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 #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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.