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Ultimate Spider-Man: Volume Two

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Of all the moments in the Amazing Spider-Man’s four-decade career, two have proven the most problematic among longtime readers. First was the notorious Spider Clone Saga of the nineties (where it was revealed that the character we’d long believed to be Peter Parker was, in fact, his clone), a stroke of disbelief assault on par with the moment Bobby Ewing stepped out of that Dallas shower. Second was the death of Spidey girlfriend Gwen Stacy back in 1971 at the hands of longtime nemesis Norman “Green Goblin” Osborne.
The latter event has been so long a part of the character’s mythology (at least once a year some spider scribe devotes a sequence to our hero mourning and remembering her – most recently in Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue) that more recent readers may not know what a misstep it appeared at the time. By offing Gwen, writer Gerry Conway had totally skewed the series’ long-standing gimme. The central moment in Peter Parker’s life, after all, was when his egocentric inaction led to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Yet here we had a hero committed to altruistic action whose girlfriend died anyway, despite his strenuous attempt to save her. To many readers it appeared that Conway – striving for shock and pseudo-realism – had needlessly violated the superhero’s basic reason for being. The move clearly changed the way readers would view the character.
I thought of that earlier reader reaction while reading volume two of the new Ultimate Spider-Man hardback. I’ve expressed my reservations about Marvel’s Ultimate books in the past, but I can understand their appeal to a writer wishing to correct some of the inevitable dubious decisions that can take place when a single character is treated by so many Divers Hands over the years. In volume two, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley “return” to the top of the bridge where Gwen was tossed to her death – and change both the heroine and the outcome.
For those unfamiliar with it, Ultimate Spider-Man is the flagship title in the Marvel line’s alterna-series: a re-telling of the webspinner’s teen years set in modern times and revamped to accommodate more contempo sensibilities and sci-fi conventions (so where, for instance, our original hero was bitten by a radioactive spider in his Stan Lee/Steve Ditko incarnation, the Ultimate Spidey is transformed by a biochemically altered spider during a class tour of Osborne Industries research facilities – mere radioactivity being insufficient these days to do the job.) The brainchild of garrulous company president Bill Jemas, Ultimate Spider-Man was designed to return the character to his adolescent roots.

Theoretically, this was worked to grab those readers uninterested in the more adult edition currently swingin’ through Marvel’s established Amazing Spider-Man title (currently handled by J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.), though in practice it appears as if the two books remain neck-in-neck when it comes to comic shop pre-orders. (Straczynski, best known for the s-f TV series Babylon 5, has been clearly enjoying his run on the title and built his own cluster of loyalists in the process.) Be that as it may, Ultimate Spider-Man remains one of the struggling comic line’s better sellers, which means we’ve got plenty years of teen angst ahead of us in the Ultimate Universe.
Volume two reprints from issues #14-27, and it introduces us to several rehauled versions of established cast members: macho wilderness man Kraven the Hunter (now made a slightly comical Animal Planet type), multi-armed Doctor Octopus (now a vengeance-driven madman) plus Gwen Stacy (punkrock grrl this time out.) But – more to the point – it also brings back Norman Osborne’s Green Goblin, briefly seen in volume one as a Hulkish monster, now somewhat more articulate. And it takes us to the Queensboro Bridge: with the Goblin (aware of Spider-Man’s Peter Parker identity) kidnapping Parker girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and throwing her off that bridge. This time, our hero’s rescue efforts are more in keeping with those of the movie Spider-Man.
Not that Bendis and Bagley don’t mess around with our expectations, of course. They stage the scene much the same way Conway and artist Gil Kane did in Amazing Spider-Man #121, down to giving us a full-page shot of our hero tearfully holding the limp body of his beloved. But unlike the original series, MJ has been established as Peter’s girlfriend early (originally, the character was an unseen standing joke for several years, not showing her face ’til issue #42), even being made privy to his secret identity. The ground rules have changed, so why not the outcome? To this reader, at least, this one revision of Spidey history is more satisfying.
As a comics scripter, Bendis is primarily known for wordy, character-driven noirish hero comics (Powers, Alias, and the current Daredevil). With Ultimate Spider-Man, he adopts a much less dense writing style, leaving room for multi-page battle scenes and lots of knowing glances between PP and MJ. In general, the approach works, though at times when delving into the high school milieu, there’s an unmistakable whiff of After-School Special to the whole proceedings. And though Bendis raves about him in the book’s intro, to these normal-sized peepers, Bagley’s big-eyed drawing style frequently sacrifices slick competence for expressiveness.
Those caveats aside, Ultimate Spider-Man: Volume Two still tallies up as a strong example of professionally produced superhero comics. Which in the end is all that matters, Original or Ultimate Universe bedamned. We’ve crossed the Ultimate bridge and made it to the other side intact: if we can keep away from the Spider Clones, we should be set.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.