I Believe In Jonathan Hickman: Superheroes vs The Status Quo

This past Wednesday, writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Stefano Caselli have come out swinging with their Marvel one-shot Ultimate Universe #1. Spinning out of the 4-issue miniseries Ultimate Invasion, which brought back Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics, this one-shot brings us closer to this new incarnation of the Ultimate Universe and only scratches the surface of what’s to come. Despite this new creative venture proving to be an aberration in an industry so locked into the status quo, many readers are, at best, cautiously optimistic, and at worst, outright apathetic to the new Ultimate Universe. I, however, choose to throw my lot in with Hickman and see where this thing goes. 

So, what was the original Ultimate Universe anyway? Put briefly, it was a mini Marvel universe set in the “modern day” of 2000 where many of its heroes were just starting fresh. It was gritty, the barrier to entry was low, and it proved very successful in bringing in new fans. More importantly, it was representative of Marvel’s commitment to trying new things, pushing boundaries, and trusting the vision of their creators. The legacy of the Ultimate Universe lies in its grounded, streamlined nature setting the tone for how the MCU would adapt these heroes for the silver screen. 

But what does any of this have to do with our friend Hickman? Well, in the latter days of the Ultimate Universe, he helmed its flagship title, Ultimate Comics: Ultimates. (I know, there’s a lot of Ultimate happening here). The Ultimate Universe would soon face the same problem as the main one: its convoluted continuity became a barrier to new readers. Hickman destroyed the Ultimate Universe in the 2015 Secret Wars event by literally crashing the main universe into its Ultimate cousin. 

For a long time, it seemed that Hickman had the final word on the Ultimate Universe. Its only survivors were Miles Morales and an evil version of Reed Richards named The Maker, a Hickman creation in the pages of Ultimates. Afterwards, Hickman moved on.

2015’s universe colliding event, Secret Wars

The man has a history of leaving creative spaces in order to helm new ventures, usually because of corporate meddling. Hickman left the company after writing Secret Wars, saying in his interview on the X-Men podcast Cerebro, “…I left Marvel in 2015 and I had very little intention of coming back, but some things happened and some stuff came up and they asked me to please consider coming back and obviously the Fox deal went through…”. His mention of the “Fox deal” is curious considering that disputes over film rights was what led to Hickman’s Fantastic Four series being canceled in 2015. He would later return to Marvel in 2019 to become the “Head of X” while relaunching the X-Men… just to leave the X-Office in 2021 to set his sights on Ultimate Invasion. 

But what makes Hickman’s Ultimate Universe any different from the original? Why should we buy into a regurgitated idea from 20 years ago that failed? Well, I have 5 words for you: 

I believe in Jonathan Hickman.

For some, Ultimate Invasion was a disappointment. Yes, the issues were overpriced (coming in at around $8.99.) Yes, the issues were slim on their page count (coming in at 58.) And yes, its conclusion did feel a tad bit rushed, feeling like there was a missing issue between #3 and #4. And, finally, this new one-shot does feel like it could’ve easily been Ultimate Invasion #5

However, I’ve listed out Hickman’s many achievements. He brought Marvel a bounty of sales during 2015’s Secret Wars, united mutantdom during his tenure on X-Men, and now brings his unique talent to the revival of one of Marvel’s greatest initiatives in recent memory. 

Promotional Art for Hickman’s 2019 Soft Reboot of X-Men

Ultimate Invasion does an excellent job setting the stage for a very different, very intriguing Marvel universe for new readers to get in on the ground floor of. 

Under The Maker’s construction, Earth 6160 is a place run by the elite where there are no heroes to wrestle power away from the leaders pulling the wool over our eyes. Hickman conjures a universe in which Howard Stark must suit up as Iron Man and Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic, must become Doctor Doom to fight the The Maker, a symbol for the status quo itself. In Ultimate Universe #1, we see Iron Lad, who has taken up his father’s mantle after his disappearance battling the Maker, and the new Doom continue their fight as the powers-that-be twist the narrative to keep the people of this world under their thumb. 

