Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21

Back to School is a weekly issue by issue look at the beloved superhero teen comic Ultimate Spider-ManIn this week’s installment, I will be covering Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21 (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Live from New York City is the Kraven the Hunter and Dr. Octopus show aka Ultimate Spider-Man #20! While the Kraven van is traversing the “wilds of New Jersey” to intercept Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus is trashing Justin Hammer’s limo and trying to get him to confess to his illegal genetic experiments to the reporters. This causes Spider-Man to get involved even though he’s sympathetic to the fact that Doc Ock has huge metal tentacles grafted to his body. They fight back and forth, and Dr. Octopus has some special upgrades to his arms like electric shocks and machine guns. The TV reporter on the scene starts to get Spider-Man’s story right and points out his selflessness at trying to keep the fight away from the journalists and camera people. The turning point in the battle when Spider-Man hilariously pants Doc Ock with his webbing, and this distracts the villain enough for Spidey to finally deliver a beatdown and break some of his tentacles. The TV reporter, Traci Hale, is about to get Spider-Man’s side of the story when Kraven shows up at the worst time possible.

Ultimate Spider-Man #21 begins with Kraven wanting to fight Spider-Man to the death while the hero just wants to save Justin Hammer’s assistant from the wreckage of his limo and go home.  (Hammer has just passed away from a heart attack.) The fight between Spider-Man and Kraven is ridiculously one-sided, and Spidey knocks out the “showbiz phony” with one punch. Before swinging away, Spider-Man talks to Hale about why he’s a superhero and acknowledges that the mask might scare people off, but he wants to protect the people close to him from crazy supervillains and glory hounds like Kraven. Everything seems to be coming up Spider-Man when the NYPD arrests Kraven and his camera crew for their actions, and Sharon Carter and SHIELD takes Dr. Octopus into custody. However, the Parker luck strikes again when Aunt May asks about Peter’s whereabouts when he comes home at 3 AM, and he can’t lie convincingly to her. She is afraid of losing him, and this triumphant superhero is officially grounded. The comic ends with Dr. Octopus mumbling to himself in a SHIELD cell about how Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Uh oh…

Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley seriously stick the landing in the final two issues of “Double Trouble”, get what Spider-Man’s all about, and even write Aunt May like a realistic, caring parent and not a naive doormat. Ultimate Spider-Man #20 is masterfully paced with just enough Kraven and walks and chews bubblegum by featuring the final throwdown between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus along with the shift in media perception of him. Bagley and inker Art Thibert show Spidey leap, kick, and contort while the news reporter on the scene realizes his strategy of keeping the battle away from the TV cameras and the selflessness of protecting Justin Hammer, a man who majorly trashed him in the press. Most of the issue is laid out in “widescreen” double page spreads like it’s on TV and Traci Hale’s narrative captions juxtaposed with the action shots makes it feel like we’re an audience and not in Spider-Man’s head like in previous issues.

On the surface and for the meat of the plot, “Double Trouble” is about Spider-Man struggling against and finally beating a 21st century reimagining of his classic villain, Dr. Octopus. But the real bad guy in the arc has been public perception of Spider-Man, which comes from a variety of things, including the bias of the Daily Bugle, the fact that Justin Hammer pinned nuclear sabotage on him, and the fact that he wears a mask and is shy around cameras not wielded by his alter ego, Peter Parker. That perception starts to turn around in Ultimate Spider-Man #20 and #21, and the most triumphant moment of the arc isn’t when he finally takes down Doc Ock, but when the bystanders and press on hand start cheering for him. Spider-Man has taken his share of beatings recently, and it’s nice to see him pull out a win in both his own and the public’s eye.

To take things a step further beyond Spider-Man’s in-story relation to the press, Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21 and the “Double Trouble” story as a whole are a battle between reality TV and news journalism, or news for entertainment versus news for knowledge and truth. As a former cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brian Michael Bendis has made news media a recurring theme in Ultimate Spider-Man, especially through the supporting character of dogged reporter Ben Urich, who takes down the Kingpin in the comic’s second arc. Kraven’s reality TV antics and the Daily Bugle and talk shows’ negative perception are targets of Bendis’ ire throughout the arc while an actual on-camera interview with Spider-Man and a filmed news story of him gets more positive treatment. The satire is definitely painted with a broad brush, but Bendis and Bagley show that mixing news and entertainment can be deadly in the case of Justin Hammer’s death and Kraven’s action. Bendis extols the virtues of fair, transparent reporting that exposes corrupt institution, like Traci Hale’s work with Spider-Man and the real story behind the attack on Justin Hammers factory, and is a little bit hampered by the fact that he wears a mask. Also, he doesn’t play a role in the plot, but Ben Urich is the last media member to leave when SHIELD takes charge of the crime scene.

