Comics : Ultimate Mystery #4

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This review was first published on: Nov 2010.

Background...

A mysterious force has 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 metamorphosized into a conventionally human form, albeit one that glows purple;
  • Captain Marvel lost control of himself and attacked SHIELD forces;
  • Spider-Woman went undercover at Roxxon Industries (to determine the extent of that company’s complicity in the attacks), where her cover was quickly blown; and
  • Sue Storm made an unexpected trip to Project Pegasus, where she came face-to-face with the person responsible for all of these goings-on.

Who is that? The big reveal last issue was ambiguous, but the recap page this month makes it explicit. It’s Reed Richards!

In Detail...

Ultimate Mystery #4
Dec 2010 : SM Guest
Summary: Ultimate Spider-Man & Ultimate Spider-Woman Appear
Senior Editor:  Mark Paniccia
Editor:  Sana Amanat
Writer:  Brian Michael Bendis
Pencils:  Rafa Sandoval
Inker:  Roger Bonet
Lettering:  Joe Caramagna
Colorist:  Matthew Wilson
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Review

At Roxxon Industries, Jessica ‘Spider-Woman’ Drew has assumed the guise of ‘Dr. Julia Carpenter’ and insinuated herself into the Roxxon task force investigating the alien attack. This task force consisted of the Ultimate versions of Misty Knight, Arnim Zola, Layla Miller, Nathaniel Essex, and Samuel Sterns. Misty Knight is a detective – “probably the best private eye on the planet,” she boasts – which I guess explains how she knew, immediately and without any giveaways, that Jessica wasn’t who she claimed to be.

The Roxxon brain trust piles on (metaphorically), demanding that Jessica explain who she is, what she’s doing there, and what powers she has. How do they know she has powers? Misty’s intuition again, and again without any evidence to lead her to that conclusion. Damn, she’s good. Jessica denies everything, clearly struggling to think her way out of this predicament.

Or maybe it isn’t a predicament. The brain trust explains that, despite appearances to the contrary, they’re actually on her side against Roxxon. They aren’t actually Roxxon’s “science hub,” they’re a control group, brought in to see if an outside group can work out what Roxxon is up to. And whether they can or can’t, eventually Roxxon will assassinate them all.

Man, I’d hate to be in that union.

Anyway, the assembled brain trust mentions that Roxxon isn’t making any effort to discover who is behind the attacks on the company. This implies that the company is either itself responsible for them, or already knows who it is. That’s all Jessica needed to hear, and she webs up these turkeys, smashes down the door, and makes a run for it.

Too bad she doesn’t read 616 Marvel comics, or she’d know that there’s more to someone named “Samuel Sterns” than meets the eye. Sterns gammas up – looking more Hulkish than Leaderish, for what it’s worth – and smashes through the webbing holding him down. Also the wall. And also Jessica. She falls unconscious, and the rest of the brain trust, which is now web-free, congratulates itself.

“Roxxon brain trust. That was pretty good. She fell for it.”

Huh. From where I sit, she fell for nothing. She denied everything until they told her what she wanted to know, and then she ran. But I guess supervillains take every opportunity to feel smug, no matter how ill-founded.

Elsewhere in New York, SHIELD has Captain Marvel in custody, and Nick Fury, Carol Danvers, Ben Grimm, and “the Human Torch” are interrogating him (the captions in this scene give everyone a proper name except Johnny Storm). Marvel is bloody and battered but no one is inclined to treat him gently. Danvers is furious at the betrayal of her trust, Fury is determined to find out what Marvel knows, and Ben and Johnny just want to know where Sue is. Unfortunately for all their bluster, Marvel can’t help with any of these concerns. He insists that he was “taken ahold of”, doesn’t know anything, and would never willingly act against SHIELD’s interests.

Our heroes, unsatisfied, burn Marvel with the Torch’s flame. They shoot him with Fury’s gun. In spite of this torture, Marvel still can’t tell them what he doesn’t know. Luckily, before they can do anything more to him, the Invisible Girl walks through the door. Her face is scratched and bleeding and her right eye is blacked. She tells everyone that Reed is responsible for the attacks, and that he explained to her why he’s launching them. What’s more, she says, he’s not finished.

So why is he doing this? And why on earth would he hurt his own girlfriend (okay, his ex) like this? We don’t know, because we don’t get to see the confrontation between the two. What we do get to see is some flashbacks from Reed’s life. Perhaps they’ll give us some insight:

  • Eleven years ago, Reed was tormented by high-school bullies. Only the repeated intervention of Ben Grimm to defend him gave him respite.
  • Also eleven years ago, Reed’s home life wasn’t great, as his kindly but ineffectual mother failed to intervene to stop his father from treating him with anger and contempt. Seems Reed was treated with hostility by bullies at school and at home.
  • One year ago, Reed was indirectly responsible for horrible alien attacks on Supreme Earth (attacks which featured weird spore-like creatures... huh), prompting a retaliatory invasion of Ultimate Earth by the Squadron Supreme. The details aren’t spelled out here – for more, see the Ultimate Power mini – but the point seems to be is that Reed was humiliated yet again, forced to admit his irresponsible adventurism in front of all of his friends and colleagues.
  • Months ago, Reed surveyed the damage done to Manhattan by the Ultimatum Wave. He reflects on how he, Reed, transformed Victor van Damme from “a douchey piece of Euro-trash into an honest-to-goodness supervillain. A genocidal maniac.” Reflecting on the fallout from Ultimatum, Reed says that “it falls on me to fix it,” given that it was van Damme who was indirectly responsible for the Ultimatum Wave (van Damme seemed to kill the Scarlet Witch, which drove Magneto to take vengeance on the world). Reed’s run the psycho-historical simulations, and in each one, van Damme is responsible for massive death and destruction. “I need to kill Hitler [i.e. van Damme] before the Holocaust starts.”

