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Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #24-25

USM25CoverBack 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 #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.

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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.

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No they didn’t…

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.

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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.

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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…

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #22-23

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 #22-23  (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Ultimate Spider-Man #22 kicks off with a nice cold open as Spider-Man tracks down some roller skating purse snatchers and easily defeats them before he has to rush back to science class. This is because he’s still grounded, and his lunch period at school is the only time he can be a superhero. He and Mary Jane have a very animated conversation about his grounding and his battle against Kraven the Hunter and Dr. Octopus ending in a joke about kissing underneath the bleachers and the surprise return of Harry Osborn. Harry is excited to see Mary Jane and Peter and invites him over to have dinner with his apparently not-dead father. The limo that Norman Osborn sends for Peter impresses Aunt May so much that she puts his grounding on hold for a night. However, this dinner is very much a trap as Peter and Harry go from chatting about girl to Norman telling Peter that he needs to stop being Spider-Man and transforming into a new, improved Green Goblin, who is verbal and can glow fire.

Ultimate Spider-Man #23 goes a little non-linear opening with Spider-Man freaking out about the Green Goblin and flashing back to Norman Osborn saying he keeps Harry docile with hypnotherapy and showing Peter up and close and personal his transformation from the Green Goblin back to Osborn. He also threatens to kill Aunt May and Mary Jane if Spider-Man doesn’t do as he’s told. Then, they watch Harry and Norman’s Dateline interview where they pin the attack on Oscorp on the now dead Justin Hammer, which is Norman Osborn’s lying reason for coming back to the public sphere. This causes Peter to freak out and run home where he has a touching conversation with Aunt May about how he had a bad time at the Osborns and feels bad lying to her. May chalks up his lies to him feeling nervous about his first girlfriend, and Peter is about to tell Mary Jane about what went down at the Osborns when Gwen Stacy knocks on his door. She has nowhere to stay because her dad’s working all night, and her mother has left them. Aunt May lets Gwen stay over and makes her and Peter eggs and has a nice chat with John Stacy in the morning. At school, things are a little weird, and the issue ends with the “grief counselor” Miss Bradley talking to Peter frankly about his life as Spider-Man and Norman Osborn’s new Green Goblin form. It’s implied she works for SHIELD.

In Ultimate Spider-Man #22-23, the opening issues of the “Legacy” story arc, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert show that Norman Osborn is scary apart from his Green Goblin persona. He is a master manipulator who uses a lethal cocktail of gaslighting (He tells Harry that his mother’s death warped his perception of reality.) and hypnotherapy disguised as regular therapy to keep his son Harry compliant. This manipulation extends to the Parker family as Peter accepts his dinner invite even though he is extremely uncomfortable meeting with someone who tried to kill him and greets him with video clips of his last battle with Dr. Octopus. Bagley draws Norman Osborn as towering over Peter like some kind of stern, well-built father figure, and Thibert goes to town on the thick, dark inks on his face. He isn’t off the wall crazy like he was in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man with every move, media interview, and threatening word carefully calculated. Osborn’s transformation to the Green Goblin is still monstrous and Hulk-like, but he has power over it. This combination of brains, brawn, and general sociopathy easily make “Green Goblin 2.0” Spider-Man’s most formidable foe yet because if Peter suits up to fight him, his loved ones could die.

In contrast to Norman Osborn’s manipulative bastard of a parent, Aunt May exhibits a more even measured and empathetic approach  to parenting in Ultimate Spider-Man #23. She cares about both Peter’s well-being and privacy providing a listening ear and warm hug after he returns early from the Osborns and even goes easy on him with the whole grounding thing. On paper, that might make her sound like a pushover, or a move from Bendis to give Peter more time with Mary Jane or as Spider-Man. However, the intensely detailed close-up art of Peter and May tells a different story showing Peter as a vulnerable young man, who needs support in a world where powerful, evil men want to kill him.

May’s empathy also extends to the Stacy family, and she sees John as a good-hearted man and honest cop, who is in over his head with the whole single parent thing, especially when that daughter is the firebrand Gwen. She goes from almost lecturing Peter about having a girl over to putting on her house coat and whipping up some tasty eggs for everyone because even the Ultimate Universe Aunt May slays at making breakfast. Gwen popping in on Peter in his basement while he’s wearing his boxer shorts and giving him an attack hug right in front of MJ does make Mary Jane slightly jealous although Gwen’s line of “Hold on to this one, M.J. Solid gold.” assuages her fears a little bit. Bagley tilts Mary Jane’s last panel in Ultimate Spider-Man #23 as Peter gets sent to the principal’s office, and this silent image shows how uneasy she feels about him being Spider-Man, his grounding, and the whole Gwen Stacy showing up at his house in the middle of the night.

