Book Club / Some of the Teenagers Look Middle-Aged

ultimate-spider-manUltimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection Volume 1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley




Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

“It’s just mindless escapism isn’t it?”

I went to go see Spider-Man: Homecoming on Tuesday. Started reading Ultimate Spider-Man Vol 1 the day after. Trying to pick apart the various threads spread across my mind to work out a good starting point.

Re: Ultimate Spider-Man – on the very first page of the very first issue when evil Osborn says makes a comment about how when the Goddess Athena gets jealous of Arachne’s being a better spinstress than her and comes down to earth and destroys all of Arachne’s creations: was it really necessary for Justin to say: “Sounds like a woman?” Or you know: is it supposed to be setting up how they’re all evil n stuff? But then – only like a few pages later the school coach (does he have a name?) throws his arms up in the air after Peter misses a basket and exclaims: “A woman! I swear to God! If I had to bet cash money based on that throw, I’d say I was looking at a woman.”

Or you know – we could chat about how nobody is buying Marvel comics anymore. This article is pretty good (“The industry has been running on all of these old ideas and models for far too long while the medium strains against the constraints those old structures offer, and if that continues, things are going to get really bad, really quick”). And this one too: The Great Power and Great Responsibility of Spider-Man (“As Brian Hibbs, the owner of San Francisco’s Comix Experience comic shop, said, “It’s not a rational world we live in that Spider-Man is not selling over 100,000 copies every single issue.””)

TL;DR = Both of them talk about the same thing: no one is buying Spider-Man comics anymore. (The little voice in my head says: well you know – why is that a bad thing?)

I’ve only read Ultimate Spider-Man once (many moons ago) but my abiding memory of it is that I liked it and thought it was good. Mostly I think I liked it because of the very way it was concocted: a superhero comic that starts at zero. You don’t have to read anything else apart from the book itself in order for it to make sense (shouldn’t all books be like that? Wouldn’t more people read more superhero comics if they could just watch one and then that was it?)

When we did Kingdom Comic for the Book Club I was all like: I don’t believe in superheroes. I wish now I had been a little more specific: because my issue isn’t with superheroes so much (I mean: there’s lots of superhero books I like: Watchmen, Supergod, The Ultimates, The Dark Knight Returns etc) more the mainstream Big Two variety. I like to believe a man can fly I just don’t like having to tune in next week (and the week after and the week after that and the week after that and to infinity).

But then – well – I do like kinda Spider-Man. There’s something about him that feels like a breath of fresh air (even tho he’s like 50 years old at this point?).

Maybe every generation has to reboot their heroes in order for them to still be relevant? But erm then again: how much is that true? Like: we’re not really telling these stories to ourselves. They’re created and maintained by billion dollar corporation that sell them to us for a profit – but maybe that’s the part we want to ignore?

I think I read a Garth Ennis thing once about how he dislikes mainstream superhero things because they’re always so morally simplistic. (Have any of you guys read that issue of Hitman where he meets Superman? If not you really should…). I mean: it’s nice to have a story where the bad guys are “Bad Guys” no? They do bad things like rob banks and steal money and blow things up. And then the hero swings in and punches them in the face and they go to prison. Catharsis. Roll credits.

Re: Homecoming. In the middle of this $175 million film Michael “Birdman” Keaton gives a speech about how the real bad guys are the ones with all the power and the money. I wonder how many people watching agrees with him? Like: what would happen if you put Spider-Man in a world where there were no bad guys running around in colourful costumes? Like: could Spider-Man use his powers to change society? How many of the problems that affect us can we punch in the face? Like: maybe The Vulture would have had more luck if he was like Tony Soprano and didn’t get involved in the day to day running of his business flying around in a giant birdman suit thingie? Like: isn’t that donkey work? Couldn’t he have got someone else to do it for him? Isn’t that how crime is supposed to work? When you get to the top you keep your nose clean and let everyone else take the risks? I mean: I don’t think these are plot holes or anything like that: it’s more that – well: these are the assumptions that the drama runs on and well: I think it’s always very interesting to poke around into assumptions and think about the reasons they might be there.

