Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 95

Ultimate Spider-Man

by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, etc
Genre notes: Marvel superheroes
20+ vols
ISBN: 0785139400 (Amazon)

Okay, so Marvel and DC hero comics are a trash heap, right? RIGHT?! (Stay with me even if you disagree and think I'm a bum now.) So why recommend one? Because every so often, even if pretty rarely, they overcome the inertia of their marketing paradigm and make something pretty worthwhile. Ultimate Spider-Man overcomes those forces for as long as it can and is often pretty great. Until Marvel ultimately pooped on the whole thing. But until then, it was solid.

So I've talked about Marvel/DC hero books as not being about characters at all but instead about storytelling engines before. Essentially it goes like this: these books don’t actually feature Character in any honest sense of the term. Instead, they feature storytelling engines. Or maybe better, storytelling prompts. A reader of Spider-Man in 1970 can more or less jump into Spider-Man in 2010 and pretty much know exactly what’s going on. Only the trivialities (like who is punching Spider-Man now) have changed. Same with Superman, Batman, Captain America.

Spider-Man is merely a series of tacitly connected short stories set in the same world and using the same set of character-props. Where characters have arcs and growth and progression, the whole point of Spider-Man or Batman is to tell Spider-Man or Batman stories. They can never be allowed to stray from archetype because they are not characters, but product generators. That’s why I couldn’t stay invested. There was nothing to invest in. There’re only so many times that you can read the biographies of Abraham Lincoln before you—for your own sanity probably—have to move on to other biographies, to other persons.

That's one of the two reasons I stopped buying superhero books back in 2006. The other reason were the crossover events. They infected everything. They stomped all over whatever stories were being told. It's stupidly hilarious to get an omnibus collection of stories from any point after 2005. I'd heard good things about Brubaker's Captain America, so I picked up the omnibus and it was really pretty great and then suddenly all these crazy abrupt things and character changes were happening. It made no sense at all *until* I realized that there was some crossover event or other creeping in and changing everything. It'd probably make sense if you were following both things concurrently, but otherwise, it's really weird.

Anyway, because Ultimate Spider-Man takes place in its own little world, it takes a good while for these two problems to take hold. Add to that the fact that Ultimate Spider-Man is pretty nearly the platonic form of Spider-Man and you've got a nice, enjoyable adventure soap.

USM begins with Peter getting bit, there's the Green Goblin and Doc Ock and Kingpin and everyone, but they're all rewritten from the ground up. There is no prior continuity and it's great. Really early on, Peter tells his new girlfriend Mary Jane that he's Spider-Man. Gwen Stacy comes along eventually. Venom. Wolverine. Black Cat, Daredevil, Flash, Kitty Pryde, etc. The usual cast and crew. Only they're all new and all different. Eventually, the book does start to feel some bloat, but Bendis is so very dogged on focusing on this as Peter's book (rather than Spider-Man's) that his small group of regular teenage friends anchor everything and keep it from wallowing in tights and excess.

And Bendis, amazingly, writes Peter and this book pretty much better than nearly anything he's ever done. All of his Bendis-y tics and tropes just really work well with this version of Spider-Man.

Eventually, Marvel marketing *does* catch up to the book, first to ruin everything with a big Ultimate-Universe crossover that is terrible and stupid BUT does create one of the most poignant issues in Marvel history, when J Jonah Jameson realizes, startled, that he has been 100% wrong about Spider-Man and becomes his biggest booster. Then, in the strangely on the nose arc "The Death Of Spider-Man," Marvel kills Peter in another big event. This isn't really a spoiler because the book is actually called The Death Of Spider-Man. Amazingly enough, Bendis keeps the ball alive by introducing Miles Morales, a black Latino kid who becomes the new Spider-Man and his story is possibly even better than Peter's. This continues for five volumes before Marvel irrevocably destroys the whole thing for all time in a line-wide event that actually destroys the Ultimate Universe. Miles' Spider-Man is brought into the regular Marvel universe, at which point you never need to read again because his whole cast is gone or changed and he's screwed tightly back into the whole reason I got out of their comics.

But man, while the series is good, it is so good. Just simple fun adventure. Probably widely suitable for ages 10 and up.

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Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

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