Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 5 & 6

Ultimate Spider-Man: Public Scrutiny (2012)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #28-32
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Venom (2011)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #33-39
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

In the fifth volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Brian Michael Bendis steps back to focus on Peter Parker even more. While the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories spent much time on Peter’s personal life, Bendis has outdone them. He builds on the readership’s likely background knowledge of the characters to play with expectations and develop them beyond simple archetypes. The Daily Bugle becomes a key feature in this collection, and thus we get to see J. Jonah Jameson clashes with his staff, particularly Ben Urich, who challenges his boss’s view on Spider-Man. In addition, a bank robber is running around town dressed up like Spidey, which gets Jameson salivating over the tabloid possibilities. 

Ironically, Peter’s photos of Spider-Man get used on the front page to slander his heroic persona. It’s that kind of tragic irony that makes Spider-Man such a fascinating character. His wins can also be counted as losses much of the time. Peter’s personal life becomes tumultuous in Public Scrutiny as Gwen Stacy runs away from home. She is offered a couch to sleep on by Aunt May, and this sparks some reasonable jealousy in Mary Jane. I don’t get a sense that Gwen will be a romantic interest for Peter in the Ultimate Universe, which makes her a more interesting character. She doesn’t simply exist to fill in his story; she has her own arc that intersects with Peter and Mary Jane. 

Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship is tested when she becomes his excuse for being home late. Aunt May calls, and MJ responds that they are studying, but she is very worried about where Peter is. Those concerns are valid when the police shoot Peter through the shoulder while hunting for the bank-robbing Spider-Man. MJ gets a collect call from Peter, who then bleeds out in a nearby dumpster. MJ shows up to take his costume while he insists she leaves him at an ER and runs away when the staff asks too many questions. Tragedy strikes Gwen, though, as her father is killed by the Spider-imposter, leading her to develop a hatred for the vigilante, unaware she’s living under the same roof as the real Spider-Man.

Eventually, Peter tracks down his doppelganger only to discover he’s some enterprising nobody that made a mock costume. And while that storyline is resolved, it ripples through the rest of the issues with Gwen lost in grief over her father. MJ has also had enough, which leads to a very well-written and painful confrontation between her and Peter on the bleachers after school. Being Spider-Man has finally caught up with the teenager and has made his personal life into one massive ball of chaos. The best Spider-Man stories come from when he is down on his luck.

The next volume is Venom, and I was curious how Bendis would reintroduce the popular Spider-Man villain so early in Peter’s career and what twists would be added. There’s no alien costume this time; instead, Eddie Brock is a person from Peter’s past. While poking around in the attic, Peter discovers his deceased father’s things, including photographs of his scientific partner, Edward Brock Sr. They were working on a cure for cancer and developed a symbiotic fluid that could organically repair cells. Peter fondly remembers playing with Eddie Jr, a few years older. He tracks down his old friend, now an Empire State University student, and they start a friendship again.

Peter eventually introduces Gwen to Eddie, and the older man starts creeping on the high school student. I like how they still made Brock a jerk but found a way to make it work in this context. Instead of being a slimeball reporter, he’s a skeevy college student. The seeds of Peter’s parents’ deaths being something planned are also planted here but are definitely on the back-burner, Bendis setting up a future plot thread. Finally, Peter gets it into his head to take some of the biofluid Eddie keeps in the university laboratory but spills some. The fluid encompasses Peter, and we get our first glimpse of its true power.

Peter begins to lose control and become more violent, which leads him to decide to take the fluid back. Eddie sees this black-suited Spider-Man on television and puts together what is happening. He confronts Peter and realizes his old childhood pal is really Spider-Man. They part on bad terms, with Peter taking the vial of fluid and destroying it at a foundry outside the city. Eddie never disclosed he had a second batch and immediately gives himself over becoming the Venom we’re familiar with. I like that they came up with a reason to justify Venom’s desire to eat humans as the fluid processes those cells to empower its host. Peter and Eddie only fight once during the story arc, which ends with the implication that Venom is dead. If he doesn’t show up for the rest of the run, I wouldn’t mind. I’ve never been a massive Venom fan, so a single collection about the villain works for me.

I liked that the collection’s final issue is an epilogue of sorts for the Venom story. Peter talks with Eddie’s roommate and his mentor, Dr. Curtis Conner, to get a better picture of what was going on with his old friend. There’s also more of an ongoing back and forth between Peter and Nick Fury. I find Ultimate Fury a much better-written character than his appearance in the MCU thus far. This Fury is a borderline antagonist, telling Peter that when he’s of age, he’ll have to do whatever the US government tells him, or they will lock him up for dissection due to his powers. It’s a nice foreshadowing of future conflicts to come for this character. 

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