Ultimate Spider-Man

The First Year

In 2000, popular comic/crime fiction writer Brian Michael Bendis scored what could be considered one of the most challenging, coveted writing jobs in the entire comics industry, and also one of the most potentially dangerous and suicidal - that of redefining Marvel's legendary Spider-Man character for the 21st Century. Since his inception by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962, Spider-Man has gone on to be one of America's most recognizable pop culture icons, and one whose history and continuity are held sacred (in a relative sort of way - we comics fans have our priorities straight, you know) by many, although not all, of his legions of fans. Reinterpretation, redefinition, reengineering, whatever Marvel wanted to call it, was to these fans not just the company trying to squeeze another buck out of them and the rest of the comic buying public, but a rejection of their loyalty and their dollars over the last several years. Many of these fans had aged along with Spider-Man, were graduated from high school and college, married, had children (the Baby May saga is a whole 'nother problem, though, beyond this column) had job problems, money problems, relationship problems, lost beloved parents and friends as time relentlessly marched on - just like he did. For Marvel to try to jettison all of that history, to these fans, was the same as jettisoning them, the people who had shared that history with him.

To hear Marvel tell it, however, the aging fan base was synonymous with the dwindling fan base. Malthusian dynamics weren't at work, but indifference. The comics population was simply not replacing itself. Their progeny had cast aside comics for video games and other technological toys. Marvel apparently found someone to tell them that Spider-Man's long and convoluted history, rather than a rich background which supplemented the character, was a hinderance to a new generation of comics fans, and that they would buy comics in droves, doggone it, if Spidey were just a kid again. Then all would be right with the world.

This is the wild card drawn by Bendis. Make Spider-Man a kid again, and update his mythology so that it begins in 2000 rather than 1962, and reflect the considerable social, demographic, and cultural changes that have occurred within that time period. But don't get too creative or do anything too different so that he's still recognizable as the Spider-Man of the 1960's cartoon with the jazzy theme song. After all, there was like, this movie coming out in 2002, largely based on Classic Spider-Man - so you can't change too much because Marvel wants people to watch the movie and then buy Spidey comics in droves because Joe Quesada didn't want to be 2002's version of Bob Harras, who completely pissed away the chance to capitalize on the success of the X-Men movie. But, don't keep too much the same or like, what would be the point, eh? And try not to think about that previous critical failure, Chapter One. It'll just depress you.

Most sane writers would probably jump out of the window and never return. Bendis, the same chap who helped give the world the story of Elliot Ness vs. the Butcher of Kingsbury Run in comics form, obviously delighted in another ghoulish challenge.

Take all of these elements and shake vigorously and you have Ultimate Spider-Man.

Now, the purpose of this article is not to either ask or answer the question of whether or not Spider-Man even needed to be redefined for another generation. That's a topic entirely unto itself. Nor is this an examination of the validity of the Ultimate line itself, although I do want to make an observation later about how Marvel has done a complete 180 on what the Ultimate line was supposed to accomplish. No, this is an examination of the stories themselves. Are they any good? Is the essential integrity of the character preserved amidst the changes? Has there been too much change or too little? As this is a review of Ultimate's first year, most of the talk will stop after issue #12, although there will be a couple of minor references to subsequent issues. There will not be a tit for tat comparison between Bendis' and artist Mark Bagley's Spider-Man and the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, since that would not be fair to either creative team. The style of stories each team told are indigenous to their own eras. Lee's fierce load 'em up and crank 'em out as if there's no next issue style would not work today, and Bendis' long, labored story arcs would not have worked in the 1960's. Therefore, we aren't also going to expect Bendis to squeeze almost 40 years of characters and character evolution into 12 issues.

By most measures, USM has been a smashing success. It consistently sells in the top 10, sometimes even above the J. Michael Straczynski-rejuvinated Amazing Spider-Man, and in an era where 100,000 copies means a major hit, USM is consistently coming in between 80-100,000/month. By contrast, Paul Jenkins' Peter Parker and later Spectacular Spider-Man, routinely lauded by Spidey fans, comes in at the lower end of the second 10, with sales in the 50-60,000 range.

