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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.

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #16-17

USM17CoverBack 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 #16-17 (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

The “Double Trouble” arc continues in Ultimate Spider-Man #16, which reveals a lot more about Dr. Octopus’ motivation and current state. He was conducting industrial espionage on Norman Osborn for another corrupt, billionaire industrialist, Justin Hammer, blames him for his arms fusing to his body situation, and wrecks his mansion. The scene shifts to a TV at the Daily Bugle where Kraven the Hunter (Think a more ripped Steve Irwin) says he’s bringing his show to the United States from Australia. This is while Peter is feeling neurotic about the mysterious Dr. Octavius knowing his secret identity. At the same time, Ben Urich is trying to get info on Octavius from John Stacy and keeps getting hung up on while John scolds Gwen about her pulling a knife last issue. Peter Parker finally goes into action as Spider-Man when he overhears Robbie Robertson talking about a break-in of Hammer property and mechanical arms.

This is when SHIELD, led by Sharon Carter, gets involved in the Octavius investigation and tells Hammer the real story. He was hurt in the Oscorp labs accident, had his arms fused to his body, and is out for revenge against his real employer, Hammer. Spider-Man hears the whole thing before SHIELD starts shooting at him so he bails on his eavesdropping. The issue ends with Kraven getting off his private jet into New York and vowing that he is going to kill Spider-Man with “me bare hands”. That terrible Australian accent just cracks me up.

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Ultimate Spider-Man #17 begins with Aunt May and Peter watching Kraven threaten Spider-Man on a TV morning show, which Peter obviously isn’t a fan of. It cuts to Kraven chatting with his agent. The agent just wants the ratings to increase while Kraven thinks the whole thing is a publicity stunt. Then, we’re back at Midtown High where Gwen Stacy is back in school and apologizes for pulling a knife on Kong. However, she says that Kong should apologize for kicking Peter and continues to have an attitude. The school part ends with Liz Allen saying bigoted things about mutants in connection to their superhero assignment.

Then, we’re back to Justin Hammer in his limo trying to solve the Dr. Octopus situation and realizing that all his superhumans are either in jail (Electro) or still in experimental phases (Sandman). Despite the danger, Hammer unveils the Big Apple Energy Dome, a project that’s supposed to bring sustainable energy to New York. He denies that he is creating superhumans or knows Dr. Octavius. In the middle of his speech, the audience sees Dr. Octopus wrecking the dome on a screen behind him. This emergency is announced at the Midtown High assembly so Spider-Man hitches a ride on a NYPD chopper and heads to the dome. The issue concludes with Spider-Man out on his ass before Dr. Octopus, who is midway through wrecking everything.

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Unlike the previous two arcs of Ultimate Spider-Man, which had a laser guided focus on Norman Osborn and Kingpin as the villains, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley opt to go the multi-villain route when they introduce Justin Hammer and Kraven the Hunter to go with Dr. Octopus in Ultimate Spider-Man #16. Hammer makes sense and plays a key role in fleshing out Doc Ock’s motivation, but Kraven is a distraction at worst and an amusing riff on “extreme” reality TV at best. The scenes where he’s mugging for the camera or arguing with his agent could be better spent with Peter and his friends or advancing the Doc Ock plot line. However, there’s a hint of the Kraven that beat Spider-Man in the legendary “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline in a couple close-up panels of his intense eyes from Bagley when the agent mentions that Spider-Man could be Kraven’s most difficult challenge yet.

The main plot of “Double Trouble” is a tangled web of failed superhuman experiments and corrupt capitalism that a teen superhero in red and blue tights happens to be stuck in the middle of. However, Bendis doesn’t neglect the high school subplots in Ultimate Spider-Man #16-17, especially the emergence of Gwen Stacy and the “superhero” assignment for Peter’s social studies class, which uses the mutant metaphor to comment on ideas about the “appropriateness” of topics to be discussed in the classroom. Liz Allen comes across as the conservative student who wants to completely erase LGBTQ people from actual history because it’s not “age appropriate” and isn’t sympathetic in the slightest for now.

