Shiny Shelf

Ultimate Fantastic Four #1

By Mark Clapham on 06 January 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Apparently this first issue of Marvel’s latest ‘Ultimate’ title has already shifted 200,000 units. That’s a lot of comics, certainly in today’s market. Does it deserve it? Well, no. This isn’t a ‘Hush’-scale event book, and it definitely isn’t a ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ in terms of quality. It isn’t even as good as the best ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ issues. However, neither is it as bad as ‘The Ultimates’ or ‘Origin’ or any of the many other overhyped Marvel event books. As first issues go, it’s a good one, neither brilliant nor disappointing.

Occasionally clunky, sometimes inspired, ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ is off to a solid, slow start with this first issue. The book starts with the birth of Reed Richards, the baby tugging at his mother’s hair. This can either be taken as evidence of scientific curiosity or an early blonde fixation – as the rest of the comic jumps between pop science and crude psychology, either reading is valid. Jumping forward, we get to see some of Reed’s adolescence. He’s a bullied nerd in the mode of an early Peter Parker, and there’s even something of the Steve Ditko Parker in the way artist Adam Kubert draws Reed. This is very standard material for Marvel, for comics, and for teen melodrama in general. Reed is bullied at school, and his parents (especially his aggressive father) don’t understand him. Reed’s only ally is his friend Ben Grimm, school sports hero and general good guy.

Unfortunately, there’s little of co-writer Brian Michael Bendis’ gift for believable teen writing here – the character’s are too broad, too clich?d. Bendis’ trademark snappy dialogue falters, with tiny speech balloons wriggling around Kubert’s artwork without saying anything much. It’s hard to say whether the script needs to be less wordy, or whether those words should just be better ones.

Thankfully, things pick up when Reed’s experiments come to the fore. Reed is a terrifyingly able child prodigy, experimenting with parallel universes in his garage and sending toys into these universes, just to say hello. There’s an absurdity reminiscent of Alan Moore’s ‘Jack B Quick’ to an eleven year old boy demonstrating teleportation at a science fair, and the wonder of scientific discovery is portrayed vividly.

By the end of the first issue Reed has been recruited by the government to a think tank for prodigies, and met fellow child geniuses Sue and Johnny Storm. In a neat trick the tight panels of most of the issue explode out into more open pages as Reed’s world expands, the narrow black borders dropping away as he enters a wider world. It’s a good way to end the issue, and we do at least have all the lead characters introduced by this point. However, the image portrayed on the cover of all four, grown up and in costume, complete with super-powers, is presumably a few issues away from coming to pass.

While a gradual pace is no bad thing, the similarly glacial ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ at least had Peter Parker gain his powers before the end of the first issue, and gave a fair indication of where things were going. If you know your FF lore, then ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ has an obvious direction, but this first issue gives little indication of what the title will be like when it gets going. If those 200,000 initial readers are to stick around, Marvel might want to give them a bit more idea of where everything is going.

As with a lot of collaborations, putting writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar together seems to have balanced out their strengths and weaknesses, settling on a steady average. Millar tends to lean towards explosive sensationalism, while Bendis is known for fine character work and wit. Together, they’ve produced a book which is neither action packed nor deep in character, but is simply quite entertaining. It’s fairly involving, with a few very funny scenes and a couple of intriguing elements. Kubert’s art is solid, traditional but never stunning.

Worthy of those huge sales figures? On this evidence, no – there are far better comics out there. However, so far ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ hasn’t done much wrong, and shows a lot of promise.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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