Ultimate Spider-Man #1-13
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been this excited about comics again. The last year or two, I’ve been slowly reading through Scott Snyder’s fantastic New 52 run of Batman, but that had more to do with a real case of The Big Batman Hyperfixation rearing it’s wonderful head, but after playing through the genuinely excellent Miles Morales game, I really wanted to get back into the works of my favorite superhero; Spider-Man. Thankfully, Marvel Unlimited was there to help me with this little craving. Seriously, I’m just using the free trial at the moment, but it’s only like… 90 bucks for a full year. Which sounds like a lot, and it is, but in Australia, that’s like… fifteen comics. If you’re reading at least fifteen comics, it’s worth it. But, uh, I digress.
Whilst originally I planned to read the Ultimate Spider-Man: Miles Morales run, I decided to go even further back, back to what probably put the Ultimate Marvel imprint on the map in the year 2000; Ultimate Spider-Man. I enjoyed the Miles Morales run back in the day, but I’d never actually read the original, despite the pretty wide acclaim I’ve heard it getting since then. I was a high school student buying comics with whatever money I could scrape together, there was no way I could buy 130+ issues of trades when I had brand new floppies to get together. So, it was with a genuine sense of excitement that I opened up the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, written by the acclaimed Brian Michael Bendis, with art by Mark Bagley, I began to read, and…
Well, I’m not going to over exaggerate it. The first seven issues that roughly make up the first arc of the story, mostly covering Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, and his initial conflict with his archenemy Green Goblin, is very, very good, but nothing I was losing my mind over. It’s a well paced, engaging take on the rise of Spider-Man, with a great focus on Peter’s relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, his best friend/love interest Mary Jane, and the sheer amount of torment he receives from bullies at school. These relationships are definitely the highlight of these early issues, as for the most part this is still a very by-the-numbers origin story for Spider-Man, with just a few variables thrown in to differentiate it from his original, core-universe origin.
But whilst I think the initial arc is ‘just fine’, the following issues that make up the second arc, #8-13, are nothing short of fantastic. You’ve got the bread-and-butter of the origin down; Peter’s powered up, Uncle Ben is in the ground, the media hates Spider-Man, it’s all there. With Peter finding a link to the man who killed Uncle Ben, he goes for the top of the criminal food chain; the Kingpin, and as compared to the mild thrashing he gave Green Goblin in their first encounter… Well, I won’t spoil it, but this arc gives us some real character growth; Peter can’t just rely on his Spider-Gifts to win the day. To defeat Kingpin, and his lead lackey Electro, Peter uses his wits, brains, and a little bit of luck to come out on top, and it’s so much fun to see him get beaten down, actually reflect on how idiotic he’s been, and rise up stronger then ever. Bendis also nails the humor that is inherent to the Spider-Man persona - there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the fights against Kingpin and Electro - but also manages to do great work in depicting how Peter Parker would actually feel. As someone who was a real nerdlinger, getting bullied constantly at school, it did put a strain on the people around me, locking me in a dark, dirty mood. Bendis gets that, too, and I loved the way he depicts the character.
The series’ pace was one of the elements that stuck out the most; whilst by the end of the first issue, Peter has been bit by that good ‘ol spider and starts discovering his powers, all the trappings of his origin are slowly doled out over the first half dozen issues or so. So many other renditions of Spider-Man’s origins try to do everything in an issue - the bite, the callous use of his powers, Uncle Ben’s death. Here, it’s all still there, but fleshed in a way that makes it feel, as stupid as this sounds, belivable, and a huge part of that is just how well this story is paced. The sense of progression is pretty satisfying too - we go from a zero, to succeeding in school and fending off bullies, all the way up until he’s locking fists with an iconic member of his rogue's galaxy. Well, Green Goblin -is- iconic, but I’m not gonna lie and say I was super thrilled by how he was handled in this opening arc. He’s just…
Whilst it makes sense they kicked off the series with Green Goblin, I’ve never been quite the biggest fan of the character; especially, in the case of the Ultimate incarnation of the case, when it’s less about the ‘split-personality’ elements of Norman Osborn, and more about him being just a big, green demon-looking creature, like if the Lizard and The Jackal had some kind of accursed offspring. He feels more like a boogeyman, not a true, sentient antagonist, but I’m sure I haven’t remotely seen the last of the Ultimate rendition of the Green Goblin. Thankfully, the second arc’s focus on Kingpin and his main enforcer, Electro, is far better executed. They’re certainly not built up as much Norman Osborn, but the Kingpin’s depiction as a self-assured, monstrously large, horrifically powerful crime boss, and Electro’s sadistic joy at murder are a delight to behold. That’s… That’s a really weird sentence, reading it back. But either way, these are examples of the best kind of Spider-Man villains - street-level foes who ‘might’ have a few powers up their sleeves, but through whatever they have going on, are decidedly human.
The weak link, personally for me, in Ultimate Spider-Man so far is it’s art direction, specifically for its covers and general character design. The covers just all feel so… generic; the majority of them are just action shots of Spidey posing on a wall or swinging down a street. They aren’t exactly bad per se, I just couldn’t imagine anyone looking at most of these on a comic book store’s shelf and picking them up just based off that. The character designs, and art direction as a whole, felt a bit muddy throughout much of the first arc - I’m not sure what didn’t click with me, maybe the faces? But a lot of the character designs just looked that little bit ‘off’ to me. This also extends to the fight scenes, if to a much lesser extent. I simply found a lot of the fights hard to read, sometimes not sure how Spider-Man had taken down a foe, or what quick succession of moves he’d performed to take down a group. This was more of an issue in larger fights, such as against Kingpin’s enforcers, and I found it easier to read the fights against Electro or Green Goblin. It’s entirely possible that Mark Bagley was just finding his feet in this series specifically, as I felt the general ‘look’ of the book improved in the second arc, and if it continues this upwards trend, I’m sure I won’t have much to complain about for the future of Ultimate Spider-Man.
It’s been so long since I’ve really felt excited about comics - comics, not just a specific character or setting, comics in general. Not only as an intro to the Ultimate Universe, but as an introduction to comics and Spider-Man as a whole, Ultimate Spider-Man is a fantastic way to get your feet wet. Sure, it treads some of the ground that so-well-known in popular culture, but this a strong take on the character, and it’s second arc, slowly progressing up the chain of super villains Spider-Man faces, is nothing short of fantastic, deftly blending humor, action, and genuinely well paced-drama. It’s a strong start to Ultimate Spider-Man, and from what I’ve gathered, it’s only going to get better from here.