When Marvel’s Ultimate line first launched, I hated it with the passion that only a fanboy can muster to hate something they’ve never read. I eventually got around to sampling many of the titles, and what I read, I hated. That tarred my opinion of the entire line for a good long while. From the crass big-screen action of The Ultimates (which I never finished but plan to soon) to the cartoony retreads of Ultimate X-Men, it just seemed like a waste. Here we had a major publisher, probably the biggest monthly comics publisher in the world, and they were wasting their time and money doing gritty reboots of old stories rather than doing something interesting and innovative.
I similarly dismissed Ultimate Spider-Man, though, unlike the other core books of the Ultimate Universe, I’d never actually read a page of it. But I knew everything I needed to know – Spider-Man hasn’t grown and changed enough that I felt he really needed to have his entire mythos retold bit by excruciatingly slow, decompressed bit. But then, something happened. General interest for the Ultimates waned. Same thing with Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four and a variety of other titles. But Ultimate Spider-Man grew more and more respectable as the years passed until it became essentially the centerpiece of the Ultimate line and, this past year, made our list of the Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2011.
Last year was the year I caught up with Ultimate Spider-Man. This year is the year I write about it.
When I discussed Ultimate Spider-Man as a kind of elder statesman of the Ultimate line, I purposely didn’t mention how rough it started. All the criticisms leveled at the book upon its release were (I still hold) totally valid: “Power and Responsibility”, the first six issue arc, is a fairly brutal slog through the Spider-Man origin story. Unlike the comparatively thrilling The Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man was settling in for the long haul before #1 even began – a fact that may have helped it survive as long as it has, but certainly makes it harder for new fans to really get in to.
There’s been a lot of talk these last few years about how decompressed storytelling has hurt comics, particularly monthly comics. And while I would say that, after a couple arcs, Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the very few examples of decompression done right, that wasn’t always the case. “Power and Responsibility” and, to a much lesser degree, its follow-up arc “Learning Curve” are both painfully slow at times, as though Bendis wrote a story and then just decided to fit it into six issues, no matter what.
I don’t want to be too dismissive, though. There’s a reason Ultimate Spider-Man has thrived when so many of the other Ultimate titles have disappeared, and those reasons are readily apparent even in the opening issues. Peter’s relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May is well-drawn from the start, with Bendis successfully crafting a believable, heartfelt family dynamic that is undeniably close but still occasionally tense, particularly as Peter begins to gain confidence and act out (as many teens do).
Parker’s relationship with Mary Jane also works well, too, though the hyper-exaggerated bullying of Kong and Flash never feels interesting or earned. It feels like the worst part of the Ultimate Universe – an attempt to shoe-horn in ‘milestones’ from the source material, or a lazy way to have Parker discover some aspects of his powers (which is redundant – Bendis found a much stronger way to showcase that discovery when he had Osborn send a hitman after Parker).
But, as we quickly learn, there are advantages to working off of a 40-year long history of stories. Superheroes are all about soap opera. The stories, designed to run as long as possible, are filled with freaky twists, shocking betrayals, surprise relations and dozens of other cheesy twists designed to keep readers invested. But by working with that history, Bendis cherry-picks what works and draws connections ahead of time. Knowing what’s coming, he can turn 40+ years of stories, some good, some bad, into a single (semi-) coherent narrative.
Really, there’s something about the series that’s easy to underestimate. Because even though I described the opening arc as rough, as tough to get into, I just re-read it again earlier today, and it’s even more fun than it was the last two times. Sure, he spends seven issues telling a story most writers could tell in two and some writers could tell in one. But when those seven issues are good, why should that matter?
