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Mike Carey’s Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 4-6 (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.

Ultimate Fantastic Four was never really the crown jewel of the Ultimate line. It wasn’t ever as consistent as Brian Michael Bendis’ 100+ issues on Ultimate Spider-Man, nor as zeitgeist-y as Ultimate X-Men (which had the success of the X-Men trilogy to back it up at least). Instead, like Fox’s Fantastic Four movies, Ultimate Fantastic Four was just… well, just kinda there, really. To be fair, I dug Mark Millar’s twelve-issue run on the title. Hell, I even enjoyed elements of the opening arc by Millar and Bendis, and the year-long run by Warren Ellis that followed. However, Mike Carey’s run is somewhat disappointing. This was the run which essentially saw the series through to the big Ultimatum event, and perhaps it justified the decision to clean the slate when it came to Marvel’s Ultimate line. Because, whatever Carey’s run was, it certainly wasn’t consistently fantastic.

That surfer dude looks spaced...

Marvel’s Ultimate universe was perhaps the single greatest comic book fad of the last decade. The concept was simple: you reboot several of your more popular comic books in order to allow readers who might have been put off by excessively convoluted continuity to jump on board. The idea worked – the books sold well and, to be honest, it was these “ultimate” versions which helped me jump into comics in the first place. There were three monthly on-going series (Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four) coupled with several limited series (The Ultimates, Ultimate Galactus Trilogy), most of which were selling relatively well. However, the year before last, it was decided that – due to declining reader interest – the publishing line needed to be trimmed down, as it was becoming too unwieldy. This led to the Ultimatum crossover, which cancelled all the currently running books and opened a new slate of streamlined titles.

A variety of reasons were offered for this decision. Declining sales, it was suggested, were being driven by the fact that a decade of storytelling had given the Ultimate universe a backstory as convoluted and inaccessible as regular Marvel. However, I can’t help but feel a more specific fault is responsible. If you look at the line of books being published in the wake of Ultimatum, the two headline books are Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis and Ultimate Comics: Avengers by Mark Millar, both obvious continuations of Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates, the two most successful Ultimate titles. Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, in contrast, have been effectively gutted by the shift in the line – one can’t help but feel that a finger is being quietly pointed.

Talk about a red right hand...

And, to be honest, both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four featured prolonged disappointing runs towards the end of their publishing lives. Robert Kirkman’s run on Ultimate X-Man is the quintessential example of an independent creator struggling with iconic characters, degenerating into a pointless and convoluted battle with a giant reset button. Mike Carey’s run on Ultimate Fantastic Four shares more than a few similarities with Kirkman’s take on the mutants. Both authors took existing concepts and played with them, while trying to invent new characters specific to the Ultimate continuity (compare Kirkman’s reimagining of the Shi’ar to Carey’s version of HYDRA). Both writers display a clear preference for a particular (overlooked) part of Marvel continuity (with Kirkman consciously emulating the nineties, while Carey has a clear fondness for “cosmic” Marvel).

It isn’t even that Carey is a bad writer, it’s just that not all of his concepts gel – and they certainly don’t make his work accessible to regular readers. He opening arc, the six-issue God War, sees Carey essentially rewriting cosmic Marvel to more resemble Jack Kirby’s famous Fourth World. This allows Carey the neat meta-fictional trick of comparing the Kirby-created Fantastic Four to the Kirby-created New Gods, with many of the existing Marvel concepts altered so as to fit the mould of Kirby’s iconic creations. Thanos is recast as Darkseid (even uttering fascist lines such as “freedom is disorder”). The Cosmic Cube acts as a stand-in for the anti-life equation – a tool “to erase the wills of the many.”

Thanos liked to begin every genocide briefing with a light show to liven the mood...

It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it doesn’t render the book particularly reader-friendly. It took me a while to “get” what Carey was doing, and his strange psychedelic cosmology was giving me all manner of headaches – I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to a new reader, as it’s clearly aimed at fans who will enjoy the mixing and mingling of perhaps Kirby’s two most famous creations. I know that Kirby is going for the sorts of epic and crazy convoluted science fiction narratives which defined Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on the original Fantastic Four, but it never feels completely engaging – as if Carey knows what he is trying to do, but is not sure how to do it.

