Ultimate Mystery #3

Background

A mysterious alien force has launched stealth attacks on the American scientific establishment and on particular members of the New York superhero community. In response to this, the Fantastic Three (yes, Reed Richards died in the first strike) are hunting down the aliens; Captain Marvel and Rick Jones are guarding Project Pegasus; and Spider-Man and Spider-Woman are investigating Roxxon Industries’ ties to all of these goings-on.

In the last issue, Marvel went haywire and transformed into a monster, a big green frog-man reminiscent of the pink alien responsible for the first wave of attacks. Jones, not knowing what to do, transported the both of them to the Baxter Building, where Marvel, mindless and aggressive, attacked the Fantastic Three.

Story Details

  Ultimate Mystery #3
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

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 consists of the Ultimate versions of Arnim Zola, Misty Knight, Layla Miller, Nathaniel Essex, and Samuel Sterns. Sterns is an old man in a wheelchair but the rest of them seem very young, as young as Jessica. I think they’re supposed to be in their twenties, actually, where Jessica is only seventeen, but the art is confusing on this point (a recurring problem in this issue).

For what it’s worth, in 616 continuity Zola, Essex and Sterns are all supervillain scientists. Zola goes by the same handle, but the latter two are known better as ‘Mr. Sinister’ and ‘the Leader’ respectively.

Jessica only has time to chat briefly before news of the attack on the Baxter Building leads the Roxxon security forces to bring their brain trust inside and into secure lockdown. While there, they kibitz a bit, and Sterns suggests that the attacks on Roxxon and the Baxter Building were not acts of terrorism, but acts of crime: the alien forces intended to steal scientific assets, while the rest of the violence aimed simply to obscure that fact. That’s an interesting theory, but before we have time to go into it, Misty Knight challenges Jessica’s cover story.

“You’re originally from the Baxter Building? ...That’s where Dr. Miller was from.”

“I’ve heard of you,” Jessica says, “but we were on different floors.”

“She’s not from the Baxter Building,” says Misty. “So who are you really, kid?”

Wow, Misty Knight has some fantastic intuition, to immediately identify Jessica as a mole and to expose her like this. Especially to do so in tandem with Layla despite having had no opportunity to plan the trick out. I wonder how Jessica gets out of this.

Meanwhile, at the Baxter Building, Ben Grimm and the infected Captain Marvel are going toe-to-toe, with Grimm giving as good as he gets. Looks like he is just as tough as he used to be. Sue tries to lock Marvel down with a forcefield, but I guess he’s tougher than the pink alien in Ultimate Enemy #3, because unlike that guy, Marvel can break the field with one blow of his fists. Grimm charges in again, but unfortunately for everybody, the Baxter Building – in poor shape to begin with – has now sustained so much structural damage that the shockwave from Grimm’s collision with Marvel smashes the whole top storey to bits.

Bad news for everybody, but especially for some person in a red t-shirt and blue jeans, who’s thrown right off the top of the building! This unfortunate outcome forces Sue Storm to save him with a complex slide-shaped forcefield that allows the guy to fall to ground level without pulping himself upon impact. Who is this person? It’s only hinted at, but if you skip ahead ten pages or so you’ll find out that it’s Rick Jones, who isn’t glowing yellow any more. Why not? Beats me, and the story sure isn’t telling us.

It’s worth interrupting the recap here to describe this in some detail. What we have on pp. 8-9 is a sort of two-page splash panel, with the impact between Grimm and Marvel on the left-hand side, and the results of the impact on the right-hand side. The right-side panels aren’t laid out in a traditional grid of boxes, but in a radial pattern of wedge segments, like the cracks in a windshield after an impact. When I first saw this, I mentally applauded this layout for its innovative design, which is immediately suggestive of how powerful the collision impact was. But all that credit is thrown away in the very first radial panel, where we see the tiny figure of Rick Jones – drawn so small a penny placed on the page would conceal him totally– falling away from the building. We don’t see him power down or lose his golden glow. There’s no clue at all given as to who he is, nor will there be until half the book is done. Readers have to stop and work out by process of elimination that this must be Rick Jones. That pause completely breaks the flow of the narrative, utterly spoiling what otherwise would be a fantastic action sequence – really, the scene of Jones whipping down his forcefield slide, while another forcefield catches some rocks, is great stuff.

Let me be perfectly clear: panel design, art, and dialogue are in service of the story. If they get in the way of the story, if they make the reader stop immersing herself in the narrative to figure out what is happening to whom, you have a failed story. And that’s what this is.

