Ultimate comics: Spider-man

Ultimate comics : Spider-Man / Brian Michael Bedis ; Sara Pichelli

So, this is a series I’ve watned to review for a while but since it’s in “decompressed” Marvel style it’s been kind of difficult to do so because I wasn’t finding a good “cutoff” point for which volumes to review. It wasn’t until recently (I’m writing this in November) when I realized that the series called Ultimate comics: Spider-man had in fact been cancelled and was being continued under a new name with new numbering.

“Perfect!” says I, “now I’ve got a defined set of issues to review, since I already own the whole series”.

I also says to myself “that would explain why nobody ever has volume 6 of this series”.

Background info aside, here’s the review.

Ultimate comics: Spider-man is a 28-issue series about a boy who is bitten by a spider who then gains spider-themed superpowers. Spider-man must then attempt to come to terms with the fact that with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-man is also forced to juggle school, friendships, and the risks associated with keeping his Spider-man identity and his Miles Morales identity separate.

Wait, Miles Morales? I thought Peter Parker was Spider-man…

Well, here’s the point where it becomes necessary to dive into …

THE PLOT SUMMARY

While celebrating his acceptence at a prestigious private high school in New York City at his uncle Aaron’s home, Miles Morales is bitten by a mysterious spider and gains superpowers. Coincidentally, sometime later Spider-man is killed and his secret identity is revealed to the world.

With the help of a store-bought Hallowe’en costume, Miles Morales decides to continue the work Peter Parker started.

So how is it?

I have mixed feelings about it. I really enjoy the series but there are some serious potential flaws that make me a little more hesitant than I might otherwise be at making a definitive recommendation.

As an attempt to address the extreme lack of diversity in mainstream comics it does a good job. Miles is an instantly likeable character, and Bendis does a good job of avoiding tokenism. (Note to Matt Stone and Trey Parker: Naming your token character “Token” and then using him as a mouthpiece for your own views isn’t subversive)

As an example of pulling a “we killed off/disabled/time-travelled the main hero and we’re putting somebody new in its place” it does a far better job than Marvel normally does. Miles is totally distinct from Peter Parker, but the important thematic elements that make a Spider-man story a Spider-man story are still there. The book is character driven (when the character isn’t being forced to participate in one of those obnoxious “events” that make no sense out of context) which does a lot to prevent Miles from feeling like a temporary stand-in for Peter Parker. The characters have different strengths as well. Miles Morales is not the scientific genius that Peter Parker is (although this aspect of Peter’s character was toned down in the Ultimate universe anyways). He’s still an intelligent character, but his strengths seem to run to more abstract disciplines than they do the hard sciences. This is portrayed in a fairly subtle way – it’s overt, in that Miles attends a school “for the gifted”, but it’s reinforced by the books he reads. It’s these subtle touches that make the series more enjoyable. It probably helps my enjoyment that Morales is also a fan of the Muppets as well.

The characterization of J. Jonah Jameson in the series is particularly strong as well. It’s a relatively new turn for the character, as Jameson is wracked with guilt over the way he vilified the Peter Parker Spider-man before his death. Jameson then attempts to atone for his actions, actively squashing attempts to reveal the new Spider-man’s identity.

Ultimate Spider-man was my favorite of the Ultimate line, partially because it retained a sense of humor that most superhero comics seem to have abandoned. Yeah, the “gritty 80s” period is still over but superhero comics still take themselves way too seriously for a concept that’s massively silly on its face. Millar’s Ultimates was definitely the worst offender here, but any Marvel crossover event also qualifies. Ultimate Comics: Spider-man maintains its sense of humor – there’s a running joke about how Miles’s adoption of the Spider-man name and costume is “in poor taste”, amongst other more lighthearted moments.

On a more abstract level, Spider-man is traditionally driven by guilt. That element is present in this series as well (although it’s not introduced as early as it was in the Amazing Spider-man) but the self-doubt that plagues Miles is initially more along the lines of Bedlam – is evil something you are, or something you do? Miles’s father is a reformed criminal, and his uncle Aaron is a supervillain. Does that mean Miles has it in himself to be evil? It’s a question he struggles with continuously. Yes, Miles decides that he is “Spider-man no more” more than once – it’s practically mandatory for superheroes (see also: Batgirl, Peter Parker, Hawkeye, Daredevil, Superman, et al.). Bendis does a good job of making these decisions justified by the context and not just by teen angst.

