Comics Time: Ultimate Spider-Man #131

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Ultimate Spider-Man #131

Brian Michael Bendis, writer

Stuart Immonen, artist

Marvel, February 2009

32 pages

$2.99

The problems with Marvel’s Ultimate line were easy to spot from the start. Its appeal stemmed from its freshness: You didn’t need to be conversant with decades of continuity to understand it, you could get a thrill out of seeing familiar characters and concepts appear and behave in entertainingly new ways, and because the series were all brand new the writers could tie them to their cultural and political moment much more tightly than could writers of characters whose first appearances involved atomic testing or the Vietnam War. In all three cases, eventual obsolescence was, if not planned, then at least inherent: After a few years the books would develop convoluted continuity of their own, the novelty of the tweaks would wear off, the writers would run out of A-listers and start introducing lesser characters to dwindling returns, and the cultural and political environment would shift even as the characters would be stuck in corporate-superhero aging limbo. What’s more, and this was harder to anticipate, the mainline Marvel Universe would itself become Ultimatized, as Ultimate writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar were hired to apply their “realistic,” paramilitary spin on superheroes to the company’s flagship titles.

So it was inevitable that each of the Ultimate books would reach its sell-by date sooner or later. For me, Ultimate X-Men navigated strong runs by Millar, Bendis, and Brian K. Vaughan but was undone by a combination of Robert Kirkman’s “I Love the ’90s” nostalgia and a slow drift from depicting the characters, particularly Wolverine (who now looks exactly the same as his Marvel U. counterpart), as teenagers, which was part of what made it work. Ultimates lost steam in its second volume, which featured the introduction of magical antagonists in a way that didn’t jibe with the basic premise of the book and also suffered from writer Millar’s usual tics (self-impressed dialogue, lack of earned peripeteia). Ultimate Fantastic Four, originally a collaboration between Millar and Bendis, unimaginatively recast the FF as kids to no discernible benefit, then handed the reins to Warren Ellis for dreary and unscary reimaginings of their two best villains, Dr. Doom and (in spin-offs) “Gah Lak Tus.” The less said about miniseries like Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra, Ultimate Vision, and (remember this?) Ultimate Adventures, to say nothing of Loeb’s Ultimates 3, the better.

The one lasting highlight? Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Bendis’s starmaking series and the line’s heart, if not its flagship (that would be Ultimates). Cooked up by Marvel’s then-President Bill Jemas as a reaction to a mainline Peter Parker who seemed hopelessly old and square (I think Jemas once compared him to late-period Billy Joel), the series stars a teen version of the Wall-Crawler and is the closest thing superhero comics have ever served up (completely unintentionally as best I can tell) to shonen manga. The length of its run (well over 100 issues at this point, a virtually singular accomplishment among non-creator owned superhero comics today), the big-eyed art of longtime penciller Mark Bagley, the age of its protagonists, and Bendis’s never less than deft combination of genuinely kick-ass superhero combat and intrigue with teen romance and angst all evoke Japan’s bread-and-butter boys’ adventure series. A brief slump in the upper-double-digit issues gave way to strong arcs wrapping up long-running storylines, while a recent, seamless transition from Bagley to Stuart Immonen gave the book a more polished look and a more faithful window into teen fashion and physical comportment. Of the four for-the-ages superhero titles that made me a Bendis believer and a regular superhero-comic reader in the early part of this decade–the others were Daredevil, since handed by Bendis and Alex Maleev to the equally capable Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark; Alias, the mature-readers super-private-eye collaboration with Michael Gaydos (starring best-new-female-character-in-years Jessica Jones), preemptively shuttered by Bendis, who subsequently picked up its plot threads in less satisfactory fashion in his mainstream-Marvel titles The Pulse and New Avengers; Powers, Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s creator-owned cops-and-capes procedural, hampered by erratic scheduling ever since its move from Image to Marvel’s Icon imprint–Ultimate Spider-Man is the only one still going strong.

So it pains me some to see it gamely playing along with Loeb’s reboot, which doesn’t seem like half the book USM is at its worst–but fortunately, the USM tie-in issues, of which this is one, are FAR from USM at its worst. Indeed, this is exactly how big event crossovers should be done. Bendis takes the simultaneously goofy and gruesome conceit at the heart of Loeb’s series–Magneto steals Thor’s hammer and uses it to drown Manhattan in a tsunami, killing millions–and treats it completely seriously, casting Spider-Man’s heroism against a genuinely traumatic and tragic backdrop. Bendis also takes the opportunity to shake up the supporting cast: Just before the flood hits, Aunt May is arrested under suspicion that she knows Spidey’s identity; during the flood, J. Jonah Jameson spots Spider-Man trying to help people while JJJ himself heads for the hills, and realizing everything he’d said about Spidey was bullshit, completely changes his tune; Spider-Woman, here interpreted as a clone of Peter, returns (presumably to take the reins after the reboot). Bendis makes great use of the definitive event trope–crossover appearances by other characters–by dodging the fight/team-up binary: Daredevil, who in the Ultimate Universe is kind of an asshole to Spider-Man, shows up but only as a dead body, a pretty traumatic thing for Peter to discover; the Hulk shows up too, alternating between his old-school childlike monster persona and the destructive weapon of mass destruction approach, which means you get both the classic Spidey-Hulk vibe you remember from your childhood and the raw terror of Spidey fleeing from his life from the Cloverfield monster in purple pants that the Ultimate Universe version of that relationship could be expected to provide. For his part, Immonen’s figurework is loose yet clearly thought-through–it’s very appealing, particularly his floppy, blocky hairstyles–and he has a knack for whacked-out visuals like J. Jonah Jameson’s picture windows revealing the fact that the Daily Planet building is almost totally underwater.

I have no idea where Ultimatum will leave Ultimate Spider-Man, and no particular desire to find out where it will leave the rest of the Ultimate line. But for now, it’s providing Bendis and Immonen an opportunity to do Spider-Man vs. the Apocalypse, and they’re seizing that opportunity with gusto. Good for them. I hope there are 131 more issues.

4 Responses to Comics Time: Ultimate Spider-Man #131

  1. Hmm. I lost interest in the book during the “Hollywood” and “Hobgoblin” storylines, sticked around for a bit and dropped out for good when things didn’t pick up–the last paperback I bought was of the “Warriors” arc, I think.

    Mainly, I think the problem you identify as being part of Kirkman’s run is what’s plagued the entire Ultimate line–the only difference is that in Kirkman’s case it was “I love the 1990s,” whereas everybody else made it “I love the 1960s, 1970′s, 1980s AND 1990s.” Millar’s run on ULTIMATE X-MEN in particular mainly got its juice by playing off the expectations of people who were already familiar with the “mainstream” version, and Bendis’ stuff hasn’t been much different.

    Another early flaw, I think, is that they went and came up with an “Ultimate Universe,” rather than to have each title in its own world. It’s a squandered opportunity–just think of the great stuff you can do with the X-Men and their themes when they DON’T have to be considerate of a universe that’s already filled with other superheroes.

  2. Jim D. says:

    Huh. I liked Ultimates 2 way, WAY better than the first volume. Maybe it was the lack of Freddie Prinze, Jr. jokes.

  3. Sean B says:

    That spread of Spidey saving that woman while JJJ looked on from inside the office was mind-blowing superhero greatness in terms of layout and effect. Really. I’m going to miss Immonen on this title.

  4. Martin says:

    I also agree that Ultimates 2 was superior. If any part of Ultimates was slow, it was the first half of Ultimates 1, where all the characters were introduced. Ultimates 3 was, of course, wretched.

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