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.
Nick: Welcome once again to the column that never ends, or at least I’m sure it seems that way to those of you who are still reading.
Greg: The Hard-Traveling Fanboys are back for another look at a hardcover comic book collection. And this month, our focus switches to the out-of-print first hardcover collection of Ultimate Spider-Man, which collects issues #1 through 13.
Nick: This column is one I’ve been looking forward to since we first agreed to start writing for PTB, because we’re finally taking an in-depth look at Ultimate Spider-Man, perhaps my favorite title of all time and the book that got me into comics. I was really excited, though, because it finally gave you a reason to actually pick the thing up and read it after years of my recommending it.
So, with that being said, let’s dive right in. Some of this may be a bit of a retread for those who have been reading Secret Origins, but tell me a little bit about how you first became aware of USM and how you perceived it before you finally gave a it a try?
Greg: I first heard about Ultimate Spider-Man (and the Ultimate line of comics) not long after it started, through some friends at school. It was probably 2001, and my initial thoughts were extremely negative. I hadn’t been reading comics for a few years, but I could only imagine that the terribly named Ultimate Universe was Marvel’s way of escaping the corner it had written itself into with all the convoluted continuity changes in Spider-Man throughout the ’90s.
I viewed it as representative of everything I hated about the comics industry — lazy writing, lazy editing and a retread of old concepts, just cheaply “modernized” for the MTV/TRL generation.
I made all these determinations, of course, without actually reading the book.
Nick: I first found the book after seeing the 2002 Spider-Man movie through a rare trade paperback that was actually carried at Wal-Mart. I bought the first volume, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, you hated the idea at first, but from what I understand, you had kind of softened your stance on the concept in recent years. Is that pretty much how it went?
Greg: Mostly. I shifted from outright hating the concept to simply having no interest in it. As I became a fan again and became a little more knowledgeable about comics history, I came to understand both the reasoning behind the Ultimate U and the sort-of revolutionary handling of it. Alternate universes had been done before, and many characters had been rebooted countless times before. Granted, Spider-Man was an exception, but there were also things like Spider-Girl and Spider-Man 2099 that took place in alternate timelines or universes.
Basically, I grew to understand the need for books that appeal to teenagers and that can stand apart from the mired-in-continuity mainstream universes.
Nick: So, let’s get into the story itself. For the purposes of this review, we’ll be discussing the first hardcover, which collects the first two story arcs of Ultimate Spider-Man. We’ll start with the first arc, which largely dealt with the introduction of Peter Parker’s world, him getting powers, the death of Uncle Ben and his first showdown with the Green Goblin. So, with all that said, how did you take to the first few pages of the book?
Greg: Right away, my concerns of a direct re-tread of Amazing Fantasy #15 were somewhat alleviated by the bold choice by the creators (Brian Michael Bendis, Bill Jemas and penciller Mark Bagley) to begin Ultimate Spider-Man’s story with Norman Osborn in a lab. The first few pages do a good job teasing what’s to come, before we encounter Peter Parker as we all know and love him — the nerdy kid being picked on by bullies at his high school.
I could tell the book was written for a slightly younger demographic than most modern comics, because the narration is simple and the artwork is straightforward. Despite that (or, perhaps, because of it), I found the general “feel” of the story to be a breath of fresh air. It’s clear from the outset that, while these characters are dealing with serious (to them) problems, the book won’t take itself too seriously. It’s presented not unlike a good cartoon would be, with easily defined characters and enough intrigue to keep me interested in what’s to come.
Nick: Yes, the book establishes early on that this is a story not just about Peter Parker, but also about Norman Osborn, a theme that it would carry through to its conclusion. And you bring up a good point about the overall feel of the story. One of the things I love about the series to this day is its ability to appeal to both a younger and an adult audience, something that was a hallmark of the DC Animated Universe you and I both love so much.
But, moving on, in addition to Norman and Peter, Bendis gives us most of Peter’s supporting cast from the get-go as well. I’m sure you developed favorites as you read the volume, but were there any characters who seemed to grab you from the start?
Greg: Kong is my favorite side character, simply because he’s a completely original creation of Bendis. I was surprised just how much it added to the Peter Parker-Flash Thompson dynamic to have another jock serving as almost a go-between. He has several of my favorite lines and moments in the early issues, and even though he starts the volume as a jerk, I found myself liking him a lot by the end.
Peter himself is simply a relatable kid, which is essential to writing him in any universe. I could certainly empathize with his social awkwardness and status as an outsider. Bendis makes Pete’s conversations with Mary Jane seem just as hilariously awkward as mine often were with girls I liked in high school.
I like Aunt May a lot more here than I ever did in the 616 Universe, which sounds like blasphemy, but hear me out. Here, May is presented as more of a two (or even three) dimensional character, whereas oftentimes she was presented as a generic kindly old lady in most Spidey comics I read as a kid. Here she’s a kind woman, but she’s also resolute and fiery. She’s not above making mistakes, nor is she above giving in to her emotions.
Nick: Yeah, Kong is really the biggest original contribution that Bendis made to the cast. By the end of the series, readers were pulling as much for Kong as they were for anybody. He also provides a good counter to Flash, who is wholly unlikable, while Kong is more of the middle ground between Peter and Flash.