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She doesn’t wear a costume, but Gwen is my superhero and speaks out against bullying both to her dad and her class in a genuine, non-PSA way. Sure, she definitely has what would be labeled “attitude problems” and “authority issues” in her permanent file, but Gwen has a real sense of morality and responsibility to her fellow humans. And the tears that Gwen gives her while talking to her dad show how she passionately means every word that passes through her lips.

What’s especially great about Bendis’ writing of Gwen Stacy is that she has her own storyline so far and isn’t forced into the classic love triangle with Peter and Mary Jane just yet. (I do wish Mary Jane got more panel time or spoke a single word in these two issues.) He goes into her relationship with her father John, who is having problems being the police chief and a single dad, and lectures her instead of talking about why she pulled the knife. John is playing off parental cliches instead of having a conversation with his daughter and, of course, she runs off in the chaos of the station after speaking her piece about how no one in the school was there for Peter when Kong kicked him. This thirst for justice continues when she tries to force Kong to apologize to Peter publicly as she disrupts the flow of the social studies class. Gwen wants to do what’s right even if pulling a knife in the middle of a class is a terrible idea. (She apologizes twice for that though.)

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In retrospect and probably at the time too, Brian Michael Bendis sets up Justin Hammer as the Donald Trump of the Ultimate Marvel Universe, but with what seems like an over-the-top Southern accent. (It was definitely more of a joke in 2002, but is downright frightening in 2017.) There’s the obvious fact that he owns a lot of casinos in Atlantic City and has an almost reverential awe for his father from whom he got all of his money. (Justin Hammer loses his mind when Doc Ock slices up Daddy Hammer’s portrait.) Both Trump and Hammer are also obsessed with doing things “bigly”, like the former’s overly gaudy skyscraper hotels and the idea of the Mexico border wall and the latter’s energy dome.

They are also pretty incompetent at business with Hammer sinking money into a sand guy and botched attempt at industrial espionage with Octavius, and Trump’s multiple bankruptcies among other things. Finally, there is their shared hatred of the press with Hammer giving reporters a hard time at the unveiling of the Dome, and the fact that White House press conferences are now off camera and Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer recently resigned. Ultimate Justin Trump and Donald Trump are both inept, corrupt, and hateful men who squander their great wealth and privilege and are being manipulated by forces they can’t even begin to fathom. (Dr. Octopus, Vladimir Putin) I’m not a big fan of the constant cuts from villain to villain, but the real world connection to Hammer makes his scenes more palatable.

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One of the funniest (and unfortunately the saddest parts) of Ultimate Spider-Man #17 is Justin Hammer’s scientists roasting him while he’s pontificating on national TV about his splashy energy project. Seriously, what’s up with the dome, and I’m no scientist, but mixing solar, electric, and nuclear energy seems like a real bad (and combustible) idea? Bagley nails the looks of bemused boredom in their faces, and they quip about watching Oprah instead of his and just the general fact that Hammer is a total blowhard with no qualms about lying on national TV. But, of course, they’re red shirts, and the horror influence on Dr. Octopus continues with his grabbing and killing them before an audience of the rich and famous and stepping on Justin Hammer’s moment kind of like what Ivan Vanko did to him in Iron Man 2. 

As far as Mark Bagley’s pencils and Art Thibert’s inks, I love how they draw Spider-Man creep and hide while eavesdropping on Justin Hammer and the SHIELD agents. Spidey’s movements are pretty awkward at times like when he’s falling off a helicopter while trying to get to Hammer’s dome thing because he’s just a kid. He has the complete opposite of a superhero landing at the end of Ultimate Spider-Man #17 punctuated by a perfectly timed “Ow”. However, there are some hiccups in the character face department like when Bagley gives Ben Urich and John Stacy the exact same face, and it’s hard to keep track of who is talking. (Ben’s glasses come in handy in this case.) But, for every bump in the road, there’s something interesting or emotional like Dr. Octopus’ face filling the screen during Hammer’s press conference after he denies knowing him. It’s a cathartic moment for the baddie, whose occasionally justified anger has been building up throughout the arc, and really got me amped up for the upcoming fisticuffs between Doc Ock and Spider-Man.