And that’s the end of Ultimate Mystery. Just like the end of Ultimate Enemy, it’s no ending at all. We’ll all have to read Ultimate Doom to figure out what the heck is going on.

In General...

Shorter version of this issue:

  • Jessica is in peril at Roxxon, just as she was at the beginning of the issue!
  • Reed Richards is revealed to be the Ultimate Enemy, but what he’s doing and why aren’t clear, just as they were at the beginning of the issue!
  • Our heroes are baffled about what to do next, just as they were at the beginning of the issue!

And that’s it.

Once again, the story fails to move. That cackling sound you hear is Joe Quesada, who’s pleased that he got me to fork over four bucks for some magic beans.

No, wait, that’s not right – it’s not magic beans, it’s more lovingly-rendered artwork of our heroes torturing helpless captives. If you didn’t get your fill back in Ultimate Enemy #4, well, here’s more of it. I can’t overemphasize how repugnant it is, in a post-Abu-Ghraib world, to romanticize torture. And that’s exactly what this story does, when it sets up the heroes as torturers and doesn’t comment, implicitly or explicitly, on the viciousness of this behavior. Marvel, you’re part of the problem now. Please, please stop it.

I’ll reserve my further complaint, namely that the story suggests Reed Richards is a wife-beater. Sure, she’s his ex, and they were never married, but the point stands: domestic violence is not something I like to savour in my superhero comics.

So why reserve the complaint? Because this is a bridge too far. Reed didn’t do this. Doom did.

Doom, you say? Ah yes. Fictionally, Doom would have had the resources to pull off all of the apparently-alien attacks. The flashback in this issue reminds us that he did something similar to Supreme Earth – the Supreme White House, even – back in the day. Knowing what we do of Doom, it’s perfectly plausible that the first step of his evil plot would be to kill Reed Richards, and that in other steps he’d be willing to inflict massive collateral damage in order to achieve his ends. It’s plausible, though perhaps out of character, for Doom to utter the words “Susan…? You were always just a teeny bit smarter than me”, given the history between the two. It would be very in character for Doom to beat Susan up, though. Less so for Reed.

What’s more, it was established way back in the middle of the Ultimate Fantastic Four series that Doom can use a mystical whammy to switch bodies with Reed Richards - see, for example, SpiderFan's own review of Ultimate Fantastic Four #32. Doom's done it before. So why not again?

Well, he’s supposed to be dead, for one thing. Ben Grimm killed him at the end of Ultimate Fantastic Four: Requiem. But death never slows a good supervillain down.

So there are all sorts of good fictional reasons why Doom is the culprit. There are good metafictional reasons too, like if this were the case, it would account for this story’s showing us Reed vowing to kill Doom, which would otherwise be a non sequitur.

Another reason is that the concluding mini-series in this story is called Ultimate Doom.

I rest my case.

Overall Rating...

This fourth issue adds nothing to the story: the story of Ultimate Mystery clearly could have been told in three issues. Marvel is soaking us, yet again. I wouldn’t even mind the decompression if we were getting good dialogue and art, but we aren’t. The dialogue is forgettable. I figure Bendis is using all of the good stuff on Scarlet, Ultimate Spider-Man, New Avengers, and Avengers, in roughly that order. And I guess Powers is in there somewhere too. I noted in my Spider-Woman reviews that Marv Wolfman was writing five books a month during his time on that title and it showed. It’s showing here, too. There’s only so many pages you can turn around in a month and still produce high-quality work.

The artwork also fails to impress. It’s as confusing as ever. If you can understand what the Torch is doing, or how he’s moving, in the final panels on pp. 8-9, you’re a better man than I am.

The icing on the cake is the top panel of p. 20, where the art is confusing, the dialogue is nonsensical (“Pedro”? “You’re under arrest”? Huh?), and even the word balloons are misattributed. Lousy writing, art, and editing, all in one panel!

Plus implicit endorsement of torture! Yes, we’ve got all the colours of the feel-bad rainbow here, and we’re paying $4 for it.

Half a web, and I’d go lower if I could.

Footnote...

Cover accuracy check: Just when I thought I was finished complaining!

This cover sucks. It’s the same image we had back in issue #1 of Ultimate Enemy, with our heroes gathered together, in some abstract, undefined place, staring off-screen at the secret bad guy. The image is visually striking, but to go back to the well a second time, seven issues later? This shows a colossal lack of imagination. And to add insult to injury, once again the cover features a character (Spider-Man) that doesn’t appear in the story... and another character, Iceman, that doesn’t even appear in the mini-series.

Also the Invisible Girl has apparently made her mouth invisible. Ick.

And Ben Grimm can’t even be bothered to keep his arm in the frame.

I rate this cover as Totally Inaccurate. And also Repetitive and Badly Drawn.

Bendis, I love all of your other Marvel work to death. Why are you treating me this way?