Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 7 & 8

Ultimate Spider-Man: Irresponsible (2019)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #40-45
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Cats & Kings (2019)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #46-53
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man goes back into the daily struggle of Peter Parker’s life. He’s still searching for a costume replacement as his last one was shredded. It’s a great reminder that Spider-Man always works best when facing realistic challenges to balance out the fantastic villains that come his way. His relationship with Mary Jane is on the rocks, and he reacts with the sort of demeanor one would expect from a teenage boy, with a lot of immaturity and anger. Despite bearing the moniker Spider-MAN, Peter is still very much a child. That anger translates into an inability to listen to others, such as when Flash Thompson tries to make a connection with Peter, mend fences, and our protagonist blows him off. 

There are some strange elements here that caused me to feel a little uncomfortable in reading this collection. The sexualization of Mary Jane is a little over the top here with her coming to a party dressed provocatively to woo Peter back. I don’t think the problem is the context but how artist Mark Bagley presents her. A common problem I see in almost all comic book art is the inability of artists to draw characters, not as miniature adults. Mary Jane is drawn like a mature woman, creating dissonance for me. The art fails to capture her vulnerability as a teenage girl whose heart is hurting for Peter and wants to convince him that she still loves him. Instead, she comes across as a sultry vixen. I also wish Peter and MJ’s sex scene, tastefully cut away from, had more of that vulnerability in it. This is an intimate, tender moment, and it would have been nice to have it written and illustrated in a way that captured those emotions.

This collection is probably my least favorite as it becomes a multi-issue crossover with the Ultimate X-Men. I haven’t delved into that iteration of the X-Men, but I don’t find the “mutant as pariah” thing too interesting. The recent Jonathan Hickman changes to the X-Titles have been the most exciting thing to happen to the characters since Chris Claremont started writing them. Unfortunately, this version of the X-Men just feels like a rehash of old tropes with nothing new added to the mix. Yes, you could say the same about Spider-Man, but this is his title, so we get much more depth with the characters. Maybe over in Ultimate X-Men, these mutants are more interesting, but here they seem like the most shallow versions of themselves.

The best part of Irresponsible is the final issue in the collection, which spotlights Aunt May. Bendis has genuinely written the best version of this character, and I often find myself more interested in her than Peter. Maybe that’s something that comes with age? May’s conversation with Peter is intercut with a therapy session where she talks about the presence of Spider-Man as a reminder of the dangers in Peter’s life. Bendis gets accused of being overly talky in his writing, and that’s valid, but this issue is one where those monologues work. We’re getting into May’s head, so she has a lot to say, much of which she wouldn’t tell Peter directly. We come to understand the fear she has for Peter because people that have been close to her have died tragically, and she worries the same fate awaits him. 

Cats & Kings is an interesting mix of elements, with many different moving parts. The opening chapter is simply a prologue for a Sinister Six mini-series (we’ll get to that one day) spotlighting Sharon Carter, previously seen working with SHIELD a few volumes back. We’re introduced to the Ultimate version of Sandman, still Flint Marko, the criminal, but this time he’s volunteered to be a guinea pig for Roxxon to commute his sentence. The book’s real meat is an arc about Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, and two influential women in his life, Black Cat and Elektra. It begins with Spidey putting New York’s organized crime in his crosshairs, which naturally angers Kingpin. J. Jonah Jameson has increased his negative press about Spider-Man and fires Peter, when he talks back. The Daily Bugle has also written positively about Sam Bullit, a candidate with ties to the Kingpin. This is the same time Wilson Fisk is exonerated on murder charges despite video evidence.

Spider-Man finds an ally in Bugle reporter Ben Urich who refuses to throw softballs in an interview with Bullit, angering Jameson. The Bugle’s editor-in-chief is targeted by the Kingpin’s thugs because of the interview, which begins to change his views on the matter. Spider-Man shows up to save Jameson’s butt from these baddies, and that causes the man to change his tune. He shows up at Peter’s house to offer him his job back and gets quite a lot of character development. Much like Aunt May, Jameson has often been presented as a caricature. Bendis has done an excellent job with these adult supporting characters, turning them into multi-dimensional, complex people who are fascinating to read.

The biggest problem in this comic is, once again, Mark Bagley’s artwork for women. Black Cat is no stranger to being presented as a sex object, but this artwork leans into it heavily, her breasts practically popping out of her top. Where Catwoman has had her sexuality retained while various artists have tried to redesign her costume to make practical sense for a thief, Black Cat has experienced the opposite, revealing more and more skin as time goes on to the point of absurdity. Elektra isn’t quite as bad, but she certainly is just a tease at future developments for her character.

Overall, these are not the best Ultimate Spider-Man volumes. Bendis seems to be balancing many things at once, which means many subplots happen and then slide off because he wants to go onto something different. However, there are still great character moments; as I mentioned, Aunt May and Jameson are stand-outs. This is where we’ll stop with Ultimate Spider-Man for now, but I am interested in continuing these books to see those moments where the mantle transitions from Peter to Miles Morales.

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