Tangled Webs: The Significance of Ultimate Spider-Man #1

Scottie Young Ultimate End variant cover

With the final issue of ULTIMATE END coming out tomorrow, and bringing the Ultimate Universe to a close—barring another delay—it seems appropriate to look at the influence of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1. I would go so far as to call it not just the most important Spider-Man comic book of the last twenty years, but the most significant American comic book of the last twenty years.

The only reason it’s not the most important comic book of the 21st Century is that since ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1 came out in October 2000, it technically missed the cutoff for the 21st Century by a few months.

This was the book that made Brian Michael Bendis’s career. He wasn’t the first choice to write the title. Howard Mackie turned it down, a decision that may very well have changed modern comics.

At that point, Bendis was an acclaimed but obscure writer/artist of crime books. He had recently realized that editors were more interested in his writing than his art, and had raised his profile a little bit. He worked on two Spawn spinoffs—one about cops in a superhero universe—as well as a fill-in arc of DAREDEVIL, about a crime reporter in a superhero universe. He had also just started on POWERS, a creator-owned project with Mike Oeming about cops in a superhero universe. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN appeared to be outside his wheelhouse.

Bendis worked on the book for over 160 issues with the teenage Peter Parker as the lead. Artist Mark Bagley stuck around for 110 issues, longer than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s FANTASTIC FOUR run. The take on Peter Parker in the Ultimate comics would inform adaptations of the Spider-Man comics in other media. There is the obvious influence on the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN cartoon, while aspects of the series were used in the Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield AMAZING SPIDER-MAN films, including Peter Parker telling his girlfriend his secret identity, his girlfriend helping him with a gunshot wound, and Peter investigating the mysterious deaths of his scientist parents. At this point, I should make the obligatory reminder than influence isn’t always positive. Jon Watts—director of the upcoming MCU Spider-Man film—has cited the series as a major influence for his adaptation of the character, which makes sense, since it’s a well-regarded run about a teenage Peter Parker, and he’s going to do some films about Peter Parker in high school.

Bendis would follow the early issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN with a run on DAREDEVIL, which outed the characters, and paved the way for the runs of Brubaker and Waid. He’d launch Marvel MAX with ALIAS, the series that introduced Jessica Jones, star of the new Netflix show. He’d have one of the longest runs in Avengers history, cementing an idea that seemed to be forgotten after AVENGERS #16 that this title wasn’t meant to be its own corner of the Marvel Universe, but a book all types of Marvel charcters could pop up in. Event books HOUSE OF M, SECRET INVASION, SIEGE and AVENGERS VS X-MEN would all build from the Avengers run. ALL-NEW X-MEN brought the original five X-Men to the Marvel Universe as teenagers freaked about the adults they became. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY revived that franchise in time for the film. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN will soon be joined by INTERNATIONAL IRON MAN. SPIDER-MAN will bring Miles Morales to the classic Marvel Universe. Bendis was prolific, and had his fingers in multiple corners of the Marvel Universe, building on the success of his early projects to become one of Marvel’s most important writers ever.

Because early issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN sold out, the Ultimate brand had a positive reputation just in time for the debut of ULTIMATE X-MEN. It’s not the only reason that book was a hit, but it definitely made it easier. That helped make Mark Millar’s reputation, helping him with his later creator-owned projects. Millar would take a gamble on THE ULTIMATES, that universe’s version of the Avengers, which would become the basis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of Iron Man and the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The Ultimate versions of Marvel’s first family would serve as the basis for Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR film (again, influence isn’t always positive.) The Ultimate Universe is coming to an end fifteen years later, although part of it is that the emphasis on accessibility spread to other Marvel titles, so it doesn’t serve the purpose it once did. At this point, the rest of the Marvel Universe has become more like the Ultimate comics.

Ultimate Spider-Man MJ

These issues had a cinematic style that other comics would soon strive to replicate. This is now the norm in comics, described as writing for the trade, decompressed storytelling, or widescreen comics. The early issue had a manga-esque pace as five pages could be devoted to mood and characterization as Peter Parker has lunch alone in a mall, until Uncle Ben arrives and calls MJ over. There were no thought balloons, or even narration captions, although Bendis would incorporate those in the next issue. The rigid grid structure kept the book easy to follow, helping make this an obvious title to hand someone who hasn’t read a lot of comic books, and might not be able to follow more complicated storytelling.

