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Ultimate Comics: Doomsday (Hardcover) (Review)

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 Comics: Doomsday is a bit of a weird beast. After the events of Ultimatum, Mark Millar’s Ultimates was relaunched both as Ultimate Comics: Avengers and the clunkily-titled (and written) Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates, while Ultimate Spider-Man became Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men spun off into Ultimate Comics: X. That meant that the only on-going series that hadn’t fed into a relaunched series was Ultimate Fantastic Four. Perhaps it’s understandable, since the series was arguably the weakest of Marvel’s Ultimate reimaginings of popular heroes, suffering from adapting Marvel’s most innocent scientific heroes in a grim and hyper-modern context. Ultimate Comics: Doomsday collects three miniseries (Ultimate Comics: Enemy, Ultimate Comics: Mystery and Ultimate Comics: Doom), which tell a gigantic crossover crisis set in the shared universe that the “ultimate” characters inhabit, but it’s really just a vehicle to allow Brian Michael Bendis to play with the left-over bits and pieces from Ultimate Fantastic Four.

This little Spider...

Before I talk about the story Bendis has told here, it’s interesting to note that this is the first oversized hardcover that Marvel has collected of the Ultimate line since Ultimatum. The oversized hardbacks of the on-going series leading into the event were among Marvel’s most consistent trade collections, and I am proud to say that I own most of them. I’ll be very disappointed if that trend doesn’t continue with an oversized collection of Brian Bendis’ Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, if only because it’s the most wonderfully consistent Spider-Man series I’ve ever read – including Stan Lee’s original run. I’d also love to see Nick Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men or Jonathon Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates in that format as well, but I’m surprised that the collection of Bendis’ continued run of Ultimate Spider-Man hasn’t been announced or even hinted at yet. It makes me sad.

Also, on the format of this series, there is absolutely no reason for this to be a collection of three four-issue miniseries. It’s one story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The elements feed into one another, and Ben Grimm very clearly states that the events of the entire collection unfold over a single week. So there’s no reason to use the three-miniseries structure. It just seems like Bendis wanted to emulate Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, but without the hassle of tying three distinct concepts into one storyline. Even the art is wonderfully consistent across the three miniseries, provided by Rafa Sandoval, helping to create the sense that this is one series rather than three. That, however, is a cosmetic point.

Fury-ous...

Ultimate Comics: Doomsday is perhaps easier to admire from a conceptual standpoint than it is to enjoy in its execution. I really want to love Doomsday, but it ends up feeling “just okay”, because of the nature of the story and the manner in which Bendis chooses to tell it. I think that Bendis is a far smarter writer than the majority of on-line commentators give him credit for, and I appreciate his dialogue more than most – indeed, it feels wonderfully appropriate coming from an ensemble of alternate characters that he himself helped direct and shape in such a thorough manner. Bendis is the only writer to tackle all three on-going series, and to work with every bunch of characters save the Ultimates, so he knows each member of his cast, and he can write the hell out of them.

However, the biggest flaw with Ultimate Comics: Doomsday is complementary to its greatest strength. In trying to tie up the threads left by Ultimate Fantastic Four, Bendis is afforded a very rare opportunity when working with iconic characters on mainstream American comic books. He’s allowed to change them. For those who don’t know, the Ultimate line is a series of books launched by Marvel as an attempt to update their characters for the modern day-and-age, in contrast to the mainstream Marvel Universe, which has continuity stretching back to the sixties (and earlier, if you’re Captain America or one of a select few). The idea was, with a rake of movies hitting cinemas based around characters like X-Men or Spider-Man, forty years of on-going continuity might be daunting, and this fresh take on Marvel’s icons could encourage new readers to “jump in.”I have no shame in admitting that this is what drew me into comic books.

From the wreckage...

Anyway, ten years after the line had launched, it had begun to pick up a bit of baggage. It’s inevitable in mainstream superhero comics, when writers and fans are so slavishly devoted to continuity. Sensing the drag of continuity eroding the unique selling point of these adventures, Marvel decided to take “extreme” action and massively shake things up, with a crossover event that cancelled most on-goings, killed a huge number of supporting characters, and offered a bold new status quo for the heroes.

At its very best, Ultimate Comics: Doomsday exploits the incredible freedom of that opportunity to tell a story that you simply couldn’t tell in a regular Fantastic Four book. As much as I like the Ultimate books, most tell stories that could easily be told using the mainstream versions of the characters, as most of the changes to characters are largely cosmetic. One might be forgiven for wondering what the point is of having two long-running fictional universes that are largely identical. Surely it’s a waste of a publishing line to simply offer what Bendis has Reed Richards dismiss as “derivations on a theme.”

