Those Issues of Ultimate Spider-man I Didn’t Read | Part 1

I know it’s technically Ultimate Comics Ultimate Man Spider-comics Spider-man now, but to me the Brian Michael Bendis series is simply Ultimate Spider-man. Three words. One hyphen. That’s it.

Some time between 2008 and 2009, Marvel Comics decided to publish a comic book mini series entitled Ultimatum. It’s purpose? Totally wash away Marvel’s special line of comics known as the “Ultimate Line” and leave the debris in a position to rebuild after – a little retcon fueled disaster event to get all the fans up in arms. Written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by David Finch, Ultimatum took Marvel’s line of “limited continuity,” “free from Marvel mainline crud” comics and injected it with its own dose of Marvel hysteria and event comic chaos. Ultimate Comics, a subdivision of Marvel Comics traditional 6-1-6 line, suddenly found itself uprooted in limbo after nearly ten years of consistent focus and “left alone” mindset.

It was right at this time I dropped Ultimate Spider-man. And when I say dropped Ultimate Spider-man, I don’t mean “I bought it for 3 issues and then tossed it off my pull list.” No. I dropped Ultimate Spider-man. Like a “after buying it for 60-some issues and then going on a fanboy rampage” kind of drop.

To cut it short, the entire reason for dropping the title was an extremely dumb one. Basically, David Lafuente did not equal Mark Bagley (clearly because he is much better), and without the visual voice of Mark Bagley Ultimate Spider-man was no longer Ultimate Spider-man. Granted, I did buy the Stuart Immonen stuff, and I tolerated it (I clearly had poor judgement in the early days),  but when Lafuente showed up, it pushed such a drastic change that the title I came to count on left me hanging. I dropped that shit cold. Cried about it on the internet. Did the fanboy thing. Hard.

Looking back, the whole thing was not my most respectable moment. The excuses I had for “hating” the Lafuente work are things I would easily laugh at anyone else for saying today. But, at the time, my interest in Ultimate Spider-man suffered a fatal blow, and from then on I would do my best to avoid the book. Just up until recently.

I’ve gone back, and after a little back issue hunting (remember that shit?), I’ve managed to read the entirety of Ultimate Spider-man Phase 2 a.k.a. what I’ll term the “Lafuente Era” as well as “Death of Spider-man,” which is everything I missed during  my great purge. And what’s funny is, “Death of Spider-man” aside, this is probably the best portion of Ultimate Spider-man overall, and I skipped it. I’d even consider it a little crown jewel in Bendis’ entire career at Marvel because the “Lafuente Era” of Ultimate Spider-man did it right. Between a combination of aesthetics and pure storytelling, Bendis and Lafuente captured the essence of the teenage super hero story, fulfilling the entire concept of Ultimate Spider-man, at a higher level of craft, some 140 issues from its beginning.

But something had to be sacrificed in order to achieve that short stretch of issues. A notion of consistency. Maybe the above bits of my personal back story were simply that – personal bits – but I feel the interruption or shift I felt as a long time reader actually reflects an overall shift in this long running comic book series. Look back at it. Ultimate Spider-man, for something like 8 years, marched on at a steady pace, with consistent aesthetics, telling the same, focused story. 8 years.Ultimate Spider-man may be one of the last comics of its kind to accomplish such a run, and between the book’s own determined focus and my infantile attachment to it, the crashing wave of Ultimatum, and the shake up that followed, put the whole operation in rough waters.

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of how Brian Michael Bendis did his best to steer his saga of “power and responsibility” clear of murky waters and keep it afloat. Of how a relaunch, a renumbering, a death and a rebirth – all in the course of two years – tried their hardest to derail Bendis’ solid 8 year train. For my next few blog pieces, I’m going to take a look at the period of Ultimate Spider-man I didn’t read. The “Lafuente Era,” but also the PR stunt known as “Death of Spider-man,” and I’ll even dive into the more recent version of the title featuring the character Miles Morales. The purpose? To discuss each as an individual work, but to also try and connect the three shifts – “Lafeunte,” “Death,” “Miles” – and see how they each represent their own version of Ultimate Spider-man as well as represent a period of identity crisis for a title that was once so sure of itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Up first, the “Lafuente Era.”