Every issue of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN would be collected in trade paperback form, something that changed how Marvel —and soon enough DC—made money, and how readers experienced comics. Marvel would soon hire a writer for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN who had a cinematic style, whose work didn’t depend on readers being familiar with prior continuity, and whose entire run would be collected in trade paperback format. The Brand New Day era would have a shorter storylines, as a response to the sense that comics were written for the trade, although that still suggests the influence of the comic that kicked off the style it was meant to provide an alternative to.

The first issue was 48 pages, but Peter Parker wouldn’t wear the costume until the end of the third issue. Bendis and Bagley were aware that they could have a new spin on one of the most famous superhero origins by exploring it in more depth than ever before, so that when Uncle Ben is murdered—at the end of Issue 4—the readers care. This wasn’t necessarily a complete innovation.  SPIDER-MAN 2099 #1 ended before Miguel O’Hara had donned his costume, although as most of the issue was a flashback, Peter David and Rick Leonardi did feature the conventional scenes of the new superhero in action in the first pages. Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada’s Marvel Knights Daredevil had a slower pace, although it was heavy on narration, and the run lasted for the length of one trade paperback. The first issue of the Valiant Comics revamp of SOLAR MAN OF THE ATOM didn’t really give readers a sense of what later issues of the comic book would be like. Generally, it’s not unusual for developments in independent comics to trickle down to Marvel and DC over the source of several years and decades.

Some of the copycats weren’t successful. Robert Kirkman did an attempt at a Sleepwalker reboot for the Epic Comics anthology, which had a slow build and last page revelation about the protagonist’s mystery. However, he lacked an artist on the level of Mark Bagley, the knowledge readers have that the young character we’re devoting a lot of time to will soon become rather interesting, and an opening as compelling. Marvel’s Tsunami line also had TPB length origin stories. Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphonso’s RUNAWAYS is fondly remembered. HUMAN TORCH and NAMOR, not so much.

For all the talk of writing for the trade, Bendis did make sure that this issue wasn’t just set-up. There was a scene where Norman Osborn—concerned that the spider bite was going to kill Peter Parker, and leave him very vulnerable to a lawsuit—hires a hitman to take care of the problem. The attempt on Peter’s life occurs in the first issue, and leads to early displays of the spider powers. Peter and MJ also grow a little bit closer, first thanks to Uncle Ben’s intervention, and then sharing a moment on the bus after the spider bites Peter. The issue ends with Peter realizing just how much he has transformed.

Maybe if things had gone differently—if Howard Mackie had been the writer od ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1 and bombed—the comics market would have been in essentially the same place. The trade paperback market would certainly still have been discovered. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar would probably have become star writers, although the breakthrough projects would likely be different. Adaptations of Peter Parker might still explore his high school days, although this is the least certain without over a hundred issues of modern style comics with a teenager Peter Parker. Even if everything else would have happened, this was the comic that hlped it all happen a little bit faster. Even if it wasn’t responsible for comics going in a particular direction, it’s the issue that represents the realization of these major trends.

So, what do you guys think? Am I overstating its significance? Are there other comics that are more important? Do you think the influence of the book is positive, or negative? 

(15) Comments

  1. D09

    ...can't see what's so interesting about Ultimate Spider-Man. Here's a guy who displays his hate about Ultimate Spider-Man in the comments section: http://devilkais.deviantart.com/art/Spider-Man-KANON-Mythos-476814767.

  2. Raul

    That was a great read man! Ultimate Spider-Man is what got me into comics. Really loved what Bendis did with Ultimate Peter Parker.

