– This post was originally published on my now-defunct site, New to Comics. –
New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic-books, explaining their background, reviewing them, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. The title is a reference to a former university project that I carried on as its own site for several years before laying it to rest.
Welcome back for our third comic-book breakdown. This week we’re taking a break from DC Comics and jumping over to their main competitor, Marvel, and looking at their preeminent hero, the Spectacular Spider-Man!
Published by: Marvel Comics
Written by: Brian Bendis
Art by: Mark Bagley
Real Name: Peter Benjamin Parker
Affiliation: The Avengers
First Appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962)
A teenage science prodigy bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker initially used his powers (strength, speed, agility, wall-crawling and an intuitive ‘spider-sense’) as a showman. However, after he neglected his responsibility to stop a criminal, that same criminal killed his Uncle Ben, teaching Peter that he must always use his powers for the good of others. Juggling adventures with caring for his elderly Aunt May, an on-again, off-again relationship with Mary-Jane Watson and trying to hold down a job, Peter strives to take his bad luck in stride to become one of the most prolific heroes in New York, using his years of experience, self-made gadgets and spectacular abilities as the amazing Spider-Man!
WHAT’s THE STORY?
Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic to be printed as part of Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line. The line was pitched by lawyer-turned-publisher Bill Jemas (who has a writing credit for this volume of Ult. Spider-Man), who figured that the then-current slate of Marvel Comics was unaffordable and impenetrable for any new potential fans. He suggested that a new imprint be created, one that took old Marvel heroes and reinvigorated them; updating them for the 21st century and returning them to their original premise.
In the years following the debut of Ultimate Spider-Man, other core titles were added to the Ultimate Comics line-up, including Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Ultimates (a more serious take on the Avengers comic-books). The line-up would also be bulked up by the occasional mini-series, such as Daredevil & Elektra and Wolverine vs. the Hulk. Unfortunately, while getting off to a strong start, the Ultimate line began to waver after numerous attempts to shake things up, and as of now, is no longer published – though its legacy lives on in a few of Marvel’s mainstream titles.
The journey of the Ultimates line, in a way, also mirrors that of Ultimate Spider-Man‘s writer, Brian Bendis. There are few creators in comics more controversial than Bendis, as around the time Ultimate Spider-Man was published, it seemed he could do no wrong. However, now, almost two decades later, many regard some of his more recent titles as truly awful, and as such, it actually pained me to see that he will soon be taking over both Superman titles at DC Comics. However, regardless of those naysayers, Bendis still has a strong fanbase, cemented in place by works such as Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil and his revamp of the Avengers line in the mid-2000s. These are considered to be some of Marvel’s best comics from the past two decades, and explain why a man whose writing sometimes seems to lack the passion it once did can still be held in such high regard.
WHAT’s THE PLOT?
The plot of this particular comic is an updated retelling of the Spider-Man origin. It sees Peter Parker struggle through his painful and mundane high-school life, before being bitten by a genetically altered spider on a class trip to OsCorp Industries. The series then follows Peter as he tries to adapt to his new powers, which give him the opportunity to fight against those who put him down and give him a shot at breaking away from his nerdy image and become popular.
However, after a painful reminder that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, Peter decides to become the super-hero Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn, CEO of OsCorp, becomes fascinated with the appearance of Spider-Man, who he realises was empowered by his new OZ formula that had been tested on the spider that bit Peter. Confident that OZ is the drug of the future, Osborn opts to test it on himself, and in doing so begins his dangerous transformation into the super-villain ‘Green Goblin’.
IS IT ACCESSIBLE?
This comic, as is the intent, is incredibly accessible. Out of the comics we’ve looked at so far (Watchmen and All-Star Superman) this is the easiest to access. While those two demand you have at least a limited knowledge of super-hero comics or the Superman mythos, Ultimate Spider-Man is written not unlike the pilot of a television show. It’s there to sell you not on the idea of super-heroics, but on the characters, you’ll be journeying with across the series lengthy run; to invest you in the character of Peter Parker.
As such, there’s no complex comic-book mumbo-jumbo – no alternate universes, no super-secret agencies, no time travel – just the story of a teenage boy coming to terms with his place in the world.
WHAT’s THE VERDICT?
Back before his writing (in my opinion) went down the toilet, Bendis was great for writing fun, realist dialogue. He excelled, particularly, at writing for teens. So it’s no surprise that in this series, he wrote to his strengths when aiming to capture a whole new audience of Spider-Fans.
The first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, as I said, focuses more on Peter Parker than it does his costumed alter-ego. In fact, the first issue features no super-heroes whatsoever. It’s just a teen drama, wherein one of the characters happens to develop super-powers. Each of Peter’s classmates become instantly realised as their own, unique characters. Nothing feels forced or painful, like you might expect seeing an adult man try and write teenage dialogue, but instead, incredibly natural.
The evolution of the character of Peter Parker is a particularly interesting facet of this. Long-time Spider-Man readers may initially be sceptical of what sort of a character Peter is, as, without his powers or the important ‘Power & Responsibility’ life lesson, he comes off as a somewhat resentful character, and watching him slowly transition into the Peter Parker who has kept audiences entertained for over fifty years is an extremely fun read. And so, when he finally comes into his own as Spider-Man just in time for the climactic battle against the Green Goblin, it makes you feel like you’re being rewarded for investing your money in the comic.
There’s not much wrong with this comic. It’s especially impressive when you think of how enjoyable it is and consider that this is just the first volume in a series that stretches out over 200 issues (don’t let that put you off though, some of the better stories are earlier on) and also when you contrast it to some of the tripe Bendis would go on to write in later years.
In fact, the only issue I would take with it would be the art. Not that there’s much wrong with it. Mark Bagley is a comic-book legend, and rightly so. However, he’s one of those artists who’ve worked this industry longer than I’ve been alive, and I sometimes find that some of the better art comes from those newer to the scene – as comics began to embrace some more stylised and vibrant looks. For instance, compared to the likes of Acuña, Shalvey, Ribic, Samnee, Pichelli, Manapul and many others…
…Bagley’s art just seems fairly plain. Colourful? Yes. Dynamic? Occasionally. But it doesn’t push any boundaries. It’s serviceable. It’s just fine. It’s what I’ll call ‘classic’.
That could be regarded as a controversial opinion. And maybe it is. It’s not that there’s a dislike for Bagley’s art on my part. But in the modern-day, comic-books, this visual medium, has seen an abundance of far more fantastical art styles than those people were used to in the eighties and nineties.
Pus, his redesign of the Green Goblin is horrendous. Not just the way he looks. But the colouring. The costume. Everything. Just awful.
Beyond that though, this here’s a good story with some decent art that makes you want to keep reading.