Greg: At the time, I considered myself one of those hardcore fans to which you referred, even though I wasn’t an active reader anymore. I heard about Ultimate around the time of the movie, and I scoffed in elitist fashion. “This is so lame,” I told anyone who would listen. “They wrote themselves into a corner, so now they have to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over.” Of course, I ignored that it was a totally separate comic book universe. But at the time, I looked at Ultimate as a gimmick that would either last only briefly or eventually take the place of the main Spider-Man titles due to their convoluted nature. And I didn’t dare break my vow never to read the mainstream universe Spider-Man titles again.
To 18-year-old Greg, Ultimate Spider-Man represented everything I hated about comics: gimmickry and a “dumbing down” of the concepts and stories I loved as a kid to make them “cooler.” Only in hindsight do I realize how limited and hypocritical that viewpoint was. Heck, I grew up on ‘90s comics!
Throughout 2002, despite feeling euphoric about the Spider-Man movie, I was still mostly disengaged from comics. I would occasionally pick up a new trade at the library and thumb through it, but outside New X-Men, most of the books left me cold — the lukewarm Batman: Fugitive storyline, for instance. By the beginning of my freshman year at Troy University, I was still completely out of the comic book loop.
Were you reading anything other than Ultimate Spider-Man at the time?
Nick: Well, in the back pages of those Ultimate Spidey trades were advertisements for Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates. So, when I got caught up on Ultimate Spidey and hadn’t yet found a comic book store, I delved into both of those and got all the trades that had been released.
Greg: Did you instantly find yourself sucked into the universe these characters inhabited? How long did it take for you to become passionate about the books?
Nick: The Ultimate universe became, and still is in many respects, “my” universe. It was relatively easy to follow and Marvel allowed the writers, especially Mark Millar on The Ultimates, to take chances and take the characters in different directions.
I was hooked on Ultimate Spidey by the end of volume 2 when Peter and Mary Jane had their version of the “hit the jackpot” moment. That book, more than anything else for me, was always about that relationship. It’s one of the only comics I’ve ever read where I cared more about the romance than the action at times, and I think that’s a real testament to the abilities of Bendis. I liked Ultimate X-Men, but I never became overly passionate about it. The Ultimates, on the other hand, I loved. Loved every word and every panel. Like I said, within a year or so, I viewed the Ultimate Universe as one that was mine. It just felt more akin to a world I could recognize. But, despite my love for the Ultimate universe, every time I tried to pick up a mainstream universe comic, I was scared off by the continuity. I was used to knowing every character’s past inside and out, so it was hard for me to connect the dots on these versions of the characters.
I stuck with the Ultimate books and eventually was able to convince my parents to get me a mail-order subscription for Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man, which put an end to my trade waiting and represented my initial foray into single issues.
Greg: Continuity can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be an albatross. Walking that fine line of being accessible while still rewarding longtime readers can be a difficult task for writers. One of the reasons I enjoyed the random trades of Morrison’s New X-Men I’d read was that he pretty much did his own thing in the book. It was marketed as a fresh start, and it basically was, though it alluded to and maintained existing continuity. But at the time, the thought of actually buying these books was far from my mind. And then came my first semester of college.
Nick: That would have been 2004?
Greg: Fall 2002.
Nick: Samsonite, I was way off.
Greg: It’s strangely coincidental to see your story about happening upon Ultimate Spider-Man at the store. Not just because it mirrors my experience seeing my first comic book as a boy, but because it mirrors the experience that finally, mercifully got me back into comics.
Nick: I’ve heard this story a few times, but tell the people about your trip to the college bookstore, a man named Jeph Loeb and a little story called “Hush.”
Greg: Our campus bookstore was, in those days, really interesting. It was a small store with a hodgepodge of textbooks, literary classics, Cliff’s Notes versions of said classics and, tucked away in a back corner, a tiny rack of comic books.
Keep in mind that, as you’re aware, there isn’t much to do in Troy, Ala., especially in 2002. As a result, I’d often find myself in the bookstore that semester, perusing the magazine and comic racks to see anything that caught my eye. One random autumn day, I once again ended up wandering through the bookstore, and something caught my eye. For lack of a better explanation, it was an absolutely perfect rendering of Batman.
Nick: Was it that iconic Jim Lee cover I now have in poster form on my office wall?
Greg: Indeed it was! That cover of Batman #608 had two words at the top of the page that forced me to pick up the book — two words that meant so much to me 10 years prior: Jim Lee.
I somewhat reluctantly forked over my $2.25 (Oh, for those days!) and headed straight to my dorm room to read the book, curious more about the art than the story. To my knowledge at the time, Lee had all but vanished off the face of the earth after drawing X-Men. I realize now how wrong I was, but this marked a comeback story in my young mind and a potential link to my childhood. Then something frightening happened … something my bank account would regret for years. As I turned each page, read every word balloon and caption, marveled at every action shot and confrontation, it dawned on me — I was loving it.
Nick: Was it just the art that sucked you in, or did the story play a role as well? I can’t really remember where #608 fell in the Hush storyline, so I’m having a hard time remembering if that issue was new reader friendly or not.
Greg: It was the first issue of “Hush,” and it was incredibly new-reader friendly, as most of the great Batman stories have been. I picked up the issue and instantly knew who everyone was and what was going on. And then, as he is so adept at doing, Jeph Loeb ended the issue on a cliffhanger. I knew I was hooked — hopelessly, endlessly hooked on this Batman story. I had to have more Lee art, more Loeb dialogue and more of the Batman-Catwoman relationship I’d always been so eager to see in the comics.
I didn’t miss a single issue of that landmark storyline, and I’ve since bought three versions of it in either soft or hardcover collections. To this day, I thank Loeb and Lee for reigniting my passion for the medium, even if I told myself I was sticking strictly to Batman.
Nick: I didn’t discover that story until years later, and it was you who first put it into my hands. But, in order for you to do that, we had to meet first. And that is another story for another month.
Catch us next month as our journeys finally begin to come together. Greg falls back into the mythical DC Universe, I discover the joys of the comic book shop and I finally delve into the 616 Marvel Universe. Also, don’t forget to be back here on the Place to Be Nation next week when we Countdown our top five minority characters in comics.