However, the much, much, much ballyhooed "getting the comics into the hands of kids" objective has to be considered less than successful. Again, it wouldn't be that big of a deal if it hadn't been trumpeted so loudly - but essentially the only way to get a single issue of an Ultimate comic has been to go to the same old comic book store, and who is going to the comic book store? The same old people who have been buying comics in the first place. Oh, the Ultimate line has made some inroads in the trade paperback and hardcover market at your Borders and Barnes & Noble, but that's a different creature.

Another factor contradicting the so-called "for the kids" objectives was that time after time when I talked to a comic book shop owner about getting kids to read comics, they say the kids are simply more interested in video games and Pokeman (it isn't just coincidence that comic shops are one of the major gathering places for Pokemon tournaments), i.e. visually enhanced, fast moving stuff. The slow, methodical pace at which the USM stories unfold would seem to be completely contradictory to the stated purpose of the line in the first place. USM isn't the only title falling short of meeting its original goals- Marvel has had to publicly admit that Ultimate X-Men is almost too violent and gruesome for this highly desired "target" audience. Also, writer Mark Millar subsequently stated that his title "The Ultimates," the ultimate version of the Avengers, was not for kids. So, the stated purpose of the Ultimate line was totally disingenuous with reality - more Marvel double-talk.

In fact, the hype surrounding this version of Spider-Man was so intense and generating so much backlash prior to its debut that Bendis pleaded with readers to judge the title on the quality of the stories and its own merits and try to dissasociate it from the hype. So let's look at those stories, after tackling one rather pervasive line of thought in the internet community at the time - that us old cranks uniformly don't like Ultimate Spider-Man or are biased against it. Well, when in looking back over my files when I used to review comics on a weekly basis for the Hero Realm , I see that I reviewed a total of 9 of the first 12 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man and recommended 5 of them - 2 of which were my Picks of the Week. I gave the other four an average. I would say that's a rather even-handed and fair distribution of critiques, certainly no better or worse than I was giving the other spider-titles. I did trash the only two issues of Ultimate Team-Up that I reviewed - but those really did suck.

So - what's the ultimate (pun somewhat intended) verdict? That USM is better than Chapter One is a given, and that sorry saga's problems have already been documented in my article Why Chapter One Failed (link will be established once article is revised). If I were to grade the first year of Ultimate Spider-Man I would give it a "B." Bendis is clearly knowledgeable and respectful of the character's history, and he works in some occassional homages to Classic Spidey (and even one to the first Superman movie). Overall, issues #1-5, essentially the origin story, are a very adept updating and re-telling of the legend. Some people complained about the length of the tale, but I think part of that was the fact that the first three issues are very well done, genuinely leaving the reader eagerly anticipating the next issue. Even though we all knew how this story was going to end, we were interested in the twists and turns Bendis would take in getting us there. It seemed that beginning with issue 4, however that the stories began to get stretched out for the sole purpose of making the arcs last longer - probably for trade paperback purposes. While issues 4 & 5 drag a bit, when read at one sitting, the larger story in the five issues flows very well. However, the Green Goblin (or is it the Hulk-Goblin?) story in issues 6 & 7 is clearly padded, and that story is undermined by the complete and purposeless bastardization of Spidey's greatest villain. The prolonging of the stories becomes very evident in the Kingpin story arc, which lasted 5 months when it could have been completed in 3. As issues developed, we got more and more of the time-chewing teen dialogue, and far too many "reaction" shots, which were simply duplicated panels, as if artist Mark Bagley was running behind schedule so the editors reused as many of his panels as possible. The Doctor Octopus storyline, which was in progress when this article was first written, was another 6-months-plus story, complicated by appearances by Justin Hammer and Kraven the Hunter, when really, what we simply wanted to see was Ultimate Spidey and Ultimate Doc Ock go at each other. The stories often seem like a cotton candy version of Spider-Man, sweet, but not filling.

