As a kid, Marvel’s Ultimate line was the thing that got me back into comics. I had happily picked up whatever I got my hands on when I was younger, but there were so many crossovers and major events throughout the early ‘90s that even as a child I could barely keep it straight. When the Ultimate books started, I could not have been more excited. This time, I got to see the stories unfold from the beginning and got to see all of my favorite characters reimagined in cool and imagined ways. It became something to anticipate: who would appear and when? I remember literally gasping when I first saw the cover for Ultimate X-Men #7, revealing Nightcrawler’s new look and announcing his debut in the title. I ate up all the Ultimate titles, no matter what they were, and loved them all almost equally at the time. While some, namely Ultimate Spider-Man, remain among my favorite comic book runs of all time, others like Ultimate X-Men and the imprint’s version of Avengers, The Ultimates, have not aged as well for me. There’s almost a fetish for depictions of fascism and a need to wallow in shock, not so much as in the emotional consequences as simply with the need to showcase it. These things tend to run throughout much of Millar’s work, which is not to say that his stories—especially in the Ultimate world—don’t contain great moments and characters, because they do.
When it made its debut, Ultimate X-Men was the biggest book in the world to me and there’s still so much of it that I’ll always love, particularly some of the approaches to the core relationships and its genius reimagining of Dazzler. But there’s also such a post 9/11 bent to it, with Magneto (very intentionally) stripped of all sympathy and purpose to instead be interpreted as an occasionally direct correlation to Osama Bin Laden. Even after Mark Millar’s run ended on the book, it leaned into the fact that it could really do anything with these characters since these stories were not being told in the main universe, often with mixed results.
Millar’s The Ultimates took this much, much further. It’s an extremely post-9/11 take on the Avengers concept, with the team being White House approved and George W. Bush even making an appearance within the comic to publically announce the return of Captain America. Steve Rogers is openly conservative and has a disdain for youth and modern culture, and even moments of overt racism, largely tied to attempting to be an authentic portrayal of a man from the ‘40s, but which just as easily feels like a “Real American Hero” of the then-modern era itself. The heroes find themselves at the center of horrific scandals that they attempt to keep from the public eye, like Hank Pym’s domestic abuse and the fact that they imprison and even attempt to assassinate Bruce Banner after a devastating Hulk attack on New York to keep the public from learning that he was one of their own.
With these dour, aggressively political versions of the reimagined Marvel heroes coming one right after the other, it’s amazing that the next major Ultimate book became remotely as fun, funny, heartfelt and even kind of whimsical as it became, especially with Millar again (partially) at the helm. That book was Ultimate Fantastic Four.
It’s actually staggering that the first story arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four is even remotely coherent, because it was Frankensteined together by two incredibly different writers. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar could not have more different, distinctive styles and the fact that both of them helped build this thing from the ground up should have made for a completely tonally imbalanced product. It feels like there’s a third voice shaping the overall scope of things and that’s because there actually was. Grant Morrison was still working at Marvel writing New X-Men at the time and helped to piece together the overall concept and was scheduled to write the series before he left Marvel for an exclusive contract at DC. And honestly, most of the overall ideas feel like his. There’s a distinctly Morrison flair to Ultimate Fantastic Four, even if he never actually wrote an issue of it, that I think really helps to set the book apart from the other Ultimate titles.
From the beginning, there’s something immediately different about Ultimate Fantastic Four. It’s not opening with exposition of a dystopian society or a nihilistic modern world that refuses to be saved. We’re introduced to young Reed Richards and Young Ben Grimm, things are a little different and a little darker, for sure. Reed’s dad is a working class guy who doesn’t get or understand him, wishes he’d play football instead of being so into science and is, in fact, even a little bit terrified of his son. He hates Reed, the way resentful fathers sometimes do, and clearly sees Ben as the son he wishes he had. At its heart though, this opening arc is about what Fantastic Four is always about: the formation of a family.
The reimagining of the Baxter Building as a Think Tank is great because of the dynamic it helps to establish. First and foremost, it makes Reed and Sue an age-appropriate couple. Second, and most important, it allows Reed, Sue and Johnny to have known each other for years before the accident. This time it’s not a group going into space, but an accident of Reed (and Victor’s) own design. Reed Richards accidentally discovered another dimension when he was just a child and it forms the bulk of his research at the Baxter Building until he can use their infinite resources to send a team over to the other side. He is obsessed with his discovery of the Negative Zone, and it places a lot of the blame on his shoulders, especially from Ben who was not a scientist nor in any way associated with the Baxter Building and probably shouldn’t have even been there in the first place.
Of course, Reed isn’t solely to blame as Victor sabotaged the experiment. Ultimate Fantastic Four’s approach to this character in particular is great because he is on one hand exactly the Doom we’ve always known, and in other ways he is radically different. What Victor does is a clever twist that at the same time makes a fundamental change to not only how they get their powers, but how they deal with them. In the original continuity, Victor had no powers to begin with and was not a part of the accident. In Ultimate Fantastic Four, Victor not only causes the accident on purpose, but knows exactly what’s going to happen, that the energy from the other dimension will fundamentally alter him on a cellular level, he’s just narcissistic enough to believe that he’ll be the only one who’s changed. That’s also, naturally, exactly the kind of oversight he would make.
