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YALSA Hub Challenge: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man Volume 1

Our third title up for discussion in the YALSA Hub Reading Challenge is Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.  This collected edition introduces Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man after the death of Peter Parker in the Ultimate Marvel universe. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man volume 1 was highlighted on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Top Ten for 2013 list.

As a refresher, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection list showcases titles “recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens,” and every year they also select the top ten titles from their longer list.

So, let’s discuss!

Robin: What did you think of this volume as an introduction to the new Spider-Man?  To Spider-Man in general?

Esther:  I should preface my statements with the fact that I’m really not a superhero connoisseur.  But I do love superhero comics. I just started reading them late in the game.  Back to your question, Robin, I really enjoyed it.  My first thought was, they’re killing Spider-Man!?! But the volume gave enough to introduce the uninitiated (and anyone living under a rock) to Spider-Man canon.  But killing off Spider-Man and bringing in a new one is a huge unexpected twist, but i thought this volume did a great job setting that up.  I had a good feel for the Marvel Universe here.

Caleb: Let me preface  my statement with the fact that I am really a superhero connoisseur! I really enjoyed Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s long, productive run on Ultimate Spider-Man, a comic I used to buy and read every month for…let’s see now…133 issues over the course of nine years!

That said, I had wandered away from Marvel’s Ultimate line around the time of the events that lead to this particular comic book, due in large part to a growing dissatisfaction with the line and the fact that Marvel started charging $3.99 per issues instead of $2.99 per issue. Even though I missed out on all of the comics that lead up to this particular storyline, including the death of Peter Parker, I think this stands perfectly well on its own, and Bendis gives readers of just this volume enough information about what came before that one needn’t have a complete collection to know which way is up.

It’s interesting to note that the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, isn’t exactly a Spider-Man expert either, he only knows the basics: Spidey was a superhero, walked on walls, wore a blue and red costume and, uh, not much else, really. His best friend Ganke has to fill him in on all the details of the original Spider-Man that are relevant.

Robin: Caleb, I too started out with the Ultimate Spider-Man comics back in 2000, and for me, that was the main way I came to understand Spider-Man’s origin.  I only really started reading comics in 1999, so this reboot came around at precisely the right time, and I was one of those new readers that they were trying to entice.  It certainly worked for me!  And I think that the combination of the writing and Bagley’s art was gangbusters.

I didn’t keep up with the series forever, though, and I had heard less than flattering things about recent storylines.  I agree that this is a return to the original spirit of the Ultimate line, and for the many, many readers I help who know only the basics of Spider-Man’s story through cultural osmosis and the movies, this current storyline will be engaging and, I hope, exciting.

Esther, I agree that killing of Peter Parker is pretty startling — I remember when the first stories were going around about Miles’s introduction that the press kept reassuring everyone that the standard Marvel universe Peter Parker was still alive and kicking.  Somehow, though, it lends more realism to the set up, as long as they keep him dead (and I hope they do, for narrative weight.)

Mike: Like Caleb and Robin, I read the original Ultimate Spider-Man book in 1999. It was a reboot – an alternate universe where the Marvel heroes all started from scratch and had slightly tweaked origins. I really enjoyed Brian Michael Bendis’ work then and I’m very pleased to see the new Spider-Man isn’t just a gimmick. Bendis really does a fantastic job fleshing out Miles and making him a realistic and reluctant hero. And don’t worry comic fans – the real Spider-Man in Marvel Comics is…dead but his body is inhabited by Doctor Octopus. Oh snap!

Robin: Mike, that kind of wackiness just points out how refreshing a clean start this can be.

Robin: Is this a good place for new readers to start with either superheroes or Marvel’s universe? (Yes, we comics geeks acknowledge that the Ultimate universe in itself is an alternate version of the original Marvel universe, started way back in 2000 as an entry point for new readers, but many readers new to the comics may not know or care about the various versions.)

Esther:  I thought there was enough background information to let reader’s in.  Is it a good place to start? Well, the Marvel Universe is so complex, if you want to jump in this is as good as a start as any, but it is a pretty alternative type of story. it’s not quite the “classic” version a newcomer is thinking s/he is going to read.

Caleb: Well, the original idea for the Ultimate line in 2000, when it consisted of just four books by two different writers, was specifically to create a universe free of the complexity of the “real” Marvel universe. It was a line targeting what Marvel hoped would be the influx of new readers created by the Spider-Man and X-Men movies.

Over the decade, the line took in many more writers and new titles came and went, and the line started behaving in the same negative ways the original line did, with inter-book crossovers and needless renumbering and so on.

I was surprised—and relieved!—to see that with this book, Bendis really was starting over in a sense. There are name-checks and nods to other books and events, but the star and most of the cast, are pretty much brand new to the Ultimate Marvel Universe, and thus are ready-made for readers as new as they are.

