Have you ever seen a word so often that it starts to lose its meaning? Louis CK has a great bit on the word 'hilarious', go check the link (right about the 1:38 mark, NSFW language) and you'll see what I mean. Because it feels like the word "Ultimate" means nothing to me anymore. I don't know what Marvel means by it, I don't know why it's there now instead of a new label, but it's been on a lot of comics. Just as a word, the adjective has five definitions, all of them relating to a finite point. They're all various shades of getting to an endpoint.
So what shade do we call this particular line of comics? At NYCC editor Sana Amanat said that it wouldn't be right to put one label on them all, but one general theme of the Ultimate comics was of identity exploration, with characters like Miles Morales and Nick Fury coming into their own. I don't think that's enough. Identity exploration happens in all comics, and labels help you sell those comics. The word "Ultimate" needs to have meaning. Seeing that name should let the reader know what they're getting, after all, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke and Coke Classic are all different types of soda, but looking at the label, I know exactly what I'm going to enjoy (heaven forbid it say Pepsi!). I believe the Ultimate line started out with such a label, that they were a way to market a particular type of story to a particular type of reader at their inception, but just through time and ever-changing story, the Ultimate name has lost its luster and clarity. As an adjective it can mean five different things, and I'm not even talking about nouns (grammar humor!).
Right now, we have four titles united by one word, all different facets of their totality. Sit down and take note--I'm looking at you, Marvel Marketing--because I'm going to explain this and tie it all together.
We start with Ultimate Spider-Man, because that's where we always start. No offense to Mark Millar, Andy Kubert, and the rest of the hard-working artists and writers who have worked on the Ultimate titles, but Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley are truly the founding fathers of the Ultimate line. Also, maybe someone in editorial (I kid!). The premise was easy: a modern re-telling of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, and there was a market for it. Kids wanted to read about Spider-Man, but not 600 issues and some questionable and confusing story content (coughCLONE-SAGAcough). A back-to-basics approach not only lured new readers to the stands, but longtime fans as well, who yearned for a more streamlined web-slinger. The writing was fresh, the art was classic, and this is the one of the few times I can say that decompression storytelling was used for Good. The term "Ultimate" was probably more of a marketing decision (Do the Dew!) but it helped guide readers to the right books. Soon, there were modern re-tellings for everyone, from the X-Men to the Fantastic Four to the inspiration for the Avengers movie we'll be seeing in 2012. One can say that down the line the Ultimate titles jumped the shark; the clash between revamping classic ideas and genuinely new ideas ended in a turf war we call Ultimatum. There were casualties, and some of them were readers; no one is proud.
A fresh start was necessary, and so the Ultimate Comics era (Ultimate Comics: Spider-man, Ultimate Comics: X, Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates, etc.) started with all new #1's and a different premise. If anything, these comics tried to shuck off their former revamped shell and work within their own creation. A lot of new ideas had come out of the original Ultimate line, and it was time to start exploring them in earnest and using the continuity that had been established for even newer continuity. Love it or hate it, it was hard to confirm exactly why we bought this line, instead of the normal 616 universe. This was no longer the modern retelling of Peter Parker, and more a story that required knowledge of past events to enjoy, even if it wasn't a full 600 issues worth of prior history. In the end, we had this different, new universe from your standard Marvel set, but it was just as disconnected and complicated as anything you could read in Amazing Spider-Man.
So here we are again, currently at four titles (Ultimate Comics: All-New Spider-Man, Ultimate Comics: the Ultimates, Ultimate Comics: X-Men, Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye). Man, these titles are getting long. Anyhow, face value would say that these are all popular on the silver screen and in cross-market promotion, thus their own little boutique comic line. Everybody knows who the X-Men are, we all saw Hawkeye's cameo in Thor (GO SEE THOR), the average movie-goer will recognize all of these titles and should be drawn to them.
But can we pull something deeper from the label, and find ourselves in a gooey caramel center of understanding? That's my plan.
There are five definitions for the word Ultimate as an adjective, and right out of the gate, Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye easily fits the definition of "Maximum, decisive." This book is extreme tactical action, with all the explosions and pull-down shades of any summer blockbuster. He will certainly cut a striking figure in the Avengers movie as an action hero, and Jonathan Hickman and Rafa Sandoval are bringing that character to you in these solo adventures.
Ultimate Comics: the Ultimates would be the "highest, not subsidiary" in the definition line-up. In other words, the Ultimates are EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES. That's literally what that means. Out of the entire planet, these people are the mightiest and are not beholden to anyone above themselves. There is nothing these guys could not/should not be able to handle. Trouble stops here. I totally trust Hickman will be awesome in this book as well, for different reasons. His ability to think up fourth-dimensional problems for incredible third-dimensional superheroes will test these characters in a way that will not diminish their mightiness, and will provide some damned good stories.
Ultimate Comics: X-Men's story is the "last; furthest or farthest, ending a process or series". After everything that has happened before, there is a true sense of finality to the battle between humans and mutants. In this book, you will see the last of the X-Men, they've skipped the lead-up to Days of Future Past, and brought mutant internment camps and Sentinels to our doorstep. This kind of story will make the characters desperate, so that decisions made now will not have a do-over. These are the last, furthest, and farthest acts of the end of a species.
And at last we come to the heart and soul of the Ultimate Comics universe: Ultimate Comics: All-New Spider-Man. This will be the book that returns us to our "basic, fundamental" roots. Peter Parker represents something in all of us, so shouldn't the reverse be the same? Shouldn't a little of the diversity of mankind be represented in Spider-Man? Even from the first few issues, you can grasp something of what made you identify and empathize with a smart young man from humble beginnings, gaining extraordinary abilities, and learning to use them responsibly and honestly.
These are our heroes, in concentrated form, and the Ultimate line should be the final word on who they are.