The fairly recent announcement of a Prime feature film led me to dust off my collection of Ultraverse comics.
I began my rereading with Prime #1, which jumped straight into action with an overtly muscled superhero threatening a terrified man. Prime wasn’t fighting off some insane supervillain; he was menacing a high school gym teacher who had been molesting his students. As Prime went on to defeat more everyday criminals (never encountering an actual villain) I was pleasantly reminded why Prime would take time out of a busy superhero day to fight perverted gym teachers. The twist was Prime wasn’t a muscle-bound hero all the time. He also doubles as a thirteen-year-old who grows into the hero thanks to the latest in military protoplasmic technology.
It was concepts like these that brought Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse to the front lines with its launch of a new genre of comic books in June 1993. The company itself had been in existence since 1986, when Scott Rosenberg founded it with its inaugural title The Ex-Mutants. Rosenberg negotiated a distribution deal with the newly formed Image Comics. Image was a success, and infused Malibu with loads of capital to try new things.
The idea of launching such a universe came in 1992 when Malibu decided to build a universe from the ground-up. The fundamental idea was to bring together a group of seasoned writers to launch their new line. Unlike most comics, where history is fleshed out as monthly issues are released, the creators of this new universe would figure out where their characters came from long before the first issues ever hit the stands.
Originally titled the Megaverse, but changed to Ultraverse due to a rights issue, the comic book veterans brought together to launch the project were Mike W. Barr, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, James D. Hudnall, Gerard Jones, James Robinson, and Len Strazewski. “We had our first seminar in Arizona where we all got together and created the world and the universe,” Hudnall remembers. “All of the ideas and notes were compiled into a bible which was a point of reference for each of us to build on. We had an over all history of how the Ultraverse was formed. We worked out the histories of our characters and how they fit into this story.”
The writer who was tasked with creating the background for the universe was sci-fi legend Larry Niven, the last of Ultraverse’s “founding fathers”. Niven, author of the classic Ringworld series, would write extensive notes to help figure out where the characters of this universe, otherwise known as Ultras, received their powers from. Ultimately, it was a look into Niven’s literary past that would provide the other creators a place to start from.
“They went off for a week of blitzwork… I couldn’t go, but my materials went with them. They came back in love with the Alderson Disk from my article “‘Bigger Than Worlds,’” Niven said. The article, published in 1974, was an excellent starting point for the founding fathers and Niven took to work adding considerable supplemental work on the disk. The Disk was a flat planet the size of a Solar System, one side ruled by science, the other by magic. The world was christened “The Godwheel.”
As the launch date of June 1993 grew near, Malibu launched a massive advertising campaign rarely seen in the world of comic books. Crossing over from print ads generally run only in general comic-related periodicals, a promotional poster was designed which was subsequently plastered all over major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York. Additionally a massive television campaign was launched to increase the awareness of the non-comic collecting public. When the first three titles – Prime, Hardcase, and The Strangers — were launched, the advertising campaign would pay off with incredible sales figures.
“[The Malibu editors] knew that they wanted to kick comic book heroes up a notch,” said Strazewski. Co-writing Prime with Gerard Jones, Prime would not only face villains, but would face molestation charges when Prime continued to visit a girl his thirteen year-old alter-ego had a crush on or staying in superhero form to sneak into a bar. Mike W. Barr’s Mantra featured a character named Lukasz who battled a fellow sorcerer for thousands of years. In the final battle his nemesis would fall, but not before he was able to have Lukasz reincarnated as a woman. Now living as a woman named Eden Blake, she was an Ultra who not only fought evil but also fought the battles of motherhood and sexual harassment. Mantra would quickly rise to become a fan favorite.
Malibu would soon publish up to 15 monthly series, including Exiles, Firearm, Freex, The Night Man, Prototype, Sludge, Solitaire, The Solution, Warstrike, and Wrath. Niven would also start to plot his own book set to embellish his Godwheel creation. The Archers would “involve a couple of new superpowered nerds, two alien races, and some special features of the Godwheel,” Niven recollects.
From the start, Malibu would also tread into new waters, while embracing some of the heady, “anything is possible” feel of the early ’90s. James Robinson’s Firearm would release a zero issue that featured a thirty-five minute videotape. Written by Robinson, the live action film was part of the comic’s continuity, directly leading into the enclosed comic. Many of Malibu’s first issues had stunning holographic variant covers, easily besting the chromium covers that were popular at the time. Fan favorite Barry Windsor Smith, who enjoyed a reemergence at Valiant Comics, would soon come aboard to write and draw Rune, a comic about an evil vampire. A Prime videogame was quick to follow, released as a CD game for the Sega Genesis.
