essentially the same reasoning behind this fall's massive DC relaunch/reboot. After decades of history and complex plots, comic books were deemed too intimidating to attract significant numbers of new readers. No influx of new fans, younger people with changing expectations and without the jaded grumbling common to older fans means inevitable attrition. Old fans get frustrated and stop collecting, or as years pass, simply die, and there is no generation waiting in the wings to replace them. Too many young people don't want to jump in on the middle of a story, and as a result, potential converts of kids who saw various Marvel Universe movies are opportunities wasted. This is the logic behind the creation of a 2nd Marvel Universe. The blank slate, lack of established canon that needs to be followed and enthusiasm for new creators to tell stories with familiar characters in their own way on its surface makes a lot of sense.

"Updated" art and costumes, redesigned characters and Colossus is gay!
With jokes about "Will and Grace," the hamfisted portrayal of the gay superhero would offend everyone...
If anyone cared.

Thing is, most comic geeks today hate Ultimates and couldn't care less about whatever happens in it. In the early launch (2000-2005) of the Ultimate Titles, they sold like crazy. Traditional, “core” Marvel books were dying on the vine, and the idea of a relaunch seemed to be a runaway success. Several popular video games tied in nicely with the new setting, and it didn't hurt that Marvel Ultimate Alliance (and its sequel) were really good fighting games with RPG elements. The new wave of Marvel films plays it real close to the vest on which canon they are a part of, incorporating just enough from each Universe to satisfy fans of either. The problem is, the Ultimate Marvel books themselves had a crisis of identity. Having already alienated fans who didn't like certain characters seemingly randomly changed from their classic characterizations, new fans were slowly turned off when the writers who launched the new line in the first place left to work on “core” titles.

The energy once brought to Ultimates brought new life into previously slumped comic books, and the Ultimate Universe responded by borrowing more and more from the core continuity. Core and Ultimate Marvel were each starting to look like each other, and the Ultimate books did not benefit from the comparison, or the change in philosophy. To the uninitiated, Marvel comics appeared schizophrenic, and the Ultimate titles got the worst end of it, in addition to the lion's share of the blame. Fast forwarding to present day, core Marvel titles outsell their Ultimate equivalents, and with film and game tie-ins, the brand appears healthy again. In order to keep both lines relevant, Ultimates had to get back to what made people like it in the first place. It had to be more “different.” In this context, new writer Jeph Loeb interpreted “different” as “kill everybody.”

"Relaunch it again! Kill more heroes! See! We have characters from popular movies!
Love us again! LOVE US!!! *sob*"

The last few years have been marked by so many catastrophic events and character deaths that most of the remaining few who hadn't already thrown their hands up and given up on Ultimates threw in the towel. Titles that owed their success to failing books in the mainstream continuity resorted to increasingly desperate-seeming tactics to remain relevant. This is why when word came down that Peter Parker was being killed off the reaction went something like this: “What? Oh, Ultimate Spider-Man... I'll go back to not caring now.” Sales spike every time these cries for attention hit the shelves, but it seems that no matter how many popular characters are killed, a few issues later, sales are down again, and most comic book fans are happily ignorant of the happenings in the Ultimate continuity.

This is why this is such a non-issue. So what if the new Ultimate Spider-Man is a minority? Nick Fury has been Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch for over a decade in that world. The chest-thumping from conservative politicians and pundits make a whole lot of noise about it, with vaguely racist undertones, and most comic book fans are thinking: “What? Who? You think this matters? That's not even funny, it is kind of sad...” There's a story here, but it is a story that is aimed at people who couldn't care less about comics, because to the vast majority of the people who do care about comic books, there is no story here. Political commentators have taken up arms to defend... well, no one. The fact that so much (including this article) has been written and said on a subject that matters to so few says less about the comic book industry, and more about how disconnected politicians and cultural commentators have become from the rest of the population.
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Timothy said...

No discussion of the three different earths DC used to rock (and how that alienated readers)?

Jay said...

even if it's under the ultimate title, i think it's hard to believe that anybody else could be spider-man other than peter parker. i mean, peter parker is spider-man and spider-man is peter parker.

even in the 616 universe, you could kinda guess that steve rogers would eventually take back his captain america title from bucky because steve rogers IS captain america and vice-versa.

and parker being killed off? sure, why not? because superheroes coming back to life NEVER happens in comicbooks. never. ;)

Jessica Thompson said...

Haha, wow that's cool!

Alpha said...

Your knowledge of the comic book lore is quite impressive.

Jason said...

Love this blog post! A really interesting read! Followed!

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