[21 November 2013]
Superhero comebacks are nothing new. The heroes quit, they die, they get trapped in space or alternate realities or what have you, and nobody hears from them for a while. Then some new mega-threat rears its head and the formerly inactive do-gooder rejoins the fray. This is an old story, not only in the larger superhero genre, but specifically for the character of Spider-Man. It was nearly five decades back that Stan Lee and John Romita published Amazing Spider-Man #50, titled “Spider-Man No More!” in which Peter Parker tried to give up his life of costumed crime fighting only to learn that heroism is not so easily abandoned. Since then, short-lived attempts at retirement have been a common theme in Spider-Man’s life.
It is not Peter Parker, but Ultimate Spider-Man’s Miles Morales, who most recently tried to give up the mask and moniker. In an arc that takes its name directly from the classic Lee/Romita issue I mentioned above (minus the exclamation point), Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez tell the story of what Miles’ world looks like a year after he stops being Spider-Man. Because he’s the star of the series, and because, as I said, superheroes are constantly coming and going, there was never any doubt that by the end of this storyline Miles would be back in action. The challenge Bendis and Marquez gave themselves to overcome, then, was making Miles’ inevitable return compelling and surprising. And though it’s not the most unpredictable comicbook story ever told, they largely succeed in constructing an engaging tale with some pleasantly unexpected elements. By making it as much about the arrival of several brand new heroes as it is about the return of an established one, Bendis and Marquez add layers of interest and intrigue to the narrative that might not otherwise have been present.
Miles’ decision to quit was motivated by his mother’s death, a shocking event seen at the end of the previous storyline, “Venom War.” The first page of the first issue of this “Spider-Man No More” arc kicks off with giant block letters reading ONE YEAR LATER. So that time has already passed when the story begins, a full year without Spider-Man. The world hasn’t fallen to pieces in his absence or anything, but there are those who actively miss him, including Spider-Woman Jessica Drew and Miles’ best friend Ganke. They both try to convince Miles that he has an obligation and responsibility to use his extraordinary powers for good, no matter the risks or subsequent tragedies. But Miles is insistent that he’s never going back, still too torn up over the loss of his mom, for which he blames himself, since she died as part of the chaos caused by a villain he was fighting. No amount of peer pressure seems enough to change his mind, but that doesn’t stop his friends from trying. Jessica even gives Miles a fresh new costume, which he only begrudgingly accepts. It’s not until other superpowered youngsters suddenly, explosively enter his world that Miles begins to see the necessity of Spider-Man.
There are three other teen superheroes in this story, and it is in their characterizations and character designs that Bendis and Marquez do their strongest work. Cloak and Dagger are classic if somewhat obscure characters from the “main” Marvel continuity who show up here for the first time in the Ultimate Universe. While their powers are largely the same as those of their original versions, their backstory is quite different, and a key part of the role they play in this story. Two hyper-typical teenagers in love, Ty Johnson and Tandy Bowen, are on their way to their first prom when they get in a horrible car accident that almost kills them. Instead, they suffer an even worse fate when the Brain Trust, a group of scientists working for the Roxxon Corporation, decides to use them as the subjects of a dangerous experiment. Ty and Tandy are given powers against their will, without their knowledge or consent, while their families think they’ve died in the hospital. This was Roxxon’s goal, to create new superhumans, but they didn’t anticipate the levels of success they’d reach, so Tandy and Ty manage to escape before their captors can control or even contain them. Unfortunately, that still leaves the high schoolers scared, confused, and alone in the world. With nothing to go on but their new abilities and their anger at what’s been done to them, they commit themselves the whole superhero thing, going by Cloak and Dagger and battling the forces responsible for their current situation. Namely, they choose to attack targets they believe are connected to Roxxon, which is how they wind up meeting (and fighting) Bombshell.
Bombshell’s real name is Lori Baumgartner, a second-generation victim of Roxxon’s machinations. Her mother, Lana, was offered a deal: get out of jail free by signing up to be a human guinea pig. She agreed, and ended up with the power to create explosions with the wave of her hand, a trait she passed on to Lori, with whom she was unknowingly pregnant at the time. Nowadays, Lana is incarcerated again, so Lori is just as on her own as Ty and Tandy, and just as much an innocent. Initially, though, the couple assume she’s an agent of Roxxon’s after seeing her name on a list they steal from the corporation. So the three of them get in a destructive street fight that leads directly to Miles becoming Spider-Man once again.
