Last week I mentioned how the Ultimate Fantastic Four books seemed at once to be aimed at everyone and no one. The story is reliant on the reader already knowing where these characters end up, but at the same time they present the same story, virtually unchanged, merely updated for new readers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the covers to the books themselves. The Ultimate line had covers that were never specific moments in the story but featured the main characters in iconic poses, usually individually and using their powers. It was a hallmark of the franchise and that’s fine.

But, Ultimate Fantastic Four was told very differently to the other books were “revealing” that certain X-Men characters were mutants wasn’t really a big deal. That’s why they were in the book, obviously. Spider-Man was a book about a specific kid who gets spider powers, so showing him in costume on the first book was fine. The Ultimates were all virtually in silhouette on their cover, and who they were wasn’t integral to the books story, more how they interacted. Meanwhile Ultimate Fantastic Four plays the event that creates them as a big reveal, a surprise, and the powers each member manifests aren’t revealed until the third issue, by which time we’ve seen a group shot of them all using their powers, a fear-inducing body-horror shot of Reed, and a fully engulfed in flame shot of Johnny. Surely one of these has to go, right? Either tell the story allowing for “new readers” to have seen the cover or change the covers so they don’t expressly ruin the surprise you’re trying to craft in the story? Decide which is more important and change the other thing. Seems simple to me.

Let’s “Reed” Ultimate Fantastic Four – The Fantastic: Part 3

Covers to Ultimate Fantastic Four 1, 2 and 3

I know it’s a comic about superheroes getting superpowers, but maybe the story shouldn’t rely on the reveal if the covers spoil it?

I hate to offer re-writes (who am I kidding, I love it) but if the ending of issue 2 had been the end of issue 1, and “Reed’s Perfect Experiment” had exploded, only for issue 2 to now reveal, and reflect on, that almost every time Reed had done it in the past it had exploded as well, basically reversing the order we get the first two issues presented to us, there could have been some interesting character growth. Reed’s childhood flashbacks of his past failures, interspersed with his regret at his current failure and the damage it has caused, would stand to tell us much more about Reed than we get here. As it stands, however, the regret Reed experiences and the pain at the seeming loss of his friends is sidelined in this issue as we delve into theories of what they’ve become, rather than the immediate “are they okay”.

Reed wakes up having been affected by the failed experiment.

The first page of issue 3 gives us a theme for the rest of the Fantastic Four.

The book opens with Reed lying on the ground, calling for help, as the military reacts just the way you’d expect, closing off the site and firing their rifles at something they don’t understand. Luckily for them Reed’s now bullet-proof thanks to his elasticity. Dr. Storm is, of course, entirely distraught at the seeming loss of his children but attempts of assist Reed, showing a powerful sense of empathy and goodness, dropping his own terror to assist the boy who had become like a surrogate son to him. Reed is, obviously, immediately overcome with emotion upon hearing Sue is “gone”, which a cynic, like myself, could read as a sadness at losing his girl, since he doesn’t ask about his childhood friend, or the man he built the machine with, or even the hundreds of other people around the site of the experiment. But he cries, so he’s obviously very sad about losing a girl who was his friend up until about 2 minutes ago when they kissed. What was her name? Susan, that’s right.

See, I find it pretty hard to care about a character who has literally no traits or personality. We don’t even know why she was at the Baxter Building in the first place. She’s a genius, we are left to guess, selected for the program like Reed and Victor were. Or did Dr Storm merely parachute his kids into the project? Was that why Johnny was there? He didn’t even seem to be a part of the program. At least we knew who Ben was, kinda, in that he was a respectable dude who stood up for Reed as a kid AND who went out of his way to see the guy’s big science experiment. Speaking of Benjamin J. Grimm…

Ben wakes up as The Thing in a foreign country.

I’d have been disappointed at how Ben looks if it hadn’t been spoiled two issues previous.

Ben wakes up and we get a repeat of the first page with Ben in place of Reed. It’s a nice visual allusion and whether it was Adam Kubert’s idea or the writers, I like it. There’s not a lot of interesting design going on in the book and it’s nice to see a visual medium actually using that aspect of itself. The four panel arrangement has Ben, lying on his side, waking up, being stared at by some kids who scream and run away when he speaks. I’d probably do the same thing if a rocky orange creature suddenly appeared and the spoke. But (and there had to be a but) why does he look identical (literally) to the original universe’s Ben Grimm? I guess someone on staff said “there’s no reason to mess with the classic look” and that was that. Now, saying that, there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with the look chosen. It’s served The Thing – Ben’s superhero name – for over fifty years now. The problem comes from older readers, who we’ve established the book is aimed at, having a specific character in mind from the visual, and by using the exact same look it becomes just a little bit more difficult to separate the two.

Comics are a visual medium and superhero design goes all the way back to the dawn of the genre itself. When drawing 20+ pages for a comic you’re going to be drawing your main character a lot of times. And when deadlines loom, you don’t want to be doing tiny little detail work on page after page. You streamline, so most superhero outfits were skintight suits, meaning you could basically draw a nude figure and color it in whatever your hero’s main color was and you’re done. Plus, they need to be iconic – easily recognized – so that when you draw them small in a small panel you can still work out who they are. All of this means you’re actually supposed to attach a large amount of meaning and characterization on a character based on how they look. If they LOOK like Superman, then as a comics reader you’re trained to assume they are. So a character like Ben Grimm – The Thing – becomes a large orange, rock creature with three fingers and four toes and a looming brow. Add on fifty years of stories and any time you see that hulking orange figure you automatically recognize it as Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four, with all the baggage that comes with it.*

So in the Ultimate Universe, lots of the characters look different. Be it just their costume, like Spider-Man and Iron Man, or added facial hair like Wolverine and Thor, or grey skin colour like Hulk, most of them look different in significant, if not major ways. The Ultimate Fantastic Four are all significantly younger than before, eliminating Reed’s grey hair, and wear somewhat different outfits, but the one character who would seem to NEED the visual differentiation is Ben, and he gets none.  So now, when I see his big naked orange self smashing things as he wakes up I can hear it only as original Ben, making it hard to separate the two. I wonder why he isn’t talking right. I wonder why he says some things. Why he does some things. It takes me longer than it should to parse this character from the older one, and most of that is because he looks identical. Is this my fault? Partly, sure. But why is Ben the only thing that wasn’t redesigned? It’s yet more evidence that the writers, or maybe the editors, don’t know who the book is aimed at. Old readers? New? Who can really tell.