Back to the origin tale, a lot of the sheer silliness of Spidey's original stories was cut away, leaving a sleeker, more realistic narrative, with characters acting in a less flamboyant and cartoony manner. I don't mean to oversimplify and characterize the Lee-Ditko stories as "silly", since, well, this "silliness" gave birth to some of the most popular heroes and villains in comics history. The "silly" villains envisioned during the first 20 issues, for example, of Amazing Spider-Man remain his core rogues gallery today. And even John Byrne, while commenting that he felt that the actual writing in today's comics was better than during the 1960's - stated that the sheer creative genius and output generated by the older writers was unparalleled, even today.

And - some of that silliness, flamboyance, and overdramatization gave these characters their immortality and staying power. After all, a good myth (and I think today's most prominent superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, are essentially modern day myths) should be larger than life, and doesn't necessarily have to be completely rooted in reality, as long as the hero and the situations he finds himself in are compelling to the reader. As sleek and professional as the stories in Ultimate Spider-Man are, they aren't simply as fun or as enjoyable to read, in large part because most of the characters, including our fearless wall-crawling hero, are not as likeable and embraceable.

And that brings up another point. With the exception of the Hulk-Goblin, Bendis' reinterpretation of the classic characters doesn't have any other glaring "misses." Unfortunately, with the exception of his strengthening of Uncle Ben's character, he doesn't really score with any of his reinterpretations, either. He neither improves or substantially embellishes any of the other characters, and actually makes most of them paler and weaker than their classic counterparts.

Conversely, Mark Bagley's art gives USM a very distinctive look. His teenage Peter Parker/Spidey actually looks like a teenager in both stature and mannerisms. The "Classic" version of our hero in his early days was really a teenager in name only, but looked, talked, and essentially acted like an adult. When you compare Bagley's art in USM to the crap that passed for art in the late Ultimate Team-Up, I think you'll see how much Bagley's touch shines by comparison.

Now I want to address some of the finer details of the Ultimate mythology, both in comparison and contrast with the classic mythology.

The Origin
One concept that seemed to be both shared by Byrne and Bendis in their respective reinterpretations was the desire to reduce the level of coincidence in the Marvel Universe. Byrne sought to do it by having Peter gain his spider powers in an explosion at a demonstration in which a spider happened to be exposed to radiation. This demonstration was prepared by - ta da - Otto Octavious, and the subsequent explosion grafts his mechanical arms to him and makes him wacky. Bendis does Byrne even one better, by not only tying Spidey's and Doc Ock's origins together - but also throws in Norman Osborn's transformation into the Hulk-Goblin. Turns out that Octopus, mechancial arms and all, works for the one and only Norman Osborn of Osborn Industries.

In Ultimate, Peter obtains his spider powers through the bite of a genetically altered spider that escaped from its holding jar, rather than the bite of a radioactive spider. No problem there - in fact, that was the chosen method of receiving the spider powers in the Spider-Man motion pictures. In the early 1960's radiation was seen by Stan the Man as something of a super power pill, since many of the superheroes and villains of the times acquired their super powers through radioactive experiments and accidents. Forty years later, we know that radiation when mixed with the human body almost always produces deformity and death, not super powers. Even when used in medicine, radiation can still do more harm than good. So, the pseudo-science of a genetically altered spider, while not perfect, works fine for the 21st Century. Osborn later notices that Peter is beginning to exhibit some unusual abilities, and decides to inject himself with a purified form of the serum (called "Oz") that the spider ingested and transferred to Peter. This results in an explosion that not only turns Osborn into the Hulk-Goblin, but also grafts Otto Octavious' mechanical arms to his body (Octavious's fate remained a mystery until issue #14, so we won't deal with him any further in this article).

