Not every book is for every reader. Senior Vice President of Publishing and legendary (infamous?) editor Tom Brevoort says something to this effect on a near-daily basis on his Tumblr blog. The thing is, many people enjoyed All-New Ultimates. But if you go find reviews on IGN, Comicsalliance, SuperiorSpiderTalk, ComicVine, or even this very website (and by yours truly) you will see from nearly the get-go it got universally panned by reviewers and critics. Being that Comic Books have yet to organize in a “Game Informer”-esque fashion again since the demise of “Wizard” magazine, it’s hard to say comic book professionals panned the series. A lot of reviews are the usual junk you get when you search for a critical response to a comic; a rage-fueled fan person using flop-house vocabulary that a sailor wouldn’t use on a submarine under the water, miles away from their mother.
That said, sometimes when the fans are that angry it pays to listen. Let’s start at the actual beginning. Michel Fiffe, author/artist to the creator-owned/self-published series COPRA (which is absurdly unique and intriguing and should be read by anyone willing to give it a shake) is an incredibly talented comic book writer. He is enigmatic, out-of-the-box, stylistic, and his stories have an urban, rule-breaking, early 80’s punk rock vibe to them. As did All-New Ultimates mind you, but we’ll get to that.
There’s also artist Amilcar Pinna, a man who is just stupidly talented. He is a self-made artist from Brazil who got noticed for his authentic, well-crafted, and (again) unique take on a variety of well-known characters. Whether he made his circuit at cons or simply through the DeviantArt/Tumblr spaces of fan-art is a piece of knowledge only his most stalwart followers will know but the fact stands that he is another up-and-comer who did it (like Fiffe) with perseverance and talent alone. Nolan Woodard, who has been attached to Marvel for some time but can also be attached to titles from IDW and Thrillbent to only name two, is also an outstanding creator in his own right. His colors are distinct and fun, as well as easy to recognize when you see them.
So what went wrong? I will not pretend to know the relationship of the creators and thus speak on them as if I could possibly (with any accuracy) predict why the comic continually felt like a first-time comic for each of them. Instead, as a first-time-comic-writer myself (yes I just tooted my own horn, and I am not even slightly apologetic over it), I will speak on that instead. As a writer, finding an artist to pair your work is difficult. It’s just stupidly hard. As if writing a comic book wasn’t difficult enough, now you have to basically write for another human being. But something Brian Michael Bendis wrote in his book “Words For Pictures” has stuck with me tremendously… there are two people (or if you’re lucky three or four), who will ever actually read your script. When you realize that/come to terms with it, you understand why the artist/writer relationship is so important. Matt
Writer Matt Fraction (Hawkeye/Sex Criminals) calls the Marvel Style script a “love letter” to the artist. You are writing to them, serenading them with your song. You want them to jive to your groove, so you have to write a groove that they jive to. The amount of copacetic good vibes that need to be flying between both artist and writer should be enough to cause Aphrodite to want to come from the heavens and get in on that shit. I did not see the love in any of this series. That does not mean it wasn’t there, but it probably means it wasn’t. When the writer and the artist jive and mesh in such a way that the page sings with harmony, it’s immediately clear. Take Bendis/Marquez/Ponsor on their run throughout Ultimate Spider-Man. The pages flow, there doesn’t appear to be any hiccups. There’s no cause for error or misunderstood directions for character movements. Panels are fluid, they don’t bang against one another or mismatch inappropriately.
Another classic example is the Nick Spencer/Steven Lieber duo. A writer as witty as Spencer needs an artist who plays the humor as well as the melodrama. The two are so harmonious together it is the only real reason why a series as ridiculous as Superior Foes of Spider-Man even stood a chance. Sometimes the artist and writer don’t get to choose one another. Many writers and artists have talked about this.
From Dan Slott and Brian Michael Bendis to G. Willow Wilson and Gail Simone, I have seen responses to Tumblr asks, Tweets, and FormSpring questions all regarding this concern. It’s a pleasure when you get to do so but it’s not always the case.
There’s multiple scenarios in building a creative team in a non-creator-owned company such as DC/Dark Horse/Marvel. Here’s a few (and they are not the only options):
1) A team is formed outside of the company after two creators share a spark of an idea. They quickly form a pitch and develop some thumbnails and deliver the sell of a lifetime to an editor/team of editors.
2) Editors specifically designated to brainstorm new ideas handpick teams they are comfortable with/are confident can work together. The entire team, editors/writers/artists, map out a story arc and if they’re smart, install some safe points to end the story if it gets cancelled.