Before this awkwardness and the whole return of Norman Osborn drama, Bendis and Bagley give Peter and Mary Jane some fantastic romantic chemistry turning the middle part of Ultimate Spider-Man #22 into a scene from a teen comedy. (Their chat at the football bleachers is yet another example of Marc Webb taking a scene featuring Peter and MJ from Ultimate Spider-Man and using it for Peter and Gwen.) Bagley shows their budding romance through body language and positioning as Mary Jane is glued to him for seven straight pages while they discuss his superhero fight and the overall suckiness of his grounding. He does close-up of Mary Jane’s eyes when Peter talks about how he wants to respect his aunt and not have her sneak over, and it makes you feel really bad for them although Peter definitely deserved his punishment. And they have a shared moment of happiness when Harry makes his big return that is kind of overshadowed by some really juvenile gay jokes about Flash Thompson even though it’s nice to see his toxic masculinity and objectification of women (See panels where he’s pawing at Liz Allen.) taken down a peg.

Usually, Bendis and Bagley are on the same page with the quick fire dialogue and easy to follow panels featuring characters’ faces and big body movement with some speed lines to spice up action sequences. However, they really drop the ball in a fairly crucial double page spread in Ultimate Spider-Man #23 where Harry, Peter, and Norman watch Norman Osborn’s big comeback interview. Thematically, it’s cool to see yet another villain manipulate the press and spin the events of the “Double Trouble” arc in a way that makes him look like the victim unlike Justin Hammer’s inept attempts at lying to the media. However, the reading order of the page goes left to right, right to left, and some horrific panels of Peter sweating and freaking out stuck under a wall of text. Norman’s rise to power, and Peter’s return to powerless is trapped under an onslaught of a couple pages of really bad storytelling. Luckily, Bendis and Bagley salvage things with the Gwen Stacy subplot and an incredibly trippy SHIELD (without saying those words) cliffhanger showing that the Spider-Man vs. Green Goblin isn’t just a mere grudge match, but affects the big picture of superhumans in the United States.

However, Ultimate Spider-Man #22-23 don’t fall into the trap of the “interconnected universe” like Iron Man 2, and Norman Osborn works as a villain because of his personal connection with Peter, who is in a way his son because he got his powers from his Oz formula. Norman also still admires his scientific mind and intellect that was much greater than his biological son Harry, who he sees as weak and spoiled so he makes him docile with hypnotherapy. Spider-Man doesn’t fight the Green Goblin in any of these issues, but the fact that he can be Norman Osborn, ruthless and corrupt businessman, and a more powerful version of the Green Goblin definitely increases his threat level. As both Norman and the Goblin, he towers over Peter and taunts him with his new powers. Like the Kingpin in the second arc of Ultimate Spider-Man, this is a man, who thinks he’s untouchable, and he might be able to back it up with those creepy flame abilities.

After “Double Trouble” introduced three villains (Two were jokes, to be honest.) in rapid succession, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley go for a more focused approach in “Legacy”, which is influenced by the classic Spider-Man/Green Goblin stories of the late-1960s when Harry Osborn was a drug addict. They use the board clearing plot of the last arc to pave the way for Norman Osborn’s triumphant return and immediately put Peter on the defensive spoiling the return of his friend Harry. A villain with the Hulk-like brawn of the Ultimate Green Goblin and the mind of Norman Osborn is much more formidable one than the non-verbal Green Goblin that appeared in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man, and it’s exciting to see Peter cope with a foe that knows the people he cares about. And speaking of those people, Bendis and Bagley are careful to include scenes with Mary Jane, Aunt May, and even friend/potential love interest/general wild card Gwen Stacy, and with his grounding in Ultimate Spider-Man #22, there is plenty of time for interactions and character development.

With the exception of a goose egg of a double page spread in Ultimate Spider-Man #23, Ultimate Spider-Man #22-23 is a fantastic start to the “Legacy” arc with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley setting up Norman Osborn as Spider-Man’s physical and intellectual superior. It’s also nice to see a genuine heart to heart between Peter and Aunt May as well as the slow build romance between Peter and Mary Jane, which gets complicated by his double life, grounding, and the return of Harry Osborn.