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 #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.