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Mark Millar’s Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 3 (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.

Mark Millar isn’t quite the tough guy he makes himself out to be. Asked a few years ago about whether the birth of his child might tame some of his more sensationalist tendencies, Millar replied that – if anything – he would be even more motivated to push the envelope in order to demonstrate he hadn’t mellowed. And, in fairness, the years since have seen ideas like Kick-Ass or Wanted or Nemesis, all excessively and ridiculously cynical, graphic and violent. However, I maintain that Millar is a stronger writer when he channels his inner softer romantic – for example, demonstrating the respect he showed Superman in Red Son. Taking over Ultimate Fantastic Four for a year (perhaps on a trial run before writing for regular Fantastic Four), you get a sense that Millar has a genuine affection for these characters and their world – too much to try to make them “darker and edgier”, for example. While his run on Ultimate Fantastic Four isn’t the best thing he’s written, it is sharp and entertaining – and delivered with enough energy that it can’t help but warm the reader’s heart.

Never a drag...

Energy is a large part of the appeal of Millar’s run. The first three arcs on the series – written by Millar and Brian Michael Bendis, followed by Warren Ellis – were six-issue stories. While these allow time for a great deal of depth, they do tend to feel a bit like an “epic” – and the truth is that not every story (let alone three in a row) should be called an “epic”. In contrast, Millar essentially breaks down his run in four three-part arcs playing out a larger story (similar to how he wrote Marvel Knights: Spider-Man – there it was three four-part stories, though). As such, the arcs fly by – which is probably the way that the series should feel, as we are hit with crazy idea after crazy idea. This sort of energy is even carried into the story. No matter how illogical it might seem, the zombie plague in Crossover wipes out the superheroes in less than 24 hours. The Skrulls superpower pills changed the world “within hours” and had affected everyone in “eighteen months”. Such time frames help make the book exciting, but do stretch the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

However, what truly and immediately distinguishes Millar’s storytelling from that of his predecessors is how he deploys the high concepts (or, as Reed calls them, “super-concepts”) that one associates with the Fantastic Four. The pilot teased the issue and Ellis was much more concerned with offering a plausible-sounding basis for the scientific work that the characters were undertaking, with everything seeming almost rational. Millar, however, just throws these quick ideas out there to see how many work and how many don’t. There are wilfully ridiculous ideas thrown about with the kind of casual ease that helps underscore just how weird the Fantastic Four actually are. There are baby versions of The Ultimates (the “Mini-mates” to quote Reed)! Watch out for giant time-stream repairing spiders! Victor Van Damme has suggested “we swap minds” as easily as exchanging coats! Oh, there are some time traveling terrorists! At one point, Ben observes something strange while everyone else carries on on their way. “Listen, am I the only one who sees those guys poking a giant maggot with sticks over there?”

The Four are in grave danger...

Some of these ideas don’t work, but enough of them do for the effort to seem charming rather than alienating. In these twelve issues, the team travel through time, shrink and perform surgery on Sue’s father, discover Atlantis, visit other realities and discover a hidden community in the Himalayas. Referring to the pioneering work that the team are doing, Sue’s mother suggests that “this is bigger than walking on the moon.”

Fundamentally, Millar espouses a somewhat optimistic world view. There’s very little of the cynical deconstruction which marked his work on Ultimate X-Men, for example, or even The Ultimates. There’s no real cynical or jaded commentary on the flawed aspects of humanity or the stupidity and immaturity of costumed superheroes. Referring to a world where the characters have allowed everyone on Earth to become a superhero, Ben Grimm remarks,  “There’s never been a more interesting time to be alive.” In President Thor, the eponymous world leader conducts his business in his armour. Sure, this world is eventually revealed as a fake,  but due to the intervention of sinister aliens rather than any personal quirks of the heroes – in fact, as much as Millar has spent recent years deconstructing the notion of superheroes (suggesting they are deeply flawed), here he suggests that these four people are quintessentially heroic.

It's not the end of the world...

Sure, there’s a slight taste of Millar’s trademark world-weary cynicism looming at the edge of the story – the danger that Reed’s desire to be a hero ends up putting his family on, or the fact that the corporate interests investing in the team would rather he worked on “that five-sensory TV our shareholders are waiting for” than save the planet again and again, but this is countered by a very clear enthusiasm for the characters and the universe. Even his version of Namor, who is a feared criminal rather than the ruler of Atlantis, is still a fundamentally honourable man – he keeps his word and (with the exception of displays a temper shared with his counterpart) actually seems quite reasonable. Millar is writing these stories to an old template – indeed, both his annual and The Tomb of Namor end with a kiss between a guest character and one of the four as a means of conflict resolution.