Some Thing's happening...

“I just want to find a world we can make our own,” he tells Sue at one point in the story, and it feels like this is a large part of Bendis’ authorial intent here. The writer wants to actually change things, because you can change things here. Mainstream comics are bound by the status quo because you need to worry about keeping the character’s marketable – you might be making a new X-Men: First Class movie in a few years, so you can’t kill Magneto or have him go completely off the rails. Similarly, no matter how often the regular Reed Richards tries to cure Ben Grimm, the Thing will remain an orange rock monster. Neil Gaiman said it best, speaking through Reed, in the other alternate universe story, 1602:

“The natural sciences say yes, a cure is possible. But the laws of story would suggest that no cure can last for very long, Benjamin. For in the end, alas, you are so much more interesting and satisfying as you are.”

Such a set-up can get quite stale after a while. There’s only so many times Reed can fight Victor Von Doom to a stalemate before things get a little boring. “I’m staring at hundreds of tales of destruction,” Reed comments, serving as Bendis’ meta-fictional voice within the story. “All caused by the same person. All fought to a standstill at best.” When you look at it like that, it’s a compelling case for a more proactive approach towards the storytelling opportunities offered by something like an “ultimate”alternative universe.

An eight-legged freak...

Indeed, Bendis starts out by having Ben Grimm shed his skin, an illustration of how he’s trying to pull the Ultimate universe out of its gestating cocoon. Grimm ends the story cured, in something of defiance of all comic book logic. It feels so brilliantly wrong, because we’re so accustomed to the inevitability of the status quo, to the point where I scanned the book for a coda revealing Ben had started going orange again. It does offer a rather wonderful use of the opportunities inherent in the Ultimate universe, that had largely been ignored while offering accessible and familiar stories featuring popular icons.

As such, Ultimate Comics: Doomsday should feel like a bold statement of purpose. After all, while Bendis is merely using a freedom that always existed, he is pulling the line away from its original goals. The line was designed to be attractive to people scared by years of continuity in mainstream Marvel, and so featured familiar characters without the weight of back story. Here, Bendis is doing something entirely different, that makes the story lessaccessible, but also far more daring. That’s a very risky thing to do, and you’d imagine that Bendis, with all the confidence of one of Marvel’s chief writers, would announce it with a bold and confrontational statement, carving a mission statement in the largest and most confident manner possible.

The girl in the bubble...

Instead, the collection is disarmingly straightforward, to the point where it feels like a well-written character showcase that is just going through the plotting motions. While it’s always a joy to read Bendis writing Peter Parker or Nick Fury, it’s a bit of a shame that the story doesn’t have a bit more “oomph” to it. For all the radical changes that it makes, the cast is so large (and the interactions so small) that everybody seems far too accepting of everything that is unfolding. There’s no moment where we pause to catch our breath as the roller coast reaches the top of its climb, ready to plunge into an impossible fall.

I think the problem is the flipside of the strengths of the series. I think the best thing about Ultimate Comics: Doomsday is the way that it almost feels like an ending, a rarity in superhero comic books. It’s a “goodbye” to this version of the Fantastic Four, with Ben Grimm in the army and changing form, while Sue is reclusive and Johnny is living with Peter. There’s a crisis, but the team don’t meet it as the familiar group of heroes, they meet it as distinctly different individuals. This is arguable “the very last Ultimate Fantastic Four adventure”, for those who like hyperbole. However, it’s also a beginning of something new.

Miss Marvel-ous...

That beginning should, by all rights, be awesome and engaging and incredible. However, it simply isn’t. While Bendis is closing one book, he’s opening another… except everything after the first chapter appears blank. The book is about setting up future plot points as much as resolving old ones, but I know that they aren’t going anywhere, because the series is going to wrap after twelve issues, and Bendis will be back writing Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, rather than continuing the threads hinted at here. I know that Jonathan Hickman will pick up on thread in Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, but this miniseries seems to set up a follow-up that simply never developed – we never found out what happened to Ben and Susan after this point.

Still, despite this fairly fundamental problem, there’s quite a bit to like about this. As I mentioned above, Bendis was one of the founding fathers of this version of the Marvel Universe, so he has a surprisingly firm grip on the characters and their voices, even if they don’t play a huge part in events, each is clearly written and given dialogue that feels relatively natural. In particular, I enjoy Bendis’ Nick Fury, who sounds more like “badass mofo” Samuel L. Jackson than even Mark Millar’s version, and his version of Carol Danvers, who is wonderfully insecure and struggling with the weight on her shoulders, without ever seeming tooweak.