Malibu also put its comics on the newsstands so that they were available outside of comics shops, and supported it with another first, especially for independent publishers: mass media marketing, including television commercials on MTV and Sci Fi Channel, and even posters on busses and benches.
In November 1994, comic giant Marvel Comics, in heated competition with major studios, like Warner Brothers, would acquire the Ultraverse with its purchase of Malibu Comics, which would become a part of the somewhat nebulous “Marvel West” division of the New York-based company. The benefits for Marvel included an all-new range of characters to use (not just Ultraverse, but all of Malibu’s characters, which included Men in Black) and a plethora of extraordinary talent. Most important to Marvel was one of Malibu’s proudest accomplishments, their computer-coloring department.
The creators of the Ultraverse remained optimistic, seeing Marvel for the ability to aggressively promote their comics and the ability to cross-promote with advertising within Marvel comics. However, Marvel would quickly drive the first nail into the coffin when all of the Ultraverse titles cover prices were immediately increased. The very next solicitation of every Ultraverse series would suddenly increase from $1.95 to $2.50. Additionally, the books were dropped from newsstand distribution and made only available through comic book retailers. Sales of the Ultraverse books felt the sting instantaneously.
On top of the price increase, an unexpected turn would force the industry into a downward spiral. “There was so much stuff on the shelves then, and so much turmoil among retailers, that sales dropped precipitously in 1994,” Jones said.
Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse were taking competition from upstarts like Malibu, Valiant, Defiant, and Image. Collectors had been snapping up multiple copies of any “IT” book they could get their hands on, but with prices on single books starting to reach upwards of three dollars, and more and more comics being produced by the majors, a backlash started. Collectors would soon stop their compulsive buying and become choosier, causing a sales drop over the entire industry.
Fortunately for Malibu, Ultraverse fans (those that were buying the comics to read instead of just for an investment) kept their interest up as the comics were still looked upon as fun reading. When characters crossed over into other books, a general sense of adding to the characters’ continuity was considered relevant to the story rather than looking at the crossover as a way to boost sagging sales. Malibu’s first company-wide crossover “Break-Thru” was not launched simply as a marketing tool, but introduced readers to plots only glimpsed upon in the regular titles, plotting that had been conceived upon in the creator’s “bible,” helping to flesh out where the Ultras’ origins had come from.
But after the acquisition, the writers would also face stress from its Marvel editors in the form of flavor-of-the-month pencillers which they hoped would increase Marvel’s sales. “I know I would have not chosen certain people [editors] wanted as artists,” Hudnall said. “[Editors] begged me to accept certain pencillers that they wanted as the artists. They begged me to accept certain pencillers that did not work out. I should have stuck by my instincts and said no.” Some of the artists whose drawings would grace the pages of the Ultraverse include comic book mainstays Joe Maduriera, Mike Wieringo, Terry Dodson, and George Perez.
All of Marvel’s sales, Marvel and Malibu titles alike, were down. Marvel answered by canceling many of Ultraverse mainstays, including Hardcase and The Solution. “I think the later sales would have been enough to keep us going if initial investments and expectations hadn’t been so high,” Gerry Jones says. “The Ultraverse series were selling more at cancellation than half of the comics on the stands today, as I understand it.” While sales in the direct market were slipping, the Ultraverse books would find some significant sales thanks to books being available in newsstands across the country, although Marvel also canceled Malibu’s newsstand distribution. As Malibu prepped for its upcoming Godwheel crossover, an event would transpire that would change the young universe forever and eventually lead to its downfall.
The well-received Godwheel miniseries would go on to feature an inevitable crossover that would cast a dark shadow over the Ultraverse. When the evil Lord Argus finds himself losing in battle to the Ultras, he tries a last minute summoning of a demigod for help. What comes forth however is no demigod, but Mjolner, the hammer of Thor, closely followed by the Thunder God himself. With Thor’s help, Argus is defeated, but the repercussions of the summoning would lead to Thor’s enemy Loki being left on the Godwheel, while villain Rune was transported into the modern Marvel cosmos. What started as a simple Marvel crossover would soon cause an influx of Marvel’s top characters into the Ultraverse. Suddenly the Avengers, Wolverine, the Incredible Hulk, and even Conan the Barbarian were suddenly crossing over to team-up with the Ultras. These team-ups for the most part were limited to the Ultraverse books, kept out of the monthly Marvel titles and continuity.
