Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Remember the Ultraverse?

In 1993, Malibu Comics launched a new super hero line called the Ultraverse. This wasn't an uncommon practice at the time, as it came on the heels of Image and Valiant's success and occured around the same period that other upstart spandex imprints like Milestone, Comics Greatest World, Defiant (which I remember way more vividly than I think I should) and more were sprouting like weeds.

I was 11.

I've got an inherent fondness for the Ultraverse that really isn't reflected in the body of actual work I own from its brief history. In total, I think I've got maybe two issues of Prototpye, an issue of Prime and an issue of Mantra in addition to both of the bookends to the Break-Thru crossover, the Ultraverse Origins primer/secret files one-shot (with a Joe Quesada cover), and the Ultraforce/Avengers two-issue mini that basically ended Ultaverse v1.

However, I can name just about every character from the Ultraverse, distinctly recall what they looked like and give you a pretty decent overview of the big events. I used to love drawing Prototype and the Night Man, and the one and only time I tried to enter Wizard's Homemade Heroes custom action figure building contest, I got three quarters of the way through turning an old Thundercats toy into a bootleg Solitaire. Solitaire!

So what was the inherent appeal that with less than 10 actual physical comics in my possession I dug the Ultraverse so much?

Well, in retrospect, I attribute a big chunk of it to the fact that the Ultraverse had no high concept, it was just some very talented creators trying to do good super hero comics. Look, I dig ambitious themes and whatnot as much as the next guy, but I also want to hurl every time I hear about a new team book that is going to be "different than the rest because these guys are pro-active!" Dude, every new team book is pro-active for the first five issues and then becomes like very other team because writing about characters going out and actively looking for villains is tough.

But that's a tangent and a rant.

My point is, sometimes it's nice to just see comic book folks just trying to do good work with the basics as opposed to overdosing on pretense. At a time when you had multiple super hero universes that were supposed to be set in the "real world," or where all the characters were multicultural, or where there had to be a mystic tie-in to everything, it was refreshing to see a non-Marvel/DC set of super heroes who were just that: a set of super heroes. I look at something like CrossGen and appreciate the goals, but wonder if they didn't also get a bit too cute for their own good; the Ultraverse never felt like that.

Not only did the Ultraverse not shun the general idea of just doing super hero comics, in some cases it outright borrowed from the classic tropes but put neat twists on them that set what they were doing apart. There was definitely an element of the original Captain Marvel in Prime, but Kevin Green's teenage inexperience and often warped idealism led down some interesting paths that the Big Red Cheese never really explored. Likewise, Prototype was a fresh take on Iron Man where the armored hero was a hotshot kid who didn't realize he was getting played by the corporate types as opposed to the boss wearing the suit. Hardcase was Wonder Man but as the most successful hero in the world. Sludge owed something to Swamp Thing/Man-Thing, Freex was part X-Men or Doom Patrol, etc., but none of these characters were strict carbon copies.

And I can't really think of anything else quite like the original iteration of Mantra.

It was also cool that the Ultraverse branched out beyond Super Hero 101 with stuff like Sludge, or a detective book like Firearm, or a straight up horror comic like Rune.

The roster of talented creators who worked there didn't hurt either. Steve Gerber, Gerard Jones and Steve Englehart were among the founding fathers of the imprint. James Robinson had a significant role. Up-and-coming artists like Terry Dodson, Darick Robertson and Paul Pelletier were honing their craft. And as the movement gained steam, legendary creators like George Perez and Barry Windsor-Smith signed on to be a part of it.

Break-Thru was actually the beginning of my love affair with the art of George Perez, as I had never seen his work before and was, of course, blown away. What with it being 1993 and the height of Image and all, I had truly never seen anything quite like George Perez before.

I have to also give the Ultraverse a lot of credit for being extremely new reader-friendly. I started with Break-Thru, which featured every single character in the fledgling universe (which was still a couple dozen) and by the end of issue one, I totally felt like I had at least a decent grasp on who each of them were and why I should care. A nice job was done taking snapshots of every corner of the world being created and bringing the different players on stage just long enough to let you know their deal without derailing the story. The very next month, there was some sort of "Origins Month" deal which included the one-shot I mentioned. In fact, they may have done too good a job being new reader-friendly, because I felt so immediately acquainted with the characters that I didn't feel any particular urgency to go out and get the individual titles as I was getting enough out of the samplers and was content to wait it out for the next line-wide event.

