Raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Peter Parker is a kind-hearted 15-year-old who tries to make it through every day of his high school career without getting picked on too badly. But Peter has a secret: at night, he sheds his studious trappings and dons the garb of the city's mysterious new protector: Spider-Man!
Marvel has always had an advantage over their Distinguished Competition: while Superman soared high above his imaginary Metropolis, Spider-Man swung through the streets of Manhattan; when Bruce Wayne retired to his stately manor house at the break of day, Peter Parker had to head back to Queens, finish his homework and try to catch the bus to school; in short, DC's heroes were archetypes, and Marvel's were human. They had problems.
However, over the 40 years since his creation, Spider-Man seems to have outgrown his problems. Peter graduated from high school, he married a super-model and had a secure, good-paying job. Now while I can associate with the stunning wife and the Fortune 500 job, that whole diploma thing is just a bit too off the wall for me.
All jokes aside, Spider-Man, working-class hero, had outgrown his audience. Frivolous, poorly-planned storylines only drove more readers away. By the end of the '90s, it looked as if Marvel's flagship title was slowly circling the drain.
Then, out of nowhere, Joe Quesada was named Editor-in-Chief. An artist who had worked for both big companies, Quesada formed his own small comic company (Event) to tell the stories he wanted. In the late '90s, Marvel decided to farm out some of their poorer-selling titles to Event, letting Joe and friends take a crack at them. The subsequent "Marvel Knights" line was a critical and financial success for Marvel. Joe proved he could run a company smartly and efficiently, while still making books that people bought. Thus, he was handed the reins to the company. Who says that dedication and hard work don't pay off?
One of the first problems that Quesada chose to address was the quality of some of Marvel's biggest books, including Spider-Man; that's where the "Ultimate" line came in. In an effort to woo new fans, Ultimate Marvel features some of the most recognizable characters stripped of decades and decades of continuity - their stories are no longer a series of complex in-jokes that refer endlessly to themselves.
No longer married to a supermodel or secure in the world, Peter Parker is once again a high school sophomore who gets picked on because he's not in with the in-crowd. Basically, he leads a life exactly like the rest of us. As the story opens, we find Peter sitting at the mall food court, poring through a science book while doing his level best to ignore the food that the bullies at the next table are throwing at him. An inauspicious start to the career of a great hero, but a wonderful introduction to the life that this boy leads.
Through the rest of the first chapter, "Powerless," we are introduced to the major players in Peter's life - jocks Flash and Kong, cool kid Harry Osborn and his scientist father Norman, sweet and smart Mary Jane - and learn that his parents died in a plane crash, leaving him in the care of his aunt and uncle. He has his fateful run-in with the deus ex arachnia and begins exploring the boundaries of his new life.
Despite now having the power to thoroughly trounce any bully who bothers him, Peter finds that life still isn't all wine and roses - in fact, things may be getting worse. His school day is still hell, his family's having money problems, and he's getting in more fights in both places. His first attempt at finding a career that would allow him to utilize his proportionate strength and agility goes less than well, and things get even worse at home. In a fit of genetic modification gone awry, the Green Goblin shows up and attacks Peter's high school. Spider-Man lures him away and fights him high above the borough, simultaneously becoming a hero to his classmates and a fugitive from the police; even at the best times in his life, Peter's got problems. Problems that make him human, keep him grounded and approachable as a character. And all that in only the first story!
The second half of the book sees Peter becoming more comfortable with who he's suddenly become. He lands a great job at The Daily Bugle, working the website. Sitting by the police scanner and in charge of inputting breaking news, Peter has almost instantaneous knowledge of what's going on in the city, giving Spider-Man plenty of opportunity to swing into action.
Doing some research, Peter learns about Wilson Fisk, the so-called Kingpin of Crime. Outraged that the police and the authorities know of Fisk's illegal dealings, yet sit idly by, he decides to take matters into his own hands. After nearly getting himself killed, Peter finds that he's wanted on murder charges. Though he handled the Green Goblin through blind luck alone, Peter comes to realize that not all problems will be so easy to tackle; he needs to start using his brain as much as his fists.