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With the addition of Justin Hammer and especially Kraven the Hunter subplots to the main Dr. Octopus main storyline, Ultimate Spider-Man #16-#17 is “Double Trouble’s” mid-arc slump. In spending time with these characters and connecting the relatively self-contained world of Ultimate Spider-Man into the political corruption and general crappiness of the larger Ultimate universe, we lose sight of Spidey’s heroic journey. But issue 17 ends on a fantastic Spider-Man (and Dr. Octopus) moment, and Gwen Stacy continues to be a firebrand of a supporting character so it’s not a total wash.

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #14-#15

USM14CoverBack 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 #14-15 (2001-2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Welcome to “Back to School”, a weekly column where I break down the fan favorite superhero series Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and several other artists that was a huge influence on the recent, critically acclaimed Spider-Man Homecoming film. When I first read Ultimate Spider-Man in 2010, I was a high schooler and just a couple years older than Peter Parker in the comic.  Almost seven years later, I’m really excited to see what my older, if not necessarily wiser self thinks about this teen soap opera meets longform superhero epic starring Peter Parker and later Miles Morales as Spider-Man. (Also, I’m heading to graduate school in the fall so this column title is semi-autobiographical in a way.)

I tried to write about Ultimate Spider-Man in its entirety 2013 for Sequart, a publisher of excellent books and documentaries on comics creators like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Chris Claremont. Unfortunately, I only made it to issue 13, a classic story where Peter Parker reveals his secret identity to Mary Jane Watson. This is why I’m starting “Back to School” with issue 14, which kicks off the “Double Trouble” storyline, not issue 1.

And who really wants a rehash of a rehash of Spider-Man’s origin…

Ultimate Spider-Man #14 kicks off with Peter Parker’s civics (I guess) teacher giving them the on the nose assignment of delivering an oral report as either a real life superhero or one of their own creation. It cuts to Otto Octavius, who we find out is being held in a secret installment, and has eight arms of an exoskeleton he patented grafted to his body. He was injured in the Green Goblin’s attack on Oscorp several issues ago. Back at Midtown High, it’s pep rally time, and no one is invested. Instead, Peter has a discussion about superheroes with Mary Jane, Kong, Flash Thompson, and Liz Allen, who doesn’t like mutants because of something with her uncle. Then, Gwen Stacy makes her first appearance and shows them up in intensity and knowledge. In the super secret lab, Dr. Octopus realizes that the scientists who were supposedly saving his life were actually experimenting on him with his own tech, and he goes on a violent rampage. The issue closes with Kong laying on his bed and putting together the pieces that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

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Ultimate Spider-Man #15 begins with a rather hackneyed take on a slasher movie when Dr. Octopus kills a sweaty, blonde woman, who is living in his old apartment. Then, it’s back to school where Kong is playing Agent Scully and feeding Flash and Liz evidence that Peter Parker is Spider-Man like the fact that he was bitten by a spider, randomly became good at basketball, and beat Kong and Flash up. However, Peter’s cover remains intact when he takes a literal kick to his ass from Kong instead of dodging it with his powers. Gwen Stacy won’t stand for this and ends up threatening to stab Kong with a switchblade that falls out of her pocket. This leads to the principal calling her dad John Stacy, who is the primary detective investigating the previously mentioned blonde woman’s murder. There is also a Daily Bugle subplot where Spider-Man pretends to attack J. Jonah Jameson, and he faints. On a more serious note, Ben Urich is writing a story about the murders and thinks Dr. Octopus is a suspect because he was the previous owner of the apartment and also didn’t actually die in the attack on Oscorp. Jameson is skeptical, and the issue ends with Doc Ock ready to go on a rampage. Uh oh!

I could say this about most issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, which is a predominantly character driven book except when Bagley drew a whole issue of Spidey fighting Venom because symbiote power, but he and Bendis do a great job of making the non Mary Jane supporting cast interesting. First up is Kong, who gets to be the page end cliffhanger despite not being a nefarious supervillain.

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Kong is pretty clueless and insensitive towards both Peter Parker and mutants. He can’t really process their existence and thinks something should be “done” to them. Bagley shows this by giving him awkward facial expressions and gestures during the conversation about the superhero assignment unlike Peter’s determination to defend mutants and superbeings. However, like Shakespeare’s Fool, he has the wisdom and insight to see the rise of superheroes as a harbinger of the apocalypse, which ended up happening in the terrible 2009 Ultimatum storyline.

