The Rise of the Marvel Zombies- Ultimate Fantastic Four
WELCOME TO EXTREMELY UNCANNY! The spookiest comics blog that will attempt to update more than twice in a six-month period! This Halloween, I want to look at the genesis of the spookiest Marvel comics franchise of the mid-2000’s- Marvel Zombies. Years ago, I discussed the first Marvel Zombies mini-series by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips (Read it here) but this Halloween I want to go back to the beginning of it all.
That’s right, folks. We are going to go way back to the halcyon days of Universe-1610 Aka the Ultimate Marvel Universe.
Remember The Ultimate Universe?
The land of Superheroes being jingoistic pastiches of their mainstream selves, the universe where Tony Stark is actually blue, the world where Charles Xavier’s greatest enemy is stairs, and the Earth where the Fantastic Four were 20-somethings working for a government contractor and NOT The first superheroes in their universe.
We are talking about Ultimate Fantastic Four today. I have been graced with a near complete run of Ultimate Fantastic Four (Missing the March on Ultimatum issues, oddly), but with that I have come into possession of the 1st appearance of the Marvel Zombies.
Marvel Zombies was a concept created by Mark Millar and Greg Land. The Zombies 1st show up in the Ultimate Fantastic Four arc: Crossover (Issues #21-23). The Zombies, as a concept, feel very Millar. They allow for some edginess (tame compared to the rest of Millar’s questionable work) and they are simple enough of a concept that they flat-out work.
The idea of a universe of Marvel heroes turned into Zombies is just novel enough for the time that it manages to catch the Zeitgeist of the Zombie craze of the mid-2000’s. Millar is far from my favorite writers in comics but, dammit, the man can create a simple pitch that at least makes me curious.
The Marvel Zombies, in practice, are not what you would expect. To get to the heart of this disconnect, it will be best to talk about the plot of the two arcs.
Ultimate Fantastic Four #21-23
Writer- Mark Millar
Pencils- Greg Land
Inker- Matt Ryan
Colorist- Justin Ponsor
Letterer- Chris Eliopoulos
Why should the Ultimates have all the fun?
Crossover opens with the Ultimate Fantastic Four defeating Time Terrorists, which provides some great moments such as Ultimate Ben Grimm punching a T-rex.
However, the plot of Crossover itself actually focuses on the desires of Reed Richards wanting to be more of a superhero and less on Ben fighting dinosaurs. Ultimate Reed finds himself yearning for the celebrity experience and is rebuffed by the government handlers.
In the Ultimate Universe, the Fantastic Four are actually part of this Government Think Tank that ran out of the Baxter Building. Ultimate Reed is not even the leader of the group, that goes to Dr. Storm, the father of Johnny and Sue. Ultimate Reed finds himself going against the orders of Dr. Storm.
In this story, Ultimate Reed has built a device that allows him to communicate to other universes. Again, definitely against the wishes of Dr. Storm. Ultimate Reed begins to use the device to contact another Reed Richards and begins to build a teleportation device to bridge their universes.
We are led to believe Ultimate Reed is in contact with the main Reed Richards of the 616. This is clear from how this Reed is dressed and talks to Ultimate Reed.
He compares his own universe to the Ultimate Universe pointing out the weird nature of it all such as the Avengers vs The Ultimates or the sheer fewer numbers of meta humans. We even get a creepy (and totally not a young Ron Howard) Franklin Richards to help sell the ruse that this Reed is on the up-and-up.
Of course, this Reed is not Reed Richard of 616. When Ultimate Reed teleports into this new universe, he finds a New York City in ruins and covered in corpses.
Stumbling into the Baxter building, Ultimate Reed finds out that the Reed Richards of this world, along with all the superheroes, are ZOMBIES!
The Origin of Marvel Zombies
The Zombie Reed begins to tell Ultimate Reed that his world has been stricken by a zombie virus that was spread by The Sentry. The virus spread fast through the superhumans, and they have run out of food.
Zombie Reed built the device to bridge worlds and spread the virus to the new universe and find new food. Ultimate Reed manages to flee the Frightful Zombie Four but only to become the target of the rest of the Marvel Zombies.
Ultimate Reed escapes thanks to Magneto, the sole surviving superhuman, seemingly.
Magneto reveals to Ultimate Reed that the zombie apocalypse has only happened for about 3 days. Ultimate Reed begins devising a plan to get back to the Ultimate universe and to bring over the surviving humans to spare them from the zombie hordes.
Marvel Zombies? More like Marvel Chumps
While Ultimate Reed and Magneto are battling to and from the safe house. The Zombie Fantastic Four has crossed over into the Ultimate Universe. Things don’t go so well for the Frightful Four as they get housed by the remaining Ultimate Fantastic Four easily and are captured.