What if the sequel was Spider-Man: Occupy? Peter Parker discovers politics and tries his best to create political change so that the conditions that give rise to people turning to crime no longer exist? But then maybe that wouldn’t be so much fun / mindless escapism?

How much cooler would it have been if instead of going for Peter Parker they’d done Miles Morales instead? Or would that have been a step too far?

Also: erm like seriously you guys: I hope Hannah Blumenreich got some $$$. Like: all the Spider-Man hanging out in Queens stuff felt like it owed a big debt to her cool point of view / sensibilities (altho I’m guessing all she got was a shout out and probably not even that. Which grrrr actually makes me a little angry to think about: but you know – I guess that’s the system or whatever)

My favourite thing I’ve read about Spider-Man: Homecoming (by far) is this thing by Darren Franich: The illusion of change in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I mean: it’s all great (you should go read it!) but I particularly love this bit:

“there’s no getting around the fact that a superhero movie can only inevitably be about its superhero: This is a genre built on the empowerment of the title character, and so everyone around the hero is either guiding them on the journey or preventing them from living their truth.”

Maybe one day we’ll get to the point where superhero films can get to be like Astro City or Gotham Central and tell a whole film from a “normal” person’s point of view? Like: Homecoming already relies a lot upon the audience’s understanding of how superhero films are supposed to work so that it can yada yada the origin story stuff. While you know: a generation ago every superhero film was an origin story. So I guess that’s progress of a kind maybe? LOL.

Also: serious question – is Spider-Man basically just the best superhero of all time? I mean: the two elements of superheroness mixed with teenagehood is basically the ultimate combination right? Like peanut and jam and/or words and pictures.


But hey – what do you think?

Muzik Tree

I enjoyed the new film a lot. Anything that does not involve yet another origin story has got to be good! Regarding the Spiderman book itself – it needs to be made more simpler or more complex. I can’t recall the title – but when he faced with the idea – that none of what happened to him was an accident. That is a truly great Spiderman story.

Barbican Comic Forum

re: the actual book we’re reading this month

The movie’s better.

(“Which movie?” You ask.

“Any/all of them. Even the Andrew Garfield one.”)

The story is serviceable, even if it lacked the dosage of humour I’d expect from a Spider-Man outing. But I found the art really inconsistent. Wikipedia tells me Mark Bagley is a ‘veteran Spider-Man artist’, and a google image search of his name shows capable stuff. I can’t, then, figure out why layouts are occasionally cluttered with pointless, suffocating close-ups of people’s faces and eyeballs. Or why some of the teenagers look middle-aged. Or why characters’ faces sometimes look clumsy, like they’re drawn hastily or by several artists trying to achieve a similar style (or both?). Or why Peter Parker has such an awful haircut, even by year 2000 standards.

keep an eye on that boy

Ex A: Odd layout with pointless suffocating close-ups.

because i was hoping that you

Ex B: Come on, there’s no way this guy looks like a high schooler.

banana bread

Ex C: What’s with the eyeballs? And weird drawing? Aunt May’s stance and evil eyebrows in the top panel initially made me wonder if she’d made, like, a poison banana bread. Also, why didn’t she just save herself the effort and offer just, y’know, a banana?

thats just great

Ex D: Something about top-right and bottom-right Peter looks bizarre compared to the others.

Apparently/maybe it’s just that Bagley’s strength is drawing superhero action with masked faces and muscly bodies rather than everyday teenage drama. Once the action scenes began, I found the art infinitely more enjoyable (that might also have something to do with Peter Parker’s awful hair not being visible).

re: comments about women

Both instances — along with more trash comments in later panels in which a female character is called a ‘slut’ and Peter laments Uncle Ben ‘crying like a girl’ — I found really jarring!

before i slip and hurt myself on the testosterone

I get you, MJ.

re: Miles Morales

I read his origin immediately afterwards, which was interesting from a compare/contrast perspective, and infinitely better: the art is consistently good and the story manages to balance being both fresh and familiar. It’s really worth reading the two origins back to back. I would’ve loved to see Miles Morales as Spider-Man in the new film.

re: “…mainstream superhero things [are] always so morally simplistic.”

