The Legacy Of A Big-Time Superhero: Revisiting ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN

Mark Bagley and Brian Michael Bendis’ reinterpretation of Peter Parker has been hugely influential. But 17 years on, how does it work as a comic?

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I’d like to begin with a toast. Raise a glass to Marvel comics’ late and lamented Ultimate universe. It was launched in 2000, with the aim of telling stories about some of Marvel’s best-loved characters free from the decades of continuity and baggage that could sometimes be an albatross for the mainline Marvel universe’s heroes. At its best, Ultimate Marvel blended superheroic soap opera style with the storytelling language of modern science fiction and political thrillers. In the process, the creators behind the books honed storytelling and design techniques that are still highly influential in contemporary cape comics today. For one example, Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the origin point for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the current trend of practical-looking superhero costumes, a notorious meme and a sizable chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s initial look and feel. But of all the work to come out under the Ultimate Marvel name, there is perhaps no book quite as influential or well regarded as Ultimate Spider-Man.

If you’ve read or watched any Spider-Man stories made after 2000, you’ve felt Ultimate Spider-Man’s influence. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created Peter Parker as a young teenager struggling with his commitment to doing good despite his life often being a calamity. Decades after Peter had grown to adulthood, married Mary Jane Watson and built a life with her (before the marriage was undone in the shockingly ill-conceived One More Day storyline) artist Mark Bagley and writer Brian Michael Bendis took Ditko and Lee’s initial set-up and used it as a launch pad to tell their own tale of Spider-Man’s youth. For 111 issues, to date the single longest artist/writer creative collaboration in Marvel history, Bagley and Bendis explored millennial teenager Peter Parker’s simultaneous coming of age and life as a superhero. After Bagley’s departure and a series of stories with artists Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, Takeshi Miyazawa, Sara Pichelli and Chris Samnee, the Ultimate incarnation of Peter died saving his loved ones in the aptly titled Death of Spider-Man. Pichelli and Bendis then introduced a new Spider-Man, the timid and brave black/Latino teenager Miles Morales. Miles took up the mask after realizing that, had he embraced his spider powers and the responsibility that came with them rather than living in denial, he might have been able to help Peter in the fight that killed him. Miles is a great character, and there is a lot to look at in his books.

For today though, the lens is on Bagley, Bendis and their time with Peter Parker. The look and feel of their book is everywhere when it comes to how the webslinger is depicted today. The acclaimed Spectacular Spider-Man animated series drew heavily on both their work and the very first Spider-Man stories told by Ditko and Lee. All three live action incarnations of the character owe at least something to Bagley and Bendis. Peter’s fraught high school friendship with Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi’s trilogy comes from Ultimate’s inaugural arc, as do the Osbornian origins of the fateful spider in Marc Webb’s failed Amazing Spider-Man series. The upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming pits teenaged Peter Parker against the simultaneous pressures of high school life and a villain he feels morally compelled to stop even if he is not at all prepared to face said foe. It reminds me of Ultimate’s second arc, where Peter’s initial attempt to take on the Kingpin ends with him being easily knocked unconscious and tossed off of a skyscraper by the unamused crime lord.

So, with Homecoming and its tale of a young Spider-Man early in his career imminent, now is a good time to go back to the very beginning of Ultimate Spider-Man and see what there is to it beyond its lasting influence. How does that first year read, 17 years on?

The short answer? It’s pretty darn good. It’s now quite explicitly a work of the past, but for as much of it could not have been written at any time besides the early 2000s, and for as much of it reads a little oddly given how the Ultimate line would develop in subsequent years, Ultimate Spider-Man handles Spider-Man’s struggles and his heroism beautifully, and its superheroic action is often pretty grand.

The long answer? It’s a bit of a trip to read a comic where Peter’s skill with web design and coding is considered rare enough by J. Jonah Jameson to merit hiring the boy more or less on the spot after he solves an issue with the Daily Bugle’s website. Cell phones are present, but the majority of the technology in Ultimate Spider-Man would be considered either outmoded or niche today. At one point a fellow student of Peter’s bemoans the fact that he didn’t bring his camera to school on the day the Green Goblin attacked, only to be driven off by Spider-Man, since the Daily Bugle is offering a generous reward for verifiable pictures of the hero. When Peter attempts to cash in, he wonders whether, in his excitement, he remembered to load his own camera with film. The Bugle itself is widely read enough to justify a substantial staff. Digital security cameras with the ability to write their footage directly to DVDs are presented as an extremely high-end tool for the very wealthy. On a bleaker note, when Aunt May and Uncle Ben learn that Peter has been hospitalized, they worry that they won’t be able to afford his stay, since the Affordable Care Act was an administration away. Information in Ultimate Spider-Man flows more slowly than it does today.

