Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Greg Land (p), Matt Ryan (i), Justin Ponsor (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
EDITORíS NOTE: The first issue of Ultimate Power arrives in stores this Wednesday, October 11.
SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews reveal plot developments of the issue.
Here we go again.
Bendis canít write superhero stories well. Oh I know, he gets paid for his efforts, and he doesnít give up, but heís seldom any good at it. Iíve read enough to know Iím rarely impressed with his superhero work, and I find myself coming to this project with rather low hopes. A similar sentiment goes for Greg Land: the guy stopped drawing imaginatively the day he realized it was that much quicker to grab a swimsuit magazine off the rack, trace it (or redraw the image from sight, whatever you want to call that) and paint bright superhero colors over the images.
And yet theyíre paired on a title with a high concept thatís inspired at best and utterly bizarre at worst. The real question is: will it actually be about anything? Or is it just an excuse to have superheroes from separate universes punch each other?
Unfortunately, this first chapter gives us everything weíve come to expect from these two creators: dialogue that was stale after the first issue of Powers hit and a bevy of static panels that might as well exist in separate comic books.
The Ultimate Fantastic Four fight the Ultimate Serpent Squad, a.k.a. swimsuit models with snake costumes. They nearly bicker each other into submission, but not before a shocking fate befalls one of the heroes Ė or at least, it wouldíve been shocking if it hadnít been done before. Of course, readers who are new to Marvel or who only read Ultimate books may gasp and wonder why no one had thought of such an interesting development before, and though I wouldnít be surprised if Bendis tried to take all the credit for it, itís been done at least once before Ė I think when Pacheco was drawing the book. Either way, itís a moment that lacks the power it deigns to achieve.
What does this issue have to do with the Squadron Supreme? That would be the final splash page. Of course, splash pages are usually reserved for shocking cliffhangers that no one would expect and would drive them to pick up the next issue, but clearly no one told Bendis the Squadron characters were already on the cover, thus the complete opposite of a surprise.
And Ultimate Carol Danvers brings up possibly the greatest air-headed non-argument to ever grace a comic book since the Ď60s: ďArenít you at all concerned with the Butterfly Effect?Ē Thatís right, Reed, donít take any action whatsoever, think of the Butterfly Effect and all the uncorrelated worldwide damage you might do! Someone should remind Bendis how many natural disasters he could prevent if he stopped trying to write superhero stories.
The only reason this issue scored as high as it did is because first issues come with the benefit of the doubt and minimal expectations. There hasnít been enough development to the story for any serious disappointment to come into play yet. But donít worry, itís well on its way.
Plot: After a battle with the Serpent Squad leaves the Thing damaged, Reed Richards renews his commitment to finding a cure for his friend. When the presentation he makes to S.H.I.E.L.D. to get funding for probes to map out every dimension possible leads to rejection, Reed decides to send out a select number of probes anyway. Later, during a meeting with the representatives that handle the Fantastic Four's action figures, a mysterious group of super powered individuals arrive.
Commentary: Cheap shot of this review: ďSo, did I stumble into an issue of Ultimate Fantastic Four or what?Ē
Come on, after you read this issue, youíll think the same thing.
Despite my continued attempts to convince the lot of you that I am indeed funny, I have to say that I enjoyed the heck out of this book. Admittedly, my only real interest in this was the Squadron Supreme end of it (as Squadron was one of the few books to make it through the recent culling I did to my hold box) but after reading this issue, my interest was indeed piqued. I also believe this to be the best possible crossover scenario. The Avengers of the regular Marvel Universe have their version of the Squadron Supreme, so it makes sense that J. Michael Straczynskiís Squadron would meet up with the Ultimate universe.
At least it makes sense to me.
