Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ultimate Spider-Man: The Death of Spider-Man (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley
Collects: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #155-160

The Ultimate line of books lost its way real early. Originally, it was supposed to be a continuity free, familiar, accessible take on Marvel favorites. Only Ultimate Spider-Man really stuck to that. Ultimate Fantastic Four made a go of it, but The Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men seemed to be in a race to see which team could become the bigger group of unlikable assholes. Most Ultimate Marvel books - even Spidey at times - then seemed to get their jollies on putting new, different spins on old classics. The line kind of floundered, which was obviously worrying; keep in mind that the Ultimate line generated a lot of positive critical buzz and sales in the early days.

At this point they made the idiotic decision to give the line to Jeph Loeb, who proceeded to infect the line with the comic book equivalent of gangrene; by this point they figured the only option was to "cut the rot", meaning kill off half the heroes in Ultimatum and hope a clean slate could save it.

The overall goal now seems to be to make the Ultimate line as different as possible, making it an interesting alternate universe. This is the volume where it catches up with Ultimate Spider-Man. I used to collect Ultimate Spider-Man regularly and - insistence on Mary Jane being his one true love aside - there wasn't a thing I didn't like about it. It was a great Spider-Man book at a time when the regular Spider-Man was knee deep in a twenty year rut that seemed like it would never end. Brand New Day changed all that and kicked regular Spideys quality level up to eleven, at which point Ultimate Spider-Man, while still good, started to feel redundant.

So I dropped it. Call me a sucker for hype if you want, but the only reason I really came back was for this. I guess I wanted to see how it ended for a version of Spidey that was, for a time, THE Spider-Man to me.

It's an effective story, but not in a bombastic "event" sort of way. It feels a bit more... subdued, I guess, for a story where things are exploding left and right. Norman Osborn is back and he's rounded up several of Spideys rogues; his ultimate goal is to kill Spidey. This is a bigger deal for this Spider-Man; he's only a teenager and, while very resourceful, we're talking about six super powered goons coming at him. He receives enough warning to get his Aunt and Gwen out of dodge, then ends up getting shot. From that point on, it's a fight for survival; you can guess how it goes.

For most of the book, it feels like it could have been a normal arc without leading to his death, which I think is a strength. Ultimate Spidey has faced tall odds before; even with a gunshot wound, you still feel like somehow he could pull it out. But this time, he doesn't survive the end of the fight and dies in the line of duty, having saved everyone he loves and the neighborhood in general. It feels like a "normal" ending to someone who picks a line of work that deadly; sort of like a police officer, there are times someone won't get to go home to his family.

Part of what leads to the death stems from a crossover to the final arc of Mark Millers Ultimate Avengers. I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, it's a little pointless; it doesn't play any huge role in the story and is relegated to "stuff happening at the same time". So "why bother" is a fairly legitimate question to ask.

On the other, it adds background detail and desperation to Spideys last fight. Sometimes, you just expect big fights will overlap. In this case, Spideys biggest foe has escaped on the day the Ultimates are busy fighting Nick Furys black ops Avengers squad. When he goes to try and help, he's shot for his trouble. To make matters worse, it ensures just about anyone who could provide backup is a bit preoccupied with the gigantic brawl in the middle of New York; Spidey's left on his own, bleeding out from a gunshot wound and trying to fight off five guys. It's the definition of the desperate struggle.

Overall, I think it worked out pretty well, but it doesn't stick the landing entirely. Bendis has a few moments where he gets a little cutesy; I audibly groaned when he had a character actually say "come with me if you want to live". Also, some of Spideys logic is a little screwed up; he suspects that if he hits the hospital for some treatment for the gunshot, his secret identity is blown. So he figures, well, why the hell not just show up back at the house with his mask off and fight everybody that way. Everyone is going to know anyways.

Absolutely retarded; all he'd have to do if he wanted to hit up the hospital - and he could have, since his family evacuated ahead of time - was switch to civvies and say he was hit by a stray gunshot. I mean, there is a huge fight going on. Who's going to call shenanigans when two super teams are beating the crap out of each other in the middle of New York? Hell, he could even say he was the victim of a mugging gone bad. It's not like anyone was around when Spidey came to; the warring super teams were in another part of the city by then and there weren't exactly any news crews nearby to see that Spider-Man was shot. Oh, and while we're at it, why exactly did that truck explode at the end of the book? That was terribly unclear.