“I think a lot of bad decisions were made after that,” Hudnall notes. “Someone started this whole thing of trying to shoehorn in Marvel characters into the stories, which was a mistake. Then they started canceling our books and replacing us with bad Marvel hacks that turned in some terrible stories. I was happy to be out of there when that happened.”
With all that was happening in the comic book medium, the Ultraverse still made its presence known on the small screen. DIC, known for creating 80′s icons like Inspector Gadget and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, would produce an animated show based on the Ultraverse’sUltraforce. Ultraforce would feature Prime, Hardcase, and other powerful Ultras facing off against the villainous Lord Pumpkin while concurrently premiering to strong ratings. However, the deals for both the cartoon and subsequent Ultraforce toy line, which had been finalized before the Marvel merger, would cause instantaneous tension. As the cartoon wasn’t distributed by New World, the company that distributed all of Marvel’s shows, and the toy line wasn’t produced by Toy Biz, which produced all of Marvel’s toys, politics at Marvel led Ultraforce to the animated graveyard after just thirteen episodes. The Ultraforce cartoon would also affect the second volume of the Ultraforce comic book written by Warren Ellis.
“The only other thing that otherwise marred this relaxed job was the presence of the Ultraforce cartoon,” Ellis has noted on his website, www.warrenellis.com. “It was a quick flop, but my run on the comic coincided with its pre-production and release, and I was prevailed upon to make my approach a little milder than I might otherwise have done due to the cartoon and its presence as an advertisement for children to read the book.”
Galoob, the toy company producing the Ultraforce toy line, was shocked by the decision, especially since the ratings were still strong for the cartoon. Though there were still more figures to be produced for the line, the entire line stopped production due to the cartoon’s cancellation. Ultraforce toys would quickly find their way onto the clearance aisles.
The live action Night Man television series, distributed by Tribune, would fare better with a full two-season run. The show would start off as the second highest rated syndicated program on television but would also feel the sting from Marvel as Marvel’s bankruptcy would affect the relationship between Marvel and Tribune. The tension would cause Tribune to stop promoting their own show and ultimately cause them not want to go forward with a third season.
“I was also upset to see the work we did get trashed by vandals who didn’t care about anything we created,” Hudnall adds. “All of us founders cared about our books and we liked our characters.” Ultraverse titles continued to be changed on the creators or simply cancelled. For instance, as volume two of Mantra began under Marvel’s guidance, the decision was made to suddenly change the 1500-year-old male trapped in the body of woman and hand off the powers to a new teenage Valley girl Mantra.
Fans would quickly leave the book, irritated with Marvel’s decision to severely stray from the established continuity of the character. Barr would continue writing the book only until issue 4, when he suddenly left the series. A quick glance at this issue shows Barr’s frustration: his writing credit is missing from the issue, the space in the credit box for the writer’s name, left blank.
Hardcore fans were still reeling from the decision to needlessly abandon their favorite busty brunette Ultra for the new blond cheerleader Mantra up until its very end. The letter column of the last issue ranted “You’ve gone from ‘first’ to ‘worst’ so I’m outta here!!” to “Have we just witnessed the worst decision in the annals of comic history…?” Even Associate Editor Dan Shaheen would chime in, “We have quite a list of disgruntled fans. I can say with all honesty that I’m glad that I had absolutely nothing to do with the demise of this book!”
Marvel, now suffering from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, decided to cut major costs in 1996. Massive lay-offs within the company caused many titles to be cancelled, including the 2099 line and any licensed books, like Beavis and Butthead. The entire Ultraverse line was placed on the chopping block and all of the Malibu staff was fired, sans the coloring department. Only two Malibu staffers would remain, Shaheen and editor Mark Paniccia, who would stay on only to see the last remaining issues of the line printed.
Only three monthly titles remained in the Malibu bullpen, with some obligatory mini-series and one-shots still surfacing with Marvel characters. Prime would still have its original creators writing the book, though Strazewski notes that it wasn’t the same with their characters creatively gutted. Faced with young editors who did not know their material, the creators of Prime quickly became worn out from mistreatment. “Here were editors who had never written a comic, or maybe just one, and they were trying to edit the works of professional writers,” said Strazewski. “It just wasn’t working out.” Strazewski and Jones would both leave the book a few issues before its demise.
Englehart would continue writing The Night Man no matter what Marvel requested changed on the character. “I figured if changes were made, I could make them better than anyone else,” Englehart recollects. “The Night Man changed but I kept it within the reality I established. For my part, it’s pretty well known that I put myself completely into my titles, so I wasn’t leaving them until they pried them from my cold, dead fingers.” Englehart would remain writing his title until the very end.