Beyond that light bit of culture shock, structurally and visually, Ultimate Spider-Man is very much of its time. Author Brian Michael Bendis is a prominent user of decompressed storytelling, the practice of telling a story that may only take place in a short period of time over a longer period, so a six-issue storyline might only cover a few days. At its best, decompressed storytelling allows for little moments to land harder and for greater subtlety in storytelling. At its worst, decompressed stories take too long for anything to happen and run the risk of stalling out in between big panels of subtly changing facial expressions. Today, decompression is still present, but not nearly to the extent that it once was. Some of the most acclaimed cape comics of the past few years (David Aja and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Valiant’s Ninjak, for instance) have focused more on smaller stories with B-plots that build to something big, rather than one story told across small chunks. Beyond the Spider-Man suit itself, Mark Bagley’s civilian costumes recall the late 1990s more than the new millennium. Peter has a taste for long flannel shirts. Mary Jane dons some Willow Rosenberg-esque overalls in the first issue. School bully Flash Thompson has a partial bowl haircut that’s dyed bright blond. Even the Green Goblin’s costume, which is primarily made up of purple rags, has an inexplicable jewel-adorned sash that looks odd for a world whose design style would soon become much lower key.

Ultimate Spider-Man definitely reads and looks like a comic from 2000 (complete with cruel, cringe-inducing language from Peter bullies that would not fly today). It’s an artifact. And that is not a bad thing. Just because the book’s style is specific to one time period does not mean that it will automatically lack worth to those reading it afterwards. Mark Bagley’s art deserves particular praise. His faces are cartoony enough to be immensely emotional and realistic enough to have weight, but where he really shines is body language. Check out these three images below:

In the first image, Bagley draws Peter smaller than Harry. But even if Peter was as tall as his friend, he bunches himself up and keeps his head down. He’s tense. His glasses don’t define his face, they overrun it, hiding Peter within himself and beautifully conveying his isolation and bitterness. Contrast that with the second image, where Peter has just discovered wall crawling. He’s not only excited by his powers, he’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s relaxed, and the tension that defines his life at school has, temporarily, been swept away by a wave of elation. Then there’s the final image, where Mary Jane holds Peter in the wake of Uncle Ben’s murder. Peter’s once again bunched up and miserable, but not for the same reasons he is in the first picture. He isn’t bent over because he’s used to bending over; he’s been overcome by grief, and this is the way his body is responding to it. Ultimate Spider-Man is very wordy in its first year, but without Bagley putting illustration to those words, they wouldn’t mean anything. Just as Bendis’ script gives him a deep well of material to draw from, Bagley’s artistry reinforces and strengthens the words, creating moments that cannot be forgotten.

And as for the wordsmith himself, I am really impressed at how well Bendis balances Peter’s character development across this first year. Peter is angry and largely isolated at the book’s beginning, having accepted his bullying as inevitable, and Bendis writes both Peter’s anger and his development away from it gracefully. He will, on occasion, repurpose iconic lines from Spider-Man’s long history, but either create new context for them (“face it tiger, you hit the jackpot” comes right before Peter and Mary Jane almost kiss after Peter trusts her with his secret identity) or recreate them in the context of their story. Peter’s horrified realization that Uncle Ben’s murderer is someone he could have stopped comes close to word for word and pose for pose from the original story, but because Bendis uses the extra space his longer scripts grant Uncle Ben and Peter more time together, it lands harder than it might otherwise. His Peter Parker is a deeply good kid recovering from some pretty serious abuse at school, struggling with both his anger and later the toll that being Spider-Man has taken on his personal life. He’s introspective and initially very self-centered, and he has a hard time recognizing when people outside of his immediate family care for him. It’s what makes his growth towards self-acceptance and his confident, bantering Spider-Man such a treat. It represents a major break for Peter. He may struggle with the way being Spider-Man affects his personal life, but he loves being Spider-Man, both for the good he does and the fact that he can be brash and confident under the mask in a way that he can’t quite be as Peter Parker. He goes so far as to literally make flash cards with mean jokes about the Kingpin for the express purpose of annoying him during their fight. It’s a dramatic growth in character that makes sense with who Peter Parker is and how he’s developing.

Ultimate Spider-Man may be a bit of an artifact, but make no mistake, it is a very fine comic. It was a treat to re-read for this piece, and I want to dive further back in. If nothing else, the Ultimate universe version of Venom is one of the coolest redefinitions of a major supervillain that I’ve come across, I love the humanity Bagley brings out through the way his characters look and move, and I love how much Peter loves being Spider-Man, even with the acknowledged toll it takes on him.

This post featured art by Mark Bagley.

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