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Review: Spider-Man #240

Trade paperback copies of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man from the local public library were what got me into comics, and the first Marvel comic I ever subscribed to was Ultimate Comics Spider-Man featuring Miles Morales. So, it’s safe to say that I was rooting for Spider-Man #240  to be a fantastic ending to Bendis’ 18 years on Spider-Man and seven years writing Miles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case even though Oscar Bazaldua is one of Marvel’s best up and coming artists and can fill a page or double page spread with action and emotion beats. Speaking of emotion, Bendis’ farewell letter at the end is more moving than anything except Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor’s final page. I’m surprised I’m saying this about a Bendis comic, but Spider-Man could have used one more issue with the return of Uncle Aaron/Helicarrier theft storyline ending in Spider-Man #240, and the next issue acting as a proper send off for Bendis’ work with Miles Morales and Spider-Man instead of this rush job/bottle episode.

After a cliched present-to-flashback sequence, Spider-Man #240 has a pretty nice fight sequence between the Champions, the new Sinister Six, and the Latverian army. Bendis and Bazaldua even make the stakes personal with both Miles and his uncle Aaron tumbling off the Helicarrier with a black and gold color palette from Laura Martin in an almost silent double page spread. But, then, it all cuts to black, and we’re back in the hospital. There’s a lot of fades to blacks and hospital scenes like Bendis was simultaneously streaming the ER and Sopranos finale while scripting his own finale. To go with this, there’s a lot of telling and not showing and a bunch of abrupt cuts in the storyline like Bendis was trying to set up a quick subplot or two at the end and didn’t resolve it.

For example, Miles is in the hospital after his battle with the Latverians because there is something up with his genetic code, but we never find out what it is even after a shoehorned Tony Stark cameo. Bendis also seems to be setting up a new path for Miles and his new writer with a connection to espionage, but cuts before the “reveal” of the Marvel Universe big shot, who wants his help. Less egregiously, he resolves a Ganke subplot with expository dialogue and hand waves the ending of the issue’s opening battle with an off panel Avengers appearance. Dialogue is still one of Bendis’ strengths, and he has a lot of fun with the banter between the Champions members (And Goldballs!) without resorting to awkward “millennial speak” like Mark Waid, but seeing Miles’ mom Rio interact with Captain America would have been way cooler than just a word balloon.

Also, Bendis and Bazaldua drop the ball when it comes to the interactions between Miles and his Uncle Aaron in Spider-Man #240, which was the through line of this final arc as Miles tries to help his uncle use his technological skill for good and not crime. Aaron disappears during the final battle and then reappears at Miles’ hospital bed in a darkly lit scene from colorist Martin. Bendis’ writing for Aaron is simple; his time with Miles over the past few days has helped him think about doing good. But then there are some really awkward visuals like a close-up of Miles utterly freaking out when Aaron touches his hand before yet another fade to black. Intentional or not, there is a dreamy quality to the hospital scenes, and it is like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again” where Buffy think she has hallucinated the past six years of her life. Thankfully, Bendis doesn’t go for “It was all a dream” cop out ending, but the hospital setting limits the type of interactions Miles can have and hamstrings the whole ending.

However, Spider-Man #240 isn’t all bad, and there is one series of scenes that made me smile. Brian Michael Bendis and Oscar Bazaldua spend a decent amount of time closing the curtain on the main constant in Bendis’ run writing Miles Morales: the friendship between Miles and Ganke. (There’s a reason that they’re the sole stars of the final Pichelli and Ponsor drawn page.) After weird medical testing talk, it’s refreshing to just listen to them talk about girls, video games, and how crazy their lives have been. After fighting supervillains and Latverians, Miles just wants to hang out and be a regular teenager. Bazaldua also includes a nice sight gag of Spider-Man (The Peter Parker one) lounging in a web hammock outside the hospital room in a great nod to Miles’ origin as taking on the dead Spider-Man’s legacy in the Ultimate Universe as well as Bendis’ 11 years of writing Peter in Ultimate Spider-Man.