Are they? DC and Marvel are full of characters who live in the moral grey areas between good and bad. You now the ones: Catwoman, Magneto, Black Widow, Elektra, Red Hood, Gail Simone’s Secret Six, several people in Watchmen, various iterations of Loki, etc. They don’t always get stories that deftly deal with/in that moral middle ground, but when they do, the results can be pretty good. Some of these characters are among my favourites within DC/Marvel exactly for this reason.

re: “What if the sequel was Spider-Man: Occupy? Peter Parker discovers politics and tries his best to create political change so that the conditions that give rise to people turning to crime no longer exist?”

Would watch/read this.

The Gap between Panels
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter / The Hot-Doll Pages

I need to reread this again, but one of the things I remember about it is that Bendis didn’t really get a full sense of ownership of the book until issue 13 (the last part of this omnibus volume) where he was allowed to make a significant departure from the traditional Spidey narrative. That issue is just one long conversation – the sort of comics Bendis excels at. And it feels like after that, the series gets more confident, echoing the ‘real’ Spidey mythos but deviating in interesting ways.

If I’m not mistaken, this was coming out at around the same time as the first Tobey Maguire film – and to an extent the two bleed together for me. The origin stretches out quite a bit, there’s the curious diversion of a wrestling career, and so on. Bendis’s version is spikier and funnier so I tend to like it more. Spider-Man: Homecoming is funnier still, although it completely side-steps the pathos of Uncle Ben’s death. Given how many iterations of this same narrative exist in parallel – you really are spoiled for choice when it comes to the tone you prefer.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

Oh wow Amanda. That’s like – proper comics analysis. You know – looking at the pictures. Digging deep. Making cool points. Now I feel bad. (Wish I had pointed out the evil Aunt May poison banana bread thing because yeah – proper LOL: it’s funny because it’s true).

I was going to say that Wikipedia saying that Mark Bagley is a “veteran Spider-Man artist” is probably because – well – he did Ultimate Spider-Man for like (is this right?) 133 issues. But LOL no: he was doing The Amazing Spider-Man all the way back in 1991 so yeah – omg – what gives? Why is his art all crazy eye close-ups and teenagers looking like they’re played by 20 somethings *cough*? But then saying that: I mean – when was the last time you guys looked at mid 90s mainstream superhero art because you know: that shit was crazy (I’ll leave it to you to google Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and every other artist that draws people like they’re made up out of the same stuff as Stretch Armstrong etc)



But yeah – at the risk of just repeating the same argument I tried to make for the Walking Dead: I’d like to second Ilia’s – you need to keep going with it for a while before it gets good.

Back in the mists of time I used to work for Islington Libraries. They had a pretty good comic collection and I basically spent my teabreaks and lunch hours making my way through all of the good stuff (in fact that’s how I discovered a lot of cool modern comics tho the only one that I can remember now is Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates: which yeah I liked a lot). In fact yeah – I thought the whole Marvel Ultimate Universe thing seemed pretty cool and I worked my way through most of them: Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Iron Man, Ultimate Galactus (written by Warren Ellis!): I mean shit yeah – as far as superhero comics go: these ones were actually pretty damn tasty. You know: the whole point of The Ultimate Universe thingie (for those who don’t know) is that it re-sets the story from the start so (and as long time readers will know this is one of my main bugbears with mainstream superhero comics): the story you read is all the story there is and you don’t have to feel like you’re missing out on anything – which well you know – is actually pretty cool. So you can read the books without that I don’t know damn buzzing in your head or whatever (or is that just me? LOL).

Only yeah – even tho it were multiple copies in every single Library (I think there’s like 21 volumes altogether?): I basically turned my nose up at Ultimate Spider-Man for years.