This insight extends to Kong piecing together the events of the past 14 issues and realizing that Peter Parker is Spider-Man in a great flashback sequence that looks like an old VHS tape thanks to the colorists at Transparency Digital. Memories are like a movie in my head, and Bagley and the colorist transpose this feeling to the comic. The most obvious clue is Peter Parker going from Carlton Banks to LeBron James in basketball skills as well as the broken desks and the fact that he flat out broke Flash’s hand. Even though Liz and Flash don’t believe him, kudos to the big guy for his common sense and deductive skills. And of course, he has this epiphany while a copy of Maxim magazine is lying across his chest.

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Mark Bagley gives Gwen Stacy quite the intro in Ultimate Spider-Man when she jumps into Peter and his frenemies’ discussion about superheroes and mutants with a thoughtful monologue about how they’re like the meteor, and we’re like the dinosaur. (This would later be disproven, oops.) She literally fills the page. But Gwen’s not a doomsayer and thinks that the dawn of superheroes will motivate human beings to be the best at whatever they’re good at and not be lazy bums. “Everyone has superpowers” is her thesis statement.

This well-articulated theory of superheroes sounds a lot like Grant Morrison, especially his then-contemporary work on JLA and New X-Men. The mutant as meteor metaphor seems ripped from Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “E is for Extinction” storyline of New X-Men where it’s revealed that humans are going extinct and will be replaced by homo superior aka mutants. The whole everybody having superpowers spiel reminded me of the ending of Grant Morrison’s JLA where the entire population of Earth gets special abilities to fight the villainous, Mageddon. It’s also a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in his Supergods aka the best self-help book ever written disguised as a memoir/history of superhero comics.

Sounding like someone who has read Grant Morrison comics instantly makes Gwen Stacy the coolest character in Peter Parker’s supporting cast. She isn’t the shy, blushing, headband wearing girl from the Stan Lee and John Romita Sr, but immediately plays an active role in the school plotlines, including standing up for Peter against bullies. Bendis and Bagley also introduce an interesting family dynamic between her and her policeman father John Stacy, who had previously appeared in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man. The combo of a bright, yet rebellious punk rock daughter and hard nosed single dad cop father could make an interesting comic in and of itself.

John Stacy is the connective tissue between the Dr. Octopus murders and the high school drama plots, but has quite the personality just like his daughter, Gwen. He tells off Midtown High’s principal on the phone when their tone gets “accusatory” and points out the ridiculousness of her being sent home when he’s at work and can’t discipline or talk to her. Bagley draws John as a strong jawed, go-getter homicide detective like Jimmy from The Wire, but he’s a little exasperated when he gets his case interrupted by a call from the school and the press.

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Yes, John Stacy and ace reporter Ben Urich, who recently wrote an article that caused the Kingpin to go into exile, face off in Ultimate Spider-Man #15, and it’s delicious. Ben is trying to do a story for the Daily Bugle on the murder, but John doesn’t serve up any quotes, only sass. He tells Ben off for the Kingpin article and said that “300 goombahs” are running loose and wreaking havoc around New York. It goes back to the old question of if organized crime is better than chaotic, disorganize crime in the scheme of things. These one-liners establish John as a hard edged, seasoned police detective who isn’t idealistic, and just does his job well. He’s the kind of guy who would call open murder cases “red balls” and easily solved ones “dunkers”. (Oops, most of my knowledge of homicide detectives comes from the works of David Simon.) The inclusion of John and Daily Bugle figures, like Ben Urich and J. Jonah Jameson in “Double Trouble”, show that Brian Michael Bendis hasn’t abandoned his roots in the crime genre even though Ultimate Spider-Man is a bright, splashy superhero comic.

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For the “origin” of Dr. Octopus, Bendis and Bagley dip into the horror genre to make him a slightly sympathetic figure.  There’s a little bit of Frankenstein’s Monster and a little bit of Cronenberg body horror when he first pops up in Ultimate Spider-Man #14. Bagley makes sure you can see some of his innards and his almost blind eyes from the optic nerve trauma he suffered in the Green Goblin’s attack. The reveal of the arms show that Octavius isn’t a patient recovering in a hospital, but an experiment to be poked, prodded, made fun of, and eventually profited on. He’s a brilliant scientist, who became a monster. And this monstrousness is being exploited for gain and not being cured or treated at all. Dr. Octopus is a killer, but his first murders are kind of justified revenge killings of people that treated him like a lab rat and not a human being beginning by calling him Dr. Octopus and not by his real name.

