02 June 2012

Comics Review: Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 11 [Hardcover]

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 11 [Hardcover]
Premiered 2008-2009
Creative Team: Brian Michael Bendis (Writer), Stuart Immonen (Art)
Collecting Ultimate Spider-Man 123-133, Annual 3, Ultimatum Spider Man: Requiem 1-2

Ultimate Spider-Man got me into comic books way back in 2000. This was before the Sam Raimi movie had come out, before Spider-Man was a big property, and Marvel re-launched the Spidey title with this brand spankin' new iteration of the origin story. I recall first and foremost being stunned by the art from artist Mark Bagley, drawing characters on paper that looked so real, so richly detailed and defined, it was amazing. The art pulled me in, but the dialogue captivated me. Prior to this (well, I was at the age of 10, so, not like I knew a lot of this info back then) I hadn't heard of writer Brian Michael Bendis, so I wasn't familiar with his collective impressive resume. Starting from the first issue, I was hooked. Brian's characters were as complex as Bagley's artistry, and the storylines never failed to grab me completely. 15-year old Peter Parker living in Queens, New York, facing off against Norman Osborn, Doc Ock, Eddie Brock and the genetically-engineered symbiotic that turned into Venom, and the ruthless Kraven who hunted Spider-Man for publicity. Let's not forget the on again/off again relationship between Peter and Mary Jane Watson that in the span of a year had more break-ups and get-back-togethers than a quarter-aged soap opera. I loved every issue, every story. Wonderful, wonderful work. Sure, the drawing by Bagley disappeared in favor for hideous, indescribable fashions, but here, collected in Volume 11, Bendis reunites with Bagley (together with Immonen) to craft a closing chapter to the original Ultimate Spider-Man line.

Volume 11 collects such stories as Eddie Brock's return as the ravenous Venom, the reappearance of Gwen Stacey since her resurrection in the Clone Saga, the Ultimates [aka Avengers] intervening on Spider-Man's behalf to finish out a battle between two Symbiotes and a pesky Wasp, the return of Norman Osborn and several others of Spidey's own 'Rogues Gallery', the arrest of Aunt May, and finishing the narrative, the Ultimatum Wave, an enormous wave caused by Magneto that engulfs most of Manhattan. It's not usually easy being Peter Parker, but hell if that kid isn't put through the ringer this time around. And when he's not busy dueling bad guys, there's the intimate Annual #3 that shines the spotlight on Peter and Mary Jane's relationship.

First, the Eddie story. Basically, Eddie wants Peter dead. Bounty hunters want the alien symbiote that makes Eddie Brock into Venom. Peter just wants to have a good time with his dear galfriend Mary Jane. And Gwen Stacey just wants to return to some sort of normalcy. Unfortunately, everyone pretty much gets screwed over in this War of the Symbiotes arc. It's my least favorite of the stories told throughout the comic series run, but I can't deny that the action scenes are nevertheless entertaining and wonderfully drawn. Venom becomes such a menacing, seemingly unstoppable force, and when Carnage comes about and the two get their war on - it's breathtaking. But the end result is what makes me happy enough with the story: re-establishing Gwen into Peter's world. Plus, there's some fantastic interaction between Spidey and the Ultimates [plus Nick Fury] that is all kinds of fun.

The Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #3 examines Peter and Mary Jane's relationship. At only age 15, the pair of them have gone through more troubles and growing up in the last several months than most undergo their entire lives. And with how frequently their relationship hits speed bumps and the very real possibility any day could be Peter's last, naturally the conversation about entering a new, mature relationship comes to light. The artistic work here isn't my favorite, but the script picks up the slack with some smart dialogue that sells the relationship really well - makes it honest and realistic. Despite the soap opera nature of Peter/M.J., I feel that the Ultimate line presents one of the best examples of these two as a couple, and if the feature films can even halfway live up to the level of maturity and realism that is on display here - well, all I can say is that it would be damn good.

And with the end of the Annual, we enter Ultimatum, the beginning of an end...

Ultimatum, as I understand it, was a plot device that would allow the creative team at Marvel to refresh the story for their entire Ultimate book lines. They were apparently becoming too convoluted for their own good, or resembling other titles too closely that a change had to happen. Regardless, this is quite the mega event. Lives are lost in the millions (including those of fellow superheroes), and in this tragedy, Spider-Man's heroism shines. J. Jonah Jameson has spent all of the series' hundred plus issue run doing everything in his power to spoil the name of Spider-Man to the citizens of New York via the Daily Bugle, and now, under the circumstances of this horrible disaster, Jonah witnesses with his own two eyes how wrong he's been, and from this story onwards, Jonah now does everything in his power to help the web slinger. It's moments like these, these character beats, that really sell Bendis' writing. In the wake of the wave, when Spidey is declared dead to all the world, Jonah sits in front of a computer and takes it upon himself to write Spider-Man's obituary, and it's nothing short of beautiful. If there comes a time when Sony and the creative team behind a Spider-Man live action series decides to emulate Christopher Nolan and bring Peter Parker's journey to a close, mirroring Jonah's lament through some sort of heartbreaking montage would be the way to go.

Everything with Ultimatum feels like one enormous tension-filled emotional extravaganza, where every action Spider-Man takes has a sense of lethal threat that none before have felt. He could seriously die, and there's the very real sense that Bendis will do it. One bad thing after another gets in Peter's way, and how Peter could possibly solve these issues and survive it - well, it's just, y'know, intense. Add that with Aunt May's refusal to leave Peter's side, her cries for her nephew, and some beautifully worded dialogue thanks to Bendis, and this is a recipe for a arc that is sure to hit any reader in the gut. In this volume, only stories pertaining to Spidey's narrative is included, so everything involving Ultimatum, including characters that pop in and out of this hardcover, won't get proper explanations - guess we'll have to check out their solo titles for the full story. Ultimatum is epic and tragic and full of insane action pieces, beautifully realized by Bendis and his artistic team.

Volume 11, collecting all these arcs and the annual, feels like one long walk to the gallows for Peter Parker, with each story getting closer and closer to One Really Long and Really Bad Night. Unfortunately, we have to get through the messy and not-all-that-interesting Venom/Carnage story, but what follows from that, the emotional consequences and the wonderful story beats, make the entire journey well worth it. For fans of the Ultimate Spider-Man brand, this is a worthy addition to the lot, and for newcomers, just trust me on this part: read this series from issue one to present day. You will not be disappointed. 8.5/10
J. Jonah Jameson watches Spider-Man's selfless acts in the wake of the Ultimatum Wave.

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