Some cool flight blocking from Oscar Bazaldua, smart color shifts from Laura Martin, and every time Ganke shows up, Spider-Man #240 is an unceremonious end to Brian Michael Bendis’ time writing Miles Morales. There were some good ideas in this storyline, like the return of his “Uncle Ben figure,” Aaron Davis, but it’s squandered with start and stop subplots, and can we seriously stop with the fading to black panels. Bendis stuck the landing with Jessica Jones and Defenders as farewells to his other big Marvel creation and his work on street level and team books, but sadly strikes out in his final issue of the book that got him in the door and made him a star back in 2000.

Story: Brian Michael Bendis Art: Oscar Bazaldua Colors: Laura Martin with Matt Milla and Peter Pantazis Final Page Art: Sara Pichelli with Justin Ponsor
Story: 5  Art: 8 Overall: 5.5  Recommendation: Pass

Marvel Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27

USM26CoverBack 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 #26-27  (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Ultimate Spider-Man #26 starts by showing the fight between Spider-Man and Green Goblin from SHIELD’s POV where Nick Fury gives the order to fire on the Goblin after Mary Jane is dropped. Then, it cuts to Mary Jane waking up in Peter’s arms where he tells her go to an abandoned warehouse to be safe while he and the SHIELD helicopters battle the Green Goblin. Spider-Man is holding back at all against the Green Goblin, and he is a little freaked out between trying to balance, dodge helicopter gunshots, and fight the physically stronger Green Goblin. However, the Goblin’s Oz formula is starting to wear off so he returns to the penthouse for a cocktail of injections and runs into his son, Harry. The Green Goblin makes Harry pass out by saying the trigger word “cellar door” and then become veinier and Hulk-ier and throws Spider-Man through a window. The comic ends with Harry slowly waking up and seeing the Green Goblin clutching an unmasked Spider-Man while there are SHIELD helicopters outside. Someone has some splainin’ to do.

Ultimate Spider-Man #27 opens from Harry’s POV, and he realizes that his father is the Green Goblin and Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Green Goblin is about to squeeze Spidey to death, but he has enough energy for one last kick before webbing a piece of debris as the Green Goblin takes the fight outside to the civilians. Spider-Man pleads with him to keep the fight contained before Harry unexpectedly impales him with a piece of rebar presumably killing him as the Green Goblin reverts back to Norman Osborn. Finally, Nick Fury and SHIELD agents come to clean up and collect both Osborns. Nick Fury tells Peter that he did an okay job and shouldn’t confide so much of his life as Spider-Man to Mary-Jane, who is confirmed to be safe. Then, he says that as an “illegal genetic mutation” that Peter will become a property of the U.S. government and SHIELD, which he’s obviously not a big fan of. Furious, Spider-Man swings away, which Fury is cool with after he dropped that bombshell. The issue ends with Peter and Mary Jane embracing, and then Mary Jane telling that he didn’t do a good job communicating his problems with the Osborn. Mark Bagley and Art Thibert draw them seated apart on the final, silent page showing that their relationship is now strained, the complete opposite of their total adoration in Ultimate Spider-Man #13.

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In the final two issues of the “Legacy” arc, writer Brian Michael Bendis takes a step back for a bit and lets Bagley and Thibert flex their action chops and draw a Spider-Man, who isn’t holding back one bit after Mary-Jane almost died. The speed lines come fast and furious as Spidey tries to beat the crap out of a physically stronger opponent in the Green Goblin and even makes the presumably jaded agents of SHIELD shudder a little bit. With the exception of some cluttered panels, Bendis, Bagley, Thibert, and the colorists at Digital Transparency Studios bring in Goblin’s drug addiction, Spider-Man’s fear and anger at his family being threatened, and SHIELD non-interference interference into play during several extended action sequences. The more Oz he takes, the dumber and stronger the Green Goblin gets. I’m more of a fan of the smarter, conniving Osborn a la Dark Reign so it’s refreshing to get dumb Goblin for only a few pages versus a couple issues in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man.