On the flip side, Ultimate Spider-Man #15 uses the horror genre in a pretty cheap way. There’s an opening scene where Dr. Octopus slaughters an unnamed, attractive blonde woman, who is exercising. There’s tension or fright to the scene because it’s one we’ve seen hundreds of times. Bendis and Bagley are trying to do the first ten minutes of Scream with a Spider-Man villain, but it feels more like one of those slasher flicks that is packaged onto those “10 Great Horror Movies” DVDs and sold for $5 at your local Walmart. The scene is a bad one, but it also makes Octavius less of a sympathetic villain and more of a serial killer with an octopus gimmick, which is selling him very short.

In the first couple issues of “Double Trouble”, Brian Michael Bendis exhibits some cleverness and turns a dangling plot thread and a possible plot hole into, well, a plot. Otto Octavius popped up in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man as one of Norman Osborn’s scientists, and he gets brought back in the nick of time as a scientist/villain, who was forcibly experimented on instead of Osborn, who took on the Oz formula (Super soldier serum) of his own free will. The U.S. government in the Ultimate Universe is pretty shady, and reporter Ben Urich knows this when he uses anonymous sources to find out that Octavius was held in a black site called (*groan*) the Octagon. These places are yet another reason why Peter Parker has only told Mary Jane about his secret identity because the government would likely run experiments on him like they did with Otto Octavius or force him to join the Ultimates and use his powers to help fight the George W. Bush era War on Terror.

The connection to Oscorp is also an organic way to create a villain instead of just having a random mad scientist with octopus arms show up. Peter and Octavius also met when Harry brought him over for a tour of Oscorp so there’s a personal dimension to be exploited when they square off later.

I already mentioned that Kong, who is the not the smartest student at Midtown High, realized that Peter Parker was Spider-Man all by himself. This is Brian Michael Bendis sort of covering his own ass because Peter Parker has done a terrible job keeping his secret identity under wraps, especially with the whole miraculously being good basketball thing. But he plugs the plot hole in one fell swoop when Peter takes a drop kick from Kong straight in his behind complete with painful facial expressions and speed lines from Mark Bagley and Art Thibert. It’s also a growing moment for him as he gets hurt for his secret identity and sets up Gwen Stacy as an anti-bullying badass. This one kick covers up a multitude of “sins” in the annoying Cinema Sins sense…

In Ultimate Spider-Man #14-15, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley draw attention to the varied supporting cast of Peter Parker and also incorporate the crime and horror genres into their teen superhero/romance saga. It’s a hell of the way to start the “Double Trouble” arc, and they make a hallway drop kick more suspenseful than a man with mechanical octopus arms wrecking a random apartment.

Gwen is Taking Over Marvel

She’s smart, charming and she can lift a car! She’s Gwen Stacy, the Spectacular Spider-Woman and she comes to you each month in the pages of the critically acclaimed Spider-Gwen series! But what if Gwen Stacy had lifted Mjolnir to become Thor: Gwen of Thunder? What if she had been awarded the Eye of Agamotto, and battled the forces of the supernatural as Dr. Gwenge? Find out as she powers up for June’s can’t miss Gwen Variants – as the industry’s top artist show you a side of Gwen Stacy you’ve never seen before!

Gwen Stacy Variants will be available throughout the month of June, coming to these 20 titles:

  • 1602 Witch Hunter Angela #1 by John Tyler Christopher
  • Armor Wars #1 by David Lafuente
  • Black Widow #19 by Dan Hipp
  • Captain America & the Mighty Avengers #9 by Jake Wyatt
  • Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars #2 by Chris Bachalo
  • Future Imperfect #1 by Nick Bradshaw
  • Groot #1 by Giuseppe Camuncoli
  • Guardians of Knowhere #1 by Rob Guillory
  • Howard the Duck #4 by Jason Latour
  • Inhumans: Attilan Rising #2 by James Stokoe
  • Magneto #19 by Declan Shalvey
  • Old Man Logan #3 by Chris Samnee
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #7 by Robbi Rodriguez
  • Secret Wars #3 by Nick Bradshaw
  • Secret Wars #4 by Chris Samnee
  • Secret Wars 2099 #2 by Jason Latour
  • Squadron Sinister #1 by Greg Smallwood
  • Thors #1 by Kris Anka
  • Ultimate End #2 by Chip Zdarsky
  • X-Men ’92 #1 b Ryan Stegman