It’s a good place to start with superheroes, I think, and a good place to start with the Ultimate Universe. I’m not sure its the best place to start with Spider-Man, as this is an alternate version of the character. But then, it’s not like there are that many bad places to start with Spider-Man: He’s a man (or teen) who does whatever a spider can. Everything you need to know about the character is in the name.

Mike: It’s a fresh start and from the get go if you’ve seen the Avengers movie and know a little basics about Spider-Man, it’s still accessible. It’s probably a little confusing for people that there’s another universe where Peter Parker is (mostly) alive and kicking, but it’s a minor confusion.

Robin: Also, for me, there’s something about these kinds of reboots, when they’re done as well as this title is, that reminds me why I still do like superhero stories.  I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated with superhero comics for a variety of reasons — labyrinthine continuity, lack of diversity, portrayal of women, tiresome stereotypes perpetuated — that it gets very hard to remember why I enjoy reading about superheroes in the first place.  This story is why I still wade through all the problems, and it gives me hope that hte subgenre can still produce some great work.  This and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye are my current reminders, and I’m happy to have two titles that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Robin: How does the art strike you?

Esther: Evaluating artwork is not at all my strong point here on GC4K, but it struck me as pretty even and I thought it was in-line with the rest of the average Marvel comics I read. It didn’t wow me like when I read Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan.  But I suspect this is a leading question, Robin, that you have very different thoughts to!

Caleb: I was pretty wowed. One of the early virtues of the Ultimate line was the quality of its artwork, from the traditional superhero art of Bagley to the hyper-realistic art of Bryan Hitch on The Ultimates to the quirky flavor of all those indie guest artists on Ultimate Marvel Team-Up. Sara Pichelli’s artwork is among the best published in an Ultimate Marvel comics. She handles superheroics as well as Bagley, and characterization and “acting” as well as Stuart Immonen, the Ultimate Fantastic Four turned Ultimate Spider-Man artist whose style hers somewhat resembles, although her character design is a bit sharper, more distinct and more realistic than either.

Ultimate comics have only had a handful of artists in all that time, but they have all been good artists. And Pichelli’s as good as any of them, and probably better than a few of them too.

Mike: Thumbs up. I loved Pichelli’s work. It had to me a vibe like Travis Charest’s influence and loved that Miles actually looks young and his inexperience really shows in his facial expressions.

Robin: I was immediately won over by Pichelli’s art.  I was particularly pleased on two points — one, she draws women like women, not pinups (yay!), and two, she smartly emphasizes how small Miles is in relation to other heroes, to villains, and to this new landscape he’s taking on.  I’ve never read a superhero comic about a teen superhero that so consistently gently indicates me of how young the lead actually is with visual cues.  I’m with Caleb — Bagley, Immonen, and Hitch remain some of my favorite artists in terms of superhero work, and Pichelli has continued in their traditions admirably.

Esther: Now I’m frustrated that I returned my copy to work and I won’t be there until Friday! I want to look at it again after reading your comments Robin.

Robin: What do you think the best part of this new Spider-Man is?  The part that perhaps needs more work?

Esther:  I love that the new Spider-Man is a) biracial and b) a young teen. A few years back, I had this conversation with a few students who were trying to count how many superheroes they could think of that were Black or Latino or some other minority. I remember counting with them and boy was the number small.  The conversation made me realize that this really did matter to the kids reading the comics. They do want to see themselves reflected in the comics and that does include their race and heritage. So, considering over 50% of my student population is African American, I thought this was an awesome choice.  And Spider-Man was getting sort of old. I work in a middle school, I think Miles will really talk to my kids.

Caleb: Given how most of us were introduced to the character, with the publisher and the media zeroing in on the new Spidey’s race, it’s really hard to not say, “The fact that he’s biracial” in response, but it’s also true. There have been a handful of other, alternate Spider-Men hither and yon over the years, but Miles’ race and his youth make him the most distinct.

I think what most impressed me was that Bendis and Marvel committed themselves to killing off Peter Parker, who, in the regular Marvel Universe is probably their flagship character and the last Marvel hero they would ever kill off (For very long, anyway, as he’s actually kinda sorta dead at the moment over there, huh?). And then replacing him with a character so incredibly different in ways that offer a lot of dramatic possibilities that any version of the Peter Parker story didn’t. You know, this Spider-Man’s parents are still alive, he lives in a dorm, he’s inherited a whole cast of villains and allies that no more about him than he does about them and so on.

I was particularly impressed with how Bendis managed to include core elements of the Spider-Man story into the origin, but in new and different ways. For example, Miles’ very different uncle gave him some words of wisdom different but as influential as Uncle Ben’s line about great power and great responsibility (although that one’s in here too), and, even more inspired, was the fact that while Peter decides to become a superhero after he fails to save his uncle’s life, Miles makes his decision when he thinks that maybe if he wasn’t so afraid of his powers, he could have used them to help save Peter Parker’s life.