Too much coincidence? Nah - not really. Of course, it's all far-fetched, but a lot of drama is far-fetched coincidence anyway. In the rules of comic books, to have three of the major characters in the Spider-Man mythos acquire their powers in relatively the same fashion at approximately the same time is probably even less far fetched than three separate, unrelated occurrences happening around the same time. It turns out to be a good catalyst to get the story started and introduce as many players as possible. That doesn't bother me. Although, Ultimate Norman with his normal looking hair doesn't look like Norman. Some things should not be trifled with and the red Osborn corn rows are one of them! Byrne's problem in Chapter One was not that he tied Spidey's and the Doc's origins together, but that his solution to the "problem" of Spidey's outdated origin was even more absurd than Stan's original idea!

However, one of the problems created by the revised origin is that the accident occurs in too much of a public forum (Peter's entire class is present at Osborn Industries on a field trip). And, rather than quietly slip away, like he did in the Classic origin, or even in the movie, Peter's body goes into fits right then and there, which guarantees that every kid there will remember the spider bite happening. This error is perpetuated in that Peter's display of his spider powers are way too evident not for anyone to later put two and two together when the "big time superhero" finally shows up. After the spider bite clearly takes place in front of his classmates, he then breaks two desks, becomes a basketball star, breaks Flash Thompson's hand, flips King Kong Harlan (a character new to the mythos), and then all of a sudden some slight, little dude called Spider-Man shows up - and the first time he makes a formal, daylight appearance is Midtown High School. Now, Norman Osborn and everyone working on the "Oz" serum figures that something is up with young Mr. Parker, but none of his classmates do? O.K., Bendis addresses this in issue #15 (finally), but it's a weak resolution and not entirely convincing.

But, Bendis has to be credited for addressing the nearly indisputable fact that if any teenaged boy was suddenly given super powers, it's pretty obvious the first thing on his mind wouldn't be superheroing, but kicking ass in high school sports, which is exactly what Peter does. Unfortunately, Peter makes such a huge impact that it is highly improbable that (1) someone wouldn't think something was up and (2) he wouldn't have been subjected to relentless pressure to stay on the basketball team after he quits in the wake of Ben's death. Kong gives him a hard time briefly, and that's it. In sports-obsessed America, Peter's performance would not have been that easily forgotten.

Much as in Classic Spider-Man, Peter decides to make a few bucks by jumping into the pro wrestling arena, where he becomes a star, as well as gets both his costume and his name. The whole "Spider-Man as TV star" aspect of the Classic origin, which occurred as a result of a one-time wrestling match, is shelved completely, which is just fine because it was rather silly anyway and sticking to the wrestling works better. What's ironic about the wrestling angle is that it is even more pertinent and relevant to Spider-Man in the early 21st century than it was in 1962. And guess what - it was a key scene in the first motion picture in 2002!

In Ultimate, the good times come to an end when the promoter and the other wrestlers, jealous of Spidey's abilities and anonymity, accuse him to stealing the box office receipts. Avoiding a confrontation, Spidey bails out, effectively ending his wrestling career and leaving him with one major chip on his shoulder. All the elements are primed for THE confrontation, but when it happens, its rings false. When confronted by a filthy, screaming Burglar who has just robbed a deli, Peter merely stares at him and utters the completely stupid "Shall we dance?" and lets the Burglar go by. Yeah right. That's not like any ill-tempered 15 year hopped up on hormones and hostility male I know would have responded, particularly this old guy when he was 15 years old. The Burglar would have suddenly found himself not only without any teeth, but no two bones would have remained connected to each other, and he probably wouldn't have had much of a face left either. The fall of Classic Spidey's arrogant and indifferent Peter, full of success and of himself turns out to be more tragic and touching than the comeuppance of this surly, relatively unlikeable Ultimate version. He doesn't have the hubris and inflated ego of Classic Spidey, which magnified the original version's guilt, and so the Ultimate version of this seminal event is considerably less powerful.

