Eleven years ago this month, Marvel were riding high on the success of their “Ultimate” comics line. It was a new universe, stripped bare of its continuity, and it was pretty much the most popular thing going on at the time. Ultimate Spider-Man had proven successful beyond all expectations and the Ultimate X-Men had reinvigorated characters long thought to have been long past their prime. The Ultimates – the line’s version of the Avengers – had exploded, doing stories across movie-like volumes and ushering in new readers to the world of superheroes.

Two men were, largely, responsible for the tone and style of the Ultimate line; Brian Michael Bendis (who wrote Spider-Man) and Mark Millar (who wrote both the X-Men and Ultimates titles). The two writers focused on a sense of reality in setting and characters, modern language and updated stories with an “edgey” feel, just right for the burgeoning Twenty First Century readership. Bendis’ teenagers sounded like real kids, and Millar’s grim worlds took the shine off of the superheroes involved. So when Marvel finally decided to make an Ultimate version of their First Family of comics, the publisher turned to the two men it held in such high esteem, to join forces and bring about the Ultimate Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four were, and still are, widely regarded as the beginning of Marvel’s modern publishing style. They were a modern family at the time of their inception, thrown into strange worlds and weird situations, gifted with weird, unique abilities but never losing sight of what they were; a family, and this dynamic cemented them at the forefront of Marvel’s comic book empire. Spider-Man would add to it, throwing real-world problems at superheroes, making them more relatable than the ongoing adventures of Superman or Batman, but when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four they hit upon their winning formula, and it defined Marvel Comics for the rest of the Twentieth Century.

Kinda strange then, really that Marvel’s “First Family of Comics” were the last of their big franchises to get the Ultimate Treatment. But that’s another story. And now, as Fox finally begins to unveil its brand new Fantastic Four movie which, it hopes, will be the basis for a new franchise of X-Men like profits… I mean, proportions, I wanted to take a look at the world created in part by the man who is now Fox’s go-to guy when it comes to Comic Book Movies; Mark Millar.

Issue 01 – The Fantastic: Part 1

So, Ultimate Fantastic Four’s debut issue opens up with a hospital, 21 years ago, as we celebrate the recent birth of a young boy with bright blue eyes and light brown hair. His parents are about as American as you can get, with his father sporting a giant moustache to help us appreciate how manly he is. Now, if this book was written in 2004, and it’s 21 years ago, that makes it set in 1983. Were Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck really popular in the early 80’s? Honestly. I wasn’t there so I don’t know.*

Newborn Reed Richards held by his parents.

Great moustache. But that’s gotta be the ugliest baby I ever saw.

We jump forward ten years, to 1993 I suppose, and a boy is being picked on a school. More than that. Bullied. He’s getting a “swirly”. He’s rescued by a large teenager who seems reluctant to succumb to violence, allowing his reputation to intimidate the bullies to leave the younger boy alone. The bullies call the young boy Richards and the larger boy Grimm, becoming the first names to be given in the book. Grimm helps Richards up and takes him home where we’re treated to a vision of suburban, domestic USA life. Richards is doted on by his mother who fusses over him like a typical “TV Mom” of the 90’s as Richards’ younger sisters play nearby. I had no idea this had become an episode of The Wonder Years.

Richards’ Dad, Mr Richards, appears and chides his bookish son for getting into yet more trouble, despite the boy protesting that he did nothing wrong. The older Richards still sports his large black moustache, so maybe it wasn’t just an 80’s thing? Mr Richards has aged, however, as evidenced by his “salt and pepper” hair coloration. His grey temples and black hair are exactly the same as Reed Richards has in the original Marvel Universe. Now, it could just be me, but somewhat cynical callbacks to the main series are fun from time to time, but this is pretty early on. As a first issue, for a new reader (which is ostensibly what these books are for) the reference is lost, and looks decidedly out of place on its own.

Reed's Dad confronts him about the broken blender.

Sure, Reed’s Dad handles it poorly, but he’s not wrong. What the kid did was selfish.

Richards, who continues to remain first-name-less, is quickly ignored by Mr Richards, who focuses intently on the larger boy, Ben. This makes Ben Grimm the first fully named member of the Ultimate Fantastic Four, which seems like a strange choice, considering how 90% of this opening issue is dedicated to Reed Richards’ origin story. Sure, he’s integral to the creation of the Fantastic Four, but we’re six pages, and ten years into this boy’s life and he is still just “Richards”. The young boy looks wistfully on as his Dad embraces Ben into the family over their mutual love of sports, and probably all the other “manly” things boys are “supposed to like”. We then get treated to yet more bullying of the junior Richards as later, after dinner, the boy is verbally abused by his father for indulging his scientific mind (at the expense of the family blender). The kid is a misunderstood nerd, guys. We all got that? Good. Also his Dad’s name is Gary.

Our next few pages have Reed (still technically nameless) explaining his theories of alternate dimensions to the somewhat clueless linebacker, who only came over for help with his maths homework. Reed’s little sister is named Enid.

Again, for what is supposed to be a first issue, the book seems very interested in telling us about this “Negative Zone” but assumes we know who the boy is and why he’s important. Reed continues to build his device, despite his disapproving father and takes it to his school science fair, getting the attention of another mustachioed man, this time in a beret, but the most exciting thing is that someone at the school, an ironically unnamed teacher, knows the boy’s name! At least, our main protagonist is given his name – Reed Richards.