Oh, and he’s got a few different powers than the old Spider-Man, although I’m not sure how I feel about those yet.

Mike: Well, Caleb, there’s plenty of time to kill of Miles’ parents. It’s inevitable. 🙂 Even Tim Drake (Robin) couldn’t escape that fate. I am curious on if Miles will be able to spin webs. Maybe that’s in the second volume. At first when I heard that Miles was going to be biracial it screamed to me of just Marvel trying to throw something different on the wall and see if it sticks. I’m really happy to see that I was wrong and think they did a great job. Now I want to read the next volumes as well as the team up book Spider-Men where Miles Morales meets up with Peter Parker from the main Marvel Universe.

Robin: In terms of the new Spider-Man, I admit I did have that momentary giggle over Kate Beaton’s Spider-Man strip and thought, “Ooooh, a crevice!”

I agree that the most exciting thing is perhaps the most obvious — the fact that he’s not white.  I like that he’s biracial, as many of the teens I work with are.  He’s very smart, but in a different way that Peter Parker was — less ultimately flashy, perhaps, and more a product of hard work than brilliant insight or inspiration.  And he’s learning to be a solid wise-ass, as is necessary. 🙂

Robin: What do you think of Miles Morales himself?  Does he win you over as a new superhero?  Hit enough of the familiar character notes to resonate as Spider-Man?

Esther: While I really enjoyed the overall comic. I liked the action. I liked the “differentness” of this, I wasn’t actually “wowed” by Miles.  He’s okay.  But so far, he seems to lack some of Peter Parker’s charisma.  I liked his friend better.

Caleb: Yeah, Miles is the hero, and, like a lot of heroes, he’s eclipsed by his funny sidekick and colorful villains. At least in this first volume. Bendis takes his time with his stories—Miles doesn’t actually put on his Spider-Man suit until the last page of this volume—so I expect that the character will be revealed better as time goes on, but here he seemed to be a character that more interesting characters talked to.

I think he definitely fits the geeky, awkward teen with superpowers mold that makes Spider-Man so appealing. In fact, Miles seems even geekier and more awkward than Peter Parker. In the first movie and the beginning of the last volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter was already on a first-name basis with a vivacious, beautiful neighbor girl, whereas Miles and Ganke talk about girls at such a far remove. I think there are several instances where Ganke talks about starting to talk to girls the way some grown-ups talk about starting to work out.

Mike: I like how Miles is a reluctant hero. He doesn’t want his powers and just wants to be a normal teen. But as he finds out, there’s a lot of responsibility he’s got on his hands and Nick Fury and the Avengers are there to help him along the way. Plus that new costume is pretty snazzy. It’s a nice touch making the colors more like a spider’s look yet still memorable like Spider-Man’s classic outfit.

Robin: Where do you think this series should be shelved in a library?  Kids?  Teen?

Esther:  It’s hard to say, because I don’t know where the series will go. But as volume 1 stands now, it can go in either. It’s a perfect fit for middle school and that puts it in both collections. But if the content gets more mature, it might be a better fit for the teen section.

Caleb: You can’t go wrong with teen or YA, really (There are other Marvel series featuring Spider-Man aimed at even younger readers). Some of the books in the Ultimate line are pretty mature, and by “mature” I mean “contain gore and violence and sexual content that would earn them an R-rating, if they were movies,” not the dictionary definition of mature. This isn’t, and I’d be shocked if it ever got into some of the territory other Ultimate books have gotten into but given that the line is all connected—The Ultimates even show up toward the end of this story—this could certainly serve as a gateway comic to some pretty parent-shocking content.

Mike: A good solid recommendation for teens, but still can find it’s place in collections for childrens or adults who want to read about the new Spidey.

Robin: I agree — given past experiences with series getting a bit more mature as they go, I’ll shelve it in my Teen Room, but I have no problem recommending this volume for younger (and older) readers alike.

Caleb: I wanted to ask, could you guys make heads or tails out of those two short stories at the back of the book? Looking back at the table of contents, they are apparently short stories from Ultimate Comics Fallout #4, but they don’t seem to have anything to do with Ultimate Spider-Man, and don’t really stand on their own—I guess they are sort of scenes written as trailers to other, upcoming comics that reference other, older comics, but they seemed really grafted on here. I would have much rather stopped reading with that image of MIles in his new costume, exultantly leaping on the rooftops, than with the weird question mark of those scenes serving as punctuation.

Robin: Caleb, I found them equally random, but then, I kind of expect that in collected trades when the publisher’s want to add pages or be completists for collectors.  I didn’t feel like the stories added anything for a new reader, but I admit, they kind of blew out of my mind right after I read them.

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

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