Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #18-19

USM18CoverIn issue 18, the midpoint of Ultimate Spider-Man’s third arc, Spider-Man finally gets to throw down against Dr. Octopus. He starts confidently with jokes and webbing to Ock’s tentacles, but then he is the first Spider-Man villain to break free from his web fluid and starts beating on him. Dazed and confused, Spider-Man ends up on the outside of the lab surrounded by NYPD officers, who grab him and immediately get into a verbal fight with SHIELD about who’s in charge of bringing him in. In the hubbub, Spider-Man escapes and evades some NYPD divers, who only get a big piece of his costume, and returns home where Mary Jane helps patch him up.  They watch TV, and he’s angry that Justin Hammer is using him as a scapegoat for the attack on his nuclear plant so he doesn’t have to answer questions about his relationship with Otto Octavius. Then, Mary Jane describes herself as “the Betsy Ross of superheroes”, gives Peter a good night kiss and goes home. The issue ends with Aunt May coming home a little early, and Peter is afraid she’ll discover his secret identity.

With enough ninja maneuvering and awkward one-liners about bowel movements at the beginning of Ultimate Spider-Man #19, Peter avoids spilling his secret identity to Aunt May while losing a chance at tasty chicken nuggets from KCC. (Because apparently only DC is allowed to use KFC and Colonel Sanders in their comics.) The scene shifts to school where footage of Kraven the Hunter tracking Spider-Man’s scent is being filmed. Gwen Stacy asks Peter about his bruises, but he deflects her questions while Kraven does his scratch and sniff thing. Later, Mary Jane sews Peter a new Spider-Man costume and leaves abruptly after a conversation where she thinks that he might be romantically interested in Gwen. All the while, Justin Hammer is dodging reporters, dealing with a PR nightmare, and is confronted by Spider-Man, who calls him out for making him a target of the press when Dr. Octopus is the real bad guy. Hammer offers him money to kill Octavius, but Spider-Man doesn’t take the bait and hitches a ride on top of his limo because Hammer is going to his New Jersey lab to negotiate a deal with Dr. Octopus. The issue ends with Hammer being trapped as Dr. Octopus has called a press conference to expose him while Kraven is getting to ready go to Jersey and hunt Spider-Man in the “wild”.

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The media isn’t just Peter Parker’s day job (Or after school part time job in this version of Spider-Man.) in Ultimate Spider-Man #18-19, but ends up driving how he feels and some of Brian Michael Bendis’ plot too. It’s a major stressor on him, and Mark Bagley and Art Thibert draw several scenes of  Peter muting the TV or throwing objects at it when news reporters accuse him of being a nuclear terrorist or hope that reality TV star Kraven the Hunter kills him. He’s still the shiny new thing that gets people buying newspapers and turning on their TVs and the star of the 24 hours news cycle because everyone knows bad news is more appealing and sells more paper than good news. Instead of laughing off the press coverage, Bendis has Peter react like an actual human being, who has to see negative things about themselves flashing 24/7. He does make jokes about Daredevil looking like a tool and Iron Man’s more positive media image continuing his coping mechanism of humor in scary or annoying situations with or without the mask.

On the flip side and even with metal appendages fused to his body, Dr. Octopus spins the media into almost his favor, which is kind of amazing for a murderer and domestic terrorist. It’s maddening to see Peter fight with the media like it’s a supervillain and see his antagonist win them over and expose the seriously-needs-to-hire-a-new-PR-person Justin Hammer in a single cliffhanger page. Dr. Octopus’ motivation is revenge against the man who set him up to fail as a corporate saboteur, but he wants to publicly humiliate Hammer, which is honestly more painful than an appendage to the heart.

There is more suspense and a feeling of danger in the scenes when Spider-Man is evading Dr. Octopus, the NYPD, and SHIELD agents than in the whole government conspiracy/cover-up/amnesia plot that has them chasing Spider-Man in the first place. Bendis slurs Spider-Man’s words in the caption boxes, and inker Art Thibert draws attention to the bruises that cover his body after almost being crushed to death by Dr. Octopus. After the fun opening flourishes, Doc Ock physically destroys Spider-Man, and the usually loquacious webslinger goes monosyllabic because of the pain.The combination of injuries and the emergence of heavily armed NYPD cops almost out of nowhere puts Spider-Man way on the defensive, and an arrest or unmasking seems imminent.

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It’s to Bendis and Bagley’s credit that they lean on the internal sniping between the NYPD and SHIELD over whose “collar” Spider-Man is and use this to give Spidey a quick escape instead of him just running away on his own steam. Bagley delivers a beautiful nine panel grid with a muddy palette from coloring studio Digital Transparency showing the Herculean effort that Spider-Man makes to elude the NYPD divers. The water is no sanctuary for him, and the sequence captures the difficulty of every underwater video game level delivered in a single comic page as Spidey strains, swims, and ends up sacrificing his costume for the cause. He might be waterlogged, but Peter Parker is still a fairly clever teen and will do anything to protect his friends and family from supervillains and shady government agencies.

