Ultimate Doom #4

Background

Ultimate Doom is the third part of a 12-issue maxi-series that is pretending it is a standalone, four-issue mini-series in order to keep sales juiced. The first two parts of the maxi-series were Ultimate Enemy and Ultimate Mystery. In those books, a mysterious force launched stealth attacks on the American scientific establishment and on particular members of the New York superhero community. As a result of these attacks:

  • Ben Grimm metamorphosed into a conventionally human form, albeit one that glows purple;
  • Spider-Woman went undercover at Roxxon Industries, to determine the extent of that company’s complicity in the attacks. There, she discovered that Dr. Octopus runs Roxxon’s research department!; and
  • Sue Storm and Rick Jones made an unexpected trip to Project Pegasus, where they came face-to-face with the person responsible for all of these goings-on: Reed Richards!

Last issue, our heroes - plus Doc Ock - regrouped at Project Pegasus and made preparations to attack Reed at his home base, which is hidden in the Negative Zone.

Story Details

  Ultimate Doom #4
Summary: Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Woman appear
Senior Editor: Mark Paniccia
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Pencils: Rafa Sandoval
Inker: Roger Bonet
Lettering: Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Matthew Wilson

Reed’s base is in quadrant 77 of the Negative Zone. It looks like a giant glass tree missing its lower trunk, simply floating in the space of the Zone. I wonder what Reed had to pay to get contractors to work out here?

Inside the base, Reed is futzing around with his computers, spying on the sites back on Earth that his forces attacked. His minions - the giant pink aliens that made so much trouble in Ultimate Enemy and Ultimate Mystery - are loitering in the background. Both Reed and the minions are surprised when Ben Grimm walks in and asks, “What was the name of our eighth-grade teacher who tried to kiss me?”

The minions try to seize Ben, but he simply tosses them around until Reed yells “Stop!!” Stretcho is smart enough to work out that Sue must have told Ben how to get here, but Ben’s not interested in having a conversation until he gets his answer. Unfortunately, Reed knows it. “Tsk”, says Ben: “That means you ain’t a shape-shifting alien or some sort of fake Reed.” No, says Reed, he’s the real thing. “I’m not cracked. It’s me... I see the world clearly. I see it now for what it is, for the first time.”

In a two-page spread, Ben says, “Look again,” as the room is suddenly filled with our heroes, plus the rest of the Ultimates and a whole bunch of SHIELD soldiers. In a second two-page spread, our heroes begin kicking ass: beating up pink aliens, smashing machinery, and giving Reed quite the pounding.

In one part of the room, Spider-Woman and the Ultimates are going after the pink aliens, and pretty successfully, too. As Spider-Man observes, these pink guys are “a lot less studly scary here than they were on Earth”, because if they weren’t, of course, Bendis couldn’t make the fight as straightforward as it needs to be to end this issue. Elsewhere, Sue, Johnny and Ben are beating up Reed Richards, who’s not really up to the task of defending himself. With aliens and alien-master distracted, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, the Human Torch, Rick Jones, and Doc Ock are free to investigate Reed’s computer core. They don’t know what it is, or how to shut it down, so Rick Jones makes a heroic effort to teleport the five of them, plus the computer, back to Earth. This puts them out of the fight, but deprives Reed of his most potent tool.

“The whole time this thing was going on, I wondered why I was being attacked too,” Spidey remarks. “I understood SHIELD, understood the Baxter Building, but I had no idea why me...”

“It’s because he knew you were smart enough to get this done,” replies Doc Ock.

Looks like Spidey’s hanging all the lampshades this issue. First the weakness of the pink aliens, now Reed’s absurd plan.

Back in the Negative Zone, Reed’s impractical fortress, for lack of its computer core, is falling apart. Sure, why not? Reed complains that “You just killed yourself! You just killed any chance you have of living in a world that hasn’t been completely ruined by the systematic raping of science!” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, and we won’t get a chance to find out: part of the wall breaches and Reed is thrown out of the structure, into the void of N-space. Our heroes quickly retreat to their Helicarrier and fly it away, back through a portal to New York, as Reed’s fortress crumbles into fragments.

Epilogue time:

  • Nick Fury refuses to explain how he survived the events of Ultimatum, and when pressed, refuses even to admit that he’s still alive, i.e., he wishes to remain officially dead. And with that, he uses some Big Science hidden in his empty eye socket to teleport into the air beneath the flying Helicarrier. I presume he has some means of landing safely and doesn’t simply fall to his death;
  • Jessica Drew accepts Carol Danvers’ offer to become an agent of SHIELD, and promptly takes Doc Ock into custody. Whether Ock will be punished for his crimes, or whether Danvers will simply make Ock into a house scientist for SHIELD, remains to be seen;
  • Sue Storm, deciding that life is too short and fraught with danger to delay happiness, sees Ben’s declaration of love for her (way back in Ultimate Enemy #1) and raises a marriage proposal, which Ben accepts; and
  • Reed Richards floats in the void of the Negative Zone, his fate left ambiguous.

General Comments

With the conclusion of this issue, the Ultimate Enemy / Mystery / Doom story (hereafter Ultimate Doomsday, which is what this whole maxi-series will be called in hardback) is finally at a close. We’ve been given all of the pieces of the puzzle. The work is complete, which means that we readers can finally see how flawed the whole maxi-series has been.