There is a real sense of danger in the battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27. For the most part, he’s substituted strategy for rage and emptying his web cartridges, and Bendis’ clipped, freaked out inner monologue plays off this feeling along with him losing his costume yet again. He’s had his share of victories, but Spidey is still kind of winging at a superhero. Trying to avoid bullets and Goblin fireballs, holding onto a building, and stopping civilians from being crushed by debris is tougher than it looks. This is why Bagley and Thibert draw Spider-Man constantly on edge trying to contort his body and stay one step ahead of the Green Goblin. He’s still just a kid.

GrossGoblin

I wouldn’t say that the Green Goblin is scary per se in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27, but Bagley leans on some horror influences and draws him super grotesquely. Throughout both issues and even when he’s verbal, the Green Goblin is always slobbering some disgusting green mixture that is either like an animal foaming at the mouth or an addict vomiting during an overdose. To be honest, it looks like the ooze that gave the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles their abilities, but Digital Transparency uses the most unappealing shade of green so that pizzas and underground lairs are the last thing on your mind. It complements his hellish red eyes and shows how inhuman Norman Osborn has become in his quest for power. Like a rabid dog, maybe it’s time for him to be put down.

Even though he doesn’t explicitly call Peter “son” like he did in Ultimate Spider-Man #25, the father/son dynamic between Norman and Peter and Harry plays a crucial role in the conclusion of the “Legacy” arc, and by extension, two years of Ultimate Spider-Man stories with long breaks for Kingpin and reality show contestants. However, Norman’s attention switches to Harry in Ultimate Spider-Man #26 and #27 when he accidentally sees him slavering and taking the Oz drugs. Unlike Spider-Man, who he wants to groom as an ally and possible heir apparent to his genetic mutation “throne”, Harry is just an afterthought. He’s an embarrassment to Norman, who wants him to know as little as possible about his real work. That ends in an intense six panel grid of Harry realizing what’s going on before Norman puts that hypnotherapy to work and uses a kind of killswitch to make him faint.

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But Harry isn’t just an innocent victim, who gets saved by Spider-Man. He has been inducted into a world of superhumans and mutations that he has witnessed with his own, two, heavily medicated, yet still human eyes. And, in Ultimate Spider-Man #27, he actively joins the narrative when he kills the Green Goblin with a sharp piece of wood to stop his friend Peter from being crushed to death by his father. Bagley goes full epic with his art during this moment surrounding the page with reaction shots of Peter, SHIELD Agent Quartermain, and even the Goblin himself while Harry is the picture of remorse on his face. In this moment, he goes from being a side character with little or no agency to a double for Spider-Man. Peter Parker was partially responsible for the death of his father figure, Uncle Ben, and now Harry Osborn is solely responsible for his own father’s death because he wanted to save his friend and hero. Except he doesn’t get catharsis or any kind of , but gets shuffled off by SHIELD

SHIELD in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27 reminds me of the military in Doctor Who. They are reactive, mostly ineffectual, and then bulldoze in and take all the credit for everything. At least, their leader looks like Samuel L. Jackson. The opening of Ultimate Spider-Man #26 shows that SHIELD almost got Mary Jane killed, and their job for most of the issue is to piss off the Green Goblin by constant helicopter gunship and sniper fire. It’s the tactical equivalent of using guns to fight the Hulk. SHIELD really only gets their act together after the Green Goblin has been taken down and proves that they’re basically a more expensive, less discreet version of Mike Ehrmentraut from Breaking Bad with plasma shields and anti-grav boots.

FuryTruthBomb

Nick Fury and SHIELD reach peak dickishness in Ultimate Spider-Man #27 when Fury drops the bomb that Peter Parker is government property once he’s of voting and cigarette smoking age. This makes sense with the whole Superhuman Test Ban mentioned in Ultimates, which considers him to be a WMD. And Bagley and Thibert draw Peter like only someone whose freedom is going to be taken away in a few years with his face a mix of sadness, anger, and the feeling that he wants to do to Nick Fury what he just did to the Green Goblin. This is yet another instance of the Parker luck as Spider-Man only has a limited time to be a friendly neighbor superhero before Fury puts him on a superhuman black ops team with the murderers Hawkeye and Black Widow and the incestuous, ex-terrorists Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. At least, he makes one hell of an exit, swinging through a window, and scoffing at Fury’s “big boy’s club” aka superheroes, who do George W. Bush’s dirty work.

