The latest issue of Marvel’s “Spider-Men” gave me some interesting thoughts about Spider-Man as a character, and about decompressed storytelling. I know that phrase has probably made the non-comic people click away, but that’s alright, those who are with me will have it explained, and are my favourites anyway.
WARNING: EGREGIOUS SPIDER-MAN SPOILERS, LIKE SERIOUS MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR BOTH SPIDER-MEN!
As both Marvel and DC seem to be throwing as many stunts against the wall to see what sticks, we’re getting so many weird events that the next one’s being announced as the current one’s still going. DC relaunched their whole line of comics, then announced Before Watchmen and are now doing their zero issues and next year will have their big crossover. Marvel had their “Heroic Age” rebranding, and now Avengers VS X-Men and soon “Marvel NOW!”. In amongst the big Marvel events was a comic which was a big move, despite going relatively under the radar. One of the big taboos of the past was that the core Marvel universe (The 616) would not cross over with the Ultimate universe, the separate continuity originally for people who didn’t want 50+ years of backstory.
Ultimate Spider-Man was a great innovation, and the writer Brian Michael Bendis, brought more character and more relevance to the license, compared to the older stories which haven’t necessarily aged well. The 616 Spider-Man was a man probably in his thirties now, and leading a very different life. The Ultimate version died in the last year, and was replaced by 13 year old Miles Morales, who is a fantastic new addition to the universe.
As with the style of recent events (you do NOT murder Spider-Man, you do NOT spin-off Watchmen), a rule was broken and now there’s a crossover between the 616 Peter Parker Spider-Man and the Ultimate Miles Morales. I bought it because I love Brian Bendis and read Ultimate Spider-Man, but I didn’t expect something amazing, which is luckily, what happened.
The first issues were fairly lacklustre, with Peter Parker thrust into the Ultimate Universe while fighting his villain, Mysterio, who appears to also be the exact same Mysterio that the Ultimate Peter fought. There was the usual confused fight, and a thirty year old man hit a thirteen year old. Then at the end of issue three Peter found his old home, only to see Gwen Stacy and Aunt May stood there. To them, Peter had died. To him, Gwen had died. A big shock all round, and poor Miles was relegated to the background.
So why is Spider-Men issue 4 worth talking about?
It’s a talking issue, and sadly for him, Miles is still relatively in the background, as the audience voice for “doesn’t know/remember all this continuity”. I’ve moaned about the economy of decompressed issues where you have 22 pages of Peter Parker thinking to himself on a train, compared to the old stories which were ‘done in one’. This is one of the books which shows how decompressed storytelling can be used for good.
The run-down of the story is that the 616 Peter Parker is in the loft of Ultimate Aunt May’s house, talking to her, Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales. The back and forths are stunning, with Bendis having captured the voices and priorities. While this could have been a checklist of differences, it brings a lot of emotion and a lot of payoff to the events of the last decade or more.
When Ultimate Gwen finds out that Mary Jane is a model in the 616, she’s shocked. The Ultimate MJ wears glasses and is more of an alt-girl nerd. Then Gwen asks about herself, and anyone who knows even half of the continuity of the 616 knows that Gwen died in Peter’s second “power & responsibility” moment. Peter can’t admit this and chokes up, skipping past that part.
There’s a quick dodge of even mentioning One More Day’s whole MJ/Peter split debacle, and we’re still on the comparisons. Ultimate Peter died, and was made a saintly figure by the populace of New York. They love him now he’s gone. He had Gwen Stacy living with him, went out with her, with MJ and with Kitty Pryde of the X-Men (not at the same time, mind you). The 616 Peter may be alive, but Gwen died, and Mary Jane and he split up after they almost got married. The 616 Peter’s had the worse life out of the two, but then the Ultimate Peter’s dead. It’s really sad to see how everyone deals with this in the Parker attic. It’s genuinely affecting, and acts as a better postscript to the life of Ultimate Peter than Ultimate Fallout was.
The next issue promises to be all bombast and punching, with the Ultimates (the Ultimate Avengers) joining both Spider-Men in taking down Mysterio. It’ll be well-written, but it won’t be as good as this issue of the series. It’s possibly my favourite Bendis comic of the year so far. Ultimate Spider-Man is more like television than film, it’s closer, more personal and the action is used sparingly.
With the recent wave of comic-based films, a recurring argument has come back about how comics are just for kids, especially super-hero ones. While this argument has been defeated before in geek circles, as the genre becomes more mainstream, newer people are rallying around the, “super-heroes are just for kids” argument. Some comics, like DC’s New 52 line, act serious and gritty in the way a 13 year old might imagine serious and gritty to be… in the 90’s. Ultimate Spider-Man, originally meant for teenagers who didn’t know anything about Spider-Man, has turned out to be as interesting, characterful and mature as any comic purporting to be grown up should be.