So yeah, it's not a complete slam dunk, but I'd say it's a good two point shot.

Mark Bagley returns to Marvel after a stint at DC that wasn't exactly the big hit everyone hoped it would be. Bagley's overall strength is that he's fast and reliable; he's a workhorse with fairly decent art. That said, he's far from the best; even here, there are a few odd panels that are hard to suss out and an occasion or two of patented Liefeldian knife-feet. Still, his presence helps the book feel as though it's come full circle. Bagley was there at the beginning and stuck around for over a hundred issues. It's only fitting he'd illustrate the ending of the story.

While this is the swan song for Ultimate Peter Parker, this isn't the end of Ultimate Spider-Man. The title is relaunching, with a new, ethnic teenager taking on the identity. It's been making some waves and I've heard some good things. I may stick around for it; the book might not feel so redundant if we're following a new kid carrying on in the name of the old.

The Score: 8 out of 10

The story works, but it's a bit flawed. Still, it's a fairly memorable death and clears the deck for Marvel to do something really different with the Ultimate Spider-Man property. Not an instant classic, but a good send-off for this version. If you've been reading all along, of course you'll pick this up. If you, say, dropped the book after Bagley left, I still think it's safe to nab the hardcover and roll with it. I haven't read Ultimate Spider-Man in years* and I didn't have any major problems. Recommended.

* I think the last one I read was that one with Black Cat and a bunch of other guys. Pretty sure Kingpin and Ultimate Elektra were involved. I recall Pete really wanted to bone the Black Cat - because duh, she's incredibly hot and he's a horny teen - and she puked on him when she realized he was a teenager. Fun stuff, but by the time I got around to reading it - a couple years after its publication - I was kind of falling off the train when it came to the book. Pretty sure it was an arc back when Bagley was still on the book full time.


  1. I've wondered, for a while now, just how far ahead Bendis planned to kill off this incarnation of Spider-Man. From the sound of things it wasn't last-minute or anything like that, but I do wonder if this is the character arc he had envisioned from the start. I'm sure we'll never know, but it's interesting to think about nonetheless.

    Incidentally, I left Ultimate Spider-Man about the same time that you did. (I think the story arc was called "Ultimate Knights"?) Bagley was a huge part of why I read that book, and when he left I found that I just wasn't that interested anymore. I'd like to read the stuff he's done since he came back, though, and maybe at some point I'll read the comics published in the interim -- they're Bendis-written, so I'm sure it wouldn't take that long.

  2. It sounds to me like things were planned out far enough ahead of time for there to be some lead-in to it. Pretty sure there was a "prologue" volume I didn't read. Not sure if Bendis ever planned to reach this point - I'm thinking no, but who knows - but it was a pretty respectable job overall. I'm curious about the new kid, so I'll probably give the relaunch a go.

    It may well have been Ultimate Knights. I remember there being a huge brawl with superheroes and Elektra, while Kingpin was involved (being one of Spideys big foes in the Ultimate universe). I enjoyed it, but by this point, I just didn't see a huge point in it anymore; Ultimate Spidey was my port in the storm when the regular books sucked, but once the quality skyrocketed in that I just lost interest.

    Bagley's always been pretty respectable, but he had some gaffes here I just did not expect to see. I mean, there's one big panel where Gwens feet looks like they were drawn by Rob Liefeld. Did he always do that and I just didn't notice? I'd have to go back and see, but I could swear Bagley never did stuff like that before.

  3. Since I essentially grew up with the Clone Saga and the comics that came out immediately before and after it, Bagley was pretty integral to my getting into comics in the first place. He was always "my" Spider-Man artist, if you know what I mean, which made it incredibly cool to me that he was doing the new Ultimate Spider-Man book when it was announced.

    But I have to agree with you, I think his art has declined in quality since the beginning of the series. I think that's partly to blame on the fact that Marvel (and later DC) decided it was best for him to pump out as many issues per year as humanly possible, but it's also because (and people never seem to mention this, for some reason) I don't think anyone has ever inked him better than Art Thibert did in those first fifty-odd issues of USM. Something about Thibert's pen just made Bagley's art look fuller, and I kind of doubt he would have let any knife-feet get past him either.