3) A new creator gets to step up from the whack-a-mole books and is given a “big book” (read: a title with a little more importance than the Ultimate Spider-Man TV Series comic adaptation). S/he is asked to pitch an idea or pick up where another creator left off. They are matched with an artist.
4) Same scenario as above but are given the option to work with a specific artist.
5) An editor tells another editor “Hey, this person looks good, but I can’t use them on [ex: X-Men], so why don’t you try them out on [ex: Fantastic Four] and see if they have what it takes to jumpstart the new [ex: X-Men] book we are doing in a year?” At the end of each of these examples, a contract is signed and the writer/artist are obligated/expected to perform a certain workload by a certain due date on a monthly (quarterly/weekly/daily-depending on the editor’s workload/release pattern of the book) basis.
I don’t know which of these (or others) happened to All-New Ultimates but I’m willing to bet it was a combination of these things. The story is that Michel Fiffe wrote a 12-part series that was designed to end in 12 issues. I don’t buy it. He introduced 17 new characters by name and up to 35 if you include various members during the gang war. Every character Fiffe used he took from a specific era of Marvel/Spider-Man comic books. The mid-80’s to early-90’s era. This is where the sort of punk-rock vibe comes in. In that regard, I can understand using a non-conformist/non-traditional artist like Pinna and a very bright-pallet using colorist like Woodard, but the combination of the three was just a mess.
There are things I never said in my reviews because it’s not fair during a professional review to cheapen the quality of work any artist put into their story, be it pencils, colors, or words. However, now is the time to be blunt. Pinna’s artwork looked rushed, hackneyed, and unprofessional. At no point did any of it resemble anything close to the pristine, practiced, finite work he features on his site. I don’t know if this is just an artist who has never had an opportunity to work under the barrel of a gun for deadlines before and he just spent twelve issues learning how not to bungle a comic book shipping date, but I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what happened. The fact that Giannis Milanogiannis had to step in at the mid-way point is a tell-tale sign of three things:
1) The sales/PR/editors saw the negative feedback online/in their mail boxes and reacted
2) Pinna’s pages were coming in sloppy or late or both
3) Fiffe was having a hard time communicating with him (and/or Woodard, or Woodard with Pinna). Regardless of what was going on (because again — it could be something simple like there was a family emergency in Pinna’s life and he had to take care of it, which does happen, — the art was not what you will find on his sites/other work.
As a writer, I want my artist to know exactly what’s going on all the time and if he doesn’t, I’m screwed. I explain to him frequently to never blink at the idea of calling me at three in the morning if he’s thumnailing or doing inking. “A piece of dialogue doesn’t make sense?” I may ask, “then call me. Immediately.” He cannot, for a moment, be in the dark. If the person taking my stuff and putting it on a page is confused, then certainly the person reading said page will be.
This is why I put much of the blame on Fiffe. Michel Fiffe is a self-made star. COPRA is a self-published book that he does art and writing for. He doesn’t do everything on the book alone, but in the comic book sense he is to his comic what M. Night Shyamalan is to his films, completely and totally involved in every step of the process. Which is great. In regards to COPRA it works beautifully. A wonderfully executed comic that is a joy to read. In a “big-leagues ball game” of Marvel, you can’t be that involved. So maybe he washed out details, expecting Pinna to notice? Maybe Pinna got sick of it and sick of waiting for pages and just did what he could and sent it out. Or maybe he was showing the editor the opposite of what he showed the artist. It’s not likely, especially in this day and age, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Tumblrs of all those professional comic book writers answering questions — it’s not exactly impossible either.
When all is said and done, the book tried to be a million and three things and it only needed to be two.
1) It needed to be a book for the Ultimate franchise. Every single incarnation of the 616 universe that Fiffe introduced was more-or-less acceptable to stellar. It was what Ultimate books were made for. Fresh, re-imaginings of old characters we all know so well we don’t expect anything to change. Unfortunately, he never changed it enough. The costumes were ridiculous. The dialogue was obscenely cliché and straight from the era of comics that the characters were pulled from. It was a love letter to Michel Fiffe’s Long Box and that… that’s sad. That’s called fan-writing.
2) The book needed to celebrate the diversity and youth (vitality?) of it’s new cast. The white-washed heroes of olde are gone and in their place we have Lady Thor, a young arab-american Ms. Marvel, hispanic Ghost Rider, African-American Captain America and in the Ultimate Universe, a Latino/African-American Spider-Man! MILES MORALES, the premiere and clearest example of what I proudly call the “Age of Diversity” in Marvel comics, has a team filled with minorities.
