Tag Archives: Justin Hammer

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.