But of course this was the mid-90's, and longevity was not a gift many companies outside the big boys were gifted with.

By 1994, Marvel had purchased the Ultraverse, and by 1995 or so, it was no more, as there was only so much cash to go around in a rapidly bursting industry and keeping the X-Men and Spider-Man afloat had to be a higher priority than making sure Prime and Ultraforce stayed in circulation.

So the Ultraverse had a brief but potent impact on comics and on me as a reader. I do regret a little that I never made more of an effort to get into those books full-on, but on the other hand, it probably saved me from a good chunk of disappointment as well. Maybe next convention it's time for me to conduct an overdue expedition to fill-in the gaps in my Prototype collection between and around the two issues I actually own once and for all.


TJ Dietsch said...

I got introduced to Ultraverse when Norm Breyfogle came to my comic shop when I was about 10 or so and I needed to buy something for him to sign which lead to the purchase of a couple of Prime comics. I have a few other random issues here and there, but mostly remember the Ultraforce cartoon which was on USA and the one issue of the series that introduced Marvel characters like Black Knight, Juggernaut and the Phoenix Force into the Ultraverse.

Ben Morse said...

Norm Breyfogle is a guy whose work I'm not that familiar with, but I know some people wear by him and he had a lot to do with the Ultraverse. I probably should have mentioned him.

KP said...

I loved Norm's Batman as a kid, but I don't think the Flint shops really stocked the Ultraverse books heavily, or I was too busy reading Batman to notice. Like TJ, I think I bought one Phoenix Force issue with the Ben Reilly Spider-Man and saw the cartoon a few times.

But a few years ago, I bought like the first four issues of Firearm on the cheap, and that book is as good as Robinson's Wildstorm stuff from the same period. It's like a proto-Starman in some ways. Highly recommended.

Ben Morse said...

From what buzz I have heard, Firearm was the highest quality book of the line.

I've heard Prime praised for its concept, Mantra debated as to whether it was brilliant or just cheesecake, and even a small sect of Sludge devotees, but Firearm is definitely the book that gets the critical love.

Having just finished Windsor-Smith's Waeapon X, I do have something of an itch to check out Rune. I did read the Rune/Silver Surfer one-shot back in the day where he stole the Infinity Gems, but I don't think I actually bought it.

TJ Dietsch said...

I remember being really impressed by the one issue of Sludge that I had (#2). Holy jeez, Gerber wrote that book. Hey, if Valiant comics are getting collected again now, why not Ultraverse?

(Probably because they wouldn't make much money)

Jesse T. said...

I collected Prime for the first six issues or so; I still have the trade, even! Bendis definitely ripped some Ultimate Spidey beats from that book.
Kiel, do you have the Firearm issue that came with the live-action short film? I think Rickey almost bought me a copy once, but didn't. He hate me.

Ben Morse said...

That live action movie definitely takes the cake for one of the most unique "variants" of all time I'd have to say. It was some pretty ahead-of-its-time marketing, regardless of quality.

And anybody ever see the Night Man TV show?

Justin said...

If by "Remember the Ultraverse?" you mean "Did you have a pitch for a Prime revamp all ready to go for Marvel's Epic Comics experiment a few years back?" then yes. Yes I do.

KP said...

Ha! Just noticing all the comments on this thread. Jesse, I have the issue but not the tape as I bought it second hand at a used bookstore in Flint. I hear it's pretty sick. Shouldn't it be on YouTube by now?

Anonymous said...

I love the article, bro, and thumbs up for mentioning the Ultraverse after all this time long after Marvel's editorial idiocy ran it into the ground. The question is though why hasn't Marvel stated why they haven't brought them back yet? While it is hinted that there are problems between the creators, why not just settle them and be done with it? If anything, why not just sell the franchise off to another company that can make good use of the characters, such as Image or Wildstorm?
I mean if DC brought back the Milestone characters, why can't the Ultraverse characters be brought back?
Although I respect Marvel in several ways, I have never forgiven them for what they did to the Ultraverse till this day. said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.