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Warren Ellis’ Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 1-2 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

I have to admit that I’m quite surprised to see Warren Ellis writing for a year on Ultimate Fantastic Four. You could make the case for Ellis – an avowed technophile – as perhaps the perfect author for a high-concept series like the Fantastic Four. It was Mark Waid who dubbed the family “Imaginauts” – explorers of the imagination, rather than superheroes or guys in costumes. In a way, given how skilfully Ellis handled Tony Stark’s technological transformation in Extremis, you might not have been unreasonable in expecting he’d prove a deft hand with Marvel’s first family. However, reading the twelve issues he wrote for the title, it’s hard to get a sense that Ellis was ever really giving it his all – although he does play around a bit, it never feels like he’s genuinely pushing things to the limit and playing with all the associated toys. In fact, quite a lot of his run feels like it’s playing it safe.

See, the Thing is...

Note: Ellis’ run on the title picks up after the initial six issues written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, and so is split over the second half of the first hardcover and the first half of the second. The second hardcover is rounded off by a two-part Think Tank story from Mike Carey (who would take over as regular writer after Mark Millar) and an annual written by Millar. So this review/retrospective just covers the issues written by Ellis.

Ellis would seem, on many levels to be the perfect writer for the Fantastic Four. His work on Planetary featured a collection of bad guys based upon the foursome, named simply “the Four”. His work with Bryan Hitch on The Authority helped invent the type of style that defines the Ultimate line – essentially a type of storytelling which has been dubbed “widescreen” comics. Some of his own writings have foreshadowed a so-called “fourth movement” in comics, of which the Ultimate line is considered an example.

Prepare to meet your Doom...

Perhaps part of the problem is that Ellis attempts to tie himself too heavily to what has come before – to give him a sense of continuity with the opening arc by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. Ellis opens both of his arcs – Doom and N-Zone – with flashbacks to scenes we’ve already seen, like a conversation between Reed and Van Damme or young Reed’s first encounter with N-Space in the Baxter Building. These do help provide a sense of an on-going story being serialised by several authors (rather than Ellis’ run serving as a “stand-alone” twelve-issue run), but perhaps it feels a little too much like Ellis is attempting to channel his predecessors. I don’t want Warren Ellis pretending to be Brian Michael Bendis, I want Ellis being Ellis.

It’s possible that the status quo of the series contributes to the sense of listlessness. The Fantastic Four are the ultimate free thinkers – pop culture celebrities and icons charting out new realms for scientific exploration. However, here they are a military thing tank. It’s certainly a brave departure from the mythos, but it inevitably changes the mood of the series. Although the four characters are motivated by the same curiosity, they serve at the whim of the military-industrial complex. Reed essentially designs weapons for warfare. “Of course he sees a military application,” Reed explains to Sue as General Ross greenlights a dangerous expedition, “He always did.”

Man on fire...

It arguably makes the series a tad more complex than the straight-forward “Fantastic Four save the world” stories we’re familiar with, but it also casts a considerable shadow over proceedings. At several points, Ellis pauses to mock the American military machine (most notably as they crash a Danish commune in Doom), and he seems to want to present Reed as a sort of Oppenheimer analogue. To be honest I had always associated Tony Stark – former weapons manufacturer – as an appropriate metaphor for the moral dilemmas facing the post-atomic scientist, trying to keep the genie in the bottle, but I won’t deny it is an interesting set up for Reed. However, it’s only an interesting portrayal if the consequences are explored.

How would Reed feel, for example, if the military used his N-Zone technology in a way that cost thousands of lives? Could he live with it? Could Sue? One gets the sense that this would make an interesting twist, as Reed’s impatience and curiosity often prevent him from thinking through the consequences of his actions – such as his decision to press ahead with first contact with the alien Nihil through the joy of playing with his toys (“I mean, I thought I’d never get to use this stuff”) rather than thinking it through. However, because that angle isn’t explored, all we’re left with is the image of soldiers in the Baxter Building carrying guns. Which is fairly disconcerting, but ultimately only feels like a cosmetic change.

Reed finds himself back in the space race...

All that said, Ellis does have a bit of fun with the wacky high concept science fiction that surrounds the characters. Little, niggly fanboy questions are articulated, like how Ben Grimm breaths (“He weighs, like, half a ton,” Sue muses, “How does he inflate his lungs?”) or how he goes to the bathroom (he can, but you don’t want to know the particulars). Reed’s stretching is explained by his absence of internal organs – and with some interesting concepts, like the suggestion that Reed can “can stretch the elements of my eyes” (calling to mind Matt Fraction’s suggestion Reed is so smart because he stretches his brain). Ellis even makes reference to the impossibility of any full-body invisibility.“If light’s passing through your eye instead of hitting it,” Reed explains, “you should be blind.”

