I’ve had a long-standing soft spot for the Ultimate Universe. In the main, that’s due to my affection for Ultimate Spider-Man, the most consistently great superhero book of the last ten years. But between 2001-2008 (or thereabouts), I was a fan of pretty much all the other titles, too – I was a bit slower getting onboard with Ultimate X-Men, really disliking the early Millar issues but enjoying the latter part of his run immensely, but I lapped up Ultimates 1 & 2 along with everyone else in comics, bought just about all of the Ultimate Something miniseries, and even stuck with Ultimate Fantastic Four past its initially stuttering beginning.
Those early issues had struggled to make an impression, with Bendis and Millar’s writing styles never really clicking together (something that doesn’t give me great confidence for their upcoming Death of Ultimate Spider-Man arc or whatever it’s called) and the very creation of the characters giving rise to all sorts of internal continuity issues within a universe that at the time was less than five years old. But things took a dramatic upswing with the arrival of Warren Ellis – at the time, a huge surprise, as it was arguably the first time Ellis that had shown that he was more than capable of writing entertaining stories with the mainstream superheroes that (so the common perception went) he so despised. His two arcs on the book were nothing short of terrific – energetic, loaded with his trademark tech-idea-splurges (and thus a perfect fit for exactly what a modern-day FF book should be), and at times downright hilarious (the riffing on “Fantasti-car” in Doom, or the reveal of Johnny’s name for the shuttle in N-Zone); plus, although the second arc suffers from having lacklustre art from Adam Kubert, the first has got Stuart Immonen at his most sprightly.
After just those two arcs, though, Ellis was gone – and after a two-part fill-in from Mike Carey, original co-writer Mark Millar was brought back to try and inject interest back into the series. His first arc, a three-parter called Crossover, hinged on a pretty neat idea – teasing a potential crossover with the 616 universe for the first time – but quickly lost interest when it turned out to be a universe of undead zombies instead (and yes, if you didn’t know, it was this one humble little storyline that led to the existence of the entire relentless Marvel Zombies thing. So, yeah, thanks for that). But aside from providing an anticlimactic end to an intriguing build-up, there was something far more dangerous threatening my continued buying of the series – as joining Millar on the book as artist was the one, the only, Greg Land.
The name didn’t mean much to me when he arrived on the book – I didn’t really have pre-existing knowledge of just what he was capable of – but it didn’t take long to find out. There’s enough ranting about Land art on the internet already, of course, so I don’t need to go into great detail about just why I immediately found the book so unappealing visually – but two immediately obvious reasons would be the ever-changing hairstyles of Johnny Storm (depending on whom the traced image happened to be of at any given time), and the turning of Sue into Pamela Anderson (coupled with an immediate, erm, trimming of her usual wardrobe). It’s just tasteless, classless, soulless craftless nonsense – surface gloss without any sort of character, storytelling or depth behind it. It can be overlooked if the writing is good – but while Millar is capable of great comics from time to time, this was just him on autopilot.
The tipping point came, finally, with issue #24. Part one of “Tomb of Namor”, a story about… well, about Namor. And there are few characters in the entirety of both the DC and Marvel universes that interest me less than Namor. And few tedious, overblown, pointless stories that interest me less than the love triangle between him, Sue and Reed. Seeing the story redone yet again in the Ultimate Universe, with art by Greg Land to boot (“A story set underwater!” he must have thought. “I won’t even have to paint over the bikinis from Sports Illustrated this time!”), was simply too much. I gave the first issue of the arc ago, but it did nothing to inspire – and even, in what may just be one of the greatest meta-jokes of all time, gave Land the excuse to draw a panel showing a website called “Cheerleaders Gone Wild”. From that point, I was out – #24 would be the last issue I’d buy, and by the time Millar left a short while afterwards, even his replacement by Mike Carey wasn’t enough to tempt me back. When the team were ripped apart by Ultimatum a few years later, I had a twinge of regret for Reed – killed off before anyone had really managed to do anything with the vague potential shown by his character early on – but the end of the series as a whole was hardly something I mourned.