Comic books can boast of one unique achievement. However, this very accomplishment continues to undermine the continuing survival of comic books as a viable medium of art and entertainment.
This achievement is the longevity of super-hero characters.
Can you name fictitious personalities that were created more than six decades ago and yet whose adventures and exploits continue to be presented into the new millennium?
I mean, other than Superman and Batman?
However, with this distinction, comes a deadly flipside, and this has prevented many people from perceiving comic books as an acceptable medium of art and entertainment. There is often a sense that with the long-lived history of the super-heroes, the sheer background involved when approaching a comic book for the first time is indeed prohibitive for a newcomer. Such is not the case when one goes to watch a movie or read a novel. The other difficulty the longevity of super-hero characters pose is how to keep the characters modern and contemporary. Case in point: when Superman first appeared, World War II had not even happened yet! Thus, contemporary references would occasionally be revised throughout the 60 years that the Man of Steel has been with us to maintain the veneer of reality and familiarity of the world that Superman exists in.
Which brings us, finally, to Ultimate Spider-Man.
For the avid comic book reader growing up in the sixties and seventies, Marvel Comics were really cool. Sure, DC Comics had the big guns, Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice League of America. But Marvel Comics were still cooler. They had Fantastic Four (with the awesome artist Jack Kirby), Avengers, X-Men and of course, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Yes, Spider-Man.
He was Peter Parker, a geeky straight A student who had to juggle super-heroics with his pathetic adolescent life. He was strong but you never felt that he was invincible that vulnerability made him very sympathetic as well. Thanks to writer Stan Lee and illustrators Steve Ditko and John Romita, the first decade of Spider-Mans existence was classic comic book storytelling. The success of Spider-Man and the other Marvel Comics characters would ultimately lead to a domination of the comic book market by Marvel Comics for most of the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s.
Well, that was then and this is now.
A couple of years back, Marvel Comics filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Having recently put their affairs into order, Marvel Comics have taken steps to regain their position as market leader. The market as a whole has lost ground to video games in the competition for teenage hearts and minds (and wallets) and if super-hero comics were to have a future, the teenagers would have to be lured back.
With the success of the X-Men movie in mind (and no doubt with the highly anticipated Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie due in 2001), Marvel Comics hired hot writer Brian Michael Bendis to take the reins of Ultimate Spider-Man, a book that would attempt to make Spider-Man relevant to the teenagers of today. Bendis has shown with his work on Sam & Twitch and Powers, that he has an excellent ear for dialogue and an intuitive grasp of characterisation and dramatic pacing. For an up and coming writer, Ultimate Spider-Man is a plum job.
The first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man lives up to almost all of the expectations close observers of Bendis would have. Peter Parker is still the geeky grade-A student, but this time he lives in very contemporary settings. The dialogue as usual for Bendis is spot on. Peter Parker and his friends speak in a believable teenage vernacular and the references are modern. Peter Parker’s guardian Aunt May (depicted as an old lady in the original comic) is a sprightly middle-aged woman who was at Woodstock along with her ponytailed husband Ben (imagine the hippie parents in the sitcom Dharma & Greg). But best of all, the origin of Spider-Man (you know, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider which grants him immense power) never gets rushed the costume doesn’t even make an appearance and Bendis let’s the plot breathe and find its own pace.
On the down side, artist Mark Bagley’s figures are rather stiff and are clearly not flashy enough if indeed the intent was to draw the video game crowd.
Overall, it’s difficult to assess the impact that Ultimate Spider-Man would have on the non-comic book reader. Nonetheless, it would be an excellent starting point for the curious comic book neophyte to take the plunge. There are no in-jokes, no 40 years of baggage or background, just an entertaining re-telling of the tale of Peter Parker and how he became the hero known as the Spider-Man.