Sure itís a Brian Michael Bendis book, but itís a good one. My feelings for Bendis are mixed, and I tend to take him on a case by case basis, but in this instance I liked his characterization and dialogue. He made me care about this version of the Fantastic Four, which is a good thing. This is actually my first experience with this incarnation of Marvelís first family, and I liked what I saw. There was a feeling of familiarity mixed with some new twists I rather enjoyed. The interaction between Sue and Reed is great, as are the moments between Reed and Ben. This may be a version of the FF that I end up liking.
Outside of the character moments, there were other little touches that I appreciated. There is a reference to something being classified under the ďGruenwald Doctrine,Ē a nice little homage to Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer who was responsible for the mid-eighties Squadron Supreme twelve issue limited series. This was a project, if memory serves, so near and dear to Markís heart that his ashes were mixed into the ink on one of the trade collections of the series.
If nothing else that one bit of dialogue endeared this issue to me because Mark is one of the great comic fans turned pro who wrote a run of Captain America that may not have been gold from start to finish but is one of the most solid versions of the character ever. Again, if memory serves, Mark created the Serpent Society, which Iím guessing was the inspiration of the Serpent Squad.
Itís nice to see a writer recognize where it all comes from. Gruenwald may not have created the Squadron Supreme, but he sure as hell defined them.
And as a complete aside, this is the first Ultimate related book Iíve seen since watching Ultimate Avengers, and I couldnít help but ďhearĒ the voice actor for Nick Fury while reading his dialogue. Anyone else get this feeling?
In The End: This is a decent set-up to a crossover that holds a lot of promise. Sure, not a whole heck of a lot happened, but for once, I didnít really mind. There is an emotional context to Reed sending out the data collecting devices, which Iím guessing has just about everything to do with the Squadron Supreme coming to the Ultimate universe. The art by Greg Land and Matt Ryan is superb and had the smooth style that has been in just about every Ultimate related book Iíve read. If nothing else, I think this series is going to be fun, which I think I, as a reader, kind of need right now considering my comic book world view.
I guess the only real question here is, where do I place my bet that the Squadron Supreme is being mind controlled?
A fight between the Fantastic Four and the Serpent Squad reminds Reed of his promise to cure Ben Grimm. When Reed canít get the funding he needs to explore other dimensions for a cure, he sends out some homemade probes at random. Somehow this attracts the negative attention of the MAX-version of the Squadron Supreme.
This issue features all the negatives that have kept me away from Ultimate Fantastic Four and driven me away from Ultimate Spider-Man. Letís list them:
Decompressed storytelling: I donít mind a long story per se. I just want some plot that advances a little faster than a glacier is all. The SS donít appear until the last two pages of the book. No explanation why or how. It might be tied into Reedís probes. It might have something to do with the Serpent Crown being held at Project Pegasus. We donít know. All we get is a short fight and lots of talking.
Fan Service: Fan service usually refers to sexy scenes of hot chicks in anime and manga. We get that here in the Serpent Squad. But I mean ďfan serviceĒ in terms of all the references to ďrealĒ Marvel comics sprinkled liberally throughout the Ultimate Universe. Squadron Supreme fans know the importance of the Serpent Crown and Project Pegasus to the team. We even get a possible ďUltimate QuasarĒ and a return appearance from Carol Danvers. But do any of them play an important role in the story? Danvers doesnít contribute anything meaningful to the story. We donít need to know Wendell Vaughnís name. And if Pegasus and the Crown have anything to do with anything, we wonít know for at least another issue, (see point 1).
Not better, just different: Ultimate versions of the Marvel heroes are never as interesting or appealing as their originals. The heartless Ultimates and the high-and-mighty X-Men are prime examples of this. Another good example is this teenaged, guilt-ridden Reed Richards. Heís Peter Parker with money! Frankly, I like the stuffy, self-involved Reed of the Marvel U. Sure he can be arrogant, but heís earned it. Heís the smartest freaking guy in the world! And itís not like he doesnít feel guilty about what happened to Ben. He keeps finding ways to cure him. Not his fault they always fail.
