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Ultimate Spider-Man – Vol. 10-11 (Hardcover) (Review)

This represents the final volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, the relaunch of the popular character created by marvel as a way of introducing the iconic webslinger to the those who might be understandably wary of the backstory and continuity tangles the character has found himself in (did you know the character sold his marriage to the devil?). It’s been a landmark run, and a popular one and – by any measure – a successful one. There’s a reason that this ‘reboot’, to borrow a cinematic term, was famous for outselling the mainstream titles. So, as it winds down, what do we think?

What a Shocker…

I’ve pretty much encapsulated my feelings about the formation of Marvel’s Ultimate imprint in my review of The Ultimates, probably the best work in the line. So maybe I should offer some thoughts on its twilight here, before looking at the conclusion proper. In fairness, Jeph Loeb’s Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, the other major late titles within this “Ultimate” universe, were a jumble and a mess (and that’s me being kind), and Ultimate X-Men stumbled out of existence much as it had stumbled blindly through the core of its run, so it seemed that towards the end of the imprint, it was Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man which was left carrying the torch. Somewhat fitting since the comic had started this new relaunched and streamlined comic book universe.

It’s true that – despite the fact that the earlier books in the series started with a blank slate – the Ultimate universe picked up its own highly complicated mythology fairly quickly. Bendis in particular loaded his book with subplots which developed in a run over 130 issues in length, with an expanding and evolving supporting cast. In a way, perhaps this defeated the initial allure of the books – the premise of this relaunched franchise was that it could draw in new fans with a stripped-down “back to basics” approach. I can understand this criticism and respect it. Indeed, the title isn’t really dead – it’s being relaunched as Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man – and perhaps the greatest example of the way the Ultimate imprint has become just as cluttered as the mainstream line of books it to compare the first book of this series to the first book Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man as a jumping-on point. The latter requires a lot more familiarity with the character and this particular iteration.

This is not the worst thing that has happened to Peter today…

However, that wasn’t the only real benefit of the “retelling” of the origins of these characters. The real allure was the smaller sandbox. I’ve complained time and time again about the horrible effect that crossover “big event” storytelling has on the narrative structures of individual authors – in fact, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and soon I’ll be jumping headfirst into Brian Bendis’ “big event” engine at the heart of the Marvel universe. However, the bulk of titles here ran in straight lines with minimal interference with one another.

Sure, Bendis would borrow a cast member from Ultimate X-Men and the characters would guest-star in each other’s books, but the sense was very much that the writers were allowed a clear line to tell their own stories, without having to bow to the events of a gigantic crossover that would – by way of example – require three particular X-Men, Spider-Man and half of the Fantastic Four, thus preventing the author from using them. With one big exception at the climax, which we’ll come to, Ultimate Spider-Man didn’t march to anybody’s drum but Bendis’.

Beware the Beetle…

In that regard, it was a success. The series reads from cover-to-cover as complete. It contains all its own big dramatic moment. It isn’t like Ed Brubaker’s climax of his Captain America run, which relies on Mark Millar’s Civil War to set it up. It’s all here, and it’s the better for it, to be honest. And, if you ask me, that was the big success of the line, from a strictly structural perspective – even ignoring the fact that The Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man were two of the best books that Marvel published in the past decade; hell, for it’s many (many, many) weaknesses, Ultimate X-Men was stronger for the fact that it didn’t have to worry about event-after-event-after-event.

I am somewhat disappointed that this ending isn’t really an ending. If the Ultimate line was conceived to tell a condenses, definitive and even ‘ultimate’ story of these pop culture icons, it perhaps needed an ending – the one thing that comic books (by their nature) could never have. Of course, the flipside is to argue that an open on-going narrative is a definitive feature of mainstream superhero comics, and so leaving it out would cheapen your attempts to produce an ultimate incarnation. I’m not sure I buy that logic, though. Still, no use crying over spilled milk.

We all have our demons… er, goblins…

It’s perhaps fitting then, that this final run of issues begins with The Death of A Goblin. In fairness, Norman Osborn has never really served as the archnemesis of this iteration of Peter Parker – the Kingpin is arguably a better example, or even Doctor Octopus. Still, it’s nice to see Norman given a story in this final run. The story itself – Norman escape prison and causes havoc – is par for the course, but Bendis handles the characters well enough to get away with it.