I don’t think Hickman was subtle in this regard. It was no secret that he was unsatisfied with the creative red tape at Marvel, leading him to leave the company once before. Now, he’s at the helm of his own universe to do what he wants with, and he’s committed to making the Ultimate Universe a place where creativity can flourish. In my reading, Hickman is embodied in both Howard and Tony Stark, as his fictional counterparts are, like him, fierce creatives that go against the grain and prioritize personal agency above all else. 

Hickman’s goal with this new universe is to do for 2023 what the original Ultimate Universe did for 2000. In his own words, he says “we also thought the very idea of Ultimate Comics needed to be inverted from what the original universe was—we wanted this to be something that could really only exist in the comic space: a new way of thinking about and enjoying a new version of the Marvel Universe.” 

The proof of this claim comes with Ultimate Universe #1. Iron Lad and Doom break into Asgard to retrieve Thor, who is branded a traitor and made a prisoner. Already, that was a crazy sentence. Such a premise would be possible, however unlikely, in the main continuity. Afterwards, they retreat back to base, with Lady Sif in tow, and storm The Maker’s old castle to retrieve artifacts he stole in order to rid the world of superpowers. For example, The Maker took the radioactive spider that would give Peter Parker his powers. Then, Thor gets stabbed by Ultimate Captain Britain, who is a member of the secret world order that the proto-Avengers/Ultimates are fighting against, but the team manages to escape Latveria with some of the Maker’s stolen treasure. The epilogue shows Captain Britain talking to his allies, who use one of Stark’s space lasers to commit an unknown atrocity and lay the blame at Iron Lad’s feet. In a news broadcast, we see the names of the dead, including Norman Osborn and May Parker.

Now, all we have left to do is speculate where things go from here. Looking to the future, we have the three new Ultimate titles announced at this year’s New York Comic Con: Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Black Panther, and Ultimate X-Men

Ultimate Spider-Man is an almost public slap in the face to Marvel editorial. In the main universe, Spidey has been kept in a cycle of character progression and regression, constantly flirting with the idea of making meaningful strides while always failing to develop in any tangible way. Since 2007’s One More Day, Marvel editorial has split Peter from Mary Jane in an effort to keep him a young, relatable bachelor. The Amazing Spider-Man title has been in free-fall for more than a decade now, and its most recent incarnation written by Zeb Wells never fails to set Twitter ablaze with every new issue. The events of that book, including MJ getting luck based super powers, her two imaginary time travel children, and the buddy cop Limbo demon known as “Rek-Rap” (it’s Parker backwards, get it?), seem solely designed to rage-bait its readers into picking up next month’s issue. In direct contrast, Ultimate Spider-Man seems like it could present a reasonable alternative for fans of the web-head.

The Maker capturing the Radioactive Spider

Under Hickman, this new Ultimate Spider-Man book will see Peter Parker–a middle aged man–married to his long time love interest Mary Jane–with children! Ironically, restoring the status quo from 30 years ago is the exact kind of rebellion that is synonymous with Hickman’s new Ultimate Universe. 

Hickman radically changes things wherever he goes, in whatever form that takes. He made the X-Men immortals who live on a tropical monster island. He made the Avengers a cosmic army of god-killers. He’s made the Ultimate Universe into a place that is no longer defined by pumping 2000’s grit and angst into classic Marvel stories, but dedicated to restoring a broken universe to a kinder, more heroic place where our heroes are the best, most creative versions of themselves. 

Hickman’s new Ultimate Universe is simultaneously a nostalgic return and a sincerely fresh take on these old, beloved characters. The trajectory of this line of books is shaping up to rival the original Ultimate suite in terms of sheer creativity. Reed Richards is Doctor Doom. Tony Stark is Iron Lad. Spider-Man is a dad. The world is upside down, but somehow Jonathan Hickman makes it feel right.