Pretty pictures: I will say the art in Ultimate comics is generally better than most comic art today. Hell, when youíve go Mark Bagley, Adam Kubert, and Greg Land, it almost has to be! But this often results in too much art with too little story. (Again, see ďdecompressed storytellingĒ). We get some wonderful splash pages and big wide panels. But ask yourself, what do they contribute to the story? Very little. You could cut a page and a half from Reedís scenes with the portal and use the extra space at the end to explain what the Squadronís doing there.
In conclusion, Ultimate Power, like the other Ultimate comics, is a mildly amusing, very good-looking comic thatís far too light on the story. The biggest question I have now isnít ďWhatíll happen nextĒ, but ďWho did Greg Land use for models?Ē
Plot: Reed feels bad that Ben is a big pile of orange rubble, and even worse when someone knocks some of the rubble Ö off. The Serpent Squad is apparently a roving band of frustrated Hooters waitresses. Guilty Reed gets naughty, and opens some doorways better left closed.
Comments: Greg Landís art is the real selling point for this title. Yes, itís a cheesy collection of tacky pinups, but he is one of the best at taking advantage of the luscious full color print potentials of the medium these days. With the rest of the art team, he really succeeds in giving that frisson of a life-like fumetti realism to many of the scenes. His characters look like people talking to each other.
You just have to accept that all that talent is going to be piled into some of the tightest bustiers in comics. And that, with that intense focus on bodies and faces, things like storytelling and backgrounds are occasionally sacrificed. A sequence when the top is blown off the Baxter Building takes a while to figure out (shrapnel appears, but from where?), though it leads to a dramatic cliffhanger.
And at least Bendis and Land get Ultimate Sue right. This young, single hottie is not (yet) motherly, and sheís a genius just like Reed (someone will have to remind me what Johnny and Ben were doing at the Baxter Building; nepotism I suppose?). Even though her mid-battle observations about the altered biology of her foes are awkward non sequitors, they at least serve to remind us that this Sue is something other than the emotional core of this team. In fact, itís a role she usually refuses to play, relying on her deductive reasoning while the boys get hot under the collar.
The dialogue is rather weak for the entire issue, a surprise in a Bendis book. The half-sentences and awkward space fillers come off as perfunctory rather than naturalistic in this issue, especially with the supposedly white trash accents of the Hooters Squad. They provide little threat, but lots of exposition about the Serpent Crown and Project Pegasus, concepts that are about to get Ultimate-sized.
Much stronger is the utilization of Landís cinematic quality: Benís rocky crust falling to the ground with an ominous ďtinkĒ gets replayed as a visual refrain at poignant moments that make it clear how haunted young Reed is. And there is an attempt to match this book up with current Ultimate universe continuity, something that was lacking, for example, in Landís recent stint on the Ultimate Fantastic Four. Still, if that Millar/Land stint was your cup of tea, this series promises to offer many of the same qualities, if with less zombies.
However, whatís up with that ominous ďof 9?Ē I guess that explains the lack of even a speaking role for the Squadron Supreme in this first issue. Welcome back, decompression!
Itís the Squadron Supreme versus the Ultimate Marvel universe...sort of.
Iím not overly familiar with the Squadron Supreme. I mean, I know they were originally a pastiche of DCís Justice League, but aside from that, I havenít followed any of their series or appearances. Yet Iím a fan of Millarís and Land's recent ďFrightfulĒ story arc in Ultimate Fantastic Four, and the Ultimate Marvel Universe in general, so I figured Iíd check this out, get a fresh look at this age old concept.
