Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories through the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.
Greg: Welcome back, loyal readers, to the first ever two-part edition of The Longbook Hunters. Today, we’ll be discussing the second half of the first hardback collection of Ultimate Spider-Man. By the end of the opening arc, Ultimate Peter Parker is just becoming comfortable with the idea of being everyone’s favorite wall crawler. But trouble is a-brewing for Pete.
Nick: It certainly is, both in his life as Spider-Man and in his personal life as he struggles to balance time as a hero with time spent with family and friends. We are also introduced to the Ultimate versions of Ben Urich, J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle in this story.
Greg: Most importantly, I’d argue, we’re introduced to Ultimate Kingpin, who is the story’s primary antagonist after the Green Goblin origin is out of the way.
Nick: So, with all of that said, the first few pages kind of drop you into Peter’s new status quo and get the Daily Bugle stuff up and running. Pretty typical JJJ interpretation here, I’d say. What were your thoughts on Peter’s new job?
Greg: It was pretty familiar. Ben, J.J. and the rest of the Bugle gang are mostly the same, except for a rather unique twist on Betty Brant that I liked a lot. She’s a little more independent and, I suppose, Lois Lane-like here.
Involving web design was a pretty clever way to update the Spider-Man story for the 21st century.
Nick: Yeah, this was one of the more overt modernizations, changing Peter from freelance photographer to part-time web designer. Besides a new occupation, Peter is also developing his budding romance with Mary Jane, a character we didn’t really touch on in our first column. I’ve made no secret that this Mary Jane is one of my favorite female characters ever, and to me, a sizable upgrade from her 616 counterpart, mainly because she feels more relatable and real to me. How are you warming up to the Ultimate version of Peter’s true love?
Greg: One of my dirty little secrets as a comic fan is that I’ve never liked Mary Jane Watson, at least outside of eye candy when I was a kid. And it’s precisely because of what you touched on — she was never as relatable to me as she was supposed to be. A glamorous supermodel wasn’t a believable match, in many stories, for a down-on-his-luck nerd like Peter.
Ultimate Spider-Man, however, presents a totally different MJ who screws up occasionally but is a kind, smart and, yes, awkward teenager. In fact, the relationship between Peter and MJ is my favorite part of the entire book. It is so much more natural and believable than most superhero relationships, and Brian Michael Bendis writes some of the most realistic teenagers-who-like-each-other dialogue I’ve ever read. In many ways, this was a bit revolutionary, because I can’t recall seeing many (if any) relationships in comics that develop as naturally.
Nick: Exactly. I mean, when we as readers come into a new take on Spider-Man, we just kind of accept the fact that Peter and MJ are bound to be involved with one another. Rather than relying on our acceptance, however, Bendis does a great job of making you understand the characters and why they’re drawn to one another. MJ as somewhat of an awkward teenager is much more believable for Peter than the supermodel version, to be sure. And like you, their relationship was often my favorite part of the book. It’s the only series I’ve ever read where I think I was more invested in the character’s personal life than their heroic exploits. But, we’ll come back to MJ in a bit. You touched on Ultimate Kingpin earlier, and I know you were a big fan of he and his Enforcers. Tell us all a little bit about why these villains stuck more of a chord with you than the Goblin did in the first arc.
Greg: First and foremost, Kingpin simply felt more familiar to me than the version of the Goblin that we got. In the case of the Enforcers, they were completely new to me, so I had no expectations going in. Bendis’ presentation of Kingpin as a ruthless but out-of-touch mob boss/businessman was exactly what I’d expect, but he pulls it off marvelously. The Enforcers each have a unique personality and “gimmick,” to use wrestling parlance.
Most importantly, these characters are truly allowed to interact with Spider-Man. Goblin’s grunts and groans weren’t interesting to read. Kingpin no-selling Spidey’s jokes or the Enforcers trying to trade barbs with him? Great stuff.
Plus, this story was the first time in a long time that the Kingpin was scary. He’s built like the end boss in a video game, so that by the time Pete gets to him, you can’t wait to see how he’s toppled.
Nick: And Bendis and Bagley do a great job of making the Kingpin not just a threat from a political and pull standpoint, but from a physical standpoint as well. They’re also smart to include scenes for unfamiliar readers that underscore why the Kingpin is such a problem — no matter what seems to happen, he’s back in the world within a few months causing problems again.
Greg: Precisely. One thing I always enjoyed about the Kingpin, in any iteration, was how this big fat guy was actually incredibly strong and tough, enough to give even Spider-Man and Daredevil a tough fight.
Nick: In this story, we also get Ultimate Electro, whose look is changed quite a bit from the green and yellow suited mainstream version. A change for the better, I’d say. It also certainly seems to have inspired the look for Jamie Foxx’s interpretation of the character in the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Greg: Yeah, while I’ve always been a sucker for the green-and-yellow duds (Electro was my favorite Spider-Man villain when I first started reading), the “electric skin” version presented here is much better. His powers are presented in a way that makes sense, and he’s got the familiarly annoying personality of his 616 counterpart. If I had a criticism, it’s that he’s presented as subservient to Kingpin, though that’s fine given how this version operates.
I’m interested to see what direction Jamie Foxx takes the character in next year’s film.
Nick: So, while Peter’s struggle with Kingpin is the main conflict of the arc, we also get a lot of interaction between Peter and MJ, and we see how Peter’s Spidey secret is causing some friction between the two. Now, usually we try our best to avoid spoilers, but the end of this book is so well written, it’d be impossible for us not to talk about it. The book ends with Peter revealing his secret to MJ and the two sharing their first truly romantic moment. Greg, your thoughts on this scene?