Although it seems that Bendis tweaks the fans a little bit in issue #2 by implying that Peter will actually develop organic webshooters as in the movies, he eventually goes back to Spidey developing the web fluid and shooters on his own. This time, he supplements the unlikely scenario of a teenager being able to devise such a complex product with his own well furnished basement lab by making both the formula for the web fluid and the equipment as leftovers from his biological father, a scientific genius in his own right (and of course, we find out just how brilliant later - but this gives Peter a genetic predisposition to such brilliance himself). Works for me. It's a shame that this wasn't the logic used in the movie.

And speaking of the late, lamented Ben Parker...

Aunt May and Uncle Ben
One of the Bendis' major contributions to the mythology was his redefinition of Uncle Ben. We've always been sad at losing Ben before - sad for Peter, sad for May, maybe a little sad for ourselves if we've lost a parent. But during the original telling of the story, Ben was more of a speed bump on the road to Peter's decision to become Spider-Man as a force for justice. This time, Bendis makes Ben's loss hurt. We see enough of him to like this firm, but even-handed man, a man liberal enough to cut his troubled young nephew some slack - but strong enough to pull the same troubled young man aside and let him have it when's he's going down the wrong path. I remember during one of my reviews saying that if Ultimate truly wanted to go in a different direction, then Aunt May should die rather than Uncle Ben. While that certainly would have been interesting to see happen (and did make an excellent issue of What If? back in the 1980's)it's also the one thing that could not be changed.

I have to confess though, I still don't see why Ben and May had to be old hippies. The 1962 versions of Ben and May were clearly long retired, survivors of the Great Depression and two world wars, made of solid blue collar stuff. The Ben and May of Ultimate Spider-Man, however, were de-aged several years, to their early to mid-50's. In fact, in this version, May still has a job. The reason for the more youthful visage, ostensibly, was to preclude May from being the same perpetually on death's door character she has long been in Classic Spidey. Once that is done, I suppose that makes the two children of the 60's. Perhaps Bendis decided to make them identifiable with that era. But still, it really adds nothing to their characters.

And, much like she has been in Classic Spidey, the Ultimate Aunt May remains a character in search of a role. She's not doddering and feeble, and the concept was that she would be a tough Gina Rowlands type, but through the first 12 months, her only real scene is in #10 where she cries and asks Peter if he likes her, like a jilted date. While May does have some good moments in #13 when she inquires whether or not Peter knows about the birds and the bees, she still remains a character of dubious long-term viability. The only way to really make May a central and pivotal character is to let her in on the secret and try to raise Peter based upon that particular twist in the relationship. However, since Peter revealed his alter ego to Mary Jane in issue #13, to also bring May in on it might be dramatically redundant.

The Gang
A major tinkering of the legend in Ultimate is that "the gang" is all together at the beginning (although Gwen doesn't show up until issue #14) in high school. If I were rewriting Spider-Man I would have done the same thing, although I would have brought in Gwen a little earlier and not have exiled Harry so quickly. I noted in my Mary Jane series that the period of time in Classic Spider-Man when Peter was in college and surrounded by Gwen, Flash, Harry and Mary Jane the title was at its strongest, before various writers starting killing off members of the supporting cast. The problem, though, is that the new, Ultimate gang is a rather unlikeable bunch, including Peter himself. In the Classic version, Peter is an amiable, yet socially inept goof. You can't help but like him and feel sorry for him. He apparently also had a sweetness that girls like Betty Brant and Liz Allen found attractive. Ultimate Peter, on the other hand, is an angry, sullen young man without much of a sense of humor when we meet him. Even though Spider-Man eventually develops a sense of humor (as the howler final confrontation with the Kingpin suggests), Peter Parker still doesn't have much of one, and so he is difficult to completely embrace. In fact, humor was been sorely missing in this whole series in its first year. Harry Osborn, rather than the beanpole nervous nellie of the Classic stories, is now a sharp dressing jock and Peter's only male "friend," although clearly using him to do his homework for him, not even bothering to stick up for Peter when his jock buddies hassle him (Harry did morph into a more likeable character much later, but he was shipped out again before he ever began to matter as a character). Ultimate Harry still needs and desires his father's attention, but both Osborns were hurried out of the titles before much was done with them. Harry is shipped off to an uncle's in Colorado after the Hulk-Goblin appears. Flash Thompson is a complete, unredeemable, worthless asshole. Although Classic Flash was a bully, deep down there was a part of him that still respected Peter, and a part that felt genuinely threatened by Pete's intellect and standoffishness. This Flash is just a punk, period. In fact, the new character, the large, doltish King Kong Harlan, is closer to Classic Flash than Ultimate Flash is. Kong is a Spider-Man fan, and when Peter feels he has no place to go in issue #3 after a fight with Ben and May, Kong lets him sleep over at his place. Liz Allen is a spoiled rich girl, not a serious contender for Peter's affections as she was in the Classic version, but rather is a drunken floozy whom Flash calls a "slut." She comes onto Peter in issue #4 while in an inebriated state, but this services only the purpose of giving Mary Jane a crying scene.

