Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 1 & 2

Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility (2000)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Learning Curve (2003)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Last year, in the build-up to Spider-Man: No Way Home, I read through the entire Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run that created the character. It was a very interesting experience as I’d only experienced these stories fragmented and often not in order before. Reading them straight through did two things. The first was it opened my eyes to what a fantastic artist Ditko was. I may disagree with the guy in his completely bonkers political views, but the man was a brilliant penciller on the title and showed tremendous growth over the years. Second, I truly understood the character Spider-Man/Peter Parker was intended to be in the early days. Parker truly was a complex and sometimes unlikeable hero. His problems were relatable, and so were his mistakes. He was a teenage boy, much like the readership, so his struggles were meant to reflect theirs.

Eventually, Peter aged up and became an adult, even got married (having that retconned), has owned a multi-million dollar tech firm, and always the writers try to bring him back to those roots. It doesn’t work too often because he is an adult now, so we expect him to be more responsible or to have carved out some forward momentum. Picking up a mainstream Spider-Man comic since the late 1990s could be an absolute minefield, often incomprehensibly dense stories caught up in decades of lore. That doesn’t mean you won’t find good stories in the mix; it’s just a toss-up most months. 

In 2001, Marvel Comics wasn’t interested in rebooting its comics line but did think its top-tier characters needed to be freshened up. The new line of comics would take place in a separate continuity and be labeled as “Ultimate.” The titles would feature the X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers (as The Ultimates), and of course, Spider-Man. The goal would be for this Spider-Man to return to those Lee/Ditko roots with a teenage Spider-Man balancing his school/home/social/superhero lives. Mark Bagley had made his name at Marvel Comics, drawing the mainline title, so he was a good fit to make this look like the Spider-Man fans already knew. On the writing side, Brian Michael Bendis was brought in because of his work on Daredevil, a title he’d revitalized to a level of readership it hadn’t seen since Frank Miller’s time on the book. 

Decompressed storytelling is a norm in comics and has been since the late 1980s. This is a style of writing where stories that might have been done in a single issue are spread out over multiple installments with the idea that it will provide a level of character depth and complexity that old comics lacked. Unfortunately, with many writers, it doesn’t turn out that way, and it feels like stories are stretched beyond their capacity to sell more. This has led to many comics readers waiting for collected trade paperbacks to read the stories in a sitting or two. I’m of the thought that these stories do read better that way which is why I shied away from the Ultimate books until I could read them in that manner. 

Spider-Man’s origin is told in six parts instead of Amazing Fantasy #15, which was knocked out in about 20 pages. However, Bendis does add more to the initial outing by tying Parker’s spider bite to Norman Osborn and his corporation. Osborn Industries is doing work in genetic engineering, and the irradiated spider is one of the byproducts. We also see the birth of the Green Goblin in this story as an effort to mimic the super-soldier serum used on Captain America. Dr. Otto Octavius is introduced as one of Norman’s scientists who uses his specialized arms to work simultaneously with multiple devices and chemicals. The Green Goblin’s visual presentation is also different, presenting him as a hulking horned monster which causes the character to be completely different from the classic glider riding version. 

The elements I feel work best with the decompressed storytelling are Uncle Ben, Aunt May, and Peter’s classmates. Instead of Uncle Ben being killed off pages into the origin, he sticks around for almost all the issues until he’s killed by the burglar. This means readers get a strong understanding of how important Ben is in Peter’s life. He’s still an old guy but now presented as the grieving brother of Peter’s dad, who is doing his best to raise his nephew right. He’s got long hair, implying he and May are former hippies. May especially will get some of the best character development she’s ever received since her introduction. This Aunt May is not the bun-wearing hotcake flipping old maid from the mainstream Marvel comics, but she’s not the MILF-y portrayal from the MCU films either. Instead, she feels like a fully realized, multi-dimensional person. 

At school, Peter’s friends are Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn. Flash Thompson is still a dick; his social circle includes Liz Allen and the newly introduced Ken “Kong” McFarland. These characters get some relatively deeper than expected development throughout Ultimate Spider-Man and become essential parts of Peter’s extended cast. That will come later, but this story arc focuses on the origin of Spider-Man & Green Goblin, including the iconic showdown on the bridge with Mary Jane. Of course, the door is left open for the Goblin’s return despite his apparent death, and we would be chumps to think he won’t appear again. That first volume is essentially a Spider-Man movie, not letting there be too many extraneous plot beats and keeping things flowing from the first scene.

I would not compare Learning Curve to a sequel as those films typically have a time jump of a year or so. Instead, this second volume is where Bendis digs in and begins fleshing out elements he previously introduced while adding more. This collection does two big things: it introduces the Ultimate Universe version of the Daily Bugle (remarkably similar to the regular Marvel U) and The Kingpin. Peter is still experiencing PTSD from Ben’s death and his confrontation with the killer. He’s also trying to keep May away from his superhero life which she rightfully interprets as her nephew getting into bad stuff after school. 

There are little moments I really loved here. Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship feels pretty accurate for their ages, awkward and getting caught up in their feelings. It’s pretty cute. I enjoyed it when the costume, which Peter got during his short tenure as a professional wrestler, was unusable because the Kingpin had his mask. To remedy this, Peter uses his privileges as the Bugle to pose as someone working for the Kingpin. He emails back and forth with a customer service rep for the security hardware used in Kingpin’s tower, which helps him subvert it to get back inside and retrieve the mask. I appreciate having Peter not always resort to fighting and have to overcome some obstacles with his wits.

I think these two collections do precisely what they were intended to do. They make Spider-Man accessible to young people and new readers. They also flesh out characters and stories that were initially short and to the point. I enjoyed both the Lee/Ditko run and this first year of Ultimate Spider-Man. Peter works best as a struggling character; in that way, he speaks to the readers who may be trying their best but seem unable to get ahead. Miles Morales works for me better than the MCU Peter Parker because he’s fighting from behind instead of having tech handed to him by established heroes. But this is not where we’re going to stop. Next week, we’ll look at the subsequent two volumes and see if Ultimate Spider-Man can keep the momentum going or if Bendis & company ran out of steam.


2 thoughts on “Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 1 & 2”

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