I’m glad you brought up Aunt May, because that’s been one of my biggest praises for the series. I feel like Ultimate Ben and May have, for the most part, been handled so much better than their 616 counterparts. As you said, they are actual characters who aren’t presented as idiots and can often put things together for themselves to realize what’s going on around them. And yes, while May is much more emotional here, it makes her feel more real. Her emotions may come off as cold or cruel towards Peter, but it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just Peter’s uncle who died — it was May’s husband and soulmate.
On the topic of Uncle Ben, though, how did you like the way Bendis handled the relationship between he and Peter? That was one area that wasn’t really fully developed in the original Spider-Man mythos.
Greg: I actually had conflicting views on it. On the one hand, it was definitely a step up in terms of a defined relationship. It’s evident from the get-go that Ben Parker loves Pete as if he were his own son. And it’s also obvious that Pete loves Ben as a father, though he handles the relationship about as badly as most teenagers do. Bendis and Jemas did a good job exploring the two sides of the (somewhat forced) adoption. Obviously, Peter feels the pain of having lost his “real” parents, and he lets Ben and May know that, but Ben and May feel the pain of knowing Peter doesn’t see them as his “real” parents.
However, I felt Ben was almost written to be too perfect. In a book filled with complex people making mistakes here and there, Ben seems one-dimensional by comparison. That works in the 616 Universe, because Ben was always more of a mythical figure than a real character. Here, though, he comes off a little too flawless and understanding for my money. I was actively rooting for him to haul off and slug Peter at one point, but instead he handles it perfectly. He’s a great man, and his death (hey, it ain’t a spoiler if it’s been known for 50 years, people!) saddened me, but I didn’t connect with his character the same way I did with May.
Still, it’s nice to see WHY Peter and May loved Ben so very much — because he was a hell of a guy.
Nick: I can understand those concerns. Ben is certainly meant to serve as Peter’s ultimate example to strive for, so it makes sense that they’d go a bit overboard in showing just what a great example he was. Ok, we’ve talked about Ben and Peter’s relationship. Were there any other areas that you weren’t expecting as they adapted the origin story for a new generation? That was pretty much the big one, I thought. Everything else was pretty familiar.
Greg: Yeah, everything else was mostly in line with what I expected, as far as the first arc went. The lone exception was one of few things I didn’t like about the book — the handling of Harry Osborn. Here’s a case where my fanboyism reared its ugly head, but I grew up reading (and watching) a Harry Osborn that was both relatable and likeable. Ultimate Harry, at least in this volume, is a snotty rich kid who seems to only be out for his own interests. That flies in the face of the Harry I grew up reading, who (while suffering through the mental and emotional ramifications of a terrible upbringing) genuinely liked and respected Peter. The Ultimate version surprised me and not in a good way. I have to make my peace, I suppose, with the fact that this is simply a different take on the character.
I was also surprised by the … unique interpretation of the Green Goblin.
Nick: Yeah, Harry is a completely different character than his 616 counterpart, but I will say that the writers do a good job of bringing him closer to likability as the series goes on.
And Ultimate Goblin is pretty different, but he too changes as the series progresses. Speaking of Ultimate Goblin, the first story arc pretty much culminates with Spider-Man and the Goblin having their first big showdown. Much like a wrestling feud, it built for a few issues before they finally collided. What were your impressions of the first arc’s climactic fight and the journey the characters took to reach that point?
Greg: They definitely built them as polar opposites — Peter sort of feeling his way through life while Norman is hell-bent on reaching his goals and becoming impatient to get there. Peter’s character arc in particular is well handled. The Goblin confrontation is the first real “man up” moment for Peter as Spider-Man, and it’s great to see him kind of fumbling and stumbling around as he figures out how to deal with someone stronger than him. Ultimate Goblin, unfortunately, hurts things by being more monster than man. Because of that, it’s difficult to know how much of Norman is still left under there, and he can’t engage in any banter with Peter (who delivers some great lines throughout the fight regardless). The movie “The Amazing Spider-Man” pretty much ripped this fight directly, except it substituted The Lizard in the Goblin’s place.
It is one of those obvious feuds that builds and builds, but much like, say, Randy Orton-Triple H, the end result didn’t live up to expectations. However, it left the characters (particularly Peter and his fellow students) in quite a pickle moving forward.
Nick: So, overall, would you say you enjoyed the first arc?
Greg: I did enjoy the first arc. It did enough right and set the stage for what was to come in an entertaining way. It wasn’t perfect and didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it left me interested enough in the main character and the supporting cast to keep going. I genuinely wanted to find out where these folks were heading, and I found myself loving the book by the first issue of the next arc, which picks up in the second half of this volume.
Nick: Absolutely it does……which just so happens to be where we’ll pick up next week. That’s right, for the first time ever, this’ll be a two-part review! Next week, we’ll look at Peter’s first confrontation with Ultimate Kingpin, discuss the overall artistic look of the series and touch briefly on what elements, if any, were used in the film reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
In the meantime, hit us up via our PTB emails (NickD@placetobenation.com and GregP@placetobenation.com) or on Twitter at @nickduke87 and @gphillips8652.
Greg: Should be fun. And we’ll revisit the two-part review concept in the future when we cover MY favorite series of all time, The Adventures of Magnum P.I.
Until then, remember: with great power comes great responsibility!
Nick: And great mustaches!