I do appreciate that Carey takes risks with the established Fantastic Four mythos – after all, what’s the point in reimagining a universe if you can’t tweak it a little? – even if I’m not sold on all the changes. I do like, for example, his portrayal of the Silver Surfer as “the Silver Searcher” and some of the smarter ideas in his Silver Surfer arc, even as I feel that wasting Thanos in a Jack Kirby homage is a waste of the character’s potential. More than that, Carey takes many ideas that simply don’t really work – for example, talking bears and the power to make monkeys (“Making monkeys?” Ben asks, “That’s the stupidest power I ever–“). It just feels a little bit too much, a little bit too hokey – perhaps even a little bit too camp.

That'll take care of the chrome finish for you...

At his best, Carey channels the sort of wonderful experimental nature of Kirby and Lee’s run, as though he’s updating their concepts rather than changing them for the sake of changing them. The Silver Surfer might represent his best arc on the title, as he takes two familiar Fantastic Four characters – the Silver Surfer and Psycho Man – and casts them in a different, albeit logical, light. The Silver Surfer, the ultimate hippy who rides through space on a surf board, becomes this almost cult-like figure who wants to preach love to the people of Earth. The Psycho Man uses his power of emotional manipulation to build himself “a world full of happy slaves.” It’s a very religious idea, but Lee based the original Silver Surfer on a messianic archetype – indeed, here it’s Reed Richards who must choose the apple in this garden of Eden. He must make the choice for “truth over happiness.” Not to mention the rather wonderful closing image from Pasqual Ferry of the Silver Surfer on his board, just sitting there in space, meditating.

Although most of Carey’s arcs touch upon the conflict between the rational and the irrational, most of the rest seem somewhat forced – as if he’s trying to create a theme amongst the villains he’s using against the Four. “Rely on magic?” Reed suggests as he faces down Diablo, an alchemist – the concept is clearly alien to him, even though it’s never really explored. “Science is naked and broken,” is an observation from another character, which might be interesting if she wasn’t some sort of crazy monkey monstrosity.

It felt a bit forced (field) to me...

However, it’s insights like this which are the exception rather than the rule. Casey is fond of deus ex machina endings – in fact, you know that his arcs are typically going to be resolved at the last minute, more than likely by channelling the bad guy’s power back it him through some previously unhinted process. However, there’s also the fact that Casey, at times, seems to be writing by rote. Occasionally his skill will shine through – as in Mole Man’s life story as narrated in Annual #2, for example, or in a line or two here or there (“I was just gonna do the old let’s you and him fight routine,” is the best line of a fairly banal X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover) – but most of the time it seems that he’s just trying to hit a series of checkboxes.

Carey continues the tradition established by earlier writers that Reed Richards can do no right – it has almost become a running joke int he series to this point (“how is Reed Richards going to endanger the world today?” should be a the morning conversation at the Baxter Building). “I’d say you’ve met your reckless endangerment quotas for today,” Carol Danvers snidely remarks to Reed on the arrival of the Silver Surfer. Even after the Fantastic Four remedy the situation (and save her life), Danvers is quick to emphasise that “bringing the surfer here is still your fault.” Even the local psychiatrist is quick to point out to Reed, “You’ve made some serious mistakes lately.”

This is a little what I image Madison Square Garden looks like...

And perhaps this contributes to the sense of needlessness that pervades the run. Reed and everyone around him is aware that his inventions cause a lot more harm than good. He and his family have even been told by Thanos that Reed will design the Cosmic Cube for the villain. Knowing these two factors – and ignoring the fact that Reed isn’t quite himself – why does anyone allow him to design a device that resembles a cube and carries awesome power? If anyone else was doing it, it would be tempting fate. However, given Reed’s track record, it’s even more risky.

Even the climax of Four Cubed seems to be a rather convenient plot device. Reed has the cosmic device, has defeated the bad guys, pushed a giant reset button and then… sends the cube back in time to Thanos. The logic is that Thanos had the device in the past and Reed is creating some sort of stable time-loop, but it belies the sort of damage that a creature like Thanos could do with the cube and which could just as easily be prevented by not giving him the cube. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that all the nasty stuff that happened in the stories leading up to this would never have happened if Reed didn’t send that device back through time. I’m not a fan of “reset buttons”, but if you are going to use one, at least have the courage to use it correctly. Making your lead character complicit in galactic genocide is not the way to go.

I wasn't quite blown away...

So it ends with a bit of disappointment – a whimper rather than a bang. It just doesn’t feel particularly new or exciting, just tired and old. Which is a shame, because it felt that the series was finally kicking into gear. I’m not sure that Ultimate Fantastic Four or Ultimate X-Men were completely unsalvageable – I’m not sure that Ultimatum helped to make the Ultimate line any clearer or more straightforward. Perhaps a change in creative teams might have worked as well. I don’t know.

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

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