Ultimate Fantastic Four volume 2: Doom


By Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1457-4

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative roadblock in the late 1990s, the company came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for the new youth culture.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Peter Parker was once again a nerdy high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors, and mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they hid amongst. There were also fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001 and Mighty Avengers reworking The Ultimates came in 2002.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were retooled for the perceived-as-different tastes of a new readership: those tired of or unwilling to stick with precepts originated by inspirational founding fathers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, or (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The new universe quickly prospered and soon filled up with more refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains but eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

In 2008, imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Before that, however, Marvel’s original keystone concept was given an Ultimate working over and this stellar volume collects Ultimate Fantastic Four #17-12 (August to December 2004), and digital-colourist Dave Stewart relates how a subtly different Awesome Foursome began to affect the brand new, yet chillingly familiar world.

The most significant change to Stan & Jack’s breakthrough concept was a rather telling one: all four heroes were far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents…

Whereas in the original, middle-aged maverick genius Reed Richards, doughty friend Ben Grimm, ineffectual girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny survived a privately-funded space-shot which foundered when cosmic rays penetrated their vessel’s inadequate shielding and were mutated into a quartet into quirky freaks, here events transpired in a far more sinister manner…

Infant prodigy Reed was a lonely super-genius increasingly despised by his abusive blue-collar dad, bullied at school and obsessed with other dimensions. His only friend was classmate and school sports star Ben, who had unaccountably appointed himself the wonder-nerd’s protector…

Reed’s life changed the day his High School science project – teleportation – caught the eye of a government talent scout from a high powered think tank. Soon the outsider kid was ensconced in a New York facility for budding geniuses…

Run by brilliant Professor Franklin Storm, the Baxter Building was a wonderland of top-flight resources, intellectual challenges and guarded support, but school was primarily an ideas factory and the 100 strange, bright kids were expected to produce results…

Administrator Storm’s son Johnny was there mostly as a courtesy, but his daughter Sue was a biology prodigy and one of the biggest young brains on Earth…

Pretty hot, too…

Reed’s teleportation researches were just a necessary preliminary to his greater goal: mastery of a strange sub-dimension – a place the Baxter scientists call the Negative Zone. With their aid the passing years were largely spent in trying to fully access it, but regular studies continued too, with quite a few burn-outs and casualties.

Some kids thrived on the aggressive hot-housing; especially creepy, arrogant, insular Victor Van Damme, who after a particularly galling incident with Reed, somehow managed to swallow his seething animosity to collaborate on cracking the dimension calculations…

At last 21-year-old Reed and fractious lab partner Victor were shipped out to Nevada for the first full test of the N-Zone teleport system. The Storms went along for the ride, but as the army technicians counted down, Van Damme argued with Richards before secretly changing the still hotly debated and contested calculations…

At that moment backpacker Ben Grimm had wandered into camp to see his old sidekick after more than a decade apart, and snotty Johnny distracted Reed by disclosing that his sister Sue had the hots for the long-obsessed but crushingly shy wonderboy…

The test firing became a literal catastrophe.

The site was devastated in a shattering release of energy and Reed awoke some distance away as an amorphous blob of eerily boneless flesh, mistaken by the soldiers for an extra-dimensional invader.

Ben came to in Mexico as a huge rocky orange monster, and Johnny eventually called in from a hospital bed in France. He kept catching on fire without ever burning himself…

Sue has simply vanished without a trace…

She was eventually recovered from miles below New York City, gifted with invisibility and force field powers but captured by disgraced and long-missing Baxter Building boffin Arthur Molekevic: a literal Mole Man re-populating ancient, previously inhabited caverns with a selection of his own dish-grown monsters and homunculi…

The unsavoury savant had deduced that the quartet’s uncontrolled projection through N-Space – utterly unprotected from whatever transformative energies and unknown physical laws might apply there – had transformed them on some unfathomable fundamental level. Their incredible new gifts and appearances are the result…

When Mole Man attacked the surface world the foursome had chaotically united to defeat him and this second 6-part saga – by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger and digital colour wizard Dave Stewart – picks up the story as Reed, perpetually pondering and fixating upon what transformed them and how, at last deduces that Victor had tampered with the N-Zone Superpostioner codes…

He is then pressured by Sue into finally submitting to a barrage of biological tests; even convincing barely-reactive, stonily shellshocked Ben into doing likewise. The findings are astounding, unbelievable and – for us readers – rather gross and pretty hilarious…

Victor has been missing since the test went so explosively awry. Unknown to all, he was also transformed into an uncanny new life-form and now lurks in a ramshackle communal squat in Denmark, obsessing on his abusive father and the daily cruelties that direct descent of Vlad Tepes had inflicted upon his only heir in the name of honouring the august and reviled line of Dracula

Victor wants revenge and needs data, so his nimble but malformed hands have cobbled together a lethal swarm of killer spy wasps from discarded cellphones and the electronic detritus scattered in the streets…

As the bugs head for America the last scion of the Draculas advances his other plan: building a kingdom of the wretched from the city’s outcasts and dropouts. They all love and revere him. The electronic tattoos admitting them to his Order of the Dragon guarantee that…

When the swarm at last reaches the Baxter Building they utterly overwhelm and eradicate the military forces “protecting” the unsettling quartet of freaks, but after a spectacular struggle fall before the incredible power of Ben, Sue and Johnny.

Aware at last that the accident has turned the trio into beings as advanced as he, Victor lays new plans whilst largely discounted and loathed Reed frantically attempts to track the source of the assault.

The furious prodigy realises that if he can get the altered N-Zone Superpostioner codes from Victor, there’s a strong chance he can reverse the process and restore them all to true humanity.

Sadly, Professor Storm won’t let them go and instead dispatches a military squad to covertly rendition Van Dammer from sovereign Danish territory, but Reed is no longer the docile star pupil and sneaks off with “his” team in a flying supercar he built when he was thirteen.

He’s going to get those codes out of his treacherous lab partner and have a normal life no matter the cost…

Unfortunately Victor is waiting for them with an horrific range of new powers, deadly weapons and an army of unwashed hippie slaves, but the manic control freak is totally unprepared for the fact that his deadly rival has powers too: a fact none of his death-bugs managed to convey before they were destroyed.

The conflict then spirals completely out of control when US Special Forces blaze in to snatch Van Damme and run slam-bang into an extremely ticked off Danish army a trifle upset by the illegal American incursion…

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also liberally dosed with teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, delivering a sublimely enthralling alternate view of Marvel’s most important title that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2005 and 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.