The book is capped off by one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told, the standalone "Confession." Filling one issue of the monthly comic (and thus one chapter in the book), there's almost no Spider-Man action to be found. Opting instead to focus on Peter Parker, we're reminded of the human part of "superhuman."
It's not until Peter decides to use his power to help others that his life starts to turn around, giving us the moral lesson of Spider-Man; not just that "with great power comes great responsibility," but also "with great responsibility comes great opportunity." No matter how crappy Peter's life may be at any given time, he feels better when he turns his attention to the world beyond himself.
As written by Brian Michael Bendis (expatriate of the City of Seven Flat Places and its Plain Dealer), Ultimate Spider-Man unfolds more slowly than its predecessor; the story that fills five chapters today was covered in one issue in 1963. This pace allows for more well-rounded characters: we see that Flash Thompson might be a pain, but he's not just a bully; his friends give him his fair share of ribbing and he gets in trouble with teachers and coaches. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are more than cipherous caretakers, forever fretting that their charge isn't eating enough or that he may have a cold; they were happily married, with no children, when one suddenly dropped into their laps. Peter himself isn't simply a shy bookworm/supergenius, but instead uses research and study to feel a connection with his absent father.
Bendis was previously known for writing crime stories - tales of bounty hunters and detectives, untouchable lawmen and the scum they have to deal with. By taking on the tale of a kid in a colorful costume, he's proved that he knows more than the dingy back alleys; Bendis' dialogue is top notch, and really captures the sound and rhythm of a conversation. Even though the story is executed over a longer time frame than before, it does not drag. Bendis manages to imbue even a scene of two high schoolers talking on the front steps with an energy and tension that keeps the reader hooked and the pages turning.
He's joined in this endeavor by artist Mark Bagley, who spent a few years drawing Spider-Man in the mid-90s. His style is solidly grounded (he's got a background in technical drawing and architectural design), but still has a noticeable kinetic buzz. He remembers that at this point, Spider-Man is really still a child - compare his Ultimate Spidey to the adult version he drew for so long, and the differences in physique and body language are readily apparent. Out of costume, Peter still looks like a teen, rather than the "short adult" so many artists come up with. In fact, the entire class looks like teenagers, running the gamut from "slightly dumpy" to "trying too hard to look grown up."
This oversized hardback collection collects material previously available in the first two Ultimate Spider-Man trade paperbacks, "Power and Responsibility" and "Learning Curve," plus a few extras. Bendis always compares his tpbs to Special Edition DVDs, loading them with material to entice someone who bought the monthly issues into buying the trades. Included in this volume is an article about the creation of the Ultimate line by Marvel president Bill Jemas, Jemas' detailed outline for the initial story arc (from before Bendis was brought onboard), pages of notes and character designs from Bagley, and a piece Bendis wrote about his involvement. And just you can see how this Spider-Man compares to his 1963 counterpart, the book closes with a reprint of Amazing Fantasy #15, the very first appearance of Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
Judging by the raging success of the Spider-Man movie, a lot of people are Spider-Fans. This book is perfect for those whose interest was piqued by the film; out of the various Spider-Man comics, Ultimate's characters are closest to those seen on the silver screen.
"Ultimate Spider-Man" is even a good read for young readers; not only do kids prefer to read about characters slightly older than themselves, but the story is suitable for all ages - no objectionable language (at least none shown on panel) or extreme violence. While this hardback is aimed more at the older fan, and it is getting hard to find now, the two trade paperbacks that cover the same material are readily available in bookstores everywhere.
If you're still unsure about this book, you can visit dotcomics.marvel.com and click on the Ultimate Spider-Man link. This hardcover collects the first 13 issues of the comic, three of which are available online, in their entirety, for free!
With great art, great writing, and the chance to try it for free, you have no excuse for not looking into Ultimate Spider-Man.