Back to School is a weekly issue by issue look at the beloved superhero teen comic Ultimate Spider-Man. In this week’s installment, I will be covering Ultimate Spider-Man #24-25 (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency.
Ultimate Spider-Man #24 kicks off with Ultimate Nick Fury (Aka the one who looks like Samuel L. Jackson.) slowly dematerializing in the counselor’s office at Peter Parker’s school. Things are very serious with the Green Goblin, and Fury says that he will get Spider-Man to try to assassinate him or Mary Jane and Aunt May will die. Peter freaks out about Fury and SHIELD knowing about his secret identity and learns some crucial backstory about Norman Osborn like that he lost a super soldier serum contract with SHIELD, which is why he tested the Oz drug on himself. Unfortunately, SHIELD can’t help Spider-Man out unless he actually threatens a civilian thanks to the rules of engagement and a prohibition on spying on Americans on American soil. Later, Norman Osborn’s limo is about to pick up Aunt May and Peter for dinner at his house, but Peter dissuades her and says he’s a creepy, bad man. Peter wants to keep her safe so he swings around as Spider-Man hoping to put an end to the Green Goblin once and for all. Unfortunately, he runs into his nemesis, who has kidnapped Mary Jane, who is Harry Osborn’s dinner guest.
After a gripping double page spread of Spider-Man and Harry’s surprise at Mary Jane being kidnapped, Ultimate Spider-Man #25 flashes back to Harry’s hypnotherapy sessions. His therapist, Dr. Warren, is a little hesitant about planting subliminal suggestions, but Norman waves him off, and then we get to see his transformation into the Green Goblin from his POV as he grabs Mary Jane and leaps into action to fight Spider-Man and a SHIELD helicopter. It’s super trippy, and he sees Spider-Man as an actual spider. They fight for a while until Green Goblin drops Mary Jane off the Queensboro Bridge, which is when the SHIELD sniper in the helicopter finally starts firing at him. In an homage to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, Spider-Man catches Mary Jane with his web just as she’s about to go splat, and her fate remains ambiguous as the issue ends.
Other than a badass extended and logical to the overall plot Nick Fury cameo, the big highlight of Ultimate Spider-Man #25 is getting to see the world from the skewed scientific, religious, and very drug addled perspective of Norman Osborn. Oz truly fucks you up. Artists Mark Bagley and Art Thibert also channel their Clone Saga days and have Norman see Spider-Man as more spider than man with all kind of weird appendages and extra arms. The colorists at Digital Transparency add to the hallucinations with cloudy little goblin babies whispering the chemical formula for Oz with the help of eerie lettering from Richard Starkings.
Writer Brian Michael Bendis leaves the usual banter, quips, or villainous speeches and instead of makes the subconscious of Norman Osborn conscious with all kind of character defining buzz words. Lines like “He’s your son” for his relationship with Peter to “Fire eyes” about his abilities help flesh out Norman Osborn’s Green Goblin persona and the added angle of him as a failed military contractor and scientist makes him a more interesting foe than the non-verbal Hulk-lite of the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man. It also more than makes up for the multiple reused panels during Harry’s hypnotherapy session although that could have been a storytelling choice to show how impassive, compliant, and basically buzzed out on lithium he is.
The Green Goblin shares blood with Spider-Man, and Peter Parker used to look up to Norman Osborn and is friends with his son. This deep connection makes him an excellent arch-nemesis, and adding SHIELD and a glimpse at the larger Marvel Universe is like having an ice cream after dinner. However, in the endgame of these middle issues, Bendis and Bagley go for the typical damsel in distress deal with Mary Jane instead of letting Peter and her have a genuine conversation about their relationship. Then, they do an homage to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (Except trading Gwen for MJ, and the George Washington Bridge for Queensboro.) with a similar angle and sidelines all of these relationship complications plus some fun banter with Harry at his house into a typical Peter saves MJ situation a la the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy .
Even though the nod to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” was a little too on the fanservice-y side and using a female character to just further a male character’s arc is a big problem with superhero comics, it makes story sense for Bendis and Bagley Green Goblin to come after MJ and raise “Legacy’s” tension level as an arc. The Green Goblin knows Spider-Man’s secret identity as Spider-Man and has clearly threatened Aunt May and MJ with death if he puts the costume on again. So, when he sees Spidey in action, the Green Goblin instantly grabs Mary Jane, who is a guest at his house. The constantly inviting Aunt May and Mary Jane to dinner is just a cover to basically hold them hostage and blackmail Spider-Man. Norman Osborn is pretty clever when he isn’t injecting untested Oz formula directly into his veins multiple times every day. Also, Mary Jane getting kidnapped and Aunt May being threatened cause Spider-Man to have second thoughts about being a hero, and the usual happy web swinging double page spread is having a total existential crisis about the cost his double life has on his loved ones. And Mary Jane’s kidnapping and possible death definitely throw gasoline on the current garbage fire that is his superhero life.
