Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley
Note: if you’ve never stumbled your way into a Spiderman/Spider-Man movie, or even past the poster, there will be spoilers in this review. If you’re somewhat familiar with the Spider-Man story and/or the Marvel universe (particularly in New York) then nothing in here should surprise you.
Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 covers a huge amount of Spidey: from his humble beginnings as a simple high-school student in New York through a seemingly never-ending parade of villains. Ultimate packs in romance, intrigue, S.H.I.E.L.D., loss, abandonment, sports, angst, and high-school drama – perhaps to the detriment of the story.
Two confessions: Spider-Man is my favourite, and I love what is being built in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now. Keeping that in mind throughout this review might be helpful from time to time. Those two facts also highlight the things I really loved about Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1.
I liked how seamlessly this story fit into the Marvel world. My inner fan smiled when Spidey got an ass-whoopin’ from Kingpin, who is – from what I understand – dominantly a Daredevil villain, and the moment when he got to a scene just in time to see Iron Man save the day. These various tie-ins with the rest of the Marvel universe were equal parts funny and effective at situating Peter Parker in the world of mutants and heroes.
Although I have grown to love the Marvel world I found the stories of Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 to be somewhat lackluster. My first set of problems came with the art itself. I liked that it was bright, vibrant, and saturated, it suited the story in that the central teenagers’ lives are always unquestionably colourful. However, too often there would be panels repeated – for what I assumed was dramatic effect – that were less than stellar. Having three identical images side-by-side to me did little to build an emotional or suspenseful connection with the story.
Relatedly, when the repeated panel was a less than stellar piece, it highlighted where the art itself was lacking. One example of where the art fell down for me was with Peter Parker’s face. At any given time he had a narrow jaw then a wide jaw, a big nose, a round nose, or a pointy nose, wide-set eyes, then close-set eyes, and so on. I found that often and even within story arcs Peter Parker had many variations of facial construction. For me this was distracting and impacted the story negatively in that it once again felt less than excellent.
My next problem with the art style in Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 has to do with a much larger problem within this medium: the depiction of women. You can read pieces in many places speaking about artists and writers depicting women in both highly stereotypical roles as well as in very unrealistic ways. Unfortunately, Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 is an example of these issues. Mary-Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, and even Aunt May are depicted as ultra-skinny, big-eyed, red-lipped beauties. Both Mary-Jane and Gwen are hypersexualized women. They are intended to be high-school students, putting them in the age range of 13-18. Having been in high-school I think I can say with some confidence that no high-school students look the way they do. Having waists that are nearly as big around as arms of some of the other characters does two things: perpetuates abnormal body standards, and sexualizes a character who is somewhere close to 16.
The secondary characters are for the most part fairly two-dimensional. There is a cast of stereotypical women: Aunt May is the quintessential mother figure, Gwen is conveniently broken enough to fix, and Mary Jane is at times a completely irrational person. Having these women fit so snugly into very narrow roles doesn’t lend much to the story as a whole. Another secondary character who could have been interesting but fell flat for me was Harry Osborn. He appears at key moments throughout Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 and yet is conveniently absent for large portions of story. It irks me that seemingly interesting characters who display an opportunity for depth are summarily fit into increasingly insignificant boxes.
After all of these things I didn’t enjoy about Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 there were some things I liked. Spider-Man himself is very much the Spider-Man I enjoy. He’s quippy, quick, and sharp as a tack. He’s constantly trying to figure himself out and changes his mind as often as he decides he is or isn’t something. In contrast to the secondary characters, Peter Parker does progress as a character throughout the story. He is acutely aware that he is just another person with superhuman abilities, and he struggles often with what that means to him personally and socially.
I also enjoyed the villains in Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1. There may have been too many (I felt they were somewhat rushed in places) but each one was sick and weird and creepy and damaged in their own fascinating way. I enjoyed their diverse stories and motivations as well as their imminent smack-down, drag-out fights with Spider-Man.
Perhaps my favourite moments in Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 were the ones in which the Marvel Universe shone through to affect the young people of the story. The discussions, sometimes in the background, about how they felt about super humans and mutant made the world and the story richer for me. That social environment being represented in such a way actively situates Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 in the Marvel world in a meaningful way.
By the end of Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 I was left with the distinct idea that I liked it because it was Spider-Man, and for very few other reasons. If you’re not already a fan of the web slinger this probably isn’t the place to start.