I’ve always felt that Millar wanted to see himself as something of a modern Stan Lee – if anything Kick-Ass is a modern re-telling of Lee’s superhero origin defined in the original Spider-Man. Here, he draws heavily from the original Fantastic Four run by Lee and Kirby. While Ellis did introduce concepts familiar to fans of the original run (like Doom and Nihil), Millar introduces these concepts and characters with far greater enthusiasm and with far greater speed. In the course of twelve issues (and an annual), Millar gives us an updated version of the Inhumans, Namor, the Skrulls and the Thing’s blind girlfriend. In contrast to the extended six-issue arcs of his predecessors, Millar adopts a rigid three-issue format – perhaps reflecting the fact that the largest single arc by Lee and Kirby was “the Galactus Trilogy” – while also playing out numerous threads in the background (as Lee and Kirby did).

Her torch is carrying her...

Similarly, I can’t help but feel his work owes more than a slight debt to Mark Waid’s run on the mainstream Fantastic Four. Beyond the first explicit use of “Johnny, wait!” as the battle cry of the Fantastic Four and the use of a cruel prank by Johnny on Ben as a catalyst for a story, his portrayal of Victor Van Damme is more occult-ish than scientific, reflecting Waid’s revisions to the character. Waid had suggested that Doom was unable to compete with Reed scientifically, so would move into areas of the Marvel universe with which Reed was unfamiliar, mainly magic. There’s also the image of Doom threatening to let a member of the family “suffer for eternity” in another dimension (here it’s Johnny in the N-Zone, in Waid’s run it was Franklin in Hell). Of course, Millar eschews Waid’s more fundamental revision of Doom’s character. Waid suggested that Doom’s sense of honour was a facade, but Millar seems to believe the character his own (highly warped) moral code.

Having read some of Millar’s other work – for example Enemy of the State or Civil War – I have to admit I am a bit fascinated by his portrayal of Reed Richards. This version of Reed is a lot younger than his mainstream counterpart (and obviously without the distinctive silver wings), but perhaps the biggest difference between this version of the character and the one in the regular Marvel Universe is just how often this iteration of the character is help to account for his failures. The writers here are intent on portraying Reed as a character who causes as much damage as he solves, and one who is never allowed to overlook his own failures. While his counterpart has accepted his responsibility for the accident that gave his family powers and worked hard to make their lives as good as they could be, this character frequently has his failure brought up as a source of endless angst.

Twice as fantastic...

Reed here describes the accident and his failure to cure Ben as “the only two failures I’ve ever known.” Indeed, Ben somewhat resentfully remarks that Reed has been “too busy playing superhero” to help Ben. It’s Reed’s arrogance which gets him sent into the zombie universe and which brings the zombies back with him – all because he insisted on working in secret without anyone’s knowledge or consent. To Millar, however, while these do represent serious flaws, they are not fatal ones. Reed manages to fix everything that he has broken – he sacrifices himself to Doom to save Johnny, banishes the zombies home to their dimension and even figures out how to save Ben in President Thor (although Ben promptly stops him). Indeed, the end of Millar’s run confirms that the characters are superheroes – as a newspaper affirms that they saved New York. The point seems to be that Millar isn’t only effective at deconstructing heroes, but putting them back together as well.

Along the way, it’s interesting to see Millar revisit some of his themes. The notion of parental abandonment (and the importance of the nuclear family) is returned to in the course of these pages as Sue and Johnny’s mother is revealed not to be dead, but to have left her family to work on a top secret project. From Ultimate X-Men through to Kick-Ass, Millar has frequently explored the role that parents need to play in raising their children – there’s a rather wonderful exploration of the parents in works by Millar available here from the wonderful Colin Smith, and it’s interesting to see it play out in this series as well. (In his own run on the regular Fantastic Four, he toyed with the idea of family break-up).

The green, green glow of home?

Greg Land is the artist on this run, managing a high level of consistency – which is fairly great. I don’t share the same disdain for Land that a lot of comic book readers do, and I think he (mostly) does a decent enough job – I wonder how he might have worked with Stuart Immonen, for example. I’ve never been convinced that Fantastic Four is best served by photo-realistic artists, given the high concepts that the team play with. There are more than a few moments where Land’s notorious “tracing” habits show their face. And did he have to make Sue look like a pin-up at every possible opportunity? Was it really necessary for every shot of her without her jacket to feature her posing like a Victoria’s Secret model, wearing skimpy undershirts?

That said, I have to confess that I enjoyed Millar’s run. Sure, it wasn’t incredibly original, but it did fire enough crazy and zany ideas out there to keep me engaged. It was fun, light and breezy – which are three wonderful things for a book like Ultimate Fantastic Four to be. His run represents perhaps the most consistent of the writers to work on the series.

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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