Greg: I texted you moments after I finished reading that scene, because it was just that well done. It’s probably the best reveal of a superhero identity I’ve ever read, simply because it is so believable and so, dare I say it, fun. Mark Bagley deserves the lion’s share of credit here. The pages are laid out magnificently, and Bagley’s art tells the story here. It’s every bit as uncomfortable, nerve-wracking and (ultimately) hilarious as it should be.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite Spider-Man moments, period.
Nick: And yet, through all the nerves and hilarity, there’s also a real connection between Peter and MJ that comes through the pages. It’s one of my favorite romance scenes in comics and it’d be pretty high on my list of favorite Spidey moments as well. Now, most interpretations of Spider-Man string out the secrecy aspect a lot longer than Ultimate does. Did you think it was too much, too soon in terms of Peter revealing himself to MJ?
Greg: No. It actually makes sense and (again) makes Peter more relatable to tell those closest to him about his secret. I can’t imagine being able to keep something that big from someone I really loved, especially when it keeps coming between us.
However, I do think there are too many people that know Peter’s secret too early. In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that several villains know his identity in addition to MJ, and it felt a bit like overkill. At this point, I kind of expect Jamison or Urich to find out soon. Though I suppose it’s more realistic that a teenage kid would have trouble protecting his identity.
Nick: Peter is certainly a bit more cavalier with his identity than his 616 counterpart, though they do make a point of addressing that in later issues. Personally, I felt like the moment and the way it enhances he and MJ’s relationship makes it worth it. Plus, like you said, he’s a teenager. OK, so that about wraps it up for the first hardcover. We’ll just touch on a few more things. First of all, you’ve mentioned Mark Bagley’s art a few times, but how did you enjoy the overall look of the book? For me, it’s now the version of Spider-Man that pops in my head whenever I think about Spidey, and his depictions of Peter’s supporting cast are “my” versions as well.
Greg: It was good, especially from a storytelling standpoint. I generally liked the way he drew Spidey, and while his faces sometimes looked similar, he did a great job moving the story forward. I wasn’t as crazy about some of the action scenes, as I felt the art wasn’t as dynamic in those scenes as it was from artists like McFarlane, Romita and Larsen back in the day. He did a great job of making the everyday mundane tasks in Peter’s like seem exciting, though. I was even more entertained and drawn in by the art during simple conversations than in action scenes.
One minor complaint, and it may have been due to the script, was a panel being completely repeated from one issue to the next. In one issue, Peter punches Ox in the stomach, only to injure his hand. In the very next issue, he does the same thing to Kingpin with the same result. At first I thought it may have been intentional, but it isn’t referenced in any way, leaving me to feel it was a mistake.
Also, I was disappointed in the lack of basketball-patterned hair that the 616 Osborns had.
Overall, I like Bagley (especially the way he draws Peter Parker), but he doesn’t quite match the greatest Spidey artists for me.
Nick: So, all that said, when you first heard about Ultimate Spider-Man, you were vehemently opposed. Now that you’ve read the first volume, what are your new impressions of the series, and do you see yourself reading the further exploits of Ultimate Peter?
Greg: Like the average politician, I’ve flip-flopped. I definitely count myself a fan of the series, and I’m interested to see where Bendis and Bagley take the characters from here. The cast of supporting characters is rich, which should be a no-brainer with Spider-Man books but is often overlooked. Ultimate Spider-Man is an ambitious reimagining of some of the greatest superhero tales in history, and the creative team shows how to do alternate universes right.
Nick: Couldn’t agree more, and I’m glad to hear you’ll be giving the next story arcs a shot. Now, the final thing we’ll touch on is the influence the series has had on Spider-Man’s latest big screen incarnation. I know many had mixed feelings on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but I loved it far more than I had any business doing. The reason for that I felt like the tone, the characterizations and the dialogue were as close as I’ll ever get to an Ultimate Spider-Man movie. While reading, could you see how the book influenced the Andrew Garfield movie?
Greg: I could definitely see the influence. Everything from Flash Thompson to the high school to the fight scene that concludes the origin story were lifted from Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s as if the filmmakers read a steady diet of Ultimate and the early Stan Lee-Steve Ditko stories before crafting that film, though I felt it lacked a lot of the fun and action of the books it’s based on.
Nick: I also thought the movie, much like the book, realized that the way to distinguish itself from previous incarnations, was to have a renewed focus on Peter’s relationship with his supporting cast. The Peter-Gwen romance in the movie was every bit as interesting to me as the Peter-MJ stuff from the book.
Greg: I definitely agree there. I’d have been perfectly fine with a romantic comedy centered around Peter and Gwen, as they were the movie’s strong point.
Nick: Well, that about wraps it up for this week. Be sure to be back next week as we debut an all-new recurring Hard-Traveling Fanboys feature and giggle sophomorically over its name — Giant-Sized Hard-Traveling Fanboys!
Greg, care to tell the people a little bit about the concept and what they can expect next week?
Greg: On months that have a fifth Thursday — our regularly scheduled day of the week — we’ll be celebrating the extra week with a panel of comic book fans as passionate as we are. The group will have a roundtable-style discussion about a story or event that had a major impact on the comic book medium as a whole.
Next week’s inaugural Giant-Size HTF will focus on one of the most popular and divisive comic book storylines of all time, the Death of Superman.
Nick: In the meantime, send us your feedback via our PTB emails (NickD@placetobenation.com and GregP@placetobenation.com) or on Twitter at @nickduke87 and @gphillips8652.