None of these issues are perfect, and neither when paired together do they create a perfect work, but I’d mark the first 6 issues of Lafuente Spider-man closer to perfect Ultimate Spider-man than anything else.

Big, hyperbolic statement. Maybe I should back down, but it’s true.

What this initial arc accomplishes so well is providing the perspective of Peter Parker, or more or less, really putting the reader behind the eyes of a teenage super hero, placing him or her into that world. Which makes sense. The title of the arc is “The New World According to Peter Parker.” And while it’s clearly a mark of Bendis’ pen that brings about this focus, David Lafuente obviously makes the huge impact because it’s his contribution that inspires the youthful attitude as well as energetic bounce.

Looking at his artwork, the energy comes across as hard to deny. Speed lines up in your face. Expressive style. The vibrant colors dubbed on by Justin Ponsor. The elements are there for explosive comic book art, but the component that really catches the attention and sells the performance is the roundness and curve of Lafuente’s line work. It’s the element that captures that sense of motion you experience while reading a Lafuente drawn comic book. The curves seem to suggest a youthful vitality and plumpness, and it’s such a contrast from the muscle tight, skinny aesthetic Mark Bagley provided. There’s life there. A freshness, versus the 1990s-heyday look Bagley performs.

But motion derives itself from another element important to this comic. Lafuente uses a nice array of vertical panel structures throughout his entire stay on Ultimate Spider-man, which I found to be an interesting choice in page design as well as storytelling. First, the focus on vertical direction relates itself well to the Spider-man character, the subject of the piece. The character travels and fights in an acrobatic, vertically dependent fashion. The panel structure Lafuente insights sort of places the subject in an ideal environment, allowing the actual illustration to rest in a frame that works with it rather than simply houses it. Second, this is Lafuente’s way of dealing with the “Bendis Problem” I think most artists face when drawing one of his scripts – talking heads. Where long, horizontal panels tend to slow down a story in order to suggest a widescreen affect, vertical panels seem to quicken the pace by providing this quick cut movement to the page. This speeds up the scenes drenched in dialogue while making it visually exciting. But it also effects the actual dialogue. As a reader, you’re reading these sequences in a cut-to-cut fashion, so you’re reading faster. Which works. Teens tend to talk fast, and it’s already a tone Bendis writes in when writing Ultimate Spider-man so Lafuente’s contribution to the storytelling matches up very well, emphasizing what Bendis does.

So while curved lines and vertical panels suggest youthful energy, I would also suggest the actual style Lafuente draws in adds to the youthful perspective. I’m not at all an expert in manga, but Lafuente’s style is certainly manga influenced. Manga stylings have been creeping their way into American animation for years, and in this day and age it’s sort of won out with the younger audience. Anime, manga … it’s what the kids are into, and I know from experience, most high school kids that like to draw … they draw in an anime-inspired style. This suggests to me that a lot of younger people sort of automatically dub a manga influence to maybe the things they imagine – as in cartoons, drawings. So the visual design sort represents that teenage perspective in terms of illustration and what else, but more importantly, it simply represents an aesthetic that’s popular at the moment, popular especially with a younger demographic.

Bendis certainly does not freeload on Lafuente’s talent, though. While the writer plays up the usual plot elements of supporting cast and riff-heavy dialogue, it’s Bendis’ attention to teenage specific conflicts that really cements the desired perspective. I think issue 1 lays everything out so smoothly, especially the first page in which we see a single close up of Peter Parker’s face as he reviews the details of his life.

