The latest solicitations for Marvel's Ultimate line seem to confirm what a lot of readers were expecting; that the forthcoming mini series Cataclysm: The Ultimates Last Stand might mark the end of the Ultimate experiment.

The series by the former Ultimate Spider-Man creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley pits the characters of Marvel's secondary superhero universe up against one of the biggest threats from the primary universe: Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. In its wake, the ongoing Ultimate titles have been replaced with a handful of three-issue miniseries. Whether there'll be anything left after these minis remains to be seen. If the Ultimate Universe is done, what happens to Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man?

The Ultimate Universe is in rough shape. Sales for two of its three ongoing titles stand down around the mark where mainline Marvel books get cancelled. and the third title, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, is sliding. Repeated attempts to inject interest into the line have reaped few rewards.

The line's original role as comics you could read without the baggage of continuity no longer holds, both because the line is now approaching its thirteenth year, and because the main Marvel Universe has evolved to become more accessible to readers familiar with Marvel Studios movies. This is despite the clear influence the Ultimate Universe had on those movies -- for example, in the designs of Hawkeye and Nick Fury.

It's probably time to pull the plug. The stories might actually benefit from closure, and the end of this universe would not be widely mourned -- but for one exception.

Miles Morales is important.

Created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sarah Pichelli, Miles Morales made his debut in August 2011 in the pages of Ultimate Comics: Fallout before the launch of his own series, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, the following month. He officially replaced Peter Parker as the Ultimate Universe's one-and-only Spider-Man after Parker was killed in combat with the Green Goblin. It was a big deal, and Marvel promised that it would stick. Parker is dead, and Morales has the full-time gig.

'Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man' #1
'Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man' #1

Despite the early excitement, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man is not a huge hit in the direct market. Yet it's one of the most important books that Marvel publishes. Morales has a unique value. He's a black Latino kid under the mask of one of comics' greatest superheroes. He can reach -- and empower -- an audience that exists largely outside the direct market. Kids like author Chris Huntington's son Dagim. Black and Latino kids don't have a lot of heroes that look like them. Thanks to Miles Morales, they now have Spider-Man.

Speaking at conventions and in interviews, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, series writer Brian Michael Bendis, and everyone else at Marvel that you care to ask, is rightly proud of the character. They understand the social value of superheroes who appeal to readers who haven't traditionally been well served by characters that look like them, and they surely also understand the commercial value of reaching out to that untapped audience.

If the rest of the Ultimate line folds, Marvel could keep publishing Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man anyway. It would ensure the book was easy to repackage for bookstores, and it would place the character in a huge sandbox without the worry of other books routinely shaking up the status quo. Events in other Ultimate books always felt like awkward derailments to Spider-Man's story, anyway.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man going solo would also carry a huge risk. Superhero readers have been trained to think in terms of books that "count" and books that don't. That's why so many books have "Avengers" or "X-Men" or "Wolverine" in the title. That's why we have double-shipping of ongoing serials and very few finite miniseries. With three titles, the Ultimate Universe already suffers from a sense of "doesn't count." If reduced to just one book, it would really struggle. That might not matter if the title can survive entirely on bookstore sales, but that's asking a lot for an ongoing serial. (Approached for comment, Marvel did not wish to share any bookstore sales data.)

There is another way for Morales to survive if the Ultimate line dies, and Marvel has already hinted at it. The solicit for the second issue of Cataclysm boasts, "MILES MORALES is headed to the Marvel Universe." That could be hype for a temporary crossover, but it seems like a plausible change of address. The arrival of the Marvel Universe version of Galactus in the Ultimate Universe has kicked open the door between realities, and Miles Morales seems primed to walk through.

The idea has a lot of appeal. It would place the character in the middle of the universe that "matters" most to readers. It would let him play with the heroes and villains that people know best. It would give the character a legitimacy that the Ultimate Universe doesn't have.

The idea also has problems. The Marvel Universe has the Spider-Man, the one readers care about most; the one with 50 years of back story (give or take a Satanic pact). There's no vacancy for Miles Morales. What would the Marvel Universe do with two Spider-Men?

'Cataclysm: The Ultimates' Last Stand' #2
'Cataclysm: The Ultimates' Last Stand' #2

If Morales permanently relocates to the Marvel U, I see three ways it could play out.

The most radical possibility is that Miles Morales replaces Peter Parker again. That wouldn't be hard to pull off in current continuity. Per the current Superior Spider-Man book, Peter Parker is already dead, and his body occupied by the mind of his old foe Doctor Octopus. Instead of bringing Parker back, Marvel could eliminate the Superior Spider-Man (Doc Ock) and slide Morales in to the vacancy. It fits together so seamlessly that one could imagine it was Marvel's plan all along.

This would be an incredibly bold move. And the thing about incredibly bold moves in superhero comics is that they all get reversed eventually. Peter Parker will come back, no matter who fills his suit in the meantime. If Morales replaces Parker in the Marvel U, it will be a strictly temporary appointment.

The second possibility is that we just have two dudes called Spider-Man in the same universe. Marvel steered clear of that sort of confusion in the past, rigorously keeping its Captains Marvel separate and sexing and color-coding its Hulks for your pleasure. But that's changed. We had two Ant-Men running around at once; we had characters in the Avengers and the Dark Avengers using the same identity at the same time; we have two Hawkeyes right now, sharing a book and starring in separate team titles; and two Black Panthers, though neither has their own title.

Is that a problem? Maybe not. Attitudes change. There was a time when Marvel thought it was too confusing to put the same character in two books at the same time. Wolverine had to take a sabbatical from the X-Men in order to star in his own miniseries. Marvel got over that. The same characters co-exist and reappear in multiple books, in multiple teams, in multiple dimensions at the same time. Readers are trusted to work it out. Readers might have to work out parallel Spider-Men as well. You pick the Spider-Man you want.

The third option is the most plausible, but also the least appealing. If Miles Morales moves to the Marvel Universe, he may be Spider-Man... no more.

That creates all sorts of problems. First of all, what does Morales become? He can't be "Spider-Boy," as there's too much baggage; addressing a black man as "boy" evokes the degradation and humiliation of the master/slave relationship. Adding "Black" to the codename would be grotesque. "Spider-Kid" would be corny and desperate.

The solicitations for Mighty Avengers #3 mention a surprising new hero called "Spider Hero." If that is Morales, one has to hope it's a placeholder name until a better one comes along.

Giving Morales an unrelated spare codename like "Ronin," which Hawkeye used for a time, would instantly relegate him down the superhero league table. No-one thinks it's cool to be Ronin. Giving him a completely new superhero identity would be interesting -- there is tremendous value in having successful minority heroes who don't define themselves in reference to some straight white guy -- but it would still look like a loss in prestige.

There is only one codename for Miles Morales. He's Spider-Man. The character's appeal is that he's the guy who showed minority readers -- and "majority" readers, for that matter -- that a black/Latino American can be Spider-Man. What message does it send to say that he can't be Spider-Man any more because the white man wants his mask back? If Miles Morales comes to the Marvel Universe and gets demoted from "Spider-Man" to "Spider-Man's sidekick," there won't be tables in the world big enough to flip.




So what's the solution?

Truthfully, there doesn't appear to be one, at least not one that's entirely satisfying. If Morales stays in (or goes back to) the Ultimate Universe he has to build a bigger audience than the shrinking one he currently has in the direct market. If he comes to the Marvel Universe and gets relegated, he loses a degree of importance. He can risk being a big hero in the small universe, or he can suffer being a small hero in the big universe.

My preference? I want Miles Morales to be Spider-Man for as long as possible. I just don't know which path gets us there.

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