Speaking of friends, Mary Jane Watson gets her most extended panel time since the excellent “Confessions” standalone issue in Ultimate Spider-Man #18-19. The scenes where Mary Jane helps patch up Peter while trying to avoid adults definitely inspired some of Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker’s scenes in Amazing Spider-Man as played with excellent chemistry by Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield.  The banter between them is nice with Mary Jane suggesting a self-defense class to help him in supervillain battles and asking to wear the Spider-Man costume for their social studies superhero assignment. She very much plays a support role in this storyline taking care of Spider-Man’s bruises and costume issues even though Bendis and Bagley don’t skimp on the jokes or romance.

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Then, in Ultimate Spider-Man #19, they decide to introduce the Peter/Gwen/Mary Jane love triangle in a kind of forced, yet relatable way. At school, Gwen asks about Peter’s bruises and if they were caused by a bully, but he and Mary Jane do the whole partners-in-crime and play off his reputation as a klutz and tell her that he simply fell down the stairs. However, this little encounter kind of blows up in Peter’s face when he describes Gwen as “interesting” when Mary Jane asks if he likes her. The wording of her question betrays Mary Jane’s insecurity in their relationship and leads to her constantly saying, “No” to Peter’s questions as she leaves immediately after fixing up the costume. Bagley nails her emotional by giving her closed off body language and showing her in side profile instead of being closer to Peter. This is yet another issue he has to deal with to go with multiple supervillains, the cops, SHIELD, and the fourth estate. But I like that Bendis shows the sheer awkwardness of transitioning from friends to being in a romantic relationship and takes a more natural, slow burn approach to things.

Kraven the Hunter continues to be the odd man out in this story arc. I definitely read him, and Bendis seems to write him as a spoof of reality TV extreme outdoorsman with a deadly twist. The Ultimate Universe tried for a kind of “realism” in its takes on classic Marvel villains, but perhaps, he would have better been served as a colorful mercenary character than Bear Grylls in a loincloth. Some of the characters, like Gwen, react to him in this way and make snarky quips while he’s “stalking” his prey at Midtown High. He’s also depicted as a lady’s man and gets caught having sexy time with reporter Betty Brant in his trailer before he supposed to film. This is the one time he breaks his serene, intense hunter character. Maybe, Kraven is the Daniel Day-Lewis of reality TV stars. For now, he’s yet another obstacle in Spider-Man’s way as he scurries down the New Jersey Turnpike atop Justin Hammer’s limo for a grudge match with Dr. Octopus.

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In Ultimate Spider-Man #18, Mark Bagley shows that he can draw the hell out of a Spider-Man fight scene using old tricks from the Silver Age, like the classic Spider-sense and targeting Dr. Octopus’ eyes, to legitimate martial arts moves like Spidey leading with a blow to the temples. Brian Michael Bendis is right beside with quips about Dr. Octopus getting his powers from a radioactive toilet snake, his bowl cut, and fashion sense. But, then the arms burst through the page and Spidey’s webbing, and it turns into a fight for survival. Ock’s arms are frightening, not silly, and Spider-Man’s narrative captions corroborate this feeling. Bagley makes them bust through the page and shows that he is totally outclassed. But, because Dr. Octopus’ attacks on Hammer’s facilities, could lead to a total nuclear meltdown, Spider-Man has the responsibility to take him out in some shape or form.

The meta-theme of Spider-Man being the optimistic, everyman hero in the face of corporate and political corruption continues in Ultimate Spider-Man #18-19. It simmers under the surface while he gets the stuffing beaten out of him by Dr. Octopus and comes to the forefront when Hammer offers him money to take out the not so good doctor. In his experience, and even extending to the Ultimates, who are on the government payroll, superhumans are freakish mercenaries. Hammer thinks Spider-Man is just the same although he is a classic, self-sacrificing hero, who protects the city and people he loves even if he ends up battered, bruised, and drawned and quartered by morning talk shows. Mark Bagley shows this visually when he flip kicks out of a scrum of arguing SHIELD and police officers. This symbolizes his idealism cutting through the bullshit of cover ups, harnessing superpowers to win the War on Terror or run a criminal empire. It also places Brian Michael Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man in a conversation with Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men and Ultimates without forced crossovers and detracting from Spider-Man’s coming of age tale.

Mary Jane is relegated to a support/jealous girlfriend role and Kraven continues to be an iffy supervillain, but Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley craft a suspenseful pair of issues in Ultimate Spider-Man #18-19 as Spider-Man struggles in his first matchup against Dr. Octopus and also has to deal with other things, like cops, the media, SHIELD, and keeping his secret identity. Putting Spidey through the wringer and giving him moral dilemmas usually leads to storytelling gold. These comics definitely prove this with the webslinger barely flying by the seat of his pants except when it comes to Justin Hammer, who has more money than any kind of marketable villain or business skills.