And this time around, in a departure from the established legend, Mary Jane Watson is not only the "good girl," rather than the hot to trot party girl, but she's one of the class brains - "Brainy Janey." I really don't care much for this interpretation of Mary Jane, although a brainy Mary Jane is better than no Mary Jane, which we had in the Classic titles for awhile. . I would have preferred her to be the high school beauty queen that Peter Parker pined over, but never thought he had a prayer in the world of getting, very much like, well, Charlie Brown and his never ending, but ultimately never requited love for the little red-headed girl. All along of course, we would know that MJ would be Peter's one true love, but we would have an interesting journey there. Some of the drama of Peter's and MJ's relationship was that they were so different - but here, they are already starting out as almost too much alike, too close to each other, and the relationship lacks spark.

The Daily Bugle
The Daily Bugle is still a major part of Peter Parker's and Spider-Man's existence, but has so far been downplayed. One positive is that the now illogical aspect of a 15 year old becoming the primary crime photog for a major newspaper has been jettisoned. Bendis nods to it by having Peter just so happen to take a picture of Spider-Man, which gets his foot in the door at the Bugle and gets J. Jonah Jameson to see him - but then we go in a different direction. Frankly the photog thing got old in the Current continutity, and fortunately, J. Michael Straczynski shelved it and made Peter a high school teacher. I once suggested in an article that Classic Peter Parker stop taking photos and work on the Bugle's internet site. However, we don't get much of a hint that Ultimate Peter was a computer geek before he shows up at the Bugle for the first time. He still seems to largely be a chemist, as his studying of his father's formula and devising of the webshooters demonstrates. Anyway, as the Bugle's webmaster, his unrestricted access to the Bugle's computer and its files also provides tons of background and investigative materials from which to draw plots.

However, so far, J. Jonah Jameson, one of the most colorful characters in the Marvel Universe, is merely a footnote and he and Spider-Man failed to interact once during the entire first year (although finally in issue #15 we get the first confrontation). There's only been one modestly inflammatory headline. I like JJJ, and in Classic Spider-Man his legendary cheapness and ill temper has been good for much of the series' humor. Still, although he is a fun character, Jonah is way too overwrought and hyper in Classic Spider-Man, and his character is in many ways no longer valid. In the era where Stan Lee grew up, media outlets could still be owned by private individuals, and used by those individuals to perpetuate their personal and political views on the public. Individuals of this type could truly shape public opinion. Newspapers in the early 21st Century, though nowhere near dead as some futurists continue to like to forecast, are not nearly as numerous or influential as they were in the early days of Classic Spider-Man, and most metropolitan newspapers, as well as other forms of media, are owned by huge conglomerates rather than individuals. The closest thing we might have had to a J. Jonah Jameson in recent years was Ted Turner, but in the last few years even he has sold out and fallen from the public eye. Still, Turner was not really a newspaperman, like Jonah, but a wheeler-dealer and a corporate mogul. While the politics of news personalities (typically flaming liberal except for the right-wingers on Fox) are not particularly secret anymore, to continue to take blatant stands like Jameson, and then be forced to retract them time and time again, would irreprably destroy his credibility and his newspaper's. Jameson's lack of significant character growth is one of Classic Spidey's primary weaknesses. Oh, I suppose the Bugle could be a tabloid, ala the Enquirer, but then where is the depth of the essentially honest, principled newsman who's biggest fault is his blind spot about Spider-Man? Hopefully, Ultimate Jonah will eventually be somewhere in between the non-entity he is now, and the over the top Classic version. (What's funny is that as I update this article in 2004, this seems to be what Brian Bendis is doing with Jonah in The Pulse.)