“Learning Curve”, which starts with issue #8, has a much more traditional beginning – Spidey foiling a robbery by a D-list supervillain. From there, the issue moves on to setting up some more classic bits of Spider-Man mythology (albeit with a much-needed modern twist) as Parker learns that the Daily Bugle, a struggling newspaper, is paying top dollar for pictures of Spider-Man. Showing up intending to be a photographer, he is quickly dismissed — before he lands a part time job helping them maintain their website. (side-note: This subplot is both more realistic and more depressing today than it probably was the day he wrote it)
I spoke above about an advantage of the Ultimate Universe, and this is a prime example. In “Life Lessons” (USM #5), Peter finds the criminal who killed his uncle. After subduing him, Peter takes his drivers license – though we don’t find out why for a few issues longer. In “Working Stiff” (USM #8), Parker becomes the web services guy at the Daily Bugle and gains access to their databases. Using the information he now has at his fingertips, he looks up the mugger, and finds that he’s affiliated with a much larger network of criminals. This information brings him directly into conflict with the Kingpin, the second arc’s villain, in “Meet the Enforcers” (USM #9).
Now, it’s no great feat to set up a story a few issues ahead of time. That’s basic serialized storytelling, in fact – you never want to give the reader a time to ‘jump off’ your book, so you want to be seeding future stories as you go. Not necessarily in big, flashy ways – Parker grabbing the mugger’s ID was almost certainly forgotten by most readers when Peter began to throw down with Osborn in some fight scenes thrillingly illustrated by series artist Mark Bagley – but you want to keep setting things up. The more self-contained your arcs and episodes are, the easier it is for a reader to just skip a few, or a dozen, or fifty and then come back later and jump in without picking up the trades; the more serialized your arcs are, however, the harder it is for new readers to join you midway. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis often errs on the side of caution, tending to make the arcs very self-contained (and very uniform in size and style), but there are little touches scattered throughout the run that help him build a mythology all his own for the character, and his patience in building that world may be occasionally frustrating, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.
Well over a year ago, I wrote about what I called “The Perils of the Grand Design“, an article that was partially inspired by the books I was reading for this column. In it, I discussed what I see as the #1 Rule of Comic Book Writing: make me want to read more RIGHT NOW. Don’t promise me that something good is coming later. The best way to convince me that the next issue is going to be great is by making this issue great — and I think that’s where Bendis’ true strength on Ultimate Spider-Man is.
For all the talk about what decompression is doing to comics, people often forget that you can do it right. Yeah, it took six issues before Spider-Man actually suited up and became a hero… but those first five issues were GOOD. They were filled with memorable characters and witty banter. They were filled with relationship drama and family fights. They were filled with science gone awry and sudden, explosive action. Re-reading the series, it was actually disappointing when Uncle Ben died, because it meant that we wouldn’t have his vibrant sense of humor sparring with Peter.
After the relatively minor (but undeniably enjoyable) Kingpin arc, Bendis quickly proves that he has what it takes to be concise, too. In a series high-point, “Confessions” (USM #13) is the most low-key issue of the series yet. A stand-alone story that sees Peter confess his identity as Spider-Man to childhood best friend and long-time crush Mary Jane, the entire issue is, essentially, a single conversation between Peter and Mary that sees their entire relationship with one another shift with Peter’s revelation — and then shift again with Mary Jane’s.
Bendis has a well-established gift for dialogue, with natural, punchy rhythms reminiscent of Joss Whedon, and he employs it here to full effect. With the help of Bagley’s exaggerated, cartoony faces (and the excellent reaction shots he crafts, particularly from Mary Jane), Bendis manages to craft a tense, emotional scene between two people that just oozes chemistry, despite both of them being illustrated.
“Confessions” is a boldly conceived, sweetly executed issue, and it’s where Bendis truly won me over. For all the charms of “Power and Responsibility” and the excitement of “Learning Curve”, Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is where I truly realized that Bendis understood and loved these characters – and had the talent to do them justice.
I was dismissive of Ultimate Spider-Man in high school and college because, in my youth, I was convinced I was too cool for it. Why go for sweet when you could have something cool, thrilling or unexpected? But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that you can’t limit yourself like that. Ultimate Spider-Man may not be the most ambitious book, but it remains perhaps the character’s most iconic take, a rousing adventure that successfully blends drama, romance, comedy and action in a high school setting. It captures the moods of real life, if not its rhythms, and is almost unquestionably the benchmark against which I will measure most Spider-Man stories I read in the future.
Coming Up Next: Batgirl (vol. 4), #1-7 – “Batgirl Rising”