The only problem isÖ, wellÖ, this isnít really about the Squadron Supreme. Heck, they donít even show up until the end, and even then the way the story has been written leaves this reveal shallow, boring, and pretty uninteresting. Wait, Iíve sped too far ahead. Let me explain. This issue mostly is about the Ultimate Fantastic Four, with only minimal interaction with the rest of the Ultimate Universe. Basically, the story starts off with the Four duking it out with the ďUltimate Serpent Squad,Ē a group of women connected to snakes and looking for the Serpent Helmet, which is in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. According to them, at least. This is basically just a big fight scene that takes up a third of the issue. I mean, it almost feels like it has nothing to do with the story and was simply an excuse for action. The only upshot occurred when a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent mentioned the ďGruenwald Doctrine,Ē an homage to the writer of the 1980s Squadron Supreme limited series. Maybe this scene wasnít a total waste, but until a definite connection is made though, it bored me. The only significant thing to come out of this is that a chuck of the Thingís rocky hide simply falls off during the fight. This sets the stage for the rest of the issue, as Reed Richards attempts to find a way to cure his friend of his mutation. Reed tries to get some funding from Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to send probes into alternate realms, but is denied. He attempts to do so at a lower scale, and has a pretty bad result.
I havenít really read anything by Bendis aside from that New Avengers: Illuminati Special a few months ago, and Iím really not impressed by his work in this issue. The dialogue is painfully forced and stale. I mean, when a character insults the Thing at the beginning when she says ďYouíre sickening! Youíre a horror! Youíll die alone!Ē I did a double take. The whole book is filled with dialogue equally out of place and grating.
The only real upside to this issue is Greg Landís artwork. I loved his work on Nightwing, and his run on Ultimate Fantastic Four was great. Heís got a great handling for the characters, from the fire-engulfed Human Torch to a stretched out Reed Richards that doesnít look a single bit silly. A lot of people say his art is a bit too stiff, but the opening fight scene was fluid and had a nice grittiness to it. He even managed to draw an action figure version of the Four in one scene. His skill for faces and expressions has gotten better too. The stubble faced, exhausted, and angry Reed came across with almost Brian Hitch-like quality. His Nick fury also is a nice treat, with his scar much more apparent than some other interpretations of the character Iíve seen.
All in all, Iím thinking about dropping the limited series after this debut. For all the beauties of Landís art, the dialogue, story, and pacing are so awful I canít keep reading. Unless I hear about a great twist next issue, this series is out of sight, out of mind.
I really shouldnít like this issue as much as I do. Crossovers are, by their very nature, contrived, money-making exercises which throw a bunch of often-mismatched characters together in order to generate high sales. Even the best crossovers canít escape feeling a little forced, and when different comic ďuniversesĒ get thrown together, itís often even hard to maintain a consistent feel which suits both sets of characters. That said, this first issue is a pretty straightforward Ultimate Universe story in which Reed Richards is once again spurred on to try and reverse The Thingís condition and in which the road to hell proves to be paved with good intentions. Whilst Iím unconvinced that the writing structure of the seriesí nine issues will hang together (three issues apiece by Bendis, Jeph Joeb and J.Michael Stracynski feels a bit too close to last yearís Spider-Man: The Other project to me), this first instalment shows that Bendis can actually write a pretty decent Fantastic Four, focussing most strongly on Reedís internal conflict over the transformation of Ben Grimm, and his latest - possibly misguided - attempt to correct it.
This being Bendis, the opening action scenes carry an excess of dialogue, but itís in keeping with the bantering, bickering tone of the Ultimate FF and as such feels fairly natural. Later asides about action figures and licensing deals skew the team a little closer to the regular Marvel Universe than usual, but Bendis respects the elements which set them apart from their classic counterparts and brings Reedís relative immaturity to the fore, showing his frustrations at his inability to help Ben or to convince Nick Fury to fund what is ultimately another self-serving project. The writer sidesteps the problems of writing a character whoís several times smarter than he is by having Reed not really talk in detail about the schemes that heís planning, concentrating instead on his more melodramatic human attributes but ensuring that the character throws out some faux-scientific comments every now and then to keep the sci-fi element of the readership happy.
