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Spider-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Men feels very light. It is the first official crossover between the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, something that readers had been promised would never happen. However, despite the fact that this is a big event that has been more than a decade in the making – something rumoured since the earliest days of Ultimate Spider-Man – Spider-Men feels decidedly low-key.

It’s pretty much a collection of vignettes rather than a compelling story in its own right, allowing Bendis to run through a checklist of material to smooth the transition between ultimate!Peter Parker and his successor, Miles Morales.

"Well, this is awkward..."

“Well, this is awkward…”

The five issues of Spider-Men are structured in an almost perfunctory way. The first issue sets up the miniseries, with mainstream!Peter Parker stumbling into the Ultimate Universe. The second features the obligatory “two heroes fight” sequence that is all but obligatory in crossovers of this type. The third finds the two characters teaming up against Mysterio allowing for a showcase of various ultimate and mainstream bad guys. The fourth allows Bendis to tidy out residual Peter Parker plot points from The Death of Spider-Man and to soften the blow a bit, while the fifth and final issue gets everything back where it belongs.

There’s a strange efficiency to all this, as Bendis runs through the checklist of obligatory crossover plot points. Indeed, Spider-Men arguably works better as a way of sorting through lose ends left over from ultimate!Peter Parker, but not carried over to Miles Morales. For example, the identity of ultimate!Mysterio is revealed, finally getting rid of the new kingpin of crime who killed the ultimate!Kingpin and set up a mystery concerning his identity. Similarly, a visit from mainstream!Peter Parker allows ultimate!Aunt May and ultimate!Gwen some closure following the death of his ultimate counterpart.

Getting their relationship off on the right foot...

Getting their relationship off on the right foot…

There is something very touching in all this, a way of helping to take some of the raw edge of The Death of Spider-Man. Although it doesn’t resurrect their version of Peter Parker, it does allow ultimate!Gwen and ultimate!May one last chance to say what needs to be said – to part with a version of Peter Parker on good terms, in comfort. “I made the right choices,” ultimate!May reflects following her conversation with mainstream!Peter, a surprisingly heart-warming sequence that provides some hint of emotional closure.

Of course, that’s just one of mainstream!Peter’s functions here. He also exists to pass the baton on to Miles Morales. Miles was introduced in Ultimate Comics: Fallout, a miniseries set in the wake of ultimate!Peter Parker’s death. As such, Miles was inspired by ultimate!Peter Parker, without ever getting to discuss the matter with the costumed hero. Bendis is remarkably explicit about what he is doing here, leaving no nuance or ambiguity.

Spidey's got drive...

Spidey’s got drive…

“Really, thank you,” mainstream!Peter tells Miles before returning home. “You know… for keeping it going.” Miles doesn’t leave it at that, timidly, he asks, “I have your, you know — your–“ He doesn’t come out and say it, but mainstream!Peter catches his drift easily enough. “My blessing? Absolutely.” There’s a sense that this was the entire point of the crossover – an opportunity for Bendis to confer legitimacy on his new creation by having a version of Peter Parker show up and acknowledge his successor. It’s surprising that mainstream!Peter doesn’t give Miles web0shooters here, although Bendis reserves that endorsement for other characters.

This sort of high-profile endorsement is an understandable move on Marvel’s part. Miles faces a lot of difficulties as a new character – let alone a new character of colour – in a high-profile book, taking over from an established and beloved character. Any way of making the change easier for fans to process is worth doing. If ever anything justified a crossover between the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, pausing to have Peter Parker say “hey, this new guy is pretty cool!” certainly counts.

What a tangled web...

What a tangled web…

That said, Spider-Men is hardly subtle about it. One imagines the alternative was a pucture of mainstream!Peter on the cover giving a thumbs up and declaring “I whole-heartedly endorse this web-slinging!” That’s probably the least satisfying aspect of Spider-Men. The comic all feels very rote, as if it’s more interested in tidying away left over luggage than it is in telling an exciting or engaging story in its own right.

This is a bit disappointing, as is the way that Spider-Men seems to give priority to the mainstream Marvel Universe. The narrative unfolds from mainstream!Peter Parker’s perspective. The crossover occurs from the mainstream Marvel Universe to the Ultimate Universe. ultimate!Mysterio is revealed to be an android operated by mainstream!Mysterio. There’s a sense that the mainstream universe is the more important one here – which makes Miles Morales feel even less important to the story’s flow.

A Mysterio mystery...

A Mysterio mystery…

Spider-Men is already the story about mainstream!Peter conferring legitimacy on his replacement; telling it from his perspective feels a little bit too much. It may have made more sense to tell the story from the perspective of Miles Morales, which would have moved him more to the centre of the five-issue story arc. As it stands, he seems like more of a supporting player than one of the book’s two leads.

Still, there are lots of little touches that make Spider-Men a charming and easy read. Bendis’ script playful exaggerates the differences between the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe. Most obviously, the characters in the mainstream universe all talk like regular comic book characters, while the characters in the other universe all speak like characters inside a Brian Michael Bendis story.

This is a big superhero no no, by the way...

This is a big superhero no no, by the way…

“Guh gah guh!!” a criminal offers during the opening opening action sequence, panicking while pointing a gun. (“Well said,” mainstream!Spider-Man deadpans.) In contrast, when mainstream!Peter stops a mugging in the alternate universe, he gets several paragraphs of Bendis-ian dialogue, complete with the traditional Two characters speaking at cross purposes” bit. Of course, Bendis writes that sort of dialogue in mainstream Marvel titles like New Avengers or Daredevil, but it is a sign that mainstream!Peter has wandered into his world.

Similarly, the lettering is nice way of demonstrating the transition between worlds. In the regular universe, characters speak in all-caps, while characters use lower case in the other world. It’s a clever visual cue, and it’s surprising how unnerving the change is – it takes a moment or two to realise why the text is funny, and it’s very strange to see Miles using all-caps at one point towards the end of the story.

Arresting drama...

Arresting drama…

The reveal that ultimate!Mysterio is really mainstream!Mysterio feels like a copout. The characters seem like two different people, with ultimate!Mysterio not sharing his counterpart’s love of theatrics-for-the-sake-of-theatrics and favouring long-term earning over short-term spectacle. More than that, it seems really weird that mainstream!Mysterio is the first character to discover the Ultimate Universe and not somebody like Reed Richards or Doctor Doom or Tony Stark or Hank Pym.

Still, there’s something strangely charming in the way that Mysterio is essentially a typical Bendis bad guy. He’s a loser who lacks the self-awareness that would allow him to win. After all, the fourth issue ends with Mysterio trapping Spider-Man in the Ultimate Universe. All he has to do is just keep the portal closed, at least in the short-term. Naturally, he is unable to do that. “All the hell he put me through over the years,” he laments. “And I… I won. Why isn’t that enough?!”

Come what May...

Come what May…

Sara Pichelli’s artwork is pretty fantastic, though. Pichelli handles both intimate character scenes and specacular action sequences with a deft hand, her artwork perfectly suited to conveying emotive facial tics or large-scale spectacle. Pichelli helped to create Mile Morales with Brian Michael Bendis, and it’s clear that the two care a great deal about the character. After all, Spider-Men feels like a five-issue attempt to legitimise Miles Morales past any point of ambiguity.

And yet, even allowing for that, Spider-Men feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity, a very light piece of work that is more keenly focused on tidying stuff up than it is with telling a compelling story.

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