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Ultimate Spider-Man – Vol. 4-6 (Hardcover)

It’s probably hard writing the same comic with the same artist for the bones of a decade. Setting things up years in advance only to have them pay off down the line, trying to put a new slant on an existing mythology while updating it for a new audience. This middle section of the Bendis/Bagley run on Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t necessarily bad per se, but it lacks the energy and reckless fun which defined the start of the run and the sense of resolution that approached at the end of the run. It just is.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Your spidey-sense should be tingling...

Your spidey-sense should be tingling...

Bendis does introduce all sorts of elements in this section of the run that will pay off in the coming years and story arcs. The Kingpin is shown to be truly untouchable. Spider-Man develops a relationship with the X-Men as a unit. Gwen Stacy is killed in a unique and interesting manner. These are all elements which are fascinating in their own right.

There are other nice touches too – the metafictional element of a Doctor Octopus vs. Spider-Man movie, starring Bruce Campbell as Mysterio in an oddly relevent cameo; or the introduction of the Ultimate incarnation of the classic Spider-Man villainous team-up the Sinister Six (with Spider-Man as the sixth); or even the sign that Bendis is coming to grips with the fact that this is his own universe he is shaping, creating an arc centring around his own unique creation, Geldof (who would later be backported, for lack of a better phrase, to the mainstream Marvel universe). On that note, it’s worth remarking that a large portion of this collection coincides with Bendis’ stint on Ultimate X-Men, so maybe he was being stretched between the two books.

Inception, eh?

The problem is that – with one really major exception, which we’ll come to – nothing happens during this part of the run. It isn’t really a problem in mainstream comic books, because we’ve come to accept that criminals will survive and escape incarceration and characters who have survived to this point with survive no matter what’s thrown at them. The problem is that this isn’t the mainstream Marvel universe. Later on we see Bendis deliver closure to the vast majority of supporting players, and we generally see that prison is effective at holding freaks and menaces, but here it seems like he’s treading water.

Despite the fact that prison in general has proved relatively effective at holding his foes in this universe, Otto Octavius escapes twice in the space of so many arcs. Yes, he was part of a major breakout in one of those arcs which also included Norman Osborn, but Bendis has generally avoided bringing foes like Octavius back time and time again when they’ve been captured and killed. I can accept that it is a meta-reference to the film released around the same time, but it’s an example of the kind of problems which Bendis finds here.

Do you reckon that they carpool?

Do you reckon that they carpool?

Being honest, arcs like Ultimate Six work based solely on the ‘cool’ factor – it is impressive to see these villains reunited here because we’ve seen their mainstream counterparts work together so often. Bendis seems to know that he’s simply indulging the geekier urges of his fans, and – being honest – I have no problem with doing that every once in a while. Some things are cool simple because… well, because they are cool. Most of the other arcs in this collection don’t have the same factor working in their defense.

We get a series of team-up issues at the end of this collection (under the header Superstars) which just seem to exist because this is a classic comic book trope. Brian Michael Bendis himself even appears at the start of the tired body-swap story to disclaim it. It’s cute, and I accept the value that such team-ups and crossovers have in the long history of comic books, but what’s the point in crafting a definitive take of a character only to tell tired unoriginal stories? The other two stories at the end of the collection are a little bit better, but not much.

Peter needs a lift...

Despite the plotting issues that this collection suffers, Bendis’ writing is solid. It’s nice to see Peter call Professor Xavier on his moral arrogance in the Irresponsibility arc, even if the story doesn’t really have anything to do apart from celebrate that the ultimate universe has a growing population. The movie storyline in Hollywood is fun, even if it does seem a bit hackneyed and forced.

The two really strong arcs in this collection are Carnage, which features the ultimate incarnation of that particular Spider-Man foe and Cats & Kings, which is a rather necessary step in the overarching Kingpin plot which reaches its conclusion in the next volume – and also introduced the ultimate version of the Black Cat. Crucially, it adds a lot of texture to those surrounding Peter Parker, particularly J. Jonah Jameson and it explores how difficult the Kingpin is to topple, even for a costumed vigilante.

It's a scream...

It's a scream...

Carnage is the real gem of the collection . I remarked how uncomfortable that Bendis seemed writing Venom in his initial run on the title. It seemed force and contrite. Despite that, he seems to be more comfortable with the concept of the crazed symbiote. Bagley’s artwork shines in the collection, illustrating the creature as if it were a classic monster movie villain, striking from the darkness. Bendis made the choice to kill Gwen Stacy in the arc, a sharp contrast to her iconic death in the mainstream comics, and it ultimately seems more senseless and random – but death often is. The best issue of the arc is the final one, featuring Peter and his classmates dealing with her passing in their own unique ways.

A recurring theme throughout the collection (and in the run as a whole) is that of people exploiting or using Peter. Nick Fury plans to recruit Parker to the Ultimates when he comes of age, whether he likes it or not. The Green Goblin wants Spider-Man at his side (as his child, created from the same experiment). The Kingpin wants to control his image and his merchandise. Curt Connors wants to use him to guarantee his grant from Stark Industries. Ava Arid and Sam Raimi want to use him to secure huge box office receipts, while he doesn’t earn a penny off his image rights.

One cool Cat...

At times it seems like Peter never controls his own destiny or what he wants. It’s nice that Aunt May, his parent figure, is one of the few people in his life who doesn’t use him or want or need him to be anyone or anything. So much of his life is dominated by chance or fluke or the wills of other more malicious forces. He’s a pawn on a playing board he can’t even gain the perspective to see.

It’s a core component of the character – and it’s one that Bendis nails perfectly. It’s an essential part of being a teenager – the belief that there is no freedom whatsoever to be had and that everyone else knows what they expect of you. Bendis is so fond of stripping away Peter Parker’s secret identity – everyone knows – because he’s too young to have his own identity yet. In a way, Spider-Man is more developed and mature than Peter Parker is. Peter knows he wants something in later life, but he rarely articulates what (going to college is part of it) – he will eventually make the world a better place, but in a long and convoluted manner. On the other hand, Spider-Man knows exactly what he needs to do and goes about doing it: making the world a better place in a straight-forward way.

Bagley’s art is solid throughout. Bagley is very talented artist and one of the book’s key assets. If Bendis is treading water, Bagley never seems to be.

Gunning for Peter...

All in all, probably the weakest segment of their joint run on the title is represented here. It just doesn’t feel like anything is actually happening – it feels too clean and static. I don’t know why the stories are included out of order – Ultimate Six is clearly meant to predate Cats & Kings – but that’s a minor touch. Bendis still has that fantastic touch with the character and the little moments are what define the series. It’s just a shame that everything feels so static.

It’s the weakest part of a strong run, but it still has one or two stories worth paying attention to.

We have reviews up for all of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man, in case you’re interested in checking it out, the rest can be found here:

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