In January of 1997, Ultraverse: Future Shock was released, a one-shot meant as a wrap-up to the Ultraverse but proving to be the last nail in its coffin. In the end, an early Marvel advertisement run in the Malibu books could sum up the entire debacle in seven easy words. The advertisement was a black page with white print reading, “Marvel read the Ultraverse. Look what happened.” In just over a year since the buyout, the Ultraverse was no more. The advertisement could now be considered a tombstone as the remaining titles vanished from stands and the Ultraverse faded from the minds of any readers it had left.
The new millennium saw a chance for an Ultraverse resurrection when Marvel approached Englehart in 2001 about bringing back some of the characters. “I was ecstatic, thinking we’d finally turned the corner, and worked out a book starring the big Ultraverse names,” Englehart said. The book was to feature The Night Man, Prime, Hardcase, Mantra, and Sludge all back in action, “but Marvel went cold on the idea when they realized our Malibu contracts specify that we get a percentage of revenues generated.”
In October 2002, Marvel Studios held a press conference to announce the launch of two new projects to be produced with Universal Pictures. Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad was pleased to announce that Prime was one of the film projects. The film had been in planning stages while the comic was still being produced, but had been stuck in development hell with rewrite after rewrite being churned out by multiple writers, including a draft by Toy Story 2 writers Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb. “Prime is a complete departure from the standard super hero story,” said Arad. “With this film we are developing what we think will be Marvel’s first super hero action-comedy.” Prime’s new writers, pegged as the hot young creative team of Don Calame and Chris Conroy, have only one screen credit to their names. The film will be produced by Arad and executive produced by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
Rosenberg, who launched Malibu Comics 1986, is now Chairman and CEO of Platinum Studios, which turns comic books into film projects. Platinum Studios is well known for such projects as the big screen version of Malibu’s Men in Black comic and Showtime’s original series Jeremiah. His office could double as a comic book store, spinner rocks stacked full of Ultraverse comics, Prime and Mantra 6-foot standups, a Nightman TV poster, and even cards and Ultraforce toys lying about. Rosenberg is working hard with Marvel to bring the Prime movie to fruition. When asked if a final draft has been completed for the movie, Rosenberg is quick to note, “Nothing’s ever final in Hollywood until the movie’s complete. That said, there’s a current draft which is attracting some directing interest.”
“The script is still subject to some tweaks and changes, and with director choices affecting the tone somewhat, it’s too early to tell,” Rosenberg had to say on where the target audience might lie for the film. “Currently it’s a pretty fun movie. I’d hesitate to guess, but most likely adults over the age of 124 might not find it of interest and I would frown upon bringing anyone prior to inception,” Rosenberg kids. “Seriously, we are trying hard to make a cool movie that everyone will enjoy.” The project still has no principal actors or a director attached and is still too early to tell when the Prime film will be shot and released. Platinum Studios continues to partner with Marvel Comics to try and find other Malibu characters that could be produced into feature films. “Finding the right character isn’t always the hard part, it’s finding the right story for a film,” says Rosenberg. “And having a studio agree that it is the right story.”
While most of the Ultraverse line can now be found in most quarter boxes, their creators have moved on. Barr and Jones are enjoying careers in the literary world, Barr recently writing a Star Trek novel while Jones works on an upcoming book about superheroes. Niven, whose Archerscomic never saw print, also continues to write science fiction with his newest Ringworld novel released in 2003. Strazewski teaches students about writing as a journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois. Englehart enjoys a multi facet career of comics, TV, and animation, including work on the upcoming Tron 2.0 videogame. Hudnall, Gerber, and Robinson are still writing comics today.
From comics to cartoons, videogames to TV shows, the Ultraverse accomplished much in its brief tenure. It remains to be seen if a resurrection of a Prime comic will come about to coincide with the upcoming film. With both Jones and Strazewski willing to return to their creation once again, only time will tell if the Ultraverse will one day be resurrected. “It was mostly a great time,” notes Hudnall. “I think it was fun while it lasted. I wish we could have done more.”
Today the Ultraverse lives on through multiple fan sites on the web, including a site that hosts fan fiction stories of popular characters like Mantra and Prime. Malibu Comics continues to make its presence known as live action features based on the Men in Black and Jeremiah comic books continue to thrill. Ideas for feature films based on Mantra and Freex have been thrown around and it only remains to be seen if more films will follow in Prime’s wake. Will the Ultraverse ever reappear in comic book form over at Marvel Comics? Only time will tell.
But it never hurts to call Marvel and ask them when they plan to do so.