The scene where reporter Traci Hale interviews Spider-Man gets why he is such a lovable, everyman type of hero. Unlike Dr. Octopus’ almost religious utterances of grandeur, Justin Hammer trying to make a profit illegally and get away with it, and Kraven’s insensitive showboating, Spider-Man is “like this guy who [fell] backward into some powers”. Bendis’ use of “like” and his straight shooting response to the reporter, Spidey sounds like a kid, who isn’t quite ready for prime time, but has values and convictions to go with the jokes about him being the product of spiders and humans cross-breeding. I liked how Bagley cuts from the interview to Mary Jane and the Daily Bugle staff watching him on TV to show that his message are getting out there through the news media even though Peter doesn’t interact in person with MJ in these two issues.

Kraven being treated like a total and utter joke and not a “final boss” type villain in the slightest is really cathartic after all the panel time he has hogged in this storyline. He gets to be the cliffhanger of Ultimate Spider-Man #20 eliciting groans from Spider-Man, the media, and all the bystanders after Spidey has put his body and life on the line to protect them from Dr. Octopus’ rampage. Up to this point, Kraven has taken himself way too seriously with Bagley’s close-ups of his pre-hunt “meditation ritual” and his constant grandstanding about wanting to kill Spider-Man. So, it’s pretty awesome to see Spider-Man demolish him in a few pages, dodging all of his blows easily with the whoosh of Bagley and Thibert’s speed lines, and finishing him off with one punch that has him crumple woozily like a college freshman at the end of their first bender. The one punch finish is both a reminder of how “fake” reality shows are and a reminder that Spider-Man cares about more important things, like justice and his family, than ratings or demos. But why did Kraven the Hunter need so much panel time in the first place? I guess it was Bendis and Bagley trying to troll fans of “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and set him up as an actual threat hidden beneath cringeworthy reality TV tropes and then showing that he really is just a tomato can of a baddie.

Unfairly, Mark Bagley sometimes gets accused of copying and reusing panels in his artwork and collaborations with Brian Michael Bendis. Well, he definitely puts that idea to rest in the closing scene of Ultimate Spider-Man #21 where he proves he and Art Thibert can do domestic drama just as well as spreads of Spider-Man swinging, kicking, and webbing. His facial work is stellar during the extended conversation between Peter and Aunt May, but his gesture work is even better like the three panels of May putting up one finger each when she grounds Peter from the Daily Bugle, seeing Mary Jane, and makes him go straight home from school. It’s kind of funny to see a triumphant superhero get upbraided by his guardian, but Bendis and Bagley add some pathos too like when May cries in her hands after sending Peter to his room. She truly worries for her nephew, who is the only family she has left after Uncle Ben’s death.

On a realism level, Aunt May is bound to have some questions about Peter’s bruises that he gets from fighting crime and his unexplained whereabouts, especially when he goes to fight Dr. Octopus in New Jersey. Bendis doesn’t portray her as a fool when she calls all of his possible locations, including the Daily Bugle and Mary Jane’s house, and May leaves Peter enough rope to hang himself with his lies. You can see the pain and exhaustion in her face when she tells Peter that she is afraid for him and doesn’t want to lose him, like Ben. Honestly, grounding seems like a suitable punishment if someone doesn’t know about his superhero alter ego of Spider-Man, and this scene is a reminder that even though he is improving as a superhero, Spidey is just a teenager and doesn’t have full freedom just yet.

I applaud Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley for deciding to end the “Double Trouble” arc of Ultimate Spider-Man on a character beat in a similar way to Ultimate Spider-Man #13. Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21 is a perfect, modern version of the “Parker luck”. Sure, Spider-Man now has a positive media reception and has defeated both Dr. Octopus and Kraven the Hunter, but he’s grounded because he came home late and lied multiple time to his aunt. This part of Spider-Man’s character is super relatable because honestly it’s hard to keep all the balls juggling in your personal, family, romantic, work, and school lives and be successful at all of them. Also, being grounded sucks and is a more realistic obstacle than Aunt May marrying Dr. Octopus or the wackier situations of Silver Age Spider-Man.

In Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21, Bendis and Bagley combine a parent’s worst fear with superhero melodrama and it’s the winning formula to finish off “Double Trouble”. Ultimate Spider-Man #20 is especially clever because readers get to see the shift in Spider-Man’s perception by the outside observers in real time because his fight against Dr. Octopus is being filmed by the evening news and other media outlets.