With the reappearance of Norman Osborn, a small appearance from Doctor Octopus and even a guest spot from Electro (the first three supervillains that Spider-Man would face) and the fact that this is Stuart Immonen’s first arc as artist helps give the story a wonderful twilight sort of feeling. It’s a reflection on how far Peter has come and how different the world is these days (contrast Electro’s first appearance as a low-level enforcer for the Kingpin with his battle through the streets of New York here). Even the depart of Nick Fury, explored here when he is replaced by a less-certain Carol Danvers, indicates that maybe the “Golden Age”of the Ultimate line is behind us. Indeed, the arc ends with a fairly definite full stop, one which definitely suggests the end of the early stage of Peter Parker’s career.

He does have a magnetic personality…

Being entirely honest, I found …And His Amazing Friends to be just a little bit tedious. It’s the sort of teen soap opera antics that Bendis handles reasonable well in the background, but doesn’t serve particularly well as a main plotline. It almost feels like Bendis is trying the new post-Ultimatum status quo on for size – indeed, many of Peter’s “amazing friends” end up living with him – and also giving the author a sentimental last moment with the X-Men (and I still maintain Bendis had the best run on Ultimate X-Men). Of course, as with the end of Brian K. Vaughan’s run on Ultimate X-Men, there’s some ominous foreshadowing about what Magneto might or might not get up to and some more teen angst.

It isn’t that it’s necessarily ‘bad’, it just seems a little bit like treading water. I’ve never wholly engaged with the soap opera elements of the series and – while I will wholeheartedly argue that Bendis writes the characters fairly well – I’m not sure we needed an entire arc dedicated to it (particularly since it doesn’t really resolve anything – in fact, the arc is quite a bit reminiscent of the Geldof story Bendis told fairly early on in his tenure).

Spider-Man swings into action…

On the other hand, War of the Symbiotes serves as something of a finale to the series. Bendis pulls a bit of funky chronology in this set of issues – setting his final standalone arc as a bit of a retrospective. Of course, it’s a retrospective concerned with Eddie Brock and everything furthers the central plot, but we get to flash back to a time when Nick Fury ran the Ultimates (“I miss Nick Fury,” Peter finds himself lamenting at one point). The arc zig-zags all over the place – is it about the mysterious Beetle? what Eddie did after we saw him last? the symbiote retaking Peter? the return of Gwen Stacy? – but it’s an entertaining and fun read, which puts its emphasis on the themes of the series so far, most notably the idea of a “genetic arms race” and Peter’s sometimes irrational feelings of responsibility.

Bringing Gwen back is a risky move, particularly given how the character’s death in mainstream continuity remains one of the few comic book deaths to be upheld. Seen as this is the final arc in the series before Ultimatumwould crash into it, perhaps restoring Gwen to life is Bendis’ way of giving Peter a lucky break. He’s suffered so much and lost so many people close to him that perhaps he deserves to have one of those losses reversed and to earn a happy ever after. Of course, her return cheapens the whole concept of death (which had been one of the old comic book tropes that the Ultimate line had tried to avoid), but maybe it’s not so wrong to offer a somewhat happy conclusion.

Norman Osborn’s a monster!

There’s a strong retrospective theme to events, as Bendis gives us the image of Tony Stark and Peter Parker in a somewhat fond embrace – perhaps a contrast to the rift Civil War drove between their mainstream counterparts. Bendis is apparently one of many unsatisfied with that particular plot thread – he even has Peter declare “I would totally marry you” to Mary Jane, “if only we weren’t fifteen”; a rather pointed reference to the fact that Marvel had Peter sell his marriage to the devil because they thought it made the character seem old.

Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that Tony is the only member of the Ultimates (apart from Hulk, which we’ll come to) who Peter has spent an extended period of time with (an early arc of Ultimate Team-Up). Asked to justify releasing Gwen, Stark offers a reason that Bendis himself might use to explain his logic, “Kid’s had a rough time of it. They all have. … Let her go home. Let her get back to a life.” Indeed, it’s equally telling that the final two arcs feature Spider-Man teaming up with the Hulk and Iron Man, both characters who featured in the early arcs of Ultimate Team-Up.

Some of Peter’s foes are just full of Venom…

Of course, the real beauties of these collections – as, in fairness, I’ve noted in almost every other collection of Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, the one-shots. These little done-in-one stories are generally just a little bit quirkier or more “out there” from a narrative perspective than his larger arcs. In particular it’s nice to see him showcase Omega Red or even his pathetic (or not so pathetic) version of the Shocker. I’m not a big fan of David LaFeunte’s art on Annual #3, but the story perfectly captures the core of Bendis’ version of the character, with the witty dialogue, misunderstandings with the police and finely balanced teen issues (in this case, sex).

