The Ultimate Universe was the first Marvel revolution that occurred in the 2000s, featuring reimagined and updated versions of the company’s superhero characters, including Spider-Man and The Avengers. The imprint was launched in 2000 with the publication of the series Ultimate Spider-Man, giving a new origin for the character. Editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and publisher Bill Jemas were the masterminds behind the imprint’s success. Jemas pressed what became a financially lucrative effort to reimagine the superheroes as youngsters again and this new approach was influential for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which borrows heavily from the ideas of Brian Bendis and Mark Millar.
We sat down with Bill and talked about the genesis of the Ultimate universe and how things changed in the last few years.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get to Marvel?
In the early 90’s I worked at the National Basketball Association, managing the NBA card business. Marvel purchased Fleer Corp – a sports card and candy business and asked Fleer to diversify into entertainment cards. I had a good working relationship with the Fleer guys, so they asked me to join them to start up the division. We created beautiful cards and made a ton of money, but I was an outspoken critic of policies that, I thought and said, would drive the company bankrupt. So, I got fired. But it was a friendly ‘don’t go away mad´ kind of termination – they paid me my salary and a “please shut up” bonus, gave me a nice office in New York City. After a year or so of not doing much, I went to work at Madison Square Garden and Marvel did go bankrupt. In bankruptcy there was a battle for control among the people who drove Marvel into Bankruptcy, other people who ran Marvel (poorly) during bankruptcy, and the ToyBiz management team.
Luckily the Toy Biz team won out. Toy Biz, like Fleer had been purchased by Marvel, so I knew the Toy Biz team pretty well and they asked me to come back to manage the licensing business. I said yes, but only if I could also run the publishing business. At the time, that was like asking to captain the Titanic (post iceberg), so they said yes.
The Ultimate universe is fifteen years old. What was the first spark that set off the project (some sources say Warren Ellis’ 1997 column about the modernization of Fantastic Four, others cited a conversation of yours with Wizard founder Gareb Shamus)?
I haven’t read Warren’s article, but yes Gareb visited me during my last couple of days at MSG and pointed out that Marvel’s heroes had aged out of the teen demographic. Frankly everyone I spoke with as I was starting the new job (and I met with everyone who would meet with me as I was starting the new job) agreed that Marvel needed to reconnect with teens, it seemed clear that telling stories about teen heroes was a good thing to try.
Ultimate Spider-Man was the first series. It was carefully projected and you co-plotted the first story-arc. You decided to show the costume only after six issues.
Actually, we showed the costume on the first cover and every cover after that, but of course, you can’t tell a book by its cover.
True, although it is a major change. What were your other ideas about the character?
Peter was Stan’s character just reborn in 2000 with Brian Bendis breathing life into him.
What were the things that, according to you, the series had to have to be Ultimate?
Ideally, a new reader could pick up any Ultimates issue (certainly the first issue of a new story arc) and understand and enjoy the story. And, of course, I asked every Marvel writer to envision his or her story as a movie with a beginning, middle and end that plays our over 4-8 issues – rather than as an ongoing soap opera with no easy place for a new reader to start reading.
In retrospective, is there anything you would do different?
No. I’m not, by nature, very retro.
Do you think that if the Ultimate project had not worked out, Marvel would still have become what it became?
Mark Millar and Brian showed the creative community how to tell the kind of stories that could turn into a very good movies. Of course, you can make a great movie without having a great comic first – Men in Black, X-Men 1, Guardians of the Galaxy etc. But the business works so much better when comics are R&D for films. Moreover, Ultimate comics anchored very successful licensed merchandise programs that transformed Marvel from being always almost bankrupt to having huge funds to invest in growth.
So, talking about Spider-Man creative team, Brian Bendis was an indie author whose only ‘mainstream’ book was Sam and Twich, why did you choose him? What aspect of his works striked you to the point of hiring him?
Brian was and is spectacularly talented – it’s pretty pathetic that the editors at DC and Marvel had not already hired him to do mainstream books.
And you were the first guys to do that. Do you think that hiring Bendis was a starting point for a trend that had indie authors going into mainstream comics in the last fifteen years?
I don’t know much about DC, but can speak to Marvel. From the early 1990’s to 2000, Marvel’s doors were all-but closed to new talent. My team started a serious recruiting effort and Brian was the first new writer to prove that an open door policy was a good idea.
Like you said, the Ultimate universe had a very stressed tv show/movie structure and it was taken as a model from the movie industry.
Yes, the Ultimate line did stress structuring long-form stories with a beginning, middle and end. Ultimates were among first books to do that, but not the only ones, for example, JMS, Garth Ennis, and Grant were all doing similar work on their respective Marvel Universe titles. That change from soap-opera to movie style storytelling had three wonderful effects, generating much-needed revenues from graphic novels, providing a jumping-on point for new readers and fueling the script development process for motion pictures. All in all, we did usher in a new golden age of comic storytelling.
Well the Ultimate Universe is all over the Cinematic one. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot owns a lot to the Ultimate series. Do you think those movies worked? Was a rebooting process necessary in that case?
I haven’t seen Amazing Spider-Man.
Maybe for the best. One of the unsung heroes of the Ultimate universe was Grant Morrison, who seemed a crucial part of the project, suggesting Millar to you and giving him notes for Ultimates; in his book Supergods, Morrison described you as somebody who “misunderstood the fashion aspect of mainstream hero books and their need to constantly change with the times” and felt you and him were not on the same page. What what was his real contribution to the Utimate universe?
Grant’s run on X-Men was wonderful – some of the best X-books ever, and that’s saying something. I don’t recall his suggesting Mark to me for Ultimates, he and Mark probably have a better recollection that I do. I do recall trying to keep Grant on the Marvel team – I even got the board to approve granting him a pile of stock options (which would have been worth a small fortune), but he passed.
Nowadays the Ultimate universe isn’t going too well and the only strong title remains Spider-Man. What do you think worked so well to stand the test of time while the others could not. At what point do you think the Ultimate Universe started to decline? Do you think that taking so much distance from the classic universe hurt in any way?
Honestly, I stopped paying very much attention to Marvel after I left, though I still read some of Mark’s and Brian’s stories. I can say, in general, that Ultimates books are very hard to write and that it’s a challenging brand to manage. Think about it, Ultimates was just a mouse, nothing more than a ‘what if,’ ‘alternate,’ “out of continuity” universe, but somehow, we made the elephant dance.