Ben Gimm NAKED!

I find it very hard not to see that as The Thing, rather than Ultimate Ben Grimm.

I know I know. It’s sounding like a rant. I can’t let it go. Chill, man, chill! It’s just so problematic for me since without knowing WHO this book is being written for there’s no real WHY this book is being made at all. Could Marvel really find no one with an interesting angle on the Fantastic Four? Did they just grab Bendis and Millar because they kina “had to” write an FF book and these two guys were already writing most of the Ultimate Books anyway? I really liked the Ultimate line back in its initial run, but much like so many “of the moment” classics, it really doesn’t hold up. There’s no reason for this book to exist outside of the Fantastic Four being such a core piece of Marvel’s family of titles.

Anyway. After a truck hits Ben and comically flips over him, killing dozens of chickens in the process, we find Reed and Dr Storm going over the data of the experiment. They’re being guarded by the military (or rather, held) and Reed’s body continues to stretch in horrific ways, though he seems unaffected. He determines that Victor’s last minute changes altered the experiment in such a way as to cause the explosion that seemed to have killed him and the others. News comes in, however, than Ben’s alive, and it offers a moment of hope that maybe, just maybe, the others are alive too. The shift is handled well and we move from the panel of Dr Storm saying “My children are out there.” to a panel of Johnny waking up. And you guessed it, this page’s panels mirror both Reed and Ben waking up, keeping the theme between each of the members of the Fantastic Four. For something as small and, almost insignificant, its done well, and I like to think it was something Adam Kubert brought to the book, since Millar and Bendis seem to have not cared at all.

Johnny Storm sets himself on fire.

Angry American can’t handle being in a French hospital.

Johnny is shirtless – always a good look for Johnny Storm – and lying in a hospital bed. He wakes up but is greeted only by a nurse speaking French. He overreacts and starts to yell, his burning anger becoming literal flames which engulf him and set fire to his surroundings. The fire is soon extinguished, as the horrified hospital staff look on, only to see Johnny unscathed and smiling. For a five page character intro it doesn’t say much but encapsulates Johnny perfectly. It’s the most character building he’s had so far and it works, but mostly because he’s always been the most easily defined member of the group. He’s the Human Torch. He sets himself on fire. And he’s a bit of a hot head. There’s not much else to say, really.

Back at the Baxter Building, an undisclosed period of time later, Reed and Dr Storm are going over the data (on paper, it seems) as they prepare to bring Johnny and Ben back to New York. This is a classic two page Bendis conversation with a grid of 8 panels on each. The back and forth is quick, and feels mostly like a real conversation but in doing so, like much of Bendis’ scripts, it wastes lots of time, and space, getting details through the dense text. There’s a lot of repetition and while it feels relatively realistic, we just want to move on with the story. Dr Storm and Reed bring up the fact that each of the young men seem to be exhibiting a particular element. Johnny is obviously fire while Ben is even more obviously rock, while Dr Storm identifies Reed as “water” given his stretchy, almost liquid nature. Reed simply says air, obviously thinking about Sue, but Dr Storm seems to not realize his own conclusion, and says simply that Sue has disappeared into thin air. A cliché and a scientist not understanding his own point. Astounding.

Susan wakes up in an awful, smelly place.

These are Susan’s only lines of dialogue in the issue.

Our final Fantastic Four member wakes up in the same format as the previous three, with a spider hanging dangerously close to her, giving her a start. She sees her body has seemingly turned invisible down one side, and from her waist down, but she seems more concerned about the smell, which the other person in the room seems unaware of. She turns and we get a double page spread of a fat guy surrounded by a bunch of steaming piles of green goo. He addresses Susan by name, adding his pleasure to see her, though without an “again” it can’t be quite certain the exact nature of the man’s intent. Has he met her before? Obviously, for anyone who has read FF previously, this is The Moleman, compete with green hoodie in lieu of a cape, walking stick and weird oblong sunglasses. Several years have passed since his dismissal from the Baxter Building for trying to create sentient mold people, so clearly Dr Molekevic has been busy making an underground kingdom. Great. I was worried we were about to find out something, anything about Susan.

I hope you see what I mean about the order this story is being told in. Each of these characters deserve more story, more personality than they’re given here. An issue of setting up the experiment, then one of Reed and Ben’s friendship from their childhood, followed by Johnny and Sue growing up amidst a sea of genius kids making weapons for the US Military would make for a great three issue opening. It would give us some context to see these powers in the same way the characters would if suddenly afflicted like this, as deformities. And it would be much more new reader friendly.

Next week we continue with issue 4, The Fantastic: Part 4. I’ll be glad when the titles change, that’s for sure. Hope to see you there!

 

*If you’re interested in all of this stuff, Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” is still as vital today as it was when it was first published, and I strongly recommend giving it a Reed**.

**See what I did there?

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.

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