See, the Marvel Zombies are zombies, but they manage to keep their powers and even their consciousness to an extent. The problem is that the zombie heroes are subjected to intense HUNGER much like a drug addiction. That hunger overpowers any sense of morals and sense of justice. We don’t see that much in this story though. The zombie heroes are just a monstrous horde for the heroes to combat it.
Marvel Zombies Assemeble
Ultimate Reed and Magneto are saved from the Zombie onslaught thanks to the Ultimate Fantastic Four who crossed over to the zombie universe to rescue Ultimate Reed. The Ultimate Fantastic Four makes short work of the zombies but they can’t cross back over to the Ultimate Universe without immense power generation. This has to happen at the seeming cost of the Zombie-verse Magneto’s life. As the Master of Magnetism seemingly detonates himself as well as the teleporter device.
Of course, Magneto isn’t dead…yet. You can learn about what happens to Magneto in Marvel Zombies. Spoilers: It doesn’t go well. Crossover ends with the Ultimate Fantastic Four not getting much time to process the horrors they have witnessed when the Storm matriarch returns to the family, which is odd considering she was supposed to be dead.
Review- Are the Marvel Zombies worth all the hype?
That’s about it for the first Marvel Zombies story. The Zombies are barely explored outside of the Zombie Fantastic Four. Instead, the zombies are just a present threat that is off-putting to look at, but nothing more than a mindless horde for the heroes to overcome. That said they were immensely popular from the beginning.
The zombie craze was starting to pick up steam in the mainstream media, after all. The Marvel Zombie lore would be built up in the subsequent eponymous mini-series and one-shots such as Dead Days, and their many, many sequels.
As for a spooky factor? It’s alright. It’s definitely not as disturbing or creepy as the main Marvel Zombie stuff tends to favor. There isn’t any sort of social commentary at play either. There is pretty much no depth to the zombies besides “they are kind of creepy”.
This story is ultimately hurt by the Marvel Zombies spin-off stories where we see more about the world. To add more salt to the wound, the initial Marvel Zombies miniseries featured Walking Dead scribe Robert Kirkman taking creative reins. Kirkman will go on to show a better grasp of the characters and provides nuance to the Zombies themselves.
In contrast, Millar is seemingly reserved in this story compared to some of his later works. Outside of using an ableist slur, Millar doesn’t do much that would be considered shocking or edgy. One notable moment in Marvel Zombies canon is Spider-man’s shocking and remorseful moments following getting turned by the Zombie virus.
It isn’t MIllar that has Spider-Man eating MJ and Aunt May, that’s Kirkman. Nor does Millar show any of the zombies being distraught over their deeds. That’s all Kirkman.
I think that is in large part due to Mark Millar’s writing style for this run. It tends to be full of semi-novel reinventions of the classic Marvel formulas, but not pushed to their full potential. There isn’t much to the emotional beats for the character. The Zombies serve as a plot device, but we do not see the despair of a zombie apocalypse or even the Zombies’ motivation.
The Lifeless Art of Greg Land
The weakest part of this story is the art. It’s Greg Land, folks. He has issues with photo-tracing his art and Ultimate Fantastic Four has some of the worst examples that often lead to faces that do not match the tone of the series. Namely the splash page of Sue to wrap up the story.
That aside the photo-tracing takes the reader out of the reading when the reference becomes clear. I was taken back from the Ronnie Howard looking Franklin Richards. That was just absurd.
Greg Land’s art is not the worst thing throughout, but the art doesn’t add to the story. If anything, the art just ruins the impact of certain emotional moments. Critiquing Greg Land is a challenge because it is almost critique-proof. How can you say anything new about Land’s art style that hasn’t already been said? Either way Land has a neutral to almost negative impact on the comic.
Final Thoughts on Marvel Zombies
Crossover was a decent enough start to the Marvel Zombies phenomenon but if you are going back to reading the story after reading Marvel Zombies, you are going to be left wanting. You can see how this kickstarted interest, but you are better off reading Dead Days one-shot or even the first Marvel Zombies mini-series if you want to read about zombies themselves. Kirkman brings the pathos to the characters that Millar is just not interested in doing here. Even the later Jeff Van Lente penned Marvel Zombies series are much more interesting despite if they deviate from the core Marvel Zombies cast.
I don’t think I will revisit Crossover anytime soon but the Zombie Fantastic Four do return in the much more interesting and wilder Frightful arc of Ultimate Fantastic FOur and that one is well worth a look for a future column.
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