Featuring artwork by some of the top talent in the industry, Marvel urges retailers to check their orders on these hotly anticipated variant covers. No fan will want to miss the chance to see the incomparable Gwen Stacy as she transforms into some of Marvel’s biggest characters when the Gwen Variants come to comic shops this June!

FUTURE_IMPERFECT_1_InGwenible_Hulk_Bradshaw_Variant OLD_MAN_LOGAN_2_Gwenverine_Samnee_Variant SECRET_WARS_3_Dr_Gwenge_Bradshaw_Variant

We Talk Fables and more with Chrissie Zullo

Chrissie Zullo was discovered at the San Diego Comic Con in 2008, and since then she has made her mark in comics, especially with covers for the Fables universe.  Recently she turned some heads with a series of sketches with some unconventional pairings of heroes.  We got a chance to talk with her about how to design a cover, the new Batgirl and why Boba Fett is so popular.

Graphic Policy:  Can you describe how you go about putting a cover together?  And what elements you have to choose from the inside to capture the story or to capture the interest of a potential buyer?

cz03Chrissie Zullo:  It’s really a collaborative process between the artist and the editor. I usually read a script and if certain elements really stand out or a scene really captures the tone of the story, then my head starts thinking of what a good image would be based on these things. I usually send in three to five thumbnails to my editor, and it’s process of elimination and back and forth on ideas from there.

GP:  You recently turned some heads with a series of drawings on DeviantArt.  Do you think that modern comic artists need websites like that in order to be able to be seen and get work?

CZ:  I don’t know if it’s necessary but it certainly helps. I heard that editors are looking online at sites like Tumblr and seeing who stands out and had a large following. I guess any exposure to your art can’t hurt, so I try to put my art on a lot of online sites in hopes that more people will see it.

GP:  The last year has seen an influx in comics geared towards younger women, such as Gotham Academy and a refurbished Batgirl.  Is the time right for a shift in outlook when it comes to female characters?

CZ:  I think it’s a smart move, because a young female audience gravitates toward young female characters, and if you are trying to pickup new subscribers, a fresh start to a story is a lot less daunting then one 300 issues in. I personally really like seeing the new take on characters, especially the redesigns.

cz01GP:  One of your recent drawings was of the new design Batgirl and Spider-Gwen.  What is it about the two of them makes them fit together?

CZ:  They both came out around the same time, and I think a lot of people would love to see them be friends, or in a same story arc. It’s fun to mash up two things that don’t necessarily belong together but for some reason would make a lot of sense together. I just love the new wave of young, strong females in comics and the fact that they are becoming so popular is also really reassuring.

GP:  Another one of the drawings which you posted was of Quorra from Tron.  She is a bit of an anomaly, as she was only on screen for about 30 minutes, but the character has a dedicated following.  What do you make of that?

CZ:  Yeah true! She needed more screen time. I just loved her look. I guess it’s like Boba Fett- there are these really great designed characters in films that don’t get a lot of screen time, but get a huge following. For whatever reason, people gravitate toward them. Maybe it’s their mystery that makes them more popular.

cz02GP:  Speaking of new developments in comics, ever since about the past ten years, fairy tales have been more noticeable, and as a Fables veteran, do you think that fairy tales are here to stay or that they will become less popular?

CZ:  I think fairy tales are forever, because they are timeless stories that are usually told to teach a lesson or a moral. No matter what generation or time, fairy tales can be applied or relatable; I think that’s why they have lasted so long.

GP:  A large portion of your published work has been either super heroes or fairy tales.  Are there any other genres that you would like to draw?

CZ:  I’m a huge sci-fi junkie, and I’d love to draw more with futuristic designs or post-apocalyptic settings. I love the idea of the far distant future, so maybe anything like that would be a lot of fun.