“My name is Peter Parker. I am Spider-man.”
“I was bit by a one-of-a-kind spider and now I have one-of-a-kind spider-powers.”
“I’ve saved the world. Or at least helped save it.”
“I almost died doing it. A couple of times. For real. But I didn’t.”
“I’ve fought bad guys of every shape and size. True bad guys. World-class villains. Bad bad guys.”
“I’ve met super heroes, icons. Captain America. Yep.”
“You’re talking to a sixteen-year-old who can swing across the city on a web line he actually invented.”
“A guy who can life a city bus over his head. A guy who has fought the Hulk and walked away from it.”
“We’re talkin’ vampires, mutants, Doctor Doom, Sandman, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus …”
“I have already seen and done more than most people will ever get to do in their whole lives.”
“And now I have one question, and I want you to think about this very carefully.”
“I want you to look my in the eye and I want you to tell me:”

“Do you want fries with that?”

Turn the page, and you discover Peter works at some shitty fast food joint.

I love this opener for its flow and build up, but even more for the attitude it suggests – and it’s something I can completely relate to. That feeling, that when you’re a teenager, you know everything, have done it all, yet you’re still subjected to adults looking down on you. Now, while Peter certainly has done it all, the scene still captures that vibe of “desired verification” from an adult audience by simply its setting. Peter’s out of the costume here. He’s on the job, looking like any plain slub who can work a cash register. No one sees how special he is, or how special he sees himself. He’s just on the job, doing what anyone could, in an environment where adults run the show. And that’s shown when an elderly woman confronts Peter’s manager, another adult, and falsely accuses him of being a smart ass. While falsely accused, the manger automatically assumes the old woman is in the right and degrades Peter without hearing anything Peter has to say.Because he’s a “kid.”

The writing here even backs a classic “Peter Parkerism” – you know, “Puny Parker. He’s nothing special.” It’s a sort of cast off line Stan Lee would write for Flash Thompson all the time, but it sort of comes along and lives in this scene, summing up a very real thought felt by many people in their teenage years.  That sensation of not being  understood and the desire for respect from those older than you.

But that’s one, specific example. Really, it’s a case of the first 6 issues as a whole. To sum it up, when read together, “The New World According to Peter Parker” just reads like a very solid pop super hero comic in which the youth perspective is at the forefront. Whether it’s simply being placed in a house full of 16-somethings as Aunt May continues to take in and house many of Peter’s friends or the high school relationship drama, the first six issues of Bendis and Lafuente’s run are all about a youthful aesthetic and voice. And it’s done. Well.

The antagonist of the first arc, Mysterio, even supports what the creators are after as the character is really one of the few adults shown in the story. His villainy, then, comes as no surprise. He’s that adult looking to crash the party and subject his creed on the kids. This thought eventually reaches its climax as Mysterio learns of Peter’s super hero secret and attacks him at his very school, suggesting no place is safe.

A fair criticism of the Mysterio plot line may be it’s seeming lack of motivation, but I felt the character’s unexplained presence actually supports the theory I’m implying. Mysterio, as the original Steve Ditko sprawl of fog and green latex, worked under a faceless guise, and such a tradition is carried over to this new vision of the character where facelessness works in favor of an unexplained origin or purpose. What we know is that the character’s a bad guy who wants Spider-man, or “Spider-boy” as he once refers to him as, dead, and that makes him scary. It’s not the reason for his villainy or his background. It’s the simple surface of the character’s guise which suggests a sensation of the unknown that makes him frightening, and it’s the idea of a faceless threat which suggests something untouchable. A greater projection of an idea – which is certainly something Mysterio usually concocts with his “super power.” What better way to represent the “evil” adults than a single, identity-free super villain who just happens to be one of the few adults in the story? Why not represent that in a character who’s more like a force than just a individual man? Of course he doesn’t need a motivation. He’s just an old man trying to ruin the youth’s fun.

So that’s really, kind of the first 6 issues. If I were to sum it up in one word, I’d go with immersion.

The latter half of the Bendis/Lafuente run is, however, not necessarily as solid. Instead, the plotting sort of suffers from a usual Bendis fault in which too many plot beats are stacked on top of one another. They’re not bad comics. The aesthetics still ride high and please the senses. The problem lies more in the structure of the plot, and because Bendis is determined to make so much happen, certain plot lines suffer and are lost in the mix. Name example, the Kitty Pryde stuff.