PeterMJSad

Instead of ending with a teaser for the next villain or an epic superhero battle, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley close out the “Legacy” arc with a character moment. Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship has hit some snags in this past arc, and Peter/Bendis finally let her speak and confront Peter for not telling her anything about Norman Osborn’s abilities and plans. When he told her his secret identity back in issue 13, Peter was supposed to be open about his life as Spider-Man and confide in her. But he has shut her out, and this didn’t make her safe, but put her in danger. And Peter is still pretty reticent to talk about what happened to Harry, and thus we get our final page of Peter and Mary Jane spaced apart and not speaking. It’s not a breakup, but Peter’s double life as Spider-Man has hurt their relationship. This issue is kind of like a sad version of Ultimate Spider-Man #13, which was when they grew closer in attraction and being honest about their feelings plus Peter’s life as Spider-Man.

Some of the panels in the action scenes are a little busy, but Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert end the rematch between Spider-Man in a grotesque, slightly unexpected way that still riffs off the “father/son” theme they have building since Ultimate Spider-Man #1 and gives Ultimate Harry Osborn his big moment for better or worse. Plus there’s bonus satire of SHIELD and Mark Millar’s take on the Ultimate Universe in general, and Bendis and Bagley show the consequences of Peter Parker’s life as Spider-Man on his closest friend and lover, Mary Jane Watson and don’t hold back at all.

P.S.: “Back to School” is going on hiatus because I have returned to (graduate) school, but it will return…

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.

GoblinTrippy

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.

NoTheyDidnt

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.

CalmDownHotshot

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.

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21

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 #20-21 (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Live from New York City is the Kraven the Hunter and Dr. Octopus show aka Ultimate Spider-Man #20! While the Kraven van is traversing the “wilds of New Jersey” to intercept Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus is trashing Justin Hammer’s limo and trying to get him to confess to his illegal genetic experiments to the reporters. This causes Spider-Man to get involved even though he’s sympathetic to the fact that Doc Ock has huge metal tentacles grafted to his body. They fight back and forth, and Dr. Octopus has some special upgrades to his arms like electric shocks and machine guns. The TV reporter on the scene starts to get Spider-Man’s story right and points out his selflessness at trying to keep the fight away from the journalists and camera people. The turning point in the battle when Spider-Man hilariously pants Doc Ock with his webbing, and this distracts the villain enough for Spidey to finally deliver a beatdown and break some of his tentacles. The TV reporter, Traci Hale, is about to get Spider-Man’s side of the story when Kraven shows up at the worst time possible.

Ultimate Spider-Man #21 begins with Kraven wanting to fight Spider-Man to the death while the hero just wants to save Justin Hammer’s assistant from the wreckage of his limo and go home.  (Hammer has just passed away from a heart attack.) The fight between Spider-Man and Kraven is ridiculously one-sided, and Spidey knocks out the “showbiz phony” with one punch. Before swinging away, Spider-Man talks to Hale about why he’s a superhero and acknowledges that the mask might scare people off, but he wants to protect the people close to him from crazy supervillains and glory hounds like Kraven. Everything seems to be coming up Spider-Man when the NYPD arrests Kraven and his camera crew for their actions, and Sharon Carter and SHIELD takes Dr. Octopus into custody. However, the Parker luck strikes again when Aunt May asks about Peter’s whereabouts when he comes home at 3 AM, and he can’t lie convincingly to her. She is afraid of losing him, and this triumphant superhero is officially grounded. The comic ends with Dr. Octopus mumbling to himself in a SHIELD cell about how Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Uh oh…

Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley seriously stick the landing in the final two issues of “Double Trouble”, get what Spider-Man’s all about, and even write Aunt May like a realistic, caring parent and not a naive doormat. Ultimate Spider-Man #20 is masterfully paced with just enough Kraven and walks and chews bubblegum by featuring the final throwdown between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus along with the shift in media perception of him. Bagley and inker Art Thibert show Spidey leap, kick, and contort while the news reporter on the scene realizes his strategy of keeping the battle away from the TV cameras and the selflessness of protecting Justin Hammer, a man who majorly trashed him in the press. Most of the issue is laid out in “widescreen” double page spreads like it’s on TV and Traci Hale’s narrative captions juxtaposed with the action shots makes it feel like we’re an audience and not in Spider-Man’s head like in previous issues.

On the surface and for the meat of the plot, “Double Trouble” is about Spider-Man struggling against and finally beating a 21st century reimagining of his classic villain, Dr. Octopus. But the real bad guy in the arc has been public perception of Spider-Man, which comes from a variety of things, including the bias of the Daily Bugle, the fact that Justin Hammer pinned nuclear sabotage on him, and the fact that he wears a mask and is shy around cameras not wielded by his alter ego, Peter Parker. That perception starts to turn around in Ultimate Spider-Man #20 and #21, and the most triumphant moment of the arc isn’t when he finally takes down Doc Ock, but when the bystanders and press on hand start cheering for him. Spider-Man has taken his share of beatings recently, and it’s nice to see him pull out a win in both his own and the public’s eye.

To take things a step further beyond Spider-Man’s in-story relation to the press, Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21 and the “Double Trouble” story as a whole are a battle between reality TV and news journalism, or news for entertainment versus news for knowledge and truth. As a former cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brian Michael Bendis has made news media a recurring theme in Ultimate Spider-Man, especially through the supporting character of dogged reporter Ben Urich, who takes down the Kingpin in the comic’s second arc. Kraven’s reality TV antics and the Daily Bugle and talk shows’ negative perception are targets of Bendis’ ire throughout the arc while an actual on-camera interview with Spider-Man and a filmed news story of him gets more positive treatment. The satire is definitely painted with a broad brush, but Bendis and Bagley show that mixing news and entertainment can be deadly in the case of Justin Hammer’s death and Kraven’s action. Bendis extols the virtues of fair, transparent reporting that exposes corrupt institution, like Traci Hale’s work with Spider-Man and the real story behind the attack on Justin Hammers factory, and is a little bit hampered by the fact that he wears a mask. Also, he doesn’t play a role in the plot, but Ben Urich is the last media member to leave when SHIELD takes charge of the crime scene.

The scene where reporter Traci Hale interviews Spider-Man gets why he is such a lovable, everyman type of hero. Unlike Dr. Octopus’ almost religious utterances of grandeur, Justin Hammer trying to make a profit illegally and get away with it, and Kraven’s insensitive showboating, Spider-Man is “like this guy who [fell] backward into some powers”. Bendis’ use of “like” and his straight shooting response to the reporter, Spidey sounds like a kid, who isn’t quite ready for prime time, but has values and convictions to go with the jokes about him being the product of spiders and humans cross-breeding. I liked how Bagley cuts from the interview to Mary Jane and the Daily Bugle staff watching him on TV to show that his message are getting out there through the news media even though Peter doesn’t interact in person with MJ in these two issues.

Kraven being treated like a total and utter joke and not a “final boss” type villain in the slightest is really cathartic after all the panel time he has hogged in this storyline. He gets to be the cliffhanger of Ultimate Spider-Man #20 eliciting groans from Spider-Man, the media, and all the bystanders after Spidey has put his body and life on the line to protect them from Dr. Octopus’ rampage. Up to this point, Kraven has taken himself way too seriously with Bagley’s close-ups of his pre-hunt “meditation ritual” and his constant grandstanding about wanting to kill Spider-Man. So, it’s pretty awesome to see Spider-Man demolish him in a few pages, dodging all of his blows easily with the whoosh of Bagley and Thibert’s speed lines, and finishing him off with one punch that has him crumple woozily like a college freshman at the end of their first bender. The one punch finish is both a reminder of how “fake” reality shows are and a reminder that Spider-Man cares about more important things, like justice and his family, than ratings or demos. But why did Kraven the Hunter need so much panel time in the first place? I guess it was Bendis and Bagley trying to troll fans of “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and set him up as an actual threat hidden beneath cringeworthy reality TV tropes and then showing that he really is just a tomato can of a baddie.