Just swinging by...

And seeing Bendis write Peter Parker and Doctor Octopus once again makes me want to read Ultimate Spider-Man again. Even though Peter is a tiny part of this whole thing, I love how in-character his reaction is. “This wasn’t your fault, Peter,” Aunt May tries to assure him after the house is destroyed. “Of course it was,” he replies, perfectly capturing the essence of Peter’s character, a character who over-compensates when it comes to issues of responsibility. There are also any number of smaller “nice” moments, like an office flooding to the window as Spider-Man and Spider-Woman have a conversation on the wall outside.

Of course, the biggest aspect of Ultimate Comics: Doomsday is, arguably, its portrayal of Reed Richards. Basically, Bendis turns the character from superhero into supervillain, as if to indicate that the fundamental distinctions between “real” Marvel and UltimateMarvel are not as skin deep as the stones falling from the Thing’s skin. Being entirely honest, I’m of two minds about the portrayal. I manage to, in that wonderful bipolar manner familiar to comic book fans, both love and hate the exact same development and its execution. It’s simultaneously bold and slightly in-character, while seeming contrived and forced.

Make mine a (Captain) Marvel?

I like the fact that it kinda makes sense. After all, Civil War was – despite what Mark Millar might claim – a story that turned iconic Marvel heroes into villains. Iron Man became a fascist. Captain America became a terrorist. Reed Richards came out pretty badly in the grand scheme of things, cloning an old friend so poorly that it led to the death of a superhero, while designing an extra-dimensional (and extra-judicial) internment camp. Civil War gave us hints of characterisation that suggested Reed was a character who needed an anchor in the real world to keep him tethered, morally. Without Sue to really ground him, he’s prone to disengage from arbitrary questions of right and wrong in pursuit of knowledge. (It’s an element that Millar also worked into Enemy of the State and Ultimate Fantastic Four.)

From that perspective, the idea the Reed Richards could become a well-intentioned extremist, justifying everything on simple mathematics, fits the character perfectly – particularly if he didn’t have Sue to balance him out. “He’s been through a lot,” Reed’s mother suggests as we join him at the start of the story, and she’s not wrong. Bendis goes into great depth charting the character’s massive failures and errors in judgment that seem to stack up in this version of the tale. You almost feel sorry for the guy, which is when Bendis’ characterisation comes closest to working.

I'm rubber and you're... fire?

“Your society does not work,” Reed’s monster warns Hawkeye. “Your morals are corrupted beyond repair.” It’s not an invalid argument, and it’s to Bendis’ credit that he does give Reed a bit of a point. Bendis falls back on the conventional torture scene, as we’ve seen in countless television shows and movies. Nick Fury shows up with a baseball bat (inscribed “kick ass”) and then Hawkeye goes even further. We don’t see the grisly methods, only their results. The creature talks.

Torture is a success, as it seems to be in an increasing number of movies and shows. On the surface, this seems like Bendis playing for shock value, and indulging in the somewhat clichéd use of “advanced interrogation” as a means to tease the reader, or to make his characters seem “darker and edgier”and, to an extent, cool. It looks like that, and I wouldn’t blame anybody for assume that the torture scene was just another example of a trope that’s all-too-common.

Old Nick?

However, Bendis quickly turns the idea on its head. While we see Fury and Hawkeye brutally torture an alien terrorist, getting him to crack, a few chapters later, we’re treated to the heroes brutalising Captain Marvel. We know Marvel hasn’t done anything wrong. We know he’s innocent, even though Fury has no more reason to believe him than the other aggressive alien. The scene plays out again, this time with the “dark and edgy” veneer replaced with a more uncomfortable and unsettling feeling.

We truly get a sense of how unpleasant Fury is, despite his cool exterior. He’s running an illegal police state. He has Reed’s emails on-file, for just this situation. As, one presumes, he has of every other “important” character (if not everyone on the planet). “So,” Johnny asks, “when you were running the world, you just stole things off anyone’s computer?” This sort of invasion of privacy was a major moral dilemma for Batman in The Dark Knight, but this is the least of Fury’s concerns. Many have accused the Ultimateline of being empty darkness, an attempt to seem edgy, but here Bendis uses it to illustrate just how flawed and paranoid this society actually is, and why Reed might conceivably have a problem with it.

Does not compute...