Like totally didn’t want to know. Even when my lunch happened and there was nothing else to read I’d still choose anything but Ultimate Spider-Man. Because well – yeah: look at it. Everything Amanda said and more: I mean – it all just looked so disgusted and ugly and tossed off. Like: I know comics are a cheap and disposable medium – but come on guys.

I wish I knew what it was that changed my mind. But yeah – I don’t know. I guess one day I finished reading all the other books and maybe I liked some of the other stuff that Bendis had done (his Daredevil run maybe?) and other Ultimate stuff was cool and I’ve finished reading everything else: and I’ve got to read something while I’m eating right? Whatever.

But shit: you know that thing where you can’t stop reading a book? Where you become ravenous for the next installment? That was me with Ultimate Spider-Man. I mean – reading through the first few issues I’m struggling to see why: but yeah – like: Ilia said – it’s a train still looking for it’s tracks. You need setting stuff up and getting pieces into position before you can start playing the game right (images of a friend tempting you with a new board game they’ve found: you’re raising an eyebrow as they explain the rules and they’re going: “No no! Trust me – it’s really good once you start playing!”).

Maybe we should have started with Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 9: Ultimate Six instead? Which – if my memory serves: is one of the best damn superhero comics I’ve ever read ever. But I can’t say too much without spoiling it – so I should just say go check it out… I’m sure Islington still have a copy somewhere.

(Oops. Lol. No they don’t. I just checked).

Re: The comments about women thing / crying like a girl etc.

I couldn’t work it out. Just seemed strange.

And then I got to this:



And then I was like: oh right. Of course.

MJ was right.

Spider-Man is all about performative masculinity. It’s punching. Skin tight suits. Wrestling for godsakes and giant men standing around with their tops off their muscles glistening under the sprinklers.

I mean: yeah – I’d like to think that wasn’t the reason I was into it when I read it when I was younger (like: I think it’s because the stories are cool I think?) but who knows? But yeah: I guess Ultimate Spider-Man is very much tied up with the idea of being a Man and all that signifies and know: that’s just a bummer for all concerned right? I mean if nothing else: it’s just kind of exhausting.

I wanna say more: something about the whole Spider-Man founding myth and it’s kinda bullshit ideas about criminality plus something maybe about Dr Who and all that – but will leave it there for now.

Barbican Comic Forum

I’ve read and re-read Ultimate Spiderman a lot now, but like all of you I was very dismissive of it initially. The art was weird and emotionally impenetrable (I honestly still struggle to comprehend Aunt Mays mad faces). The initial story arcs were generic (especially compared to the idolatry of Ultimate Xmen and the Ultimates, which really set out to carve up accepted characters/ tropes). And it was centred firmly on one not-very-interesting character (which of course changed once the supporting cast became much more fleshed out).

I think the real strength of Ultimate Spiderman is it’s sheer consistency. For most of ten years Bendis and Bagley put together a really fun comic, that really started to forge it’s own identity. I don’t think any individual story-arc is brilliant on its own, but as a collection it’s really strong. It lasted as long as some soaps, and to me is like a favourite cult TV show a la Freaks & Geeks. I think it’s really telling that whilst the rest of the Ultimate universe ran out ideas and went up it’s own arse, Ultimate Spiderman continued to improve and develop within its own world. It was funny, fast-paced, emotional and dramatic. And in issue 13, it has possibly one of the best one-off issues in superhero comics, that totally subverts all sorts of typical superhero tropes and properly takes the comic in a bold and fun direction.

We could spend all day (and probably should) on the “performative masculinity” of it, but then there’s a much more profitable line to gain from the non-Ultimate Spiderman and his issues of masculinity/ male wish fullfilment (from the traditional school-nerd-who-gets-strong-and-gets-the-girl, all the way to the time the writers felt the need to retcon out his marriage, as having a wife was too much of a drag on his adventuring).

Lots of the Ultimate line has dated quite badly (including Peter’s dress sense and hair style), but I do think Ultimate Spiderman stands up still. Whilst the first book might be lame, the later stories (especially once the ensemble cast of school jocks, nerds and family members come together) are a blast.

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