New 52 Justice League vs. The Ultimates

I’ve seen three new comic movies this year: The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-man, and The Dark Knight Rises. They were all incredibly different experiences–Spidey was fast and fun, Batman was gritty and epic, and Whedon’s superteam was witty and heartfelt.

The Ultimates 3 - Number 5 Cover

The one thing they all had in common, though, was each new movie made me miss reading comics a little more each time. Until I just couldn’t stand it any more.

So I’ve spent the better part of the last week sorting and organizing my old comics collection, and I’ve narrowed down my reading to two specific categories: Marvel’s Ultimate Universe and DC’s New 52.

The two universes share a common foundation: a fundamental reboot of continuity and intertextual narratives.

Having narrowed down which comics universes I was going to be working through, I figure there’s nowhere better to start than with each company’s signature superteam titles: The Ultimates and Justice League.

The Ultimates - Number One CoverNew 52 Justice League - Number 1 Cover

Apples and Oranges?

While The Ultimates was not the first Marvel Ultimate title–it was the third, two years behind Ultimate Spider-man and Ultimate X-Men–it has become a kind of flagship comic for the universe since its inception in 2002. The titular superteam has been through four limited-run series and innumerable tie-ins and crossovers.

The New 52 Justice League, on the other hand, has just under a dozen issues, no major tie-ins or crossovers, and hasn’t even hit the one-year mark of its launch. It’s still an embryo by comics standards.

That said, it’s not fair to compare the current state of The Ultimates to the New 52 Justice League. So I’m going to talk about their debut story arcs, both of which coincidentally run right at six issues.

Ten Years Ago…

Marvel was floundering. They were on the verge of going under and would do anything to revitalize themselves. They sold movie rights to their properties willy-nilly, and they used the Ultimate line of comics to prove that you could tell great superhero stories in a modern context with relatable, human characters.

The Ultimates -  ThorSo in 2002, The Ultimates launched. It was written by Mark Millar and focused on what it would be like to put together the world’s first superhero team (in a world where superheroes were just going public, mind you).

Sound familiar? It should. If you’ve seen any of Marvel’s Phase One movies, up to and including The Avengers, they pretty much lift Fury’s assembling of the Avengers from how his comic-self put together The Ultimates.

But here’s the thing: The Ultimates isn’t about superheroes. Not really.

Issue 1 opens with Captain America talking to soldiers in WWII, and from there, you learn about Bruce Banner’s inadequacy issues, Hank Pym’s violent streak, Tony Stark’s megalomania and alcoholism, and Steve Rogers’ old neighborhood going to hell.

You barely see the superheroes themselves. Because the story isn’t about the action and the spectacle. Sure, they fight a rampaging Hulk, and there are some fantastic action shots of Captain America dropping a tank onto Smashy McSmasherson’s head, but that’s pretty much contained to about one issue. The other five are about the people it all happened to.

Ten years ago, Millar did the same thing to The Ultimates that Whedon did to The Avengers: he took something larger than life and made it personal. He told a good story.

Ten Years Later…

So with The Ultimates being my decade-old touchstone for how to tell a good superhero story, I downloaded some Android comics apps for my Galaxy Note and snagged the first few issues of Justice League.

Issue 1 was okay. The art was pretty (Jim Lee), and the writing was solid enough (Geoff Johns). It had Batman being all gruff and no-nonsense as he met up with Green Lantern for the very first time. Not Bruce Wayne and Hal Jordan–Batman and Green Lantern. 

New 52 Justice League - Batman

They bicker, Hal makes a few jokes, and eventually they uncover that there’s something up with these “Mother Boxes” that are appearing all over the world, so they seek out Superman. Again, not Clark Kent–Superman.

New 52 Justice League - Superman

Which makes sense because these guys don’t know each other yet. The next few issues are other heroes finding the Mother Boxes and being teleported together and forced to fight alongside one another as Darkseid pops out of a boom tube.

Long story, short: day is saved, heroes get a medal, and the New 52 Justice League is founded.

And by the end of it all, the reader knows absolutely jack-squat about those people. They know Green Lantern likes to play bad cop, that the Flash is a cop, and that Cyborg has daddy issues. But as far as emotional connections, resonance, or even a reason to give a damn?

It ain’t there.

The New 52 Justice League is all spectacle. It’s fun, sure, but there’s no real story there. There was no reason to care about Darkseid destroying the earth. There was no real fear for the characters because I didn’t know them.

And after seeing The Dark Knight Rises and watching The Man of Steel teasers, I can’t help but feel that the New 52 did the exact opposite of Millar: they took stories that are grounded in the personal (Bruce’s parents’ deaths, Clark’s relationship with Ma and Pa Kent, Hal’s arrogance, and Diana’s isolation) and made it all larger than life.

Which is a shame.

The Ultimates Number Two Cover - Iron ManLesson Learned?

Maybe it’s too early to tell what’s going to happen with the New 52. But after reading Justice League and a few other titles, I can’t help but feel that DC dropped the ball. Not that I want DC to have an Ultimate-style universe like Marvel, but with over 12 years of seeing why fans respond so well to Marvel properties and the Ultimate line itself, I’d think that DC might try to emulate that themselves.

Instead, New 52 feels like more of the same from DC. They’re trying to make their new lineup more accessible, which continuity-wise, I guess it is. (Though, I bet we can give it 5 years and there’ll be another reboot or Crisis of some kind.)

I think, though, that someone at DC missed the part of the memo saying that being accessible doesn’t have to equate to being simple.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I think most of the issue comes from the fact that there is so much history for each character, and they are trying to keep the important aspects relevant. Such as for Batman, he’s had his back broken by Bane, Jason Todd is still dead, and that means he has gone through at least 3 Robins so far. But heroes only became public in the last 5 years in the New 52. I don’t know why they restricted themselves like that, but now they have to 60+ years of backstory on some of these characters, and fit it in 5 years.

    This makes a lot of the comics come off as an actiony Saturday morning cartoon than a relevant character driven story.

    But, not all is lost on the New 52. Look to the lesser known titles, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Dial H for Hero, the Deadman run on DC Universe Presents. These are all characters where they have a LOT more freedom to write because DC doesn’t consider them staple. As such, they don’t need to ensure their histories are intact, they can take the character and just go. So far, these have been some of my favorite comics of the past year.

  2. I definitely agree with John. I think that DC wanted to quickly round up the superheroes of the Justice League and focus on their interactions together. If you spend a lot of time on back story in Justice League, then there’s not much incentive to buy the individual character lines.

    I really enjoyed the Justice League cartoons, so perhaps that’s why I’m enjoying the series. Then again, this is the first Justice League series I’ve read, so I can’t make any comparison here.

    Regardless, I think I’ll be reading The Ultimates now. 🙂

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