As I suspected from the beginning of the Doom arc, the story doesn’t hold together, and the reason why is implicit in the arc’s other titles: the story was a Mystery, featuring a secret Enemy. From issue #1 of Enemy on, the question was, who is responsible for these attacks? The answer - it was Reed Richards - was shocking, not least because it prompted a further question, namely, why is Reed behaving in this uncharacteristic way? It’s not an idle question: in fact, it’s so important that both Sue and Johnny and Ben are, at various times, uncertain that Reed could actually be the guilty party.

And even now, with the story over, the question remains, because Ultimate Doomsday can’t account for Reed’s actions: there is no answer to the question. This lack of follow-through retroactively taints the whole enterprise: the whole reason readers kept buying this thing - or at least that I kept buying it - was to find out how all of these mysterious goings-on held together. To discover, at the end, that they don’t retroactively taints the whole enterprise. (See also: Lost.)

Let me get specific. Here’s a rundown of story elements that don’t make sense, but need explanation:

  • We first see Reed Richards in Ultimate Enemy #1. He’s napping on the couch in his parents’ place. He wakes up, panics when he sees his computer screen, but too late - his house is blown up. It isn’t specifically stated, but it’s implied in Ultimate Enemy #2 they found his body. What is the significance of all this? I think Reed is supposed to have faked his own death. Why would he do that? How would he do that? (Did he clone himself?) Most importantly, why would he fake his own death in this odd way, by play-acting for his family and actually attempting to warn them of the explosion?
  • We learn in Ultimate Doom #4 that Peter Parker was attacked because Reed believed Peter capable of deducing Reed’s involvement in the attacks. Let’s grant that Jessica Drew, Peter’s clone, was attacked for the same reason; the story never says that, but it’s a reasonable inference. (Although I note that neither of the two came close to finding the real answer: Sue did that.) So why did Reed attack these two before attacking the Triskelion? Surely SHIELD was just as likely to figure out the mystery as Spider-Man, and posed a greater threat to Reed, because it had the resources to follow through? Hitting Peter and Jessica first - and then failing to follow through when the attacks failed - doesn’t strike me as a move a super-genius would make.
  • Finally, and explicitly, why is Reed doing this? As per Ultimate Enemy #4, Reed is willing to murder Victor van Damme because Reed is certain that Victor - for whom Reed feels responsible - will eventually commit genocide, and Reed can’t bear the thought of being party to such a horrible crime, even by proxy. Somehow, by Ultimate Doom #1, that Reed, who will go to great lengths to avoid association with mass destruction, is committing it willy-nilly. And there’s no explanation linking point A to point B.

There are hints of an explanation to this last one, namely that Reed is a socially awkward teenager who has more power than he can handle. That’s a good start. And he thinks science is misused, whatever that means. But taken as a whole, it’s pitifully scant. This is no solution to the mystery, it’s simply Bendis grabbing The Person You Least Suspected and muttering into his sleeve that He Had His Reasons. After twelve issues, with a retail cost of more than $50 after tax, we readers deserve better than that.

Speaking of those twelve issues: this maxi-series was unbearably padded. The whole thing could have been easily tightened by getting rid of pointless splash pages and stupid layout tricks, such as the two pages spent on Sue’s ECG readout at the beginning of Ultimate Doom #2. You could squeeze further by dumping the Jessica Drew subplot, which added nothing to the whole affair. What happened in that whole sub-plot? Roxxon gets blown up, Jessica is captured by the evil brain trust, Spider-Man immediately saves her, Roxxon gets blown up again, Jessica and Doc Ock join the final fight versus Reed but don’t do anything crucial. Nothing in there advances the story, which means, pace Chekov, it shouldn’t be in the story at all.

Overall Rating

What did I like about Ultimate Doomsday? There were occasional passages where the dialogue shone, like the bit in Enemy #1 where Spidey talked about merchandising his image, or Captain Marvel’s dejected admission in Mystery #1 that American television confuses him. There were intriguing plot developments that kept me guessing: Reed is dead?! The Thing is losing his scales?! Reed is the Ultimate Enemy?! And ending with Ben and Sue being together is an interesting direction to take the Fantastic Four that can’t be pursued in the 616 continuity.

But on the other side of the scale we have a mountain of crap.

The covers stunk and, all too often, misrepresented the story inside. The art was confusing and got in the way of the story. The story itself was padded out to facilitate sale of trades at the expense of customers buying the story by the issue. Reed Richards, an established and beloved character, is transformed into a villain just for the shock value, without any attempt to give his newfound criminality depth or context. And the story repeatedly has the heroes torture their helpless captives, and presents this behaviour as tough-minded and appropriate.

I don’t like any of this, but I think, in the final analysis, the decompressed storytelling bothers me the most. Fifty years ago, Stan and Jack could have told all twelve issues of Ultimate Doomsday in a giant-size issue of Avengers. That issue would feature clear art that immersed the reader in the story, a story where the enemy’s motivations and behaviour are clear. The heroes would have behaved in the manner befitting heroes throughout. And the whole thing would have cost less than a buck. And you could have read it in one sitting.

Instead, we have Ultimate Doomsday, which took my money and wasted my time for a whole year. One measly web, and if anyone wonders why fewer people read comics every year, this fiasco goes a long way toward answering the question.

Footnote

Let’s end on a positive note: Reed Richards does feature prominently in this issue, and he is frowning and dangerous, just like on the cover (though he’s not wearing his blue Fantastic Four costume.) I rate this cover Accurate.