Man, what a day for comics, guys. Today, live and in person at your local comic shop is not only All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #10, but Ultimates 3 #5 and Hulk #6. For me at least, this is the equivalent of a new Mystery Science Theater box set coming out; long, dipped in snark and funny but not in the way nature intended. These books are my Three Horsemen of Stupid Fun Comics and boy howdy, do they sell well.
Letting ASBAR #10 take a break from the incessant news coverage it garnered this week, let’s turn our eyes to Marvel’s double duo of Knoxville-esque comics, Hulk and Ultimates 3. Both are by acclaimed and Eisner-award winning writer of page and screen, Jeph Loeb. Both have superstar artists that seem nothing but butter on titles like these; Ed McGuinness is the man to go to for big meaty brawls and Joe Madureira would make a team like the Ultimates super cool with his dynamic character designs and hyper-styled action. These should be glorious examples of the medium considering the weight of talent these comics bear and yet…
We’re not looking at award-winning work here, are we?
Could this possibly be a case of just not living up to the hype? Are the books a testament to what they could have been, the ridiculousness living long after them, the finer points of their work buried into back issues?
Let me tell you where I’m coming from, at least. With Jeph Loeb’s Hulk, it’s fairly straight-forward: I like Hulk Think and Smash rather than an exclusive choice of one or the other. Bruce Jones’s Hulk was way too thoughtful for my tastes and well, Loeb himself prefers the smashing and bashing to any sort of tretise on the human soul. His issues have been light on content, high on bad-assery as the red Hulk has basically kicked the living crap out of anything and everything that’s gotten in his way. Every single guest star that has dared show his face in this book has gotten kicked to the curb with a clumsy backhanded swing (or in Thor’s case a bad use of physics in space). The books practically come out every other month and each time it’s a two minute read at best. Today, we’ll get the final battle between red and green, but in the end, can we the reader actually say we care?
The Ultimates under Millar and Hitch was a pop-culture revival of Marvel’s premiere super-hero team. These were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes right out of the headlines of the hottest newspapers and magazines and did so extremely well that this is probably going to be the definitive version of the Avengers we’ll see come to the big screen. This is what we want to show our friends on how good comics can be. And then Ultimates 3 came along and seemed to do a total 180 on the concept, taking us nearly all the way back to a ’90s sort of style with hokey dialogue, characters drug back to more of a regular Marvel Universe styling and nearly everything the book had worked long and hard not to be. Thor spoke in thees and forsooths, Wasp lost a lot of her personality (not to mention her racial heritage), Hawkeye became a lunatic and suddenly, Wolverine had the spotlight. You practically had to check the cover of the book to make sure you had the right one as this was certainly not what was expected from the likes of Jeph Loeb.
And I think that’s wherein the problem truly lies: expectations. I think when writers or artists get legit, so to speak, people start to expect award-winning work from them all the time. If Ed Brubaker suddenly wrote an issue of Captain America wherein Bucky enters himself in a series of illegal car races in order to infiltrate and gain intelligence on the Red Skull’s Yakuza division, you’d be pretty confused. If Brian Bendis suddenly decided that Aunt May was gay and moving in with Mary Jane’s mom after moving to South Beach, you’d also look at that cover and wonder what happened to Ultimate Spider-Man. Put out a certain amount of quality, a certain type of character, people are going to expect it from you every time your name is on the cover.
Joe Quesada said at Comic Con this year that he didn’t want the tone of the Incredible Hulk movie to dictate the direction of the comics, that writers should have the freedom to take the character in new and interesting directions away from the norm. I fully agree with this, as without change, we stagnate and without invention, characters that we know and love wouldn’t catch the eye and delight us as much as they do. No one wants Hollywood executives to start telling Marvel how to write their books. At the same time, freedom is set by boundaries; by learning limitations, one can do the impossible within them or learn to surpass them. By just throwing out unlimited stories, it’s easy to lose sight of where you started from.
So while both books don’t do much for what came before them, they are doing something for what comes after; providing us understanding of what we want in a book and defining better what the stories and character means to us. Mediocre books don’t get talked about and in the case of Hulk and Ultimates 3, you either love them or you hate them. For a lot of readers, this is the Hulk they’ve been waiting to see. The art itself on both books is phenomenal and Ultimates 3 can easily say there is nothing like it on the stands. There’s a lot of humor in Hulk (though we all hope it’s intentional) and the story in Ultimates 3 is going to factor quite highly in Ultimatum if I’m correct, so you can’t say it’s devoid of plot. Things are happening here that are going to turn the Ultimate universe on its ear, whether that’s good or bad is subjective.
So in the end, I haven’t come to Jeph Loeb to praise him as others have for the ground breaking work he’s accomplished in his past. I come to remind you that what he’s doing certainly isn’t for everyone but we’re getting more out of it than those critical would believe. Don’t think of them as bad stories, see them as a learning experience.