It’s not all perfect though. Structurally, it’s pure decompressed comics. While this does make for compelling reading, it also means that it takes forever for anything to happen. Miles doesn’t acquire a “real” costume until the very last page of the first trade. The story doesn’t drag, it’s engrossing the whole way through, but it means that there’s even less resolution than usual for the genre and the reader is frequently left wanting. It’s well executed, but it’s a little frustrating that so many questions are left unresolved at the end of each volume. Ultimately, it’s a matter of stylistic preference. I feel like in context it creates a story that’s focused more on character development than it is big set-pieces battles, which is a massive plus for me and outweighs my frustrations with the lack of resolution.

The other issue is that despite its attempt to bring more diversity into mainstream comics, Ultimate comics: Spider-man is still written for people already familiar with the genre. For the most part Bendis does a good job of letting context explain references to previous events, but it’s not a series that will bring people into the genre. Bendis talkes a lot about the importance of inclusive comics, but he’s still not particularly good at writing women and there aren’t very many female characters that get any development. It’s not until towards the end of the series that any female characters not tied to Peter Parker or who aren’t Miles’s mother get any time or development. That being said, Morales is younger than Peter Parker was and we’re largely spared the absurd oversexualization of the female characters we do get. Somebody, I don’t remember who so I can’t credit them properly, described superhero comics as “soap operas for boys”, and that’s firmly where this series falls. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and Miles Morales is a good step on the road to increased representation in comics, but that doesn’t mean the series is perfect.

My biggest issue with the series has nothing to do with the series itself, it’s an editorial issue. Marvel likes to do the big annual crossover event, but it’s not nearly as good at integrating them into the ongoing series as DC is (although neither one of them does it very well). This becomes a problem for people like me, who only read the trades and who only read one series at a time (this is the only comic in the “Ultimate” line I read) because suddenly there are these massive upheavals and the government has declared martial law and Spider-man is fighting giants and I have no context and it’s kind of frustrating. I’d rather they omitted these issues entirely and collected them elsewhere, but the problem is that some important character development occurs in these issues so without them subsequent actions, especially by Miles’s father, wouldn’t make sense. It’s annoying and really detracts from my enjoyment of the series.

By the way: How is Ganke’s name supposed to be pronounced? In my head I see it as the (likely to be considered obscene by machine translation but not by a meatperson) 干可 but given that it’s written “Ganke” and not “Gan Ke”, I keep wondering whether or not it’s supposed to one syllable.

Recommendation

I really like this series, despite its flaws. It’s much easier to recommend than, say, Identity crisis*, and avoids two of the three major pitfalls of mainstream superhero comics. This is a concept that I just made up, but I’ll describe it as follows:

1) Plot exists only to shuttle characters from fight scene to fight scene

2) Abundance of absurdly oversexualized female characters

3) Plots that require knowledge of 40+ years of comics history and/or that require reading multiple series to decode

Ultimate comics: Spider-man avoids the first two fairly well, and is better than average on the third, but I still can’t really recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have at least a slight passing familiarity with superhero comics. The recent popularity of superhero TV/movies mitigates this effect somewhat.

So if you read superhero comics, you should definitely read this one. If you don’t read superhero comics because they exist primarily as escapist fantasies for upper-middle class white dudes then this is still worth checking out. It’s not going to change anybody’s mind about the worthiness of the superhero comic as a genre though.

This got really really long. Next post will certainly be shorter

*I recently read a Grant Morrison interview where he talks about his issues with Identity crisis, and he obviously had a very, very different interpretation of it than I did. Reading around a little more it seems like a lot of people interpreted it his way, which makes me have second thoughts about my review. I re-read it and my interpretation is still the one that makes the most sense to me though, and I continue to enjoy it. Still, my take on the story seems to be the minority one online. I think the ending is the issue and it’s true that the ending doesn’t really match up with my vision of the story but that’s a cognitive dissonance that I can live with.

So. other recommendations:

Ms. Marvel : no normal / G. Willow Wilson ; Adrian Alphona ; Jacob Wyatt
Batman and Robin : Batman reborn / Grant Morrison ; Frank Quitely – For me, this is the best “replacing a well-known superhero” story.
Batgirl : the darkest reflection / Gail Simone ; Vincente Cifuentes – This series has the same issue with poorly integrated crossovers, but it’s just as good
Runaways / Brian K. Vaughan ; Adrian Alphona ; Takeshi Miyazawa

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