I like how Bendis brings Kitty into this incarnation of Ultimate Spider-man, and how he uses her to handle the entire ‘Mutants in the Ultimate Marvel Universe” thing. Her story really ends up representing another tried and true conflict felt in teenage wasteland, only her’s is a drastic extension of the thought I was on earlier with Peter Parker and the shitty fast food job: being misunderstood. Bendis’ writing of her and her situation call on the typical X-men story – mutants hated by the public – but he pivots the usual plot detail into a position where it resonates with the teen mantra of “the world doesn’t get me.” It’s a nice touch and well represented by Kitty’s new identity of  ‘The Shroud,’ where she literally is dressed head-to-toe in a cloak, hidden from the world.

When Bendis decides to really open up the Kitty can of worms though, he does it, brings the drama, but quickly sidetracks and moves onto something else. Which, I guess, in itself would be fine, but he does so in the midst of one story arc, after selling the reader on the Kitty plot line. “Tainted Love” starts out taking two issues to focus on the Kitty thing and by issue three dovetails into this out-of-no-where Chameleon plot. The comic gains this tangential sensation around this point, and the move sort of cheapens some of the importance placed on Kitty’s story. You know, by making it only a “plot mechanism” to plant the seeds for the Chameleon story. Which, eventually, proves to be a lesser, done-to-death story. Although, like the Mysterio stuff, Chameleon is another villain who’s identity is a question, continuing the theme from the first arc, yet only upping the ante when he robs Peter of his identity.

The real gold moment of “Tainted Love” comes with J. Jonah Jameson, though, who’s ever-passionate hatred of Spider-man comes to a head as he uncovers who Peter Parker really is. This scene illustrates the adult perspective and the teenage perspective colliding, or better yet, becoming one as both Peter and Jameson are in the same predicament. They’ve both had their identities hijacked by Chameleon, and they are both now tied up and held captive. There’s no separation. Neither one is better than the other. They’re just both drugged hostages seeing the world from the same, poorly lit room.

I wouldn’t say this run of Ultimate Spider-man comes to any conclusions by its finish. I didn’t receive any great speech or answer to any of life’s great questions. It’s not that kind of comic. Instead, these 15 issues crafted by the likes of Bendis, Lafuente and Ponsor, are more about setting a certain tone and letting a reader live in that. Immersion, or like I said at some point in this post, capturing the essence of the teenager. Which is what the core of Spider-man – all the way back to Ditko – is. And it’s what Ultimate Spider-man has always been about. The teenager.

Out of the three shifts, I’d call the “Lafuente Era” the ideal version of Ultimate Spider-man. While Bendis and Bagley captured the concept early on in their run, the work the team produced eventually piled up into a heaping mass that sort of negated what Ultimate Comics was about: continuity free tales. Granted, this run may continue that continuity plagued narrative, but in some ways the Bendis/Lafuente run feels like a reboot of Ultimate Spider-man. Any new reader could pick up Ultimate Spider-man here and get a complete – or semi-complete – picture. The voice is here. The core of the Spider-man concept is here. And the aesthetics are superb.

If I were to guess, when Bendis saw the chance to start over, you know,  post-Ultimatum, I think he took it – like really took it. Because this version of Ultimate Spider-man may be similar, but it’s also entirely different.

I feel David Lafuente made the difference. What he brought to the table changed this book, giving it this new, magical charm. His style, his line work – those things embody the spirit of Ultimate Spider-man. New, fresh, exciting, energized. That’s what Ultimate Comics was meant to be.

The “Lafuente Era” feels like the start of an entirely new title rather than some continuation of an 8 year plot, and I feel Bendis and Co. would have kept it going if not for the loud interruption known as “Death of Spider-man,” which, ultimately, left the end of this run somewhat unfinished and keeps it from existing as a complete, closed story.

That interruption is what I’ll write about next.

Next time: I go over “Death of Spider-man” in a much shorter blog post.

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