Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Sara Pichelli
Published by Marvel Comics
For eleven years, Brian Michael Bendis chronicled the life and death of Peter Parker in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. He updated Spider-Man for the Millenial generation by focusing on character interactions and not just web slinging and fisticuffs. Some of Ultimate Spider-Man‘s best moments are when Peter isn’t wearing the mask like when he reveals his secret identity to Mary-Jane Watson in Ultimate Spider-Man #13. In addition to his work with Peter Parker, Bendis also created a fully formed supporting cast for him ranging from his best friend/one true love Mary-Jane Watson to rebel with a heart of gold Gwen Stacy and even various young superheroes, like Human Torch, Iceman, and Kitty Pryde. (In the second volume, the Parker house pretty much becomes a motel for underage superheroes.) Bendis infused these characters with unique personalities and voices through his ear for dialogue and knack for finding obstacles or villains that could reveal their strengths and weaknesses. By the end of his run, even the most one-note characters have fully formed character arcs. For example, Kenny “Kong” McFarlane goes from dimwitted basketball player to deducing Spider-Man’s secret identity and becoming a mutant rights activist in the aftermath of Magneto’s attack on New York City.
But Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t just witty dialogue and adolescent navel-gazing. The majority of its story arcs had a healthy balance of dialogue, character development, and superhero action. The “Venom” arc (issues 33-39) is a perfect example of these elements. Bendis contrasts Peter and Eddie Brock’s speech patterns and reveals that one has a thirst for knowledge while the other is pretending to be something he isn’t so he can hook up with women. His real personality comes into full view when he goes on a date with Peter’s friend Gwen Stacy. These negative character traits are enhanced when he accidentally bonds with the Venom symbiote that his and Peter’s father were trying to use to cure cancer. While this is happening, Peter is also having troubles in his relationship with Mary-Jane. All these subplots along with some information about the Parker family’s past and the showdown between Venom and Spider-Man are evenly divided across seven issues. Bendis uses the serialized nature of superhero comics and even much maligned decompression to good effect as he creates conflict through character interactions before cutting loose with the action and big reveals.
Another strength of Ultimate Spider-Man is its world-building. From the first issue onwards, Spider-Man is part of a bigger universe of mutants, gods, and monsters. For example, Norman Osborn’s Oz formula that turns Peter Parker into Spider-Man is his attempt to re-create the Super-Soldier Serum which produced the first superhero Captain America, who later appears in Ultimates. In many of larger missions, Spider-Man isn’t left helpless and gets SHIELD backup (or interference). He and Nick Fury have a love/hate relationship throughout the series. He also rubs shoulders with street-level heroes like Daredevil, who sees Spider-Man as a youthful nuisance before eventually teaming up with him and other vigilantes to take down the Kingpin once and for all in the “Ultimate Knights” arc (issues 106-110). As well as telling a story of its own, Peter Parker and the Ultimate Spider-Man comic acted as a tour guides to the wonderful world of the Marvel Universe for new readers, including myself.
To this point, I have mostly discussed Bendis’ writing, but a huge part of Ultimate Spider-Man‘s success is its art. Mark Bagley drew 111 consecutive issues of Ultimate Spider-Man breaking Jack Kirby’s record of 103 on Fantastic Four. He possessed the uncanny ability to tell a fast-paced sequential story while still making room for Bendis’ quick hitting dialogue which required copious amounts of world balloons. Bagley also does an excellent job re-imagining Gwen Stacy as a punk girl and Mary-Jane Watson as hipster. His Venom and Carnage are fittingly grotesque and messy, and his Green Goblin resembles the Hulk or an Uruk-Hai from Lord of the Rings instead of a cereal mascot. Even Bagley’s non-powered villains are menacing, like Kingpin, who towers over his underlings and Spider-Man. His art also conveys the subtle emotions in the characters that Bendis’ dialogue couldn’t describe. And after his work on Ultimate Spider-Man, he was followed by the clean line-work of Stuart Immonen, the manga influenced stylings of David Lafuente and Takeshi Miyazawa, and even a fill-in issue from future Ultimate Comics Spider-Man penciller Sara Pichelli.
In conclusion, Ultimate Spider-Man was a big part of Marvel’s comeback in the early 2000s and remained one of its most entertaining comics throughout that decade with its mixture of teenage romance and superhero adventure. Bendis made Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita’s original characters his own and wasn’t afraid to take risks, like attempting his own version of the Clone Saga and having Peter date Kitty Pryde for a few story arcs. He successfully returned to the original Marvel vision of having superheroes with problems as Peter Parker balanced school, work, and friendships with an ever growing rogues gallery and brushes with the government and media. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis and his team artist created a hero than teenagers and people everywhere could relate to and one that grew and developed throughout the series.