MFR Book Club: Ultimate Spider-Man Vol.1 Review

In the week that we got our first glimpse of the MCU’s version of Spider-Man it seems appropriate that the first edition of our Book Club tackles the first volume of the series that introduced Peter Parker and comics to a new generation; Ultimate Spider-Man.

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It’s important that you understand something about me; Ultimate Spider-Man is my favourite comic series of all-time. Note that I don’t necessarily think it is the best, indeed much of the  story arcs prior to the Death of Spider-Man leave much to be desired, but it will always hold a special place in my heart for virtue of the fact that it was the series that got me into comics. Growing up in the 90s, my introduction to superheroes came primarily in the form of the multitude of high quality animated series that filled the airwaves. It wasn’t until the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie hit (which incidentally took a lot of cues from this book) that the comic books began to resurge in popularity in Ireland. This led to many titles, including the reprints of Ultimate Spider-Man, being made available in your local newsagents and provided the public with greater access to these series. Many of us knew the core characters and their backstories, but Ultimate Spider-Man stood out by providing interesting re-interpretations of those characters. That being said, this marks my first time reading the opening story arc of the series. While I have a solid run of the first incarnation of Ultimate Spider-Man I only began picking up the series during the second story arc; “Kingpin”. I didn’t decide to pick up the first volume until recently, partially worried that I had over-hyped the series to the point that it would only be a let-down.  So does the series start off strong? Pour yourself a glass of wine and let’s find out.

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Originally intended as a six-issue mini, Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility is an extended re-telling of the origin story featured in Amazing Fantasy #15. The purpose of the Ultimate line was to give the Marvel universe a modern makeover that would allow them to appeal to new readers without having to deal with the burden of decades of continuity. You should all know the story by now, Peter Parker is an isolated teenager who upon being bitten by a genetically altered spider gains super-powers and must grapple with the responsibility that comes with them. The twist here, which was novel until the release of the original Spider-Man movie, was that the origins of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin were intertwined. The spider which bites Peter is a product of Oscorp’s Oz programme, the very same programme that Norman Osborn hopes to use to develop a wonder drug. It is creation of Spider-Man which provides Osborn with the data necessary to develop the formula further which later transforms him into the monstrous Green Goblin. Linking the origins of both characters in this manner gives more of a reason for the two to become arch-enemies. Like Ying and Yang they represent humanity’s potential when science is involved, its capacity for both good and evil. Given his stance on the identity of the Green Goblin, I don’t think Steve Ditko would have been pleased with this turn of events, but it works within the context of the story and makes their relationship more compelling. Unlike a lot of heroes who create their own villains, this series shows us the reverse with both Osborn and Doctor Otto Octavius playing key roles in Spider-Man’s creation.

The Peter Parker we are introduced to perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the character and the MCU would do well to take note. As a teenager struggling to fit in with the world around him, he is immediately relatable to the modern. He has outbursts; moments of anger directed at adults who he doesn’t think understand him, but beneath that pain is a good kid trying to find his place. Its notable that the entire first issue remains barren of though balloons, in a classic case of showing as opposed to telling, we learn about Peter from watching how he interacts with his peers and his relatives; Ben and May Parker. We essentially get to see how the outside world views Peter and how those perceptions impact his life before subsequent issues delve into his own mind-set directly through the now famous Spider-Man internal monologues. As the volume progresses, Peter comes more and more into his own right until he is dishing out witticisms faster than the Flash with a bad case of the runs.

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Peter’s relationship with Mary-Jane is extremely well done in this iteration, though it’s worth nothing that this isn’t the MJ many of you know and love. Even before the spider bite, it’s clear that the two share a connection and that there is an underlying attraction that neither of them is willing to confess to. Mark Bagley expertly illustrates the stolen glances and subtle body language of two teenagers starting to feel for one another. While MJ retains the girl-next-door status of many of her incarnations, her ability to relate to Peter on an intellectual level is critical here. MJ is quite intelligent in her own right and the pair’s attraction to each other is of both a physical and intellectual nature. It’s Mary-Jane who consoles Peter following the death of his Uncle, waiting outside his house for hours just so that someone is there waiting for him when he returns. It’s a beautiful moment and one that Bagley’s art compliments wholly. The character herself may not have appeared in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man series, but some inspiration had to be taken from this character when they were conceptualising that universe’s version of Gwen Stacy. Much is left unsaid in this volume, but the door is left open for many possibilities regarding the progression of their relationship down the road.

UncleBenSpeechArguably the character who benefits the most from this expansion is Uncle Ben. The reader gets to know Ben Parker over four issues and truly understands the kind of relationship that he and Peter shared.  As a result when the inevitable tragedy occurs it has more of an impact than it has in past iterations. Most Spider-Man stories emphasise the importance of their relationship after Ben’s death and we know very little about him, but by making their relationship central to the story in the lead up to it, it makes his death all the more tragic. There is, of course, tension between the two as Peter comes to terms with his powers and how they will change his life, but it’s the kind of tension found between a parent and child as the latter hits puberty. Bendis turns Uncle Ben into an actual character as opposed to a cardboard cut-out whose sole task is to dish out catchphrases about responsibility. This is the kind of character that I could have seen the great Martin Sheen playing and it is a pity that we didn’t get more of that in the Amazing Spider-Man film series.