Not a single white dick was there to flop out and fling itself around. And instead, this unique take felt squandered and misused. It took an opportunity to have serious characters dealing with homosexual feelings such as Jessica and Kitty and churned it into a girl-crush.
They took a serious conversation about suicidal thoughts and urban youths under peer pressure throughout Poey and Lana’s storyline and turned it into a teen dramedy, discussed lightly over a beach towel in bikinis.
Pre-marital sex and genetic dumb-fuckery with Tandy and Tyrone. I mean, talk about a great story there! And if Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are the 616-mixed-race couple to tout around with pomp and circumstance, they should’ve turned Ultimate Cloak & Dagger into the Ultimate equivalent!
The entire series felt like a myriad of missed opportunities all for the sake of Michel Fiffe’s lovely fascination with D-lister villains. While Miles Morales is fighting for his life and sanity in his own title and helping the Original Five X-Men find their way home and out of Ultimate Doom’s grasp in All-New X-Men, here he simply has a boyish infatuation with Diamondback which may or may not be explained by her dust powder.
The amount of missing panels gave it a sensation that felt like a poorly edited film. That bothered me too. Things like diamonds showing up and characters acting like “oh hey, just another diamond. Probably doesn’t mean anything. Diamondback is probably not around.” or the word bubbles being directed from the wrong character… these are all editorial oversights that are so easily resolved it’s a shame and a bit of an embarrassment they even happened.
But what bothered me the most, and I mean this, is that the voice of the characters within ANU never matched (or reached the full potential of) what we have read of these characters previously. Bendis established six incredible characters. The only one to come out of this series with any sort of improved development is Lana and that is only because she is the only character we were allowed to “hear.” The opportunity to get inside her head no only should’ve been done sooner, but it should have been shared amongst the team.
On other issues we should have been inside Jessica’s head, Kitty’s, Tandy’s and Tyrone’s. Even Miles. As a reader of the Marvel line-up of books, I can respect the decision to give Lana the narratorship towards the end. Jess and Kitty have had enough development in Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man/Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man alone that to be in their heads would seem redundant… maybe. Tandy and Tyrone, though unique within the Ultimate Series, have had their own comics on and off since their conception in the 80’s (70’s?) and their Ultimate counterparts appear to be more-or-less the same but aged down dramatically. Miles is most obviously the least qualified for narrating as we already get an entire series about him and him alone.
That said — as a creative writer, even I think I could’ve made that work. And yes, reading that back it absolutely sounds narcissistic as hell. I mean who am I to say that I can write better than Michel Fiffe, the celebrated/self-published/talented author who was given an opportunity to write not just Ultimate Spider-Man, but to build a world around him and his friends?
I’ll tell you who I am.
I’m the guy who read his book and paid $3.99 an issue for 12 months and with each issue I just kept hoping, kept praying, that this stupid fucking series had a point.
And I’m writing now, angry and heart broken, torn and stupid, because I was let down 12 issues in a row at $3.99 a pop. And as awfully churlish and fan-boy as it sounds… I can imagine a much more vivid, intelligent, and creative story in my own head.
Tyrone and Tandy could have shared issues together narrating the events of their love, their past, and their break-up.
To get inside Jessica’s head for the first time since before Cataclysm and more importantly, during the time that she comes out as a lesbian (transgender?) is a wonderful opportunity that could have attracted readers with similar problems at stake, bringing in a diverse readership and opening the market a little more.
Miles has so far only been written by Brian Bendis, Michel Fiffe and Dan Slott, and even Slott got inside his head better than Fiffe. Why did Miles help Diamondback? Why did he have a thing for her? What was it? Why was the readership left in the dark? Was it intentional?
Lana was the best character in the series who started off as the Wesley Crusher/Rick Grimes of All-New Ultimates. When she wasn’t being a hot head, she was screwing something up. Just stay in the house, Lana.
Kitty Pryde is a fascinating character who is beloved by numerous fans. Even a single issue from her stance would have cleaned up a lot of the criticism and gotten back into the good graces of long-time Ultimate Spider-Man fans. I know it’s harsh, I know it’s unfair… but for me it’s the truth.
All-New Ultimates is the first time I have ever actually despised a comic that I have purchased. I have to say,… if I have to look at these books in my box for one more week, I might cry at the thought of how much money they represent. Off to Savers they go.