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Mark Millar & Brian Michael Bendis’ Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 1 (Hardcover)

The Fantastic Four, as originally imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were an instant overnight success for Marvel. Although perhaps Spider-Man would go on to surpass them as the most recognisable creation from the comic book publisher, the four were intrinsically linked with the spirit of newness and pop science that defined comic books in the sixties – the run was so iconic that I’m even considering placing an order for the two volumes of Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four Omnibus, even though I find Silver Age comic books tough to read. So, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the characters were among the last to be coopted into Marvel’s Ultimate line, an experiment designed to essentially start their characters from scratch again to attract a new audience. However, depite the late arrival of Ultimate Fantastic Four – four years after Ultimate Spider-Man and three years after Ultimate X-Men – the talent involed in the launch of the series suggests that Marvel was trying to get this version of the family off to the same flying start as their mainstream counterpart.

That's gonna put a dent in local real estate prices...

Ultimate Fantastic Four was never the crown jewel of the Ultimate line of titles – to be honest, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. It never found the same pop culture niche as The Ultimates or the same level of consistency as Ultimate Spider-Man. The creative team on the book was frequently chopped and changed – sometimes at short notice. The two volumes of The Ultimates were both written by Mark Millar and drawn by Bryan Hitch, while Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley were responsible for over one-hundred issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. Even Ultimate X-Men got some consistency from the start, with Millar serving as writer for most of the first three years, and pulling off one giant meta-arc concerning Magneto.

In contrast, the high-profile team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar (both the guiding lights of the “Ultimate” line) started out with a six-issue run on Ultimate Fantastic Four before handing the reigns over to Warren Ellis, who managed to stay about a year before a fill-in arc from Mike Carey and a year-long run from Mark Millar (again) before Mike Carey (again) took over the long-term running of the series. The book changed hands fairly rapidly, which meant it was difficult to find consistence – but also that it makes it kinda tough to talk about “runs” on the title in the same way I have for Ultimate X-Men, for example.

He's on fire!

I like the idea of tackling a book by taking a large chunk of it written by a particular author, because I think that each writer’s perspective ends up shining through and deserves to be discussed on its own merits. I find it much easier than, say, talking about Ultimate Fantastic Four: Volume #1 which contains stories by Bendis and Millar, alongside Ellis. It seems unfair to lump the two together when they clearly have very different ways of examining the team and the shared universe. So, I’ll take a look at the first six issues here, and the group together the second half of this hardcover with the rest of Ellis’ run for the next review I run. It’s not exactly a “neat” way of looking at it, but it’s the best I can do.

So we have a six-issue “run” from Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. It’s essentially a pilot for this new series, and there’s really very little to say about it. Six issues is a very short time in comic books, particularly these days. It takes six issues to set all the balls in the air and plots in motion, to introduce the characters and to set up the status quo. To give you an idea of how decompressed it all is, that iconic original monster that Stan Lee set the Fantastic Four against in their first issue back in 1961? It doesn’t show up until the last page of the fourth issue of this arc. “Dude, my dad fired your butt, like, a hundred years ago,” Johnny Storms tells their adversary – who was actually fired earlier in this arc.

I don't give a Van Damme...

Which, to be entirely honest, I am fine with. Six issues is pretty much the industry standard for comic book arcs these days – be it because it allows for a convenient three-act structure or simply because it makes these things easier to sell in the trade. Six issues allows Bendis and Millar an opportunity to define the characters before they become the heroes we know they will be. Any casual fan of Mark Millar knows that he perhaps favours Reed above the rest (based on his handling of the character in Civil War or even his Fantastic Four run), and it makes sense, for example, that the first issue of the series is essentially a biography of young Reed Richards, the giddy-eyed super-genius kid with an unbridled imagination, who can dream up ways  to reach “another plane of existence” during his lunch break.