The first volume of Ultimate Fantastic Four is great because it really details the first day on the job, while also teasing what’s to come. It’s refreshing to see Doctor Doom be saved (as Victor disappears immediately after the accident) for a later story while the team is forced to stop the threat of Mole Man—reimagined as a disgraced Baxter Building professor seeking revenge on Dr. Storm for not believing in his ideas—while having to try and come to terms with what’s happened to them at the same time. For Ben, it’s an incredible test of his loyalty to his childhood best friend, as his friendship with Reed has now had devastating and irreversible effects. There’s a great mix of both tragedy and levity as he fights Mole Man’s giant monster while insisting that he’s still dreaming and that none of this is actually happening.
It’s undeniably weird to have the incredibly distinctive voices of Bendis and Millar over the course of a single story, but not ultimately too distracting. Where Ultimate Fantastic Four really shines, though, is in its second and third story arcs, bringing in yet another writer: Warren Ellis.
Ellis’ brief run on Ultimate Fantastic Four easily feels most closely in line with what Grant Morrsion’s original take on the book would have been. It’s not just weird, it’s embracing of its weirdness in fun and refreshing ways. Ellis dives much more into the actual science (roughly) of what happened to the characters, which makes sense as Reed and Sue are both scientists (in a building full of the smartest people on the planet) who would be endlessly curious about not only what happened to them, but how. Aside from Johnny, who immediately adapts to being Human Torch in just about every version of the story, Sue is the first to really not want to change back to normal. As a scientist, she considers herself the discovery of the century and she is very proud of that fact. She should not exist because true invisibility is technically impossible, plus there’s the fact that her corneas being invisible should make her blind.
Reed no longer needs to eat because he doesn’t really have internal organs anymore. He can’t. They’d burst and his bones would break every time he stretches. Johnny has a layer of flameproof skin that he eventually has to shed like a lizard. These conversations, accuracy aside, are honestly great. More than anything, though, they help the book to lean into the dorkiness of some of its core characters.
The second volume of the book sees Doom resurface as a kind of cult leader, using nanotechnology in tattoos to turn Latveria into a hippy commune/Manson family where people think they’re living free but are actually being branded with a mark that allows Doom to control their minds.
This version of Doom has no armor, but has rather been transformed like Ben, so that his skin becomes metal, effectively trapping him in a close approximation to his classic comic book armor. Ultimate Doom is also cleverly reimagined as a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler, with the admiration of warlords being something that is hammered into him by his father at a very young age.
The third volume, “N-Zone” could easily have been the end of the series, as this possibly best story arc sees the team return to their original mission by piloting a space-craft into the Negative Zone to finally explore the dimension that Reed tapped into as a child. There, they meet its sole inhabitant, Annihilus, who is a kind host but also crazy, having killed all the other inhabitants and now clearly setting his sights on a new dimension to conquer. I think this speaks to an issue with the Ultimate Marvel line as a whole, as so many of them started out great, but almost all of them (with the exception of Ultimate Spider-Man, for the most part) really lost the plot as they went along. I think Ultimate Fantastic Four, like many other Ultimate Marvel titles, could easily have been a miniseries or a maxi-series rather than an ongoing one.
Not that there weren’t good ideas after “N-Zone,” of course, as we eventually saw Namor and the Inhumans and even the introduction of the Marvel Zombies. Yes, they were introduced in a story arc in this comic before being spun off into their own thing. But nothing had the finality that this arc had, which would also have allowed the series to go out on top while still embracing its sense of adventure and fun.
One of the biggest developments to Ultimate Fantastic Four as it went along was, essentially, the gradual transformation of Reed Richards into the Big Bad of the entire Ultimate Universe, the Maker. It makes sense, of course, but is all the more tragic as this incarnation of Reed began as perhaps the most sensitive and kind version of the character ever. If anything, it would almost make more sense for the main universe’s Reed Richards to take that path. Still, it works, as Reed is and has always been dangerously unchecked and extremely emotionally distant. It also allows Doom to have a fantastic “I told you so moment” as he proves to be the lesser of two evils.
As is kind of clear just from the plot, 2015’s attempt at a Fantastic Four movie took heavy cues from Ultimate Fantastic Four and turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. That has almost everything to do with the fact that it kept almost felt like a Wikipedia recap of the basic gist of the book, from the discovery of an alternate dimension to Victor’s role in the accident and subsequent disappearance, without ever glancing at what actually made the story work: namely, the deep-rooted relationships between the characters and the overall sense of adventure. It’s a book that should be adapted with the scope and tone of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, while the film instead attempted to go for the emotional trauma of Lars Von Trier—and couldn’t quite do that, either.
Still, Ultimate Fantastic Four (particularly in those early stories) remains a really funny, fun, clever and honestly delightful book from a time in Marvel where edge and grit reigned supreme, from the line that helped to define that flavor. As such, it will never not be a wonderful surprise and a series I remember with incredible—and admittedly nostalgic—fondness.