After witnessing the Cloak and Dagger vs. Bombshell brawl, and having it nearly end up right on top of him, Miles gets another visit from Jessica Drew, who takes one last crack at talking him back into the costume. She gives him the boiled down version of who Cloak, Dagger, and Bombshell are, explaining that Roxxon forced their superpowers on them. She also relates her own origin story, which is that she’s a semi-successful attempt by Roxxon at cloning the first Spider-Man, Peter Parker. Finally, she reminds Miles that he, too, was made extraordinary only through the mistakes of over-zealous scientists unable to keep themselves in check. The discovery of this budding community of kids who’ve had powers thrust upon them combined with learning about a villain as big and scary as the Roxxon Corporation is what finally convinces Miles that he’s been on the bench long enough.
While the primary focus of this narrative is Miles’ return as Spider-Man, the road there is paved with the tribulations of all the other characters involved. And he puts the costume back on at the end of the six-issue arc’s third chapter, meaning he’s an active superhero for the full final half of the story. It’s a good call on Bendis’ part not to drag that out, just like it’s smart to have the rest of the cast play equally large roles so that Miles’ own story is wrapped up in theirs. Meeting Bombshell and Cloak and Dagger, learning where they come from and what they’re all about, breaks up the predictable trajectory of Miles’ journey. Bendis’ scripts also jump around in time, delivering the characters’ backstories piece by piece, so we get to learn about their pasts as we come to know and like them in the present.
Speaking of which, all the heroes in this comic are immensely likable young people, believably teenaged but with good heads on their shoulders. They’ve got their own outlooks and senses of humor, but at the end of the day they want the same things and therefore work amazingly well together. Though they don’t officially form a team (yet, see below), the final act of this storyline centers on Spider-Man and Spider-Woman rounding up the others so that all five of them can attack Roxxon directly, taking on the Brain Trust as well as the corporation’s founder, namesake, and head honcho, Donald Roxxon. It’s a fantastic first move for Miles’ second round as Spider-Man, and the perfect culmination of everything that happens in the rest of this arc, because it relies on the young superhumans coming together as a unit.
They’re an effective group, especially considering how quickly and haphazardly they’re assembled, and made even more impressive by how great they look. David Marquez has been one of two brilliantly talented artists on this series from the beginning (the other being Sara Pichelli), but I would say “Spider-Man No More” is the best work he’s delivered so far. Particularly when it comes to Cloak and Dagger. For the unfamiliar, the duo has always been a study in visual contrasts. Ty’s powers have to do with the manipulation of dark matter, and he is constantly shrouded in a literal cloak of rolling, smoky blackness. Tandy, on the other hand, literally glows, and can fling daggers of solid light at will. One a looming figure of shadow and the other a firm bolt of brightness, together they’re quite a sight, as entrancing as they are intimidating. Marquez handles them expertly, playing up the chiaroscuro aesthetic even in their quiet, intimate moments. The fear and rage they wrestle with hangs on them heavily all the time, which gives them a greater presence in battle, but also makes them more evocative, moving characters when things are calm.
Marquez of course produces superb artwork across the board, from his creative layouts to his intensely detailed settings to his stellar comicbook acting. Bombshell’s frantic energy, Ganke’s frustrated determination, the Brain Trust’s unwavering arrogance, and the complex beauty of New York City all come to life in every issue. But there is one other specific thing that he does exceptionally well, and it is integral to the power of this story: he makes Miles wildly expressive even through his mask. It’s not just the precise widening and/or narrowing of his eyes, though certainly that’s a big factor. It’s also the way Miles carries himself, the position of his head, what he does with his hands, the angle from which we see him and how much of him we’re able to see—every tiny detail of his body language is rendered just so by Marquez to capture the exact emotions necessary for any given panel. Miles has never been quite so animated and human at once as he is here.
At the end of the story, Roxxon has been dealt a damaging blow, and there is chatter amongst the heroes of perhaps teaming up again sometime. Just as Miles was always going to be Spider-Man again, it seems Bendis is now setting up an eventual reunion between these characters, if not possibly having them go so far as to formally become a team. Indeed, that appears to be exactly what the future has in store, based on the recently published first issue of Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man (technically its own mini-series, but it also acts as a continuation of this title). If that’s the plan, it’s been more than earned, as every member of the cast is already strong and three-dimensional enough to be a main character, let alone a single part of such a rich ensemble. Whatever they do together down the line, though, this is always going to be the gang that brought Spider-Man back to the Ultimate Universe, even if that wasn’t their goal. Their stories were Miles’, and his theirs, making everyone’s all the more entertaining.