Of course, the real finale to the series is a tie-in to Ultimatum, basically the biggest crossover of Ultimate universe titles, where Magneto decides to flood New York and go on a genocidal rampage over the loss of his daughter. It was intended as a literal “clearing of the decks”, with the giant tidal wave washing away the clutter that had emerged on the line leaving the titles ready for a fresh start. Maybe I’ll review the miniseries, if I can find the energy to put myself through the pages and pages of gorn.

Caution! May cause harm!

Bendis does what he can with the nature of the crossover. After all, it’s not like he could ignore a giant tidal wave hitting New York City and killing millions of people. In fairness, saving a psychic interlude from Charles Xavier of the X-Men outlining the basic premise of the event, he keeps Spider-Man fairly isolated, dealing with the fallout of the event. In a way, that’s a wonderful embodiment of how Bendis has written the character – he’s the little guy who does whatever he can, even if it isn’t that “big” in the grand scheme of things. “He jumped in and tried to save anyone he could,” the cynical news editor J. Jonah Jameson confesses, admitting he was wrong about the webslinger. There are some oddly touching moments in here (“Hulk friend?”).

Requiem is a fitting conclusion to the saga. It feels like a retrospective, drawing back in Mark Bagley to illustrate some wonderful art. It’s hard not to read the touching eulogy prepared by the Daily Bugle without imagining that this is Bendis somehow speaking to the relevence of the character – perhaps justifying the period of over a decade that he has spent writing the character. Of course, this isn’t an ending (in fact, several plot points here are just setting up future arcs), but it feels enough like one that it fits.

Jameson was wash with doubts…

The artwork is great. If anything, I’d suggest Immonen is a slight improvement over the wonderful work that Bagley did. His stylised characters fit the mood perfectly and fit the pulpy vibe that Bendis is going for. It works almost perfectly.

And so ends Ultimate Spider-Man, to be renamed Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and picked up by Bendis again in the wake of Jeph Loeb’s reorganisation of the Ultimate Universe. I think this is it for me, on the title though. I like endings. I like stories which read from cover-to-cover and which have some form of beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order. I think that’s perhaps what most superhero sagas miss more than anything – an ending. In fairness, Alan Moore pointed this out long before I did, but it bears repeating. The story goes on, perpetually. Nothing ever dies. The story continues. There’s no closure for the audience.

Keep on truckin’…

Being honest, I kinda hoped that Marvel may have attempted a more complete structure with the Ultimate line, but I guess I was wrong. So, I’m calling it a day. Bendis has crafted an epic here, reintroducing the character and updating him. This is perhaps my favourite iteration of the webslinger. He’s allowed the character of Peter Parker to grow and change over the course of his narrative, free from the complications of countless crossovers or big events. So I guess I’ll have to consider this an ending of sorts.

It’s either that or I can follow the story inevitable and this seems as logical a jumping-off point as ever. I guess I’ll have to treat this particular saga as complete. And, to be honest and fair to Bendis, in many ways he has offered closure on a good few of his story arcs – the symbiotes, Norman Osborn and even the Shocker. Peter has grown up and learned about power and responsibility. I won’t lie and tell you that all of these stories were classics, because they weren’t – but there was a very strong batting average and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Not to mention there were a few truly great stories thrown in there.

The Gwen of an era?

Maybe I’ll relent and given Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man a go if I hear enough good things and they package it right, but I really just wanted a good, definitive run of Spider-Man stories. Bendis has given me that, and an ending of sorts. So I’m going to pack it in and call it a day. It’s been a good run, and a pleasure.

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:

3 Responses

  1. I’ve heard recently that the Webb Spider-man will feature more of the Ultimates storyline.

  2. They actually did package the Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man stuff just right! They’re grouped up into Volume 12 (thank you Marvel for being kind with the numbering for once) and then Death of Spider-Man Omnibus. The Miles Morales stuff is also collected into three Ultimate Collection volumes, though no oversized hardcovers. Will you ever do a review/retrospective for these some day? i didn’t think anything past Ultimatum ever lived up to the first 120 issues but there’s still some notable moments, like the Death itself, the first 12ish issues of Miles’s story, and #200, that I thought were stand-out.

    • I might, but I wouldn’t be too hopeful.

      I would love to do more comic book stuff, but my focus has shifted a little bit in recent years. If I ever reach the stage where I have the time, I have a host of dream comic book stuff I would like to do.

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