Reed's little sister Enid wants to go with him.

Why is this scene even here? There’s only 22 pages guys. This never comes up again!

We’re only half way through the book and I already have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it feels like an addition to the FF story that we didn’t already have. When we meet them in the original book, Reed is an adult, a man of science, and while a bit of his younger days have been explored, mostly in his college times with Victor Von Doom, the idea of a child genius being raised by “normals” is a great idea. Reed Richards is so smart that yes, his childhood was probably pretty crap. It always is for people as different in such unquantifiable ways. But on the other hand it really feels like a way of “Spider-Man-ing” the Fantastic Four, or at least Reed, making them kids with “relatable problems” and who were right the whole time, if only their family had known and let them just be themselves. It’s a bit ugly, and while I get that blaming a kid for his Dad’s inability to relate to him isn’t cool, neither is just pulling apart electronic equipment the family needs, without asking, when they’re obviously not vastly wealthy. Sadly though, one is treated as a tragedy, while the other gets him bullied again. If we’re going to spend pages and pages discussing the Negative Zone, don’t leave problematic relationships unexplored in your book.

So the Man in the Beret comes to see Reed’s parents. His name is Lumpkin. That was the name of the Mailman at the Fantastic Four’s base. See? Aren’t references great! Lumpkin offers Reed a place at a special think tank for gifted children. It’s a government run technological research and development program which, realistically, should automatically scream weapons program. Parenting a genius child is hard, for sure, and a big stress, but farming that child out to a weapons lab shouldn’t be the answer. But the promise of being paid secures Gary Richards’ co-operation and so off Reed goes, to the heart of Manhatten. The Baxter Building.

And suddenly, BOOM, the art opens up to reveal the Baxter Building, a giant glass skyscraper which fans of the FF will know as their base of operations. The black bars down the sides of the pages disappear and we get full pages of art now, so I suppose they were the restrictive nature of Reed’s world before he was allowed to make weapons for the government? I’m being cynical, obviously, but a school for gifted students is what Reed needs, not a government research and development program, and New York has one. It’s run by Professor Charles Xavier.

Well, in Reed goes, escorted by Agent Lumpkin we get a great splash of super genius kids building crazy inventions, and we’re introduced to Doctor Storm, as well as his two children Johnny and Sue. It’s worth noting that Johnny gets a name after being in a total of two panels, and before his first spoken word. Sue was in three panels but also had not spoken. Actually, she doesn’t get a single line in this issue, while Johnny Storm at least gets to say “Yo yo.” He’s supposed to be a child, you see. Immature. Get it?

Quickly we’re informed that the scientists at the Baxter Building have found the same Negative Zone that Reed had, but had been able to see it, giving us a second splash page revealing the Negative Zone to be… swirling lights and colours.

A splash page of the kids at the Baxter Building.

The kids at the Baxter Building are a precocious lot, with their rockets and flying cars.

What a let down, I have to say. It looks like the Northern Lights with some bubbles. Considerably unimpressive. Sure, it’s a parallel dimension and whatever, but for a visual medium, and such a grand reveal, the whole thing is a real bummer. At least to me, and it’s a sour note to leave the issue on. There’s a nice little gag about Reed’s toys turning up, but I would probably have preferred that as an opener for the next book if the visual of the N-Zone had been more impressive.

And that’s it. A “cliffhanger” of sorts, as Reed says “Fantastic…” and the issue ends. As an origin story for Reed (or more accurately, Reed and Ben’s friendship) it served its purpose but Reed himself experiences very little growth or change within this issue, making the story feel almost redundant. Reed starts the issue as a boy genius and ends it as a boy genius. He’s got a place to live now but he wasn’t really encumbered by his surroundings before. He just took the pieces of technology he needed and that was that. Surely rewarding the boy for his problematic behavior isn’t the answer. If it’s setting up character flaws for further down the line, that’s fine, but it just feels so lackluster for the first issue of the Ultimate Fantastic Four, a book we’d been expecting for several years by this point. Open up the throttle. Go crazy. Maybe having BOTH Millar and Bendis write it meant we got a kind of “average” of the two, not both of their strengths at their fullest. I don’t know, but I know that showing us the characters’ relationships amidst setting up the actual experiment that gives them their powers would have worked much better, with maybe this issue saved for when Reed has to explain why he brought Ben into the project.

In the next installment of this series, we continue with issue 2, The Fantastic: Part 2. And while I doubt Reed’s Mother is going to be given a first name, maybe, just maybe, Sue Storm might get some dialogue! No promises, though. Hope to see you there!

*Okay so I looked it up and yes, Burt and Tom were pretty big in the early 80’s. Like REALLY big. Cannonball Run and Magnum P.I. plus loads of other stuff. Nice time referencing there, Adam Kubert!

About The Author

Living in Australia, my life is probably quite like yours, except hotter and with more dangerous animals. I've had a love of comics for the last 20 years, which is almost exactly two thirds of my life, and very little else has been with me that long. I fancy myself as a writer, but I fancy myself as many things that I'm not all that good at, so go figure. I have strong opinions but I love to discuss things, so please comment, cos I'd love to hear what you think of what I think.

Comments are closed.