In comic books there are a few simple truths. Dark Knight Returns will forever be read, Watchmen changed the way we think about storytelling, and Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the most consistently good reads. The series tackled the life of a high school kid incredibly well, with dating, breakups, and jealousy all written in a realistic way. It took its time with the storytelling so that a kid from New York becoming a superhero made sense and developed in a natural way. Since the story was written with the long game in mind, the Ultimate Collection re-release of the stories stands the test of time.
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley
Publisher: Marvel Comics
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
The record-breaking run of Bendis and Bagley continues! Ultimate Hobgoblin makes his terrifying debut as Harry Osborn returns to Midtown High, harboring a dark secret that will affect the lives of all those around him – especially his best friend, Peter Parker. But where does Harry’s father – Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin – fit into all this? Then, the gang war to end all gang wars begins, when a retreat by the Kingpin opens up a power vacuum to be filled by the hard-hitting Hammerhead! To put these underworld titans out of business once and for all will take a group of Ultimate warriors, including Daredevil and Moon Knight! Spidey thinks he’s had trouble before…but nothing has ever made him declare “Peter Parker no more” – until now!
Why does this book matter?
Collecting Ultimate Spider-Man #72 to #85 (it also collects Volume 13 and 14 of the trade paperbacks), this volume picks up with Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship in a rocky place. He’s starting to see how he’s putting her in danger and is pushing her away. Meanwhile, Harry Osbourne comes back to school and something is not right with him. This volume also begins a Kingpin story, introduces Moon Knight, and even has appearances from Iron Fist and Black Cat!
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Not the best time in their relationship.
This volume could be split in half as you get two major storylines worth of comic. Brian Michael Bendis was clearly still at the top of his game with this series and slowly weaving in more superhero stuff into the average everyday life of Peter Parker. It’s clear early on in this series he was careful with keeping it grounded and in this volume you can tell things are getting more complicated than ever. That includes Black Cat trying to mack on Peter–and that relationship arc comes to a surprising and funny end here–and the introduction of Ultimate versions of some famous heroes. This volume brings the needle a bit closer to the 616 universe so to speak because Spider-Man is less a kid and more a hero.
That’s explored in part with Peter skipping school. Bendis writes a strong long game approach to Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane and it’s at once endearing, but also believable. As they drift apart–Peter is pushing her away really–Peter finds solace in being Spider-Man and that does bad things to his real life. You can see a clear arc of this from the beginning right up until the end of this book and it’s a nice example of how approaching superheroes with real world repercussions can pay off.
There’s also a well written arc involving a local police officer that Peter befriends. Bendis uses this character in some clever ways, like having Spider-Man call her to figure out what to do with a bunch of gang members and super powered characters. This relationship has a natural arc all the way to the end of this volume.
The Harry Osbourne element is possibly the strongest in this volume as Bendis approaches the cat and mouse element of Peter and Harry that dovetails into mucking with Mary Jane and Peter’s relationship. When they do end up fighting, it’s emotional and real, because how can a kid like Peter not be in tears wishing his friend would just stop? With the addition of Nick Fury, Bendis makes it clear Peter is too young and the drama of being a superhero too complicated for him. The classic approach of Peter managing one part of his life better than another is quite clear and ends up being a dramatic beat that’s fun to read.
Mark Bagley draws the hell out of this volume and it’s a wonder how consistently good his work is given the clockwork schedule these guys were on. Spider-Man looks fantastic, of course, and the superheroes who pop in look great too. Sight gags like Peter ogling Elektra’s boob window work well and Bagley is always subtly reminding us Peter is just a kid. Much of this collection contains double page layouts, with panels running more rectangularly to give the scope of a scene some breathing room. The battle with Harry as the flaming Goblin is a highlight with the action using every panel and page to its fullest. It’s these double page layouts that remind you this is best read in the paperback format because digital readers can’t give you the size to do these layouts justice.
Spider-Man vs. Moon Knight, who ya got?!
It can’t be perfect can it?
If you pick this up without reading previous volumes it can feel a tad disorienting. I’m surprised Marvel doesn’t insert a bit of a summary so we can get up to speed, though they probably expect readers to have bought the six volumes before this. It doesn’t take too long to figure out where we are in the lives of these characters, but it did take some guessing here and there. Once it gets rolling there are very few moments you’ll be lost (though Nick Fury’s relationship with Peter required some memory on my part).
That same problem involves how the book ends since it can’t keep going forever. The Kingpin storyline is set up midway through and never comes to a full stop. There’s an end of sorts, but you’ll finish this wishing for a bit more closure. That includes Mary Jane and Peter’s relationship, which who knows how long will result in a resolution.
Uh…is he okay?
The inclusion of superheroes like Iron Fist and Moon Knight is a nice touch, though they don’t get a lot of attention and end up feeling like window dressing here. It’s a matter of how much time Bendis can give them on the page–and maybe they showed up in other Ultimate series, I’m not sure–but they’re basically introduced so as to flesh out the superhero world and not much more. The book is titled Spider-Man after all, but these characters could have used more time to flesh them out or been weaved in a more fulfilling way.
Is It Good?
What is there to say about the Ultimate Spider-Man series that hasn’t already been said before? This is one of the staples in the Spider-Man canon because it was so thorough and so long lasting. I was in line to buy the first issue, skeptical and unsure how I felt about rebooting the greatest hero of all time, but Bendis and Bagley won over fans and offered one of the greatest runs of all time. This volume is an excellent chapter in the series and it contains so many great staples of the series it’s hard to count. If you haven’t read this series, the “Ultimate Collection” line is a great place to read it.