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A blog for poetry, prose, and pop culture.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Word Balloon: Ultimate Spider Man

Hey all,

I gave a lot of thought to this months Word Balloon choice. I have picked a lot of comics from DC's Vertigo Mature readers imprint as well as several all ages fare. I have also picked my favorite comic writer Alan Moore several times. While I have plenty more great works from Vertigo imprint and Alan Moore to spotlight I realized that I have never really picked a book from Marvel Comics nor any honest to goodness super hero stuff.

Which is weird because I read a lot of Marvel and I really like super hero books. The mainstays of my reading habits are Marvel heroes, yet I haven't done a spotlight on them yet. This month that is going to change with my choice of a straight up old fashioned super hero tale. Spider-man. Specifically Ultimate Spider-man.

In the year 2000, Marvel Comics had just started to come around after a few very bad years, including filing bankruptcy in 1998. They had appointed a new President, Bill Jemas, and a new editor in chief, former comic book writer and artist Joe Quesada. Quesada had helped turned the companies image around as an editor right after the bankruptcy by turning several lower tier characters, such as The Punisher and Daredevil, by re-establishing them with top creators and shaking up the same old status quo. He had also changed many high profile comic creators view of the once controlling Marvel, by giving them a much more leeway in the types of stories they could tell. Jemas believed that after 40 years of continuity and back story, that many of Marvels beloved icons had to much baggage to be accessible to new readers, something the struggling company was concerned about. He also believed that a new book would help draw in readers who would be wanting more Spider-man after the release of the upcoming first film in 2002.

Quesada was unsure of the idea after a failed attempt to relaunch Spider-man in 1998 had almost crippled Marvel. Instead of replacing the Spider-man that everyone had known and grown up with for 40 years, they created a separate universe they called the Ultimate universe. This imprint could tell newly modernized versions of classic Marvel characters without the years of continuity holding them back, while still appealing in their regular Spider-man titles to the original fan base.

Marvel chose a relatively unknown writer at the time for Ultimate Spider-man, Brian Michael Bendis. Mostly known for crime noir books, he had written a well received 4 issue arc on Daredevil and was given the green light. Teaming up with long time regular Spider-man artist Mark Bagley, they launched Ultimate Spider-man that fall.

Spider-man's original origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962 was only 11 pages. Bendis, in a move that truly introduces decompression to comics, unfolded his Spider-man's origin over the course of 7 issues. Decompression is really breaking down the character beats and allowing the characters to talk and act as they would in real life. Some people love decompression, others don't, but most will agree that Bendis was changing the way we read comics.

Truthfully, the first arc of Ultimate Spider-man isn't about Spidey at all, its about Peter Parker. Bendis put Peter back into the Spider-man equation. The book isn't about the battles he fights as Spidey, but about Peter and why he does what he does. Everyone knows Spider-man's origin, he is bitten by a radioactive spider and given the proportionate speed, strength, and agility of it. In an attempt to make some money off of his new found powers, he lets a burglar escape from a robbery, a burglar who ultimately kills his Uncle Ben, the man who raised him.

Bendis gets us into the head of Peter, a shy awkward teenager who has a crush on the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson. Picked on by the bullies at his high school he is alone with his science projects. Bendis makes us feel for the characters long before Peter even puts on the suit. In fact, you don't see Spider-man in costume until issue 5. But the story never seems drawn out or lagging. Instead he uses this insight to draw you into Peter's supporting cast. He takes Peter's Uncle Ben, who barely appears in the original origin, and fleshes him out into such a developed character you begin to wonder if he will die. Yet when he does, its done with sincere pathos.

I've praised Brian Michael Bendis a lot, let's not forget series penciler Mark Bagley. A long time Marvel mainstay, he had orginally broken in through Marvel's Try-Out book in the mid 1980's. A true story of fan makes good, Bagley had been bumped around on minor projects throughout his career until a run on an unknown team book titled New Warriors landed him a job on Marvel's flagship Spidey title, Amazing Spider-man. He had a long run on the title, including being a part of the infamous Clone Story arc that nearly crippled both Marvel and Spidey, though it actually established Bagley as the pre-eminate Spider-man artist of the 1990's. Jemas knew he would be the perfect fit for the book and he was. Bagley captured the youthful energy and exuberance that Spidey needed. He, in my opinion, is the ultimate (no pun intended) monthly penciler.

In a comics medium, especially in the late '90's and 2000's, that was plagued by late shipping books, Bagley could produce his issues on time with quality. He was never the flashiest artist or the most well known, but every book he worked on was quality. The most important part was that he and Bendis got the book, they knew what made the book look and feel like a young Spider-man and what would appeal to a new generation of Spider-man fans. But at the same time not alienate the old.

Ultimate Spider-man continues to be published today as the flagship book of the ultimate line, which includes modern "Ultimate" versions of The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and The Avengers (called The Ultimates). Bendis and Bagley worked on the book together for 110 straight issues, no fill in artists or writers, and they never missed a deadline, in fact they produced books at a greater than monthly basis. That mark of 110 is the longest consecutive run of a an artist and writer of all time between any of the major publishers. Bendis continues to write the book currently, as Bagley moved on to DC to work on some of their flagship characters.

My pick this month isn't so much about the re-telling of Spider-man's origin, but of the fun and wonder that comes with great super hero tales. Not every book has to be grim and gritty, or follow adult content to stay compelling. Sometimes the best books just make you feel good. And that is what Ultimate Spider-man is all about. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Ultimate Spider-man Vol 1: Power and Responsibility from Marvel Comics, the essence of Spider-man.

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