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Ultimate Comics: Divided We Fall, United We Stand – Spider-Man (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

I have to admit, I am very surprised that Marvel have yet to start issuing oversized hardcovers of writer Brian Michael Bendis’ latest Ultimate Spider-Man run. The author has been writing the writing the series since the first issue appeared on stands in October 2000. The series has been re-launched twice, for three volumes as part of the same story. The first two runs are collected in their entirety, but only bits and pieces of the third run have been collected so far. The prelude Fallout was collected with Bendis’ The Death of Spider-Man omnibus, and the crossover with the main universe has been collected in Spider-Men, and then there’s these issues here, collected as part of Divided We Fall.

However, despite the high profile decision to create a new Spider-Man, generating considerable press coverage, Marvel has yet to begin collecting nice oversized hardcovers of Bendis’ latest run. As a result, the issues collected here give a rather scattershot coverage of Bendis’ run on the iconic web-crawler, which is a bit of a shame. As with the Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men comics tying into this big event, context is a vital part of this gigantic crossover, with Bendis’ story only really resonating as part of an on-going story featuring the development of a new version of Spider-Man, Bendis’ own creation.

Who says there's no such thing as bad publicity?

Who says there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Due to the fact that the Ultimate line of comics was always relatively tightly maintained, there was generally a solid sense of continuity and overlap between them. For example, Bendis would frequently have the X-Men crossover into his run on Ultimate Spider-Man, while Mark Millar would crossover the Ultimates and the X-Men in his Ultimate War arc. Ultimatum, the line-wide event that all but destroyed the Ultimate Universe, would tie into each of the three on-going books at the time (Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimate Spider-Man).

This sort of crossover, between three books, is a lot easier to manage than the general scale of the crossovers that typical take place in comics. For example, it takes seven fairly large hardcovers to properly collect all the tie-in material to the 2006-2007 event Civil War. There’s a gigantic 1,100-page companion hardcover being released for Avengers vs. X-Men. As such, the Ultimate Universe crossovers seem a little bit easier to handle, mostly due to the relatively limited number of books involved.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

However, there’s more to it than that. Each of the three books tying into Divided We Fall is carefully paced and structured so that they stand on their own two feet. In the hardcover edition, the three story arcs are collected separately, without the chapters cutting across one another. You can read one without feeling obliged to read the other two. Each of the titles is careful enough to give the reader all the facts they need to enough the story. While reading all three does give the event a sense of scope, the crossover is really three individual stories all connected by common themes and the fact that they unfold in the same shared universe at the same time.

So the Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man crossover feels a bit like the odd one out. After all, Ultimate Comics: Ultimates is concerned with Captain America’s attempts to hold the United States together, while Ultimate Comics: X-Men deals with the persecution of mutants in this failing nation. In contrast, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man doesn’t offer a similarly widescreen approach to the action. It doesn’t provide much broad world-building. This might make it seem superfluous, but instead it works because it plays to Bendis’ strengths as a writer and Spider-Man’s strengths as a character.

Like a bug on a wind shield...

Like a bug on a wind shield…

Quite frankly, Spider-Man works best as the underdog, as the little guy trapped in something that really should be much larger than he is. It’s something that Bendis really understands about the character – that the appeal of Spider-Man is the fact that he won’t be bullied by those bigger or stronger than he is, and that he’ll fight the good fight no matter how out-matched he might be. So Divided We Fall throws Spider-Man into an event that is infinitely larger than he is, and on a much broader scale.

I’m a sucker for those sorts of tie-ins, the ones that find a way to take a massive event and make it work for the character. I’m normally sceptical of event “tie-ins”, wary of how an individual author’s work on a character can be de-railed by the demands of the shared universe – early intrusions into Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Matt Fraction’s Iron Man come to mind. However, if a book can use the crossover to underscore the themes of their own characters, then I am not hostile to the idea. Greg Rucka would use Infinite Crisis quite well during his Gotham Central period, and Alan Moore would write the best Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover in Swamp Thing.

The crushing weight of expectations...

The crushing weight of expectations…

It’s to the credit of Bendis that we never feel like we’re watching his new Spider-Man guest star in some grand universal event. It feels like that universe-changing blockbuster has intruded on his own story. “Livin’ in my own little dorm room and worrying about my little spider problems,” Miles concedes at one point, “I didn’t even notice how screwed up everything is now.” It makes sense, and it works remarkably well.

Bendis even offers a nice bit of humour, illustrating that this is still a Spider-Man comic. Miles is quite frustrated to discover that his status as a fugitive is still making headlines despite everything else going on around him. Ganke laments, “Washington, D.C.’s gone, the world’s gone crazy, the entire country is falling apart and this is the headline!?” There are some universal truths inside a Spider-Man story, and the fact that the character can’t quite catch a break even as the world falls apart is one of them.

Exploding on to the scene...

Exploding on to the scene…

Indeed, one thing that Bendis does remarkably well is to put a very Spider-Man spin on this big crossover. The threat and the stakes seem so much more intimate here than they do in the other books. We see the impact of this revolution and this civil war on a very personal scale, divorced from broader questions of philosophy and moral authority. The encounter between Miles’ father and the H.Y.D.R.A. militia seems much more potent than any of the action in the Ultimate Comics: Ultimates issues. Little touches like the enforcement of curfews in New York give the event a sense of personal texture that gets lost in the larger books.

And, to Bendis’ credit, the author also does an excellent job making the crossover work in service of his own story. Ever since The Death of Spider-Man, it seemed obvious that any replacement Spider-Man would have to make peace with Captain America, a character so wounded by the loss of Peter Parker that he retired from public life. Given that Divided We Fall brings the character back in a big way, it also provides an excellent vehicle for Captain America to interact with Miles, and to legitimise Miles as a hero in his own right.

Superhero team-up time...

Superhero team-up time…

Which brings us to one of the problems with this collection. It’s very clearly part of Bendis’ larger on-going story. So releasing this hardcover before a similar collection of Bendis’ earlier Ultimate Spider-Man issues seems a little unfair, and undercuts the emotional pay-off. Here we get to see Miles interact with May Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy. That’s a big moment, but it doesn’t really feel like a big moment because the twelve issues leading up to it have yet to be collected.

Similarly, the fallout from the climax of Bendis’ first arc, the death of the Prowler, plays a massive role in informing this story, so it does feel a little strange to publish it without a complementary oversized hardcover of those earlier issues. That said, it is nice to see that the Prowler plays into Bendis’ themes about villains and heroes, where it’s much tougher to use our power for the greater good, and many of his villains are motivated by their own sense of entitlement. “And he thought the world owed him something,” Miles’ father remarks of his brother, a statement that could easily apply to the majority of Bendis villains.

Does whatever a spider can...

Does whatever a spider can…

Still, aside from that complaint, Divided We Fall works remarkably well. The art by David Marquez and Pepe Larraz is absolutely lovely, and probably the best art of the three Divided We Fall tie-ins. Bendis continues to demonstrate his skill working with street-level heroes, and I’m loving his characterisation of Mile Morales. It’s great to have a new character like that given such a high profile, especially a minority character at a time when comic readers don’t seem to be that open-minded about non-white characters.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man continues to be one of the best comics published at the moment, and the strength of Bendis’ pet Spider-Man comic can be gauged by the fact that not only has it recently changed leading characters, but it has also been swept into a much larger event, all without missing a beat. I am looking forward to a nice collection of Bendis’ work on the title, but – for the moment – this is a pretty solid indication that he’s keeping the quality consistently high.

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One Response

  1. yeah but why didnt you say that bendis doesnt know how to write characters and how you could write miles so much better???????????

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