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Looking back over ten years after its launch, it's easy to forget the climate in which Ultimate Spider-Man was launched. The first Spider-Man film was being filmed and coming close to release, the mainstream Spider-Man comic was struggling to pull in readers after an ill-advised attempt to remove Mary Jane Watson from the mythos and create a single (but widowed!) Spider-Man. This would later be reversed with a change in writer, when J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame, took over. The Spider-Man books had also recently experienced a largely-ignored reboot with John Byrne's "Spider-Man: Chapter One", which was a bizarre attempt to rewrite Spider-Man and his villain's origins and tie them all in together, so when Ultimate Spider-Man was announced as a modern-day retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin, there were purists who were understandably apprehensive about further butchering of their classic stories in an attempt to "update" the stories.
Fans of the classic Spider-Man stories shouldn't be worried as this is a different Spider-Man, in a different and 'Ultimate' universe. As with those 1960's origin issues, this is set in contemporary times and since that was the year 2000, some of the references are slightly dated twelve years on. Whilst Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original story for the birth of Spider-Man was crammed into 11 pages, this Spider-Man's journey into becoming a costumed hero takes seven issues, and introduces the Green Goblin as his primary nemesis.
This initial volume is written by Brian Michael Bendis, who had enjoyed success with his indie title, Powers, and with art featuring long-time Spider-Man artist, Mark Bagley. The story introduces Peter Parker and his school-mates during a trip to Oscorp, a science laboratory owned by the father of one of the students. The familiar events happen and a genetically-enhanced Spider (as opposed to the traditonal radioactive) bites a young Peter Parker, transferring its Amazing powers onto the boy. As with the traditional story, he first uses these powers for his own personal gain and the development of his powers is nicely dovetailed into his own changes through puberty, something that was echoed somewhat in the Spider-Man movie that followed. Again, there is a heavier focus on the characterisation of the human characters of the Spider-Man saga, with Uncle Ben getting a lot more personality and face-time than he ever had in the initial storyline (and some since). By allowing us to care for the Uncle Ben character, Bendis allows us to hope that along with the minor differences he has added to the Spider-Man legend, there may also be a chance of Uncle Ben surviving and having a larger impact on his nephew's life as a costumed hero.
Bendis also ties in the origin of the Green Goblin to Spider-Man's own genesis, giving the two arch-nemeses a stronger connection than they ever really had in the main book, up until the infamous Gwen Stacy on the bridge moment. The only downside is that Bendis removes the complex split-personality aspect of Norman Osborn by having him turn into a Green Hulk-like creature whenever he injects himself with the OZ serum. Whilst this is a more frightening visual and creates a less hokey version of the villain, compared to a man in a halloween costume on a glider, it does dampen down a lot of what made the Green Goblin iconic, reducing him to a Hulk knock-off who can throw fireballs.
The artwork here is fantastic, as Mark Bagley knows how to draw his Spider-Man, and after years illustrating him in the mainstream universe, Bagley makes some subtle changes to make this version seem more youthful, such as a slightly larger head and feet (something that the behind-the-scenes sketches at the back of the book reveal). Whilst the initial few chapters are a bit scratchy and Bagley takes time to work out a design for the new characters - his Peter Parker in particular seems to vary slightly from panel to panel and doesn't really settle down until the end of the book - it remains a clear-cut and well drawn book. Later volumes improve on the artwork, with the addition of more visually dynamic characters, such as Doctor Octopus and Venom, but this is a nice start and it is clear that the artwork evolves over time.
Despite the hurdles it had to overcome, Ultimate Spider-Man managed to shake off the prejudices of an alternate universe book and not only became a Top 10 selling book, but also helped launch the Ultimate Universe, with Ultimate versions of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men following within the next few years. The legacy of the book reaches further than that with the creation of the Ultimate Spider-Man video game, set firmly in the comic book's continuity and the forthcoming Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon which looks to borrow heavily from the modern approach that Bendis took when it came to revitalising the Spider-man franchise. I have to say that Ultimate Spider-Man was one of the books that brought me back into collecting comics on a weekly basis and is one that I still pick up twelve years later (and Bendis is still writing it!)
[Review may also appear on Amazon.co.uk & Ciao]
Although I have been a Marvel fan since I was a kid, I haven't read nearly enough of the comic books or graphic novels that I wish I had. I recently read the very interesting theoretical Civil War series, where Marvel characters as superheroes become shunned and forced to sign an agreement to make them work for the government or become outlawed.
Enjoying it, I ventured further and picked up this volume of 7 'episodes' that essentially recreate the origins of Spiderman. With elements relating to the original scripts and also some that follow along similar styles to the feature film Spider-Man that was released early this decade with Toby Maguire as the webspinning superhero, this series did not disappoint, and I read the whole thing within an hour or so.
The volume has the famous Spiderman tag, 'Power and Responsibility', and examines how Peter Parker was bitten by a spider in millionaire Norman Osborn's lab while on a school trip. A fusion of DNA then causes Parker to acquire special spiderlike abilities, including strength, agility and a sixth sense warning him of danger.
What has been missing from any spiderman tales I have read before is the relationship Parker has with characters such as Mary-Jane, who becomes the love of his life in many later Spidey tales. Initially considered out of his league, brainy Janey and Peter Parker are an item almost from the get go in this, and Parker's relationship with Norman Osborn's son, Harry, is rather loose, with Harry definitely the cool rich kid in school.
As the characters develop, Doctor Otto Octavius (later villain Doctor Octopus) also enters the fray as a scientist working in the Osborn lab. As Osborn starts to use himself as an experiement, we see the birth of the Green Goblin as well, which sets the scene for later battles, and one that fans of the film will be used to.
The artwork is quite up to date and modernised, with much emphasis placed on movement and muscle structure as opposed to the background action. The foreground is definitely the focus on this, with subtleties glossed over. This gives us the plain facts in an intriguing and well worked story, letting the words and actions and familiar storyline doing the work, a strong enough tale to get away with it.
Light and dark are also used to good effect, with shadows particularly impressive, as well as some more vibrant colours used for some characters, while duller shades are used with others. This also helps to denote mood throughout the collection, and is done so effectively.
It's not as complicated as something like Alan Moore's Watchmen. The artwork is less sophisticated, and more cartoony, with unrealistic body shapes and musculature being emphasised to bring it very much up to today's style of comic work. The removal from typical humanity leaves the imagination to couple it with fiction, and thus helping in the fantastical nature of it, particularly once the Green Goblin enters the fray.
Overall, I found it a nicely different take on the beginning of Spider-Man as we know it. It's true that perhaps my initiation into the world of Spidey and his friends and enemies has been somewhat Hollywoodified (to create a word), and it was nice to see this version, a more original take, coming through and actually making more sense.
Power and Responsibility was penned by Brian Michael Bendis, with Bill Jemas and Mark Bagley also credited at the top of the publication. It takes more than just an author to sell a graphic novel of sorts: the artist is just as important, and it's right that the limelight is so shared. This is a clever updated version of Spider-Man, bringing the character up to the modern era, with Bagley's artwork giving a more energetic angle that Bendis and Jemas could work the story into. After 40 years or so of being one of the most popular superheroes, it's nice to see him get a bit of a facelift and be elevated into a modern day and age. I look forward to reading many more similar collections.
Power and Responsibility is currently available from amazon.co.uk for £9.99. The version I have read features a different cover to that shown, but there are more than one cover designs made for this collection, the content remains the same. I highly recommend reading this. I couldn't put it down and was done with it before and hour was up. I had to go back to pick up all the intricacies I had missed, but there weren't many of these, with the story relying on the basic tale to do all the work. Recommended!