Unfairly, Mark Bagley sometimes gets accused of copying and reusing panels in his artwork and collaborations with Brian Michael Bendis. Well, he definitely puts that idea to rest in the closing scene of Ultimate Spider-Man #21 where he proves he and Art Thibert can do domestic drama just as well as spreads of Spider-Man swinging, kicking, and webbing. His facial work is stellar during the extended conversation between Peter and Aunt May, but his gesture work is even better like the three panels of May putting up one finger each when she grounds Peter from the Daily Bugle, seeing Mary Jane, and makes him go straight home from school. It’s kind of funny to see a triumphant superhero get upbraided by his guardian, but Bendis and Bagley add some pathos too like when May cries in her hands after sending Peter to his room. She truly worries for her nephew, who is the only family she has left after Uncle Ben’s death.

On a realism level, Aunt May is bound to have some questions about Peter’s bruises that he gets from fighting crime and his unexplained whereabouts, especially when he goes to fight Dr. Octopus in New Jersey. Bendis doesn’t portray her as a fool when she calls all of his possible locations, including the Daily Bugle and Mary Jane’s house, and May leaves Peter enough rope to hang himself with his lies. You can see the pain and exhaustion in her face when she tells Peter that she is afraid for him and doesn’t want to lose him, like Ben. Honestly, grounding seems like a suitable punishment if someone doesn’t know about his superhero alter ego of Spider-Man, and this scene is a reminder that even though he is improving as a superhero, Spidey is just a teenager and doesn’t have full freedom just yet.

I applaud Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley for deciding to end the “Double Trouble” arc of Ultimate Spider-Man on a character beat in a similar way to Ultimate Spider-Man #13. Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21 is a perfect, modern version of the “Parker luck”. Sure, Spider-Man now has a positive media reception and has defeated both Dr. Octopus and Kraven the Hunter, but he’s grounded because he came home late and lied multiple time to his aunt. This part of Spider-Man’s character is super relatable because honestly it’s hard to keep all the balls juggling in your personal, family, romantic, work, and school lives and be successful at all of them. Also, being grounded sucks and is a more realistic obstacle than Aunt May marrying Dr. Octopus or the wackier situations of Silver Age Spider-Man.

In Ultimate Spider-Man #20-21, Bendis and Bagley combine a parent’s worst fear with superhero melodrama and it’s the winning formula to finish off “Double Trouble”. Ultimate Spider-Man #20 is especially clever because readers get to see the shift in Spider-Man’s perception by the outside observers in real time because his fight against Dr. Octopus is being filmed by the evening news and other media outlets.

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.

Ultimate Spider-Man 1:10 Scale ArtFX+ Statue

Miles Morales is Ultimate Spider-Man, and in this statue he crouches low in his black costume with red highlights, left hand extended to sling a web. The Ultimate Spider-Man 1:10 Scale ArtFX+ Statue measures just over 4-inches tall and is ready to swing onto your shelf! Pre-order now.

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Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man Vs. The Sinister Six – “Return to the Spider-Verse: Part Three” Clip

BIG HEROES! BIG VILLAINS! AND BIGGER ADVENTURES this week, Share Your Universe with a brand new episode of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man Vs. The Sinister Six this Saturday at 8:00pm/7:00c on Disney XD.

Spider-Man and Kid Arachnid arrive in the Noir Universe, where they have to stop a gang war while trying to prevent Mr. Negative from using the Siege Perilous to drain all the life and color out of the world in the all-new Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man Vs. The Sinister Six airing Saturday, September 10 at 8:00pm/7:00c on Disney XD.

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