In a further two-page spread, we see the rubble from the Baxter Building fall. Sue uses her forcefields to push out all the people and cars from the impact zone, leaving a big empty space for all of that concrete and rebar to land without hurting anyone. Anyone, that is, except Sue and Rick, who are right in the middle. In a further, two-page splash, we see just how much rubble there is: a mountain of it. And Rick and Sue are beneath it all.

The rest of the combatants landed fine. The Torch can fly, of course, and apparently Fury can too, thanks to some fancy Iron-Man-style jet boots. And Marvel and Grimm can just take the impact without getting hurt, although Marvel seems to have been beaten back into his traditional biped form. Ben and Johnny frantically search the rubble, but there’s no sign of either Sue or Rick. “Where did she go??” [sic] asks the Torch. “She didn’t just up and disappear!”

Ah, but she did. Rick teleported the two of them back to Project Pegasus. It takes a moment for Sue to collect her wits, but when she does, she’s furious with Rick. He seems to have been indirectly responsible for the destruction of her home, as well as the death of the platoon of SHIELD troops we saw Marvel blow up last issue. (Now we know that Marvel did it, as Jones fervently denies it. Yet another place where the art was unhelpfully ambiguous.) Sue demands that Rick take the two of them back to New York, but wait a minute: there’s someone moving around inside the base. Demanding that Rick stay put, Sue goes invisible and infiltrates the base. There she finds a whole team of the pink aliens collecting the mystical tchotchkes we saw back in Ultimate Mystery #1 and hauling them through a bright-yellow portal to parts unknown. Overseeing the whole operation is a human figure, but his / her head is turned, we can’t see the face.

“Hello? Hello? Miss Invisible Girl?” says Rick, who’s just wandered in behind Sue. I’m beginning to sympathize with Sue’s low opinion of Rick.

The mysterious figure – the titular Ultimate Enemy – looks around. “Susan? Is that you?”

In a splash page, we get a closeup on the Enemy’s face. “You always were just a teeny bit smarter than me,” says... some guy with brown hair and glasses and a spray of freckles across his nose.

Who is this? Are we supposed to recognize him?

I guess we are. So, based on context, I guess this is... Reed Richards? I think?

Hopefully the final issue of this miniseries will make that clear...

General Comments

As the kids would say, OMG this art is teh suck.

Really. There are three separate places in this issue where the artwork is so unclear or unhelpful that the reader has to put the book down to try and piece together what the art is supposed to be making obvious at a glance.

How old is the Roxxon brain trust? One’s clearly old, but the rest? Who knows? They look like they’re all in their early twenties. But didn’t we hear just last issue that Roxxon HR found the idea of hiring Jessica strange, because she was so young? Why would that come up if the entire team is made up of youthful prodigies?

What happened to Rick Jones? Why did his glow suddenly disappear? Why hasn’t it come back on yet by the end of the story? And if something important did happen to him, why does it happen between panels? And why does he subsequently appear so small that we can’t even figure out that this character in the red and blue is indeed the Jones we’ve been following for the past two issues? He’s been glowing and yellow for his entire appearance in the book up to this point, so we’ve got no frame of reference for identifying him in his civvies.

And – for the love of heaven – who is that supposed to be in the final reveal? It doesn’t look like Reed Richards. Reed doesn’t have freckles, for instance. Maybe the spiky hair is the giveaway? But it – and the rest of his body, for that matter – is mostly obscured by his funky alien armour. All we can see clearly is his face below the brow and above the chin, and given that amount of information, this guy really could be anybody. I guess the glasses are supposed to be the clue. In the Ultimate Universe, only Reed Richards wears glasses. I never got that memo.

His hair isn’t even the same colour that it was the last time we saw him, back in Ultimate Enemy #1, where it was much darker than it is here.

The only reason I think this is Reed is because, metafictionally, it would have to be. Who else could give this reveal the necessary dramatic punch? And come to think of it, he’s been name-checked a lot this arc, despite being dead. And we never saw the body.

Having to work out the identity of the key villain from metafictional cues, rather than the full-page reveal of his face, is an epic fail.

Overall Rating

Goddammit. I want to like this issue: it’s a fantastic (ahem) plot development to have Reed be the antagonist, and the action sequences with the collapse of the Baxter Building are great. But the artwork is so disruptive to the immersive reading experience that I can’t give this issue any better than 1 web.

Come on, Marvel editorial, you have to do better than this.

Footnote

Cover accuracy check: Yes, the Fantastic Three does face off against Captain Marvel, and because we see Marvel from the back, he might even be frog-faced, as he is in the story. Full marks for accuracy.

I wish Johnny didn’t look bald, though.