Joe "Robbie" Robertson is there at Jonah's side to be fair-minded and principled, but he has yet to be a significant part of the stories.

Betty Brant makes a brief appearance as the harried reporter turned computer programmer in issue #8, but since Betty is clearly older in Ultimate, it is likely that there will be no relationship between her and Peter. Again, not a problem. Betty's original Classic version, as a teenage executive secretary, would be completely out of whack in today's environment, and frankly, would make Jonah look like a pervert. Only thing is, why does Ultimate Ben Urich look like a hippie instead of a hard-boiled reporter? Is it that hard-boiled reporters no longer exist in this world of data processors and the internet? Maybe, but with Aunt Man and Uncle Ben already old hippies, why is Urich also a hippie as well?

Other supporting cast members
The other notable supporting cast member that makes an appearance during the first year of Ultimate Spider-Man is Gwen's father, police Captain George Stacy, who first shows up outside the warehouse where Spider-Man takes out the Burglar in issue #5. Stacy also shows up later in issue #15, while outside the scope of this article, illustrates that he is likely to be a recurring character rather than just plugged in for the recognition factor.

Unlike his classic counterpart who was a retired, limping, fragile old man (in the early days of comics, it seemed that all parental figures were old - Ben and May, George Stacy, Jonah, and even Norman Osborn, though he was clearly in better shape than most), this George Stacy is still young and an active member of the police force, probably in his 40's. Though nothing much has been done with him yet, I envision this Captain Stacy becoming as interested in our teenage superhero as his classic counterpart, and I look forward to it. (2004: Oops - as readers know, Stacy died in this version, too - before he even became interested in Spider-Man. A subplot where Aunt May became interested in Stacy, unfortunately, was stillborn as a result).

The Bad Guys
The Burglar, as is necessary, is Spidey's first villain, and rather than a 50's cliche from central casting as the hard-bitten tough guy, this is a cliche from 90's central casting TV, just a slimy, greasy, worthless punk. But, he's the Burglar, and to his credit, Bendis keeps him nameless, as he was in the classic version.

Bendis clearly does not want to go the spandex supervillain route, thus avoiding one of the major weaknesses of supervillains in comics - that once they get super powers they automatically decide to run around in tacky costumes. Even though I thought a decent rationalization of why Norman Osborn, for example, became the Green Goblin, silly costume and all, it is still a rationalization.

Yet, even that is far better than what Bendis did to the Green Goblin. As far as villains go, Ultimate Green Goblin is a disaster, a failure on so many counts. For one, he is a motivationless monster. He kills his wife, tries to kill his son, burns his house down - why? We don't know (and you know what? Although the Goblin did change somewhat in subsequent appearances, we still don't have the answers to any of those questions). He can't even talk, although he does start using vowels near the end of issue #7, and he clearly knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man ("PPPPPKKKKKKKKRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!") But what is next? Even if Osborn regains control of his faculties and his gruesome form, it's unlikely that he will ever be the sinister, behind the scenes presence he has been during the last few years of Classic Spider-Man. And that still wouldn't eliminate the bad taste of his first appearance. At a recent convention, Bendis stated that the Goblin would be back in issue #22, with all of the answers to the questions raised before, like why he looked the way he did and why he couldn't talk. O.K. Fine. But that still doesn't change the fact that even if turns out he can change back and forth from grotesque monster to human Osborn - he still is simply the Hulk-Goblin. This was a major misfire and soured me on Ultimate. (2004: Not much as changed in my opinion. Although it seemed like he was getting close to the Norman Osborn we all know and love in the miniseries Ultimate Six, that whole thing fizzled with an unsatisfactory final issue).

