Marvel Comics has the upper hand these days when it comes to quality and creativity. Their main competitors at DC are mired in grit and gristle, more concerned with pandering to their established fanbase than seeking out new readership. Marvel was the same way for a long time; in an unexpected twist the great success of the Marvel Studios films has spurred them to try new things in search of new properties to turn into blockbuster films. Marvel’s old ways are still evident in some corners of their product line, particularly in their Ultimate universe. After a cataclysmic event in the Ultimate Universe (appropriately titled Cataclysm), Marvel is preparing to shake things up in that group of books, starting with the Survive! one-shot.
The Ultimate line debuted in 2000 with Ultimate Spider-Man #1. The idea was to reintroduce Marvel’s most popular characters in a more realistic, modern setting, without resorting to the total reboot that DC Comics is known to execute. I believe the line was rather successful for a time, particularly those titles written by Marvel super-scribe Brian Michael Bendis, whose knack for dialogue makes his characters very accessible. After several years the books’ quality dropped, as did readership, and editorial decided it was time for a change. Ultimate Magneto caused a massive flood that killed many characters (as well as many comic books). What resulted was an Ultimate Universe that was largely the same, save for a few new gravestones.
That has been one of the main problems with the Ultimate comics: resistance to change. The permanence of the status quo is an ever-present issue in mainstream comics, but in the Ultimate books Marvel had an opportunity to really make changes. A couple years later they embraced this opportunity, replacing Ultimate Peter Parker with a new Spider-Man and turning Ultimate Reed Richards (from the Fantastic Four) into a villain. Changes like these are novel, but don’t amount to much in the grand scheme. Last year it seemed like Marvel was finally ready to close the door on the Ultimate line, but Cataclysm ended up leaving things mostly intact, aside from a couple new deaths. And the decision to make Reed Richards a good guy again, actively undoing one of the few trailblazing decisions made in the last 14 years.
All of this brings us to Survive!, which acts as a bridge to the new version of the same old status quo. The issue depicts the eulogizing of one of the major recently-deceased heroes (with barely any mention of the other big fatality, which is confusing). Interspersed with this speech are flashbacks that whet the appetite (in theory) for the new books about to debut. I never finished Cataclysm, so presumably this book is for me – it should prepare me for the world I (or any other uninitiated reader) will find in next months first issues.
The real takeaway from Survive! though is how much of a rush job it clearly was. The issue is written by the aforementioned Mister Bendis, but it has barely any of the charm that makes Bendis readable. BMB (as I affectionately call him) has a tendency to overwrite, filling panels with word balloons, defeating the purpose of the form, which is supposed to be a synergistic combination of words and images. It is easy to tolerate this bad habit when the script is funny, but this issue is far too preoccupied with forced story beats and off-handed remarks about the millions of people who died during Cataclysm. It all made this issue more of a chore than anything.
Artist Joe Quinones didn’t help the matter too much. Quinones is a great talent, but his amazingly expressive characters are more appropriate for fun books, which this most certainly is not. In the last five years or so the Ultimate line has mostly been about destruction and death – not a good match for the perfectly cartoonish drawings Quinones is used to churning out.
Ultimately (I use this transition so much that I hate that it comes across as a pun here – and I love puns!), Survive! is an advertisement for more comics. It is not an effective one; Bendis and Quinones have not managed to convince me to check out any books I might not have otherwise. Marvel probably would have been better off skipping this one. Well, really they would have been better off letting Galactus eat Ultimate Earth, but that giant purple ship has sailed. Now it is just a matter of looking toward the future. Hopefully it is not nearly as bleak as what we are leaving behind.