So, Nick Fury shows up in Ultimate Spider-Man #24, and it’s pretty cool once Peter Parker stops jumping around and saying super goofy stuff like “I would like to see some form of identification.” Fury’s presence is an ice cold dose of reality in young Peter’s face and a reminder that he doesn’t do his superhero thing in a vacuum. Even though he’s defeated the Kingpin, Doc Ock, and Kraven the Hunter plus numerous small fry baddies, Spidey has gone about in a sloppy way so it’s been easy for them to keep tabs on him. The appearance of Fury and his little history lesson about the super soldier serum and Norman Osborn make Spider-Man seem small and insignificant in the big picture of the Marvel Universe. However, he’s also kind of a scientific miracle, which is why Fury and SHIELD would be experimenting on him if he wasn’t a minor. For once, Peter’s youth and inexperience do him some good.
Nick Fury’s big plot point in Ultimate Spider-Man #24 is that he and SHIELD can’t take down the Green Goblin unless he has physically attacked a civilian aka MJ or Aunt May. This is because SHIELD aka the NSA with ray guns isn’t allowed to spy on Americans on American soil. This made me laugh darkly because, in 2002, President George W Bush signed an order to allow the NSA to monitor telephone calls and emails of American citizens. Bendis and Bagley do some spot on political satire in the middle of a Spider-Man and Green Goblin story and continue to write Spidey and Peter as a pure example of heroism in a profession dominated by backstabbers, liars, and sociopaths like the cast of Mark Millar’s Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men. Bagley gives Peter some very angry expressions on his face when Fury keeps telling him that SHIELD isn’t allowed to attack Norman Osborn or bring him in. He’s the ordinary human who is hemmed in by a slimy web of deceit and political machinery in cahoots with corporations for mutual benefit so the slap he delivers to Fury when he lectures about “optimism” is well-earned.
However, Ultimate Spider-Man #24-25 aren’t all about politics, and Bendis fits in Fury and SHIELD’s presence in the story like a well-placed in a superpowered jigsaw puzzle. They don’t wear out their welcome. It makes a lot of sense that a Hulk-level threat would be on their radar. Above all, “Legacy” is a crucial, personal part of Spider-Man’s heroic journey, and the hallucinations in Ultimate Spider-Man #25 plus his repeated use of the word “responsibility” confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt my theory that Norman Osborn is the dark mirror of Uncle Ben. Spider-Man’s powers came from the Oscorp spider and Osborn’s failed experiments, but his heart and devotion to using abilities responsibly to protect society come from Uncle Ben’s words to him in the first story arc. The only responsibility that Osborn knows is to further his power and rebuild his corporate empire by any means necessary, including kidnapping his son’s friend, hypnotizing his own son, and causing general mayhem. And, in his eyes, Spider-Man is just a means to enforce his will and also physical proof that, hey, maybe this Oz thing actually worked. He thinks Spider-Man owes something while Ben loved Peter selflessly even when his nephew acted like a jerk to him. *Pause for feelings here*
The homage to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in Ultimate Spider-Man #24-25 is pretty obvious, and I’ve mentioned it a few times. However, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley also riff off another classic Spider-Man story, the infamous Harry Osborn is a junkie story in Amazing Spider-Man #98 that Stan Lee and Gil Kane published without the Comic Code’s seal of approval. But this time, Norman Osborn is a drug addict, and Bendis and Bagley don’t tell the typical “drugs are bad” PSA and tell the tale of a one percenter whose corporation is flagging so he turns to substance. Except instead of fine grade cocaine, his drug of choice makes him a hulked out psychopath kind of like Jose Canseco with a Marvel twist and no baseball ability. There’s this whole interplay between drugs, power, and corruption that turns the Green Goblin into Tony Montana with horns and is a more interesting, or at the very least, entertaining look at a drug addiction story in a superhero context. Sorry, Stan and Gil.
Ultimate Spider-Man #24-25 are solid middle chapters of the “Legacy” arc as Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley show the world from the Green Goblin’s POV for a few pages and add some political satire and big picture stuff in a Nick Fury guest appearance. The ending of issue 25 is very “Women in Refrigerators” as Bendis goes from developing MJ’s character to victimizing her although luckily there are two issues left to possibly improve on this…