Ultimate Kingpin was pretty well right on the nose, still the massive, Sydney Greenstreet-based character from The Maltese Falcon, even dressing similar to his Classic counterpart. The jury is still out on Ultimate Electro since we know nothing about him or how he got his powers (2004: later we found out he was a guinea pig in Justin Hammer's own super solider research). The Ultimate Enforcers are o.k., and pretty close to their Classic counterparts, but they were bit players away. Bendis proves he's knowledgeable about the early days of Spidey when he throws in Frederick Foswell as "Mr. Big" who meets his demise after trying to undermine the Kingpin. Ultimate Shocker's appearance was too brief to evaluate, though it did give us one of the best lines in a Spidey comic as of late "what are you - The Vibrator?"

Teen Talk
Now, I have to admit, I haven't been 15 years old since before some of my readership was even born, and my oldest child is only 10 years old. And since my wife won't let me hang with those hip and funky cats (? - are those dated terms?) that constitute the bulk of the American teen scene, I don't have a good handle on what passes for their dialect at this time (although if my daughter is any indication - "duh!" or "hello!" are frequently used words, although with withering stares that seem to ask "how can my father be this stupid?"). To try to capture that slang is risky on Bendis' part anyway, since it tends to change so frequently, and can cause a title to date quickly. With a character whose continuing ongoing popularity is such as Spider-Man's is, where the comics are likely to be read for years, if not decades afterwards, I'm not sure how valid a gimmick this is. Even so, it's unlikely that USM's teen talk will be as painful to read for future audiences as some of Stan Lee's dialogue from the 1960's. But whether or not Bendis has actually captured teenage talk isn't the real issue here - the real problem is that the later issues of USM a mere conversation between two teens, typically Peter and Mary Jane, can go on for a page or two, rather than be condensed to a handful of panels. But it isn't just the teenagers. The conversation between Peter and Aunt May from issue #10, and between Peter and the pyschiatrist in issue #11 all simply last far too long. Combined with the "reaction shots" that seem to crop up more and more, where the same panel is used to convey a character's expression this brings an already relatively slow moving storyline to almost a crawl. The issue seems over way too soon and I feel like I've gotten too little story for my dollar. When the stories aren't moving along fast enough as it is - padding the issue with this repetitive dialogue is just plain annoying.

I can't help but wonder how much of Ultimate Spidey's current poplarity is tied to Bendis and Bagley's contributions. The combination of the two, especially Bagley's art, gives USM a truly distinctive look and feel among the Marvel Comics on the shelves. It's a slick, sharp looking book. Ultimate Team-Up although written by Bendis and regularly featuring Spidey, had rotating artists, and eventually was canned (although the fact that the art was often flat out lousy may have had something to do with it). Of course, Ultimate X-Men sells, but it seems that in this market a monthly X-Men cookbook would be a top 10 seller. But once Bendis and Bagley move onto other arenas, will Ultimate Spider-Man suffer in both quality and popularity? Will the market soon treat USM as a novelty that has played out? Or will it continue to not only stay popular, but increase? How will this impact the Classic Spider-Man line? Can the two continue to co-exist - telling different stories from different perspectives?

As we move into 2004 - it seems that both Ultimate and Amazing are holding their own and selling quite well, each being top 10 titles depending on the competition or any hot specials cooked up by the major companies.

After this article looking at Ultimate's first year - future commentaries about Ultimate Spider-Man are included in the regular Year in Review articles.


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Copyright 1998-2006 The MadGoblin's Ward. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of the MadGoblin's Ward. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment.