Now Is The Start: Ultimate Spider-Man "Power & Responsibility"

Critically acclaimed books are crawling through the comics industry like those little black scarab things in The Mummy (remember those? Ugh) and they’re now amassed into a giant swarm which look to be utterly impenetrable.
Until right now. Because every Friday I’ll be writing about an acclaimed title right here over in T’Vanguard, and I’ll be starting at the very beginning. I’m going to take on a number of books which you’ve been recommended for years, and read their first trade. Is it a good start? Is it worth picking up? What does it suggest about where the book headed after, and should you make what could be the first in a series of investments in the story?
That’s what I hope to be answering for you. Now Is The Start! NITS!
This week I’ll be reviewing the first trade of: 

Ultimate Spider-Man
by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Art Thibert/Dan Panosian and Comicraft.

This is the book which many believe shows off Bendis as one of the best writers in the business, and served as the main influence for the Spider-Man movies. When asked for the definitive Spider-Man origins story, most comic fans would likely point to this series as the place to go.
Published in 2000, the first story is collected in trade as ‘Power & Responsibility’.
So yes, you are going to have to follow another Spider-Man origin here. I understand you may have already seen several of them over the last few years, what with the numerous TV shows and films which have launched with the character. Ultimate Spider-Man offers basically the exact same origin as the others, as it was the inspiration for the ones you saw on screen. As a result, this first trade does feel a little like a re-tread. But then, Bendis was expecting it to.
It’s fairly impossible to go through life without knowing the origin of Peter Parker – it’s incredibly simple. A nerdy social outcast is bullied at school, goes on a trip to a lab, is bitten by a radioactive spider… and gets powers. He then has to work out how to use his powers, what to use them for, and why he should use them. It’s a story all about growing up, and one which has been repeated endlessly in various media (and with various lead characters) ever since.
Which is why the approach on this opening arc is so interesting, especially in the way Mark Bagley plays things. Bagley’s art in this issue isn’t to my taste, but it also seems to fit very specifically with the style of story Bendis wants to tell. The characters are all very willowy , with big eyes big noses and big hair offsetting their gangly bodies. Bagley’s characters look like half-washed pubescent high-school kids throughout – great when he’s drawing high-schoolers, perhaps not so great when he’s drawing adults.

Bagley’s faces all tend to look fairly similar, meaning readers often have to place characters solely through what their hair looks like. There’s some sort of weird energy in the (wildly unfair) feeling you get that Bagley doesn’t redraft his pages, but instead pencils his first version and then send that off, rough and uneven but almost pleasingly unpolished.  However this also means that certain aspects of the trade work far better than others.
For example, the scenes of Peter with his Aunt and Uncle are played tightly, to emphasise how close these three are to each other. There are lots of tight close-ups on faces, and importance is placed on the small facial expressions that flick across their faces from one moment to the next.
Everything about this idea works out well, aside from Bagley’s faces. They seem overly posed, a little gaunt, and expressionless apart from the eyes. Reading Mark Bagley comics has always been a strange experience for me, and perhaps I’m the only one who feels this. But I feel, in this trade at least, that he has a brilliant grasp on everything technical to do with comics. It’s just that his faces are a bit dead inside, and so the melodrama of his posing makes everyone look a bit like a waxwork during the fight scenes.
But there is a strange alchemy going on between him and Bendis, and something about this, on some level, does click somewhat. Bendis seems to know how best to use Bagley, and so mixes his now-typical verbose dialogue with a lot of silent sequences and single-word panels. He seems intent on making sure his style is associated with Peter and the kids, whilst he writes away from himself when handling the other characters. And again, it’s a strange choice which seems right for this comic, somehow.
Although often praised for his writing of teenage characters, the cast of characters here don’t ring true as contemporary teens. This may be down to the fact that Ultimate Spider-Man is now well over a decade old, and has started to date, or because he’s trying to establish a huge cast. The way in which they talk feels realistic and true, but the things they are saying feel as though they were taken from a 1980s movie.
This is a Spider-Man of The Breakfast Bunch era, where cliques exist still. Now the whole American schooling system flies right over my head as a Brit, but I don’t believe the jocks vs nerds vs cheerleaders vs goths battles still exist. People aren’t one thing or another anymore – they’re a whole mass of contradictions and amalgamations. So what’s actually happening with this trade is that Peter Parker actually comes across as a little old-fashioned, but not from an older generation that yet has a sepia-toned nostalgia to it.
In other words – this isn’t my generation’s Spider-Man. Perhaps that’s the role Invincible fills, we’ll have to see. But while everything is well done in the story, the pacing and plotting build up in interesting ways and the characters are drawn out – I felt disengaged from things, throughout. Now I have read quite a few of the subsequent books, and they move forward in a stronger manner. It’s all in the same vein as this, though, so if this hasn’t lit a fire under your shins, then nothing that follows will do, either.
Probably a controversial take on Ultimate Spider-Man, this, soz.
Let’s sum it like this – the first trade of Ultimate Spider-Man feels like a dulled Doctor Who episode. When Doctor Who is on form, it’s fantastic! But when it doesn’t work? You get the sense that there are a lot of very good things at work which just aren’t in sync with one another, causing misfires throughout the story. So is the case here. There’s craft and heart in Ultimate Spider-Man, but it doesn’t quite add up to a compelling enough whole.

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