Bendis returns time-and-time again to the delicate balance that exists between hero and villain. After all, anybody who wears a costume in the Marvel Universe must decide to be one or the other. How do they know which? Do they even know which? The factors must be ridiculously immense. Spider-Woman teases Peter, asking, “Do you think the only thing standing in the way of you being a full blown master criminal is lady parts?” Of course not, but the line between good and evil seems to be so chaotic to Peter that it could be – to naive young Peter Parker, there’s no reason for people to turn out evil, and even Doctor Octopus is not irredeemable, despite his jokes and hatred. Even Sue has a nightmare about Ben’s powers spinning out of control, killing the entire team. Nick Fury seems to have been waiting for one hero to snap.

However, there lies the problem. While Peter can’t seem to fathom how some people end up good and some people end up bad, Bendis does. In arguably his best work on Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis had Nick Fury explain what was so special about Peter: he didn’t break. Fury looked at all the trauma and heartbreak in Peter’s life, and calculated it was inevitable that the boy would snap under the pressure, and turn into an evil genius. The fact that Peter had that internal fortitude and managed to shoulder all that impossible weight is what separates him from his villains. Peter lost loved ones and went through a horrible transformation without cracking, while none of his foes can boast the same.

He needs to fire his publicist...

So, in many ways, Bendis’ Reed Richards feels like a foil to his Peter Parker. In fact, Reed speaks in the same terms of “responsibility” that Peter does. “I turned a douchey piece of euro-trash into an honest-to-goodness super villain,” he confesses. “A genocidal maniac. My creation. My responsibility.” It’s funny that he uses ‘responsibility’, a watchword of Spider-Man. Of course, Reed can’t handle the pressure – and he snaps. And he becomes a villain.

Which is, I think, the part of his characterisation here that I don’t like at all. Not because Reed becomes a bad guy, but because he suddenly becomes a misogynistic genocidal maniac because a girl broke his heart. He complains about “the systematic raping of science”, evoking images of all those entitled internet fanboys claiming a given writer has “raped their childhood” or some similar obscene and pointless exaggeration. Bendis seems to believe that comic book heroes and villains operate at such fantastical extremes that it isn’t enough for Reed to slide off the slippery slope, but he has to enthusiastically diveoff it.

The oncoming Storm...

It feels like Reed should be written as something closer to the character of Ozymandias from Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen, even if that’s a level of complexity many writers aspire to, but few seldom succeed. As a rational (rather than an emotional) being, one can imagine Reed rationalising the casualties necessary to reshape the world to make it “better”, and it’s easy to imagine the kid loosing his grip on reality. However, this version of Reed isn’t just a crazy fundamentalist, he’s an aggressive and vindictive asshole, who is acting like a spoilt child who simply hasn’t had his way. I can understand why Bendis wrote him like that, but it doesn’t really work for a character who has seemed merely naive and occasionally disconnected in the sixty-issue series he headlined. It seems that it’s an idea I find a lot more appealing in theory than in practice. Which is arguably how I feel about the whole collection.

Still, it does feature some great art. Rafa Sandoval provides the artwork, and it looks great. In many ways, it reminds me of the superb work that Stuart Immonen has done on a few Ultimate titles, with clear lines, and a vaguely cartoony style. However, it’s the colours that really help the series “pop” and the collection is saturated with neon hues, helping the three miniseries seem like they “glow.”It looks really good, and remarkably consistent.

This Reed has snapped...

Ultimate Comics: Doomsday is going to suffer from comparisons to Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus Trilogy. Ellis’ story might have hit a few potholes, but it was bold and smart and imaginative, with clever structure and engaging science-fiction ideas to underpin it. On the other hand, Bendis’ trilogy of miniseries is more anchored in smaller character moments and one witty central idea: what if the Ultimate Universe didn’t have to look like regular Marvel? It’s a clever concept, but I’m not sure Bendis handles it in such a way that it sustains interest for twelve issues.

2 Responses

  1. This is a bit off-topic apologies, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about the new DC 52 reboot, if you’ve had a chance to ingest any of them over there. Not sure if you’re gonna wait for the first collections to come out or if you pick up the individual issues.

    Scott Snyder is killing it on Batman.

    • No worries. Truth be told, I’m a tradewaiter. Generally I might get a sneak peak from a comic book site I write for, but I generally fall a few months behind. I did read Flashpoint this week, though, and I really liked it – just because it’s a fairly strong illustration of Geoff Johns’ superhero philosophy, something that I think has been popping up in his recent work, but hasn’t been stated nearly strongly enough since Blackest Night.

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