Review by Win Wiacek
Fantastic introduced the fourth pillar of Marvel’s radical new Ultimate edifice. It’s more tweaked than reconceived by writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, and illustrated in a lush, painterly manner by Adam Kubert with the digital colours of Dave Stewart.
The biggest change to the concept was a rather telling one: all four heroes were far younger than their mainstream antecedents. In the original, middle-aged maverick genius Reed Richards, trusty friend Ben Grimm, sort-of girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny initiated a privately-funded space-shot. It foundered when Cosmic Rays penetrated their vessel’s inadequate shielding and mutated the quartet into quirky freaks, but here events transpire rather differently.
Snapshots from the unpleasant life of infant prodigy Reed open the saga. He’s a lonely super-genius increasingly despised by his abusive blue-collar dad, bullied at school and obsessed with other dimensions. His only friend is classmate sports star Ben Grimm, who has unaccountably appointed himself the uber-nerd’s protector. Reed’s life changes on the day his High School science project – teleportation – catches the eye of a clandestine government talent scout from a high powered think tank. He’s offered a place at a New York facility for budding geniuses and Reed’s dad can’t be happier to be rid of him.
Brilliant Professor Storm runs the ideas factory and, although the administrator’s son Johnny is there mostly as a courtesy, Storm’s daughter Sue is one of the biggest young brains on Earth… and pretty too.
Reed’s teleportation research is only preliminary to his greater goal. He now proves the existence of a strange sub-dimension – a place scientists call the Negative Zone – and with their aid the next five years are largely spent in trying to fully access it. Regular studies continue with a few casualties. Some burn out like young Phineas Mason, but creepy, arrogant, insular Victor Van Damme, after a particularly galling incident with Reed, somehow manages to swallow his animosity. Soon they are working together to crack the dimension calculations. The tutors also walk psychologically fine lines. One such is creepy aberrant Dr. Arthur Molekevic, whose constant barracking of the not-overachieving-enough young boffins leads to a breakdown, unsanctioned experiments with artificial life and eventual expulsion by the military brass who actually run the establishment.
Once the past is established we jump to now. At 21 Reed and fractious lab partner Victor are in Nevada for the first full test of the N-Zone teleport system, with the Storms along for the ride. As the army technicians count down, Van Damme is kvetching about the final hotly-contested calculations, but Richards is doubly distracted. Firstly, young backpacker Ben Grimm has just wandered into camp to see his old sidekick after more than a decade apart, but most importantly snotty teen Johnny has just revealed that sister Sue has the hots for the obsessed and diffident Reed.
The test firing is a literal catastrophe, scattering people around the world.
From that Bendis and Millar build a smart, fast, action-packed update on the original theme, while Kubert provides safe and solid action. It’s brimful of teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek to offer a solid alternate view of Marvel’s most important title that will impress open-minded older superhero fans just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.