Iíve actually really warmed to Greg Landís art over the last year of Ultimate Fantastic Four, and itís perhaps a certain nostalgia for his and Mark Millarís run which makes me happy to see him reappear for this series. Heís really got a handle on what makes the Ultimate Universe visually distinct from the regular Marvel Universe, and his characters are consistent and fairly expressive, if occasionally a little stiff and posed. Yes, his artwork has a very ďtracedĒ look, and yes, some of the images can be disturbing if youíre aware of Landís alleged penchant for using pornography in modelling his female characters (especially the panel in which a struggling Black Mamba is being taken away by S.H.I.E.L.D. Ė brrr). Bendis even plays to the artistís strengths by contriving the entire first half of the book to be a gratuitous girl-heavy fight sequence featuring the Fantastic Four and the Serpent Squad, but even if youíre turned off by Landís particular idiosyncrasies, itís hard to deny that he pulls off a pretty dynamic action scene here which also has important story consequences concerning the plight of Ben Grimm Ė and the way in which that particular plot point is illustrated is just disturbing enough to work, without being graphically violent or grotesque.
There are smaller plot points which are set up here that could well become important later in the book (another Ultimate appearance of Ms. Marvelís civilian counterpart and some banter about the butterfly effect), and even if itís not clear at which point in Ultimate continuity the book takes place Ė itís after the ďGah-Lak-TusĒ trilogy, but possibly before Ultimates 2 Ė there are hints that things are going to change in the Ultimate Universe with the arrival of the Squadron Supreme on the final page. Iíve never really followed Stracynskiís work on Supreme Power or the recently rebooted Squadron Supreme series, so the book is going to have to work hard to establish the teamís characters and convince me to care about their appearance here, but that doesnít get in the way of my enjoyment of this first issueís build-up.
Iíll be clear: my enjoyment of this book stems from the fact that Iím a big fan of the Ultimate Universe, that I enjoy Greg Landís art, and that Iím a fan of Bendisí writing when heís on form. If these boxes arenít ticked for you, then you might want to consider giving this series a miss Ė but I for one am fairly keen to see how the Ultimate Universeís first major crossover plays out.
A caveat before beginning this review: when it comes to comics, Iíve never really cared for two types of storylines: time travel and alternate universes. Yeah, I know, Iím taking away DCís bread and butter (itís amazing I was a Flash reader for as long as I was), but these types of stories too often seem to be a cop-out to real story-telling (ďreal story-tellingĒ involves real consequences). One need only look at Fantastic Fourís recent ďDeath in the FamilyĒ for an example of the ridiculous (and ultimately meaningless) lengths writers can extend these ideas.
Which is why Iím not all that excited about Ultimate Power. Reed Richards is once again reminded that Ben Grimm needs/deserves a cure for his condition, this time because Grimmís cobblestoned body seems to be changing (Iíll not say how Ė itís a bit shocking and I donít want to take away from the momentís impact). Richards is convinced that the cure lies in the N-Zone or another of the multiple dimensions that exist, and his experiments, so the story goes, will lead to real consequences for both his world and the others he intrudes on.
As with most Ultimate Universe series, itís fun to see the ďultimateĒ take on mainline characters. Here, though, the Serpent Society is transformed into a babelicious squad whose only purpose, it seems, is to allow Greg Land to draw more females in provocative outfits. Landís art is impressive though and is a high point of the first issue; the fight between the FF and the Serpent Squad is a fun bit of fluff. Bendisís story, though, suggests that this series will devolve into a ďmultiple-version of the same charactersĒ story-line, as the last panels showing the Fantastic Four are obviously not the Ultimate versions the issue started with. I suppose Iím wondering if this series is really going to amount to anything more than a method by which to increase Squadron Supremeís name recognition. But thatís the cynic talking. Iím sure Bendis and the powers that be at the House of Ideas have greater plans for this crossover than mere marketing, right?
With the events of Ultimate Galactus just finishing up earlier this year, and with the truly epic story taking place in the Ultimates, this first issue of Ultimate Power just doesnít measure up. Who knows? Perhaps something of consequence will come of this series, but I donít know that I care enough to stick with it to find out.
What did you think of this book?
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