It is these sequences where Ellis appears to be having a bit of fun with the series. There’s a rather wonderful sequence in which Reed and Ben have an awkward discussion about his new physiology, with wonderful beat panels underlining just how uncomfortable this is. When Reed suggests to Ben that Sue may need to see him go to the bathroom, Ben replies sarcastically, “Sue can bite me.” Before Reed can stop himself, he counters with, “She’d break her teeth.” It’s not an insult or a snide remark, just his scientific mind working a little too fast. And then there’s more awkward silence.

Why so Grimm?

Ellis does write the characters as explorers, rather than heroes. He plays around a bit with the audience’s expectations, throwing out ridiculously familiar codenames like “The Human Lighter” or “The Invisible Ninja Girl”. However, the characters are presented primarily as scientists rather than heroes. In fact, the last line written by Ellis is “I think we’re all going to get to be superheroes now”, which suggests that the moment this became a superhero book he lost interest. In fairness, he does get the chance to play around with the science-fiction associated with the title – continuing the trend that Bendis and Millar began of staying away from space. “Instead of outer space,” Sue explains to Reed, “I went for inner space.” Perhaps it reflects current trends (what with NASA seeing its budget cuts and a general decline in interest for space exploration among the public). Even the N-Zone more resembles under water than outer space (with crabs cleaning the husk of a dead space whale).

He also gets to plays with some interesting science-fiction devices, even while telling two remarkably straightforward arcs. Doom and N-Zone both have pretty foregone conclusions and are so strongly tied to the mythos as to be predictable, but they do provide Ellis with the chance to window-dress the series with some interesting new wave pop science. Van Damme’s village in Denmark is designed to resemble “that Burning Man thing in America.” “Phase-space” is used as a technobabble cause of the characters’ transformation. There’s even a “fantasti-car” which runs on Ellis’ pet concept, “zero point energy.”

Never a good sign when a winged alien called "Nihil" provides his own background smoke effect...

I have to admit that I’m a bit uncertain about Ellis’ reimagining of Doctor Doom. I like the metallic skin and the change of setting, but I’m not entirely convinced that the hooves add anything. On the other hand, Ellis does well to demonstrate the distinctions between Reed and Victor. By tying Victor to the myth of Dracula, Ellis steeps the bad guy in mysticism and superstition. “Your precious reason is all based on a hallucination,” he monologues to himself at one point. He refuses to view science as a rational force – “science is an art, not a system.” He’s positioned as a philosophical opposite to Reed, espousing the notion that destiny rather than choice led them to their present state. “There was no accident,” he suggests at one point, “I was meant to glorious and you were meant to be a freak.” He uses science to enslave the citizens of “the Keep” rather than for the betterment of mankind. Ellis even juxtaposes their daddy issues.

That said, there’s very little which feels… well, exciting about these two six-issue story arcs. I want big crazy ideas thrown around like sticky putty, rather than small but zany little notions trapped inside a conventional narrative. We know where these stories are going from the outset – in Doom we know that the heroes will confront Doom and he won’t tell them what they need in order to change back; in N-Zone, we know that Reed and the gang will venture into the negative zone and possibly encounter a great big evil alien, with the sinister name Nihil (“it translates badly into your English,” he concedes). While there’s a wonderful note struck that the universe isn’t quite as magical as Reed would like it to be. “The universe is a fantastic place, full of ideas and, you know, cool stuff,” he muses, “and everyone else seems to think it’s somewhere to set up their frickin’ butt-hat franchise.” However, the world is, according to Ellis, a far more sinister place.

Viva Los Vegas indeed...

By the way, it was really strange to see Ellis end his run on the book with a gigantic reference to Con Air, as the Fantastic Four crash down in Los Vegas and end up fighting the Jawas from Star Wars. There are a few other nice touches thrown in, like the fact that Ben Grimm’s furniture is made of concrete.

However, the whole thing feels just a little bit disappointing, almost like Ellis has been given the keys to his father’s sports car and decided to take it for a gentle test drive rather than a balls-to-the-wall off-road cross-country adventure. Still, Mark Millar is returning to the book and, to be honest, I’m a bit interested to see how Millar handles the characters. Although he has a tendency to go so far over the top he lands on the ground again (in works like Kick-Ass or Old Man Logan), but when dealing with characters he perhaps feels a little bit more sentiment towards (for example, Superman in Red Son) he does tend to show a more nostalgic side.

Victor never had a thick skin...

Ellis’ run wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t bad either – it feels like he had a great handle on the time, but was storytelling by rote. If anything, I think he’s done a good job setting the series up for the authors that will follow him. I might asked for a little more, but it’s a decent year-long look at Marvel’s first family.

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

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