Another aspect of a somewhat extended intro is that it allows for a more in-depth exploration of the practicalities of their origin. In Lee’s origin vision, the four banded together after their accident to stop monsters because… well, that’s what they do. Various writers, including (most memorably) Mark Waid, have retroactively inserted motivations and character beats into those early years, but there was usually very little time to explore the way the four had changed. Here, the first time the character use their powers, it’s a genuinely horrifying experience. Johnny screams as he turns into flame, Reed appears as a deformed mess of tangled limbs and Sue turns layers of her body invisible down to her insides.

It's The Thing... you know the one I'm talking about...

These are character who could, if they aren’t careful, be labelled freaks. Waid retroactively suggested that Reed branded them as brightly-coloured superheroes in order to avoid being hated and feared – kind of like a reverse X-Men – and here Bendis demonstrates straight-out why that level of publicity is needed.

Millar and Bendis decided to play to each other’s strengths. In the introduction to the collection, the pair discuss the approach they adopted – Mark Millar drafted the storyline and the events (and his big bombastic high-concpet mind can be seen at work throughout the series) while Bendis wrote the issues and the dialogue (which, again, seems very Bendis-ian). The two don’t gel perfectly, at times it seems Bendis has difficulty working with the huge ideas Millar has thrown out there and sometimes the comic seems too wordy – but it works well enough to get the point across.

It's not a stretch to call this grotesque...

The plot itself is straightforward enough. A former scientist is cast out from the Baxter Building and continues his work deep underground. There’s some pretty obvious stuff going on here – the standard “science must be tempered by morality” moral we’re all familiar with (the Mole Man rejects the idea there are “boundaries in the search for knowledge” and builds himself a freak army). In fact, the actual storyline only eats into the final two issues of the arc.

Millar and Bendis play with the mythology, but only slightly. The idea that Doom’s birthname is “Von Doom” was obviously a little much even for these authors, so he is rebranded “Victor Van Damme”. The characters no longer get their powers from trying to beat the Russians to the moon, but rather from an extra-dimensional experiment (the original, to quote Millar’s introduction, “was just never gonna fly with a modern audience”). One of the more interesting aspects of this retelling is the way that Reed is left defending his calculations and claiming Victor sabotaged his experiment – while in regular continuity, Victor refuses any suggesting that the experiment which scarred him is his own fault and accuses Reed of sabotage. I don’t mind any of these changes, and perhaps they suggest a more tightly tied together mythology, rather than one cobbled together over fifty years – knowing the elements that will develop allows you to construct a tighter story tying them all together.

I can see right through Sue...

So it’s off to a decent start. There are countless ideas hinted at and set in motion here (from the discussion of the N-Zone to a passing reference to the lost city of Atlantis) which I am sure will be handled later on. Adam Kubert provides nice artwork in this collection – it’s nice to have a consistent approach which was somewhat lacking from Ultimate X-Men. However, this is ultimately just a “proof of concept” for the title – the real test will be to see how later writers handle the series. It’s not quite “fantastic”, but it’s certainly a solid beginning.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to check out our other reviews of the complete Ultimate Fantastic Four run:

2 Responses

  1. It never really took off as a series because it ended up being just as silly and unrealistic as the main continuity, which is something the Ultimate line was supposed to stray away from.

    In terms of storytelling, it falls flat because Millar and Bendis’ sensibilities don’t mesh. Millar is a cynical and action-driven writer while Bendis is an optimistic (for lack of a better term) and character-driven writer. Throughout the book, their styles keep butting heads and it ends up being a case of too many cooks spoiling the pot.

    • Yep. I think the Fantastic Four have been stuck in a rut as a franchise, whether regular or ultimate. They used to be Marvel’s “first family”, but they’ve been increasingly sidelined since the late eighties (John Byrne’s run and maybe Walt Simonson’s). With the exception of Mark Waid’s run, they weren’t been hugely popular until Jonathon Hickman took over. And I’m looking forward to the inevitable omnibus.

      I don’t think it’s the crazy fantasy you mentioned that led to this disconnect, I think it’s more to do with moving away from what defined the team – the sense of family (or, perhaps, misinterpretting it – they’re a family, not a sitcom). Which is why the mediocrity of Millar’s run on the regular title (which was heavily centred around family) surprised me. But I might get around to discussing that more, in time.

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