 

 

 

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On the opposite side of the spectrum, Harry Osborn suffers greatly in this adaption. It is heavily implied that Harry merely uses Peter for his brains and cares little about their friendship. This terrible introduction to the character is compounded by the fact that Harry rarely features in Bendis’ run outside of rare Goblin incidents. Much of the conflict between him and Peter is born out of the great friendship they supposedly had, but we, ultimately, don’t learn much about this version of Harry. We are told that he and Peter are good friends, but there is little enough evidence to support that. As a result, the interesting dynamic that can exist between these two characters is squandered in what is an otherwise great story.

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Our antagonist, Norman Osborn acquits himself well in this volume. As a corrupt businessman with delusions of grandeur, Osborn is as despicable as it gets. He outright hates his son; he at one point arranges to have Peter Parker “taken care of” so as to avoid legal liability and when he discovers the Oz drugs works he arranges to be the first human test subject because he considers himself to be the perfect human specimen. If Bendis had made his Osborn persona and his Goblin persona essentially one and the same, that might have been interesting, but that isn’t the case. This version of the Green Goblin is boring, amounting to nothing more than Diet Hulk. Physically he is a challenge for Spider-Man, but there doesn’t appear to be much going on upstairs. He can generate fireballs and throw them at people, but his design is akin to a luchador with only his face resembling anything like the Goblin we know and love. Within the context of the story, it’s questionable where the costume; which consists of purple pants, green underwear and a purple cloak even comes from. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norman stopped off at Villains R’Us before injecting himself with the serum. Honestly, the Goblin seems shoehorned into the last two issues. It’s almost as if in the modern era, where all stories are written with the trade paperback in mind, they were afraid that the emotional story that has underpinned the rest of the volume wouldn’t be enough to satisatiate readers. It would have been much better for them to have waited to reveal the Goblin in a future story, this would have allowed the appropriate tension and hype to build as well as give them a chance to develop the character more. As a result, while the Goblin gets better in later issues, he acts as little more than a boss character with no real motivations or character to him. He just isn’t interesting outside of his sleazy corporate persona.

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Looking at the art, to my mind Mark Bagley is one of the definitive Spider-Man artists. His art is as linked to the character as John Romita Jr. Bagley brings a brightness and richness to the characters with images that pop out of the page. Neither too realistic nor too cartoony, Bagley’s illustrations are the perfect blend of styles. Bagley is at his best in moments of silence, when focusing on Peter’s sense of isolation. Even without words, Bagley manages to convey a loneliness and deep sadness that comes from being ostracized from your peers. That is not to say that Bagley doesn’t excel when focusing on Parker’s alter ego. Quite the contrary, his ability to draw emotion from a masked character is beyond compare, through cleverly manipulating the mask’s eyes.  His re-vamped Goblin design is also quite refreshing showing a gradual evolution of the mutation coursing through Osborn’s blood.

Despite a number of teething problems, this first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man did not disappoint. It gave a much needed modern update to the character’s origin, fleshing out the backstory by creating interesting takes on well-known characters and snappy natural dialogue more likely to be seen on a Joss Whedon production than a comic page. For those of you jumping into the big bag world of comics for the first time or those of you looking to remember while you fell in love with the medium in the first place, Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility gets our seal of approval. It just goes to show that even with an all too familiar story, with great talent comes great comics.

You know what I think, but what did some of our other staff members think about this first volume;

“I’m officially the worst Book Club member, because I’m only half-way through this collection, but I love it so far. While Bagley’s art felt a little cheesy to me at first, by the end of the third issue, I was completely won over by the 90’s nostalgia vibes that radiates out of his early work—okay, so the book was published in October 2000, but it still LOOKS like the 90’s. To be fair though, this first collection of Ultimate Spider-Man is so much more than a nostalgia piece. It’s an answer to the 616 Peter Parker’s rigid and slightly cold origin story, and Bendis does a fantastic job of really capturing the essence of the powerless becoming the powerful overnight and what that would mean to a kid who’s constantly the butt of the joke. By now, we’ve seen so many variations of the Spider-Man origin story, that going into it, I worried this collection might feel rote. However, these first few issues of the lengthy Bendis/Bagley run—now considered a legacy to many modern-day comic fans—is somehow fresh and exciting in spite of all the Spider-Man based products this book arguably inspired over the last decade and a half.”  – Matthew McCrary

“I was so reluctant to this series when it came out because this wasn’t my Spider-Man. That was an epic fail on my part. This series is fresh, fun and made me remember why I like Peter Parker so much. This was all because of Bendis’ writing. On the other hand I can’t stand Mark Bagley’s artwork. Everyone looks the same and compared to Todd McFarlane and Erik Larson, Bagley comes off like a cheap knock off. Love the writing, can’t stand the artist.” – Matthew Sardo

What do you think? Was this volume spectacular? Did it do everything a spider does? Sound off in the comments below and join us in two weeks for our next Book Club review where we will be looking at Y: the Last Man Volume 1.

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Gary Moloney
Gary Moloney
Some would say that he is a mine of information, too bad most of it is useless. You can read his own comic work over on garymoloney.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter @m_gearoid.

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