Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 3 & 4

Ultimate Spider-Man: Double Trouble (2011)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #14-21
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Legacy (2006)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #22-26
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

It was quite an admirable feat. Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were creating a cohesive continuous narrative in comics that hadn’t really been done before. The events of one issue carried over into the next, and the circumstances of an entire year had an actual weight on the direction of Peter Parker’s life. Brian Michael Bendis was writing Ultimate Spider-Man in an era where that continuity was even more expected, and so the ties between Spider-Man and his supporting cast & villains are expected to be even more tightly knit. When villains appeared in the original run of Spider-Man, they had highly loose or no connection to Parker’s world. Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, and the rest became who they were independent of each other, but in the Ultimate Universe, they will have much tighter connections. 

Double Trouble doesn’t introduce Otto Octavius, but it does see him becoming the infamous Doctor Octopus. Otto previously appeared as an Osborn Industries scientist who had taken a blood sample from Peter. The events of the first volume, wherein Green Goblin destroyed the laboratories, left Otto scarred and his specialized multi-arm device fused to his body. The villain has a clear goal as his fate is tied to Norman Osborn’s rival Justin Hammer, so he spends most of this collection creating chaos in Hammer’s companies. You don’t see Spider-Man face off with Doc Ock until closer to the end of the book. 

I want to point out Mark Bagley’s art is not an aesthetic I enjoy, but he is very clever in his transitions. Near the start of the book, we see Otto in the operating room, beginning to control his arms as they twirl wildly. Turn the page, and we are met with a pep rally at Peter’s high school, where the cheerleaders are twirling ribbons that mirror the movement of the arms. They are little touches that can easily be missed if you’re reading through quickly but keep an eye out for them. It helps the story feel like a flowing narrative, not just randomly jumping from one location to another.

This book also introduces Gwen Stacy into the Ultimate continuity. I recently read her first appearance in the Marvel Universe, and she’s just a stuck-up college co-ed at Empire State University. I think her introduction here is better; Gwen is a troubled kid, moving around because of her dad’s job with the police, and she immediately gets into trouble at school. However, Peter is already in a relationship with Mary Jane, so I don’t sense the book is working towards Gwen as a romantic interest. Also, among the supporting cast, we have tremendous development for Kenan Kong. Kong starts reflecting on Spider-Man and things he’s noticed in his day-to-day life and suddenly realizes Peter Parker is Spider-Man; there’s no other explanation. Hilariously, Flash Thompson refuses to believe it, still seeing Peter as a twerp, and laughs off Kong’s ideas.

Kraven the Hunter is also introduced into the series with some interesting tweaks. Now he’s the star of a popular survivalist television series. Spider-Man has attracted his producer’s attention, and they want a series of episodes centered on Kraven’s hunt for the “greatest prey.” It does not play out how we might expect if you imagine Kraven from the mainstream universe, but I found it fun. The finale between Spidey and Doc Ock is very well done, with lots of motion and each character’s trademark strengths playing out beautifully. And of course, the actual conclusion is a clash between Peter and Aunt May, who has finally had it with her secretive nephew sneaking out at night and being cagey about where he’s going.

Where the first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man felt like a movie pitch, the next two seemed to settle into classic comics storytelling. If we want to stretch that cinematic metaphor, then Legacy would be the sequel to Power & Responsibility, featuring the return of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin. Bendis does an excellent job of creating chilling tension the minute Peter walks in and sees Norman waiting for him with a grin. Harry also returns; the story being told is that he and his dad left New York City after the accident. Norman received physical therapy while Harry had to visit a psychiatrist. Norman makes it very clear once he’s alone with Peter that he is biding his time and will do everything he can to hurt his young foe. 

It feels like Bendis is just recreating a set piece from the first volume, and he is, sort of. Instead of killing off someone important in Peter’s life, Bendis chooses a far more interesting path in the epilogue. There have been so many deaths over Spider-Man’s history (and so many resurrections) that they lose meaning once you get beyond Uncle Ben. Making the tragedy something Peter and the other person must live with opens the door to far more interesting stories in the future. There can be tension when they encounter each other and the story of how the rift is repaired between them. So far, I have been pretty impressed with Ultimate Spider-Man and am looking forward to the following two volumes.

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