“The Fantastic: Part 6”
Writers: Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar
Artists: Adam Kubert (p), John Dell & Danny Miki (i)
The first story arc of this series comes to an end as the nascent superhero team confronts Doctor Molekevic and his army of underground mutants...
Thus far, Ultimate Fantastic Four has had all the requisite elements in place for a new Ultimate series - a lauded writer, a solid artist, some tweaks to the characters' origins and an attempt to make the series more relevant than the 1960s strip which spawned it. However, up until now these elements have failed to coalesce into a title which is anywhere near as accessibly readable as Ultimate Spider-Man or as all-out entertaining as the Ultimates. For this first arc to work, Bendis and Kubert were going to have to pull out a great final issue which gives us a sense of a superhero team really coming together and a major event having taken place in our heroes' lives. Sadly, what we get is a bland fight sequence peppered with a lot of irrelevant dialogue and a conclusion which is as flat as it is inconclusive.
The descent into Moleman's underground lair was ripe for exploitation as a terrifying, eerie experience which bonds the group together. Unfortunately, this potential sense of atmosphere gives way to a lengthy exchange between the Fantastic Four and their first foe which is as cliched as I've seen Bendis write. Going over what is already old ground for this title, the obsessive relationship between Moleman and Sue is again explored, trying to come off as a climactic moment but lacking any real impact. The repeated suggestion that Moleman might have meddled in the Fantastic Four's origin is key, but it is so often dismissed in favour of mindless "goodies v baddies" fighting or inane bickering that the reader forgets to care. Furthermore, the constant interruption of a funny line or a self-consciously wordy exchange between our heroes undercuts any tension that we - or indeed they - should be feeling at this point. When Bendis writes well, one could be happy reading a whole page of prose. When he doesn't, the constant interruption begins to grate, severely disrupting the flow of the action and the narrative as a whole.
Adam Kubert is saddled with such a lot of dialogue in this issue that it clouds the big moments that are necessary at the climax of this arc. His renderings of Moleman's lair constantly and effectively reinforce the scale of the place, as well as the seemingly infinite army of mutants that besiege the Fantastic Four. Whilst some people have dismissed his Moleman design as too much of a caricature - a McFarlane-style exaggeration - such an over-the-top design is necessary for the team's first villain: especially if the writing fails to convey any real menace. When Kubert does get a chance to cut loose, however, it is a treat to watch, with a couple of splashes (such as that illustrating Ben Grimm's attempt to pin down his classic catchphrase) really giving us a sense of an overwhelming wave of enemies swamping our heroes. Unfortunately, the artist can only draw the material which is presented by the writer and as such a messy finale to the fight spreads itself too thinly between the fate of Moleman, the collapse of his cave and the threat of the mutant hordes. A solid enough fight, but one which is woefully short and drained of any real impact by the other preoccupations of the writing.
Really, what was needed in this issue was a defining moment - something which shows us why this group of misfits would choose to become a superhero team, how their physical changes have strengthened their character, a statement of their team dynamic. What we are left with - a predictable denouement which segues into a wordy concluding page, a sudden assertion that "we have to find Victor" - which comes out of nowhere - and a meaningless splashpage which seems to serve only to make up the page count. This is no way to hook new readers into a set of characters: neither will it satisfy old fans. Here's hoping that Warren Ellis (in his next arc) can really make these characters live and breathe, and give us a sense of an important superhero team being born.
Perhaps the most cutting thing you could say about a Bendis comic is that it is flat and uninteresting - and that's exactly the case here. Simplistic characters do not get fleshed out, and there is a sense of treading water until the series can get to a story we might actually care about. It's painful to say it for the bright young star in the Ultimate universe, but if Bendis wasn't making way for a whole new creative team next issue, I'd likely be dropping this title as of now.
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