Art courtesy of Chrissie Zullo

Review: Spider-Woman #1

spider woman coverAfter much controversy and word-of-mouth, the new Spider-Woman series finally arrives.  It has now been a few years since Spider Woman headlined her own series, and a few decades since her first and most successful run in comics, and so a lot of fans are excited about the chance to be re-introduced to the character on a monthly basis.  The story follows Spider Woman as she jumps through various universes in the multiverse, trying to keep the newly introduced Silk alive.  As an introduction to the character this is one of the strangest that I have seen.  Comic book crossovers are an inescapable truth in comics, but this is one of the few times that I have seen the first issue of an ongoing series which incorporates in a large crossover, in this case Spider-verse.  It is a strange mix, because the series hits the ground running, and for the curious fans that might have wanted to pick up this issue because of all of the buzz, they might come in here feeling a little blind if they have at least not been exposed to anything else Spider-Verse related.

Because of that this issue faces a bit of an uphill battle in order to succeed, but it manages to do so, and on the strength of its characters.  Silk is a brand new character, but is immediately likeable.  Spider Woman, as the veteran superhero provides an anchor for the various comings-and-goings of other Spider characters in this book (of which there are three) which incidentally show three of the other “Spider-Women” (missing only a couple.)  This was a nice touch, to include so many versions of the titular character in one place and at least pays better homage to what has come before than many first issues manage to do.

The end result is a decent issue with some fun moments and fun dialogue.  It is maybe not the best start that this series could have gotten off to, but it was sort of forced into the larger story arc and forced to adapt, which it does well.  At the very least, with an ongoing series featuring Spider Woman, with Silk as her ally/sidekick, this series should be interesting, and without the crossover into Spider-Verse the future looks bright for it finding its own identity.

Story: Dennis Hopeless Art: Greg Land
Story: 8.5 Art: 9 Overall: 8.6 Recommendation: Buy

Review: Edge Of Spider-Verse #2

sg02The premise being the series Edge of Spider-Verse is a fairly basic one, at least by comic standards. There exist a number of worlds beyond the usual base of Marvel, and in each of these worlds a different Spider-Man has come forward through similar but different reasons. Some looming threat to all Spider-Men and Women is looming and it will require the efforts of all of them to save them all. In this second issue we receive a new story, which on its surface would seem to be unable to fail, where Gwen Stacy is cast as Spider Woman. In reality the tag of Spider-Woman is not that accurate, as the character has little to do with Jessica Drew, and rather is more like a teenage version of Spider-Man, in other words a Spider-Girl.

What If … ? # 105 in 1998 asked the question of what would happen if one day one of Peter Parker’s children became took on the role and responsibility only in this case that this was his daughter. This was one of the most successful issues of the series and launched the character of May Parker into her own series and her own universe (known as MC2).  With such a precedent before them this issue seemed as though it might not be able to fail. While it is interesting enough, it doesn’t quite reach the level of this predecessor.

The cover that launched a universe

The cover that launched a universe

The first problem would be one of characterizations.  With the introduction of the character May Parker, fans were given the opportunity to associate with a brand new character. In this case, it is less so. Instead this new Gwen Stacy, while a little bit different becomes a pastiche of several different characters that fans will be familiar with. In so doing a little bit of the edge is taken off as it comes across as something that we have all heard before. Incidentally there is a notable design element here which comes with the introduction of the new character. That is to say, that Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman (Girl) is visually appealing but the story doesn’t match the visuals.

It doesn’t end up being quite as much of a disappointment, as even as a non-fan of the character’s part of the Marvel Universe, that this is still an interesting and even fun read. The problem more so is that it feels at the same time like a missed opportunity. I have not read the first issue of this series, but if each Spider-Man is only a slightly different version of the character, with basically the same origin story told, then it would seem as though the creative staff is not challenging themselves enough. This thus becomes most evident in the artwork as compared to the writing. The artistic team here was willing to break all the rules for the new character, but the writing team stuck to what already made sense, and the payoff is evidently just not as good as it could be.

Story: Jason Latour Art: Robbi Rodriguez
Story: 7.5 Art: 8.8 Overall: 8 Recommendation: Read

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