  3. ryan3178

    Yes, the first two years were some enjoyable take on Spider-Man and issue 1 is still influential to this day. However, the series really waned until Death of Spider-Man and the debut of Miles Morales. Having every issue until until almost 2 years ago, I could see so many down turns and ways to try and get the book back in place. With that said, the first two years, Ultimate Clone Saga, Chameleons, Death of Spider-Man and Miles Morales first two years are some of the best out of all of the series. Which if you look at it, is only a quarter run of Ultimate Spider-Man.

  4. Al

    At this point I question whether Secret Wars and it’s associated events are actually going to finish in the year 2016. I have been told he has Ghost writers through a friend with industry contact but if it’s all the same I’m not gonna elaborate because I don’t want to drop anyone in it. To me it’s a logic thing. The 90s should be the years ’90-99’ in them. At the same time centuries are calculated by adding ‘1’ to the first 2 mubers of a year. It makes no sense to apply that rule but with exceptions. Similarly on a purely linguistic level saying 1 BC (before things got politically correct) is you sayin 1 year before Christ was born. It makes no sense 10 months before that event to say you live in the year 1 BC because you live in 10 months BC. You are 0 BC. That’s a common misconception about the Ultimate versions of Gwen and MJ, primarily due to misconceptions of Gwen Stacy in the 1960s. Gwen Stacy in the 1960s was an irrational crybaby who wasn’t even portrayed as particularly smart. She wss in Peter’s science class but we never saw her actively doing anything the presumed intelligence that came from that. Ult MJ is thus at best really a modern high school reinterpretation of the impressions fandom at large has built up about what Gwen was like (although weirdly she served a similar story function to 80s-2000s 616 MJ). It is a similar phenomenon to how countless Venom adaptations depict the symbiote having a corrupting influence and fandom at large, even our very own Mr. Douglas once upon a time, in fact believe that that idea was always there when it was in fact an innovation of the 90s cartoon. A truism basically got brought up in a fandom and got repeated so often everyone believed it o be genuinely correct. As for Ult Gwen, I really don’t see any similarlties with her and 616 MJ beyond being a contrast to the girl next door archetype of female characters. But she is a very different contrast. Gwen is tough, no nonsense and someone who tries to keep things real and brooks no bullshit, all partially at least in response to abandonment by her mother and being raised by a cop father. She is a rebellious teenager in short. That really is a far cry from any iteration of 616 MJ who was a party girl with very different home life issues wherein she adopted a pretense.

  5. Nick MB

    @7 Pretty sure the first few issues of USM did have a "story" credit for both Jemas and Bendis, followed by a script credit for Bendis, to account for that. So yeah, he's usually up front about these things. Also, having read the extras in that hardcover, the version Jemas suggested diverged pretty sharply from what Bendis ended up going for, especially after the origin stuff finished in #5.

  6. Jeff Gutman

    Correction - Jemas wasnt the head of an NBA team, but he did work administratively at the NBA so he had a foot in the sports world before comics.

  7. Jeff Gutman

    Can we just stop a second and acknowledge just how lame the name "ultimate spider-man" really is? I mean you hear the name so much but it really is a terrible name. First off "ultimate?" Compared to regular flavored spider-man? This was around the time when Extreme sports and the football league XFL (remember that?) Food companies were producing EXTREME versions of their chips or whatever. So EXTREME spider-man. The brainchild of Bill Jemas, one of the worst EIC Marvel ever had and that's some stiff competition. Given that prior to running Marvel he'd been the head of a NBA team, he was probably the one who created the EXTREME moniker. Behind the scenes, (according to Sean Howe's history of Marvel book) the suits at Marvel determined that the reason they couldnt get any films made in Hollywood was that their series were too convoluted with decades of history. But they could create a new accessible version of their characters with the express intention on being used to sell the character to hollywood execs. They could package the first seven issues or so, hand them to hollywood execs and say "heres the character in a nutshell". They even asked the artists to draw the character like the actors they wanted cast in the roles (Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, etc). Now obviously it worked - if you notice, anytime an actor or director who's been handed a Marvel property says they've been researching the role the always cite the Ultimate versions. That's why - they're literally being told thats all they need to know by the suits.

  8. Thomas Mets

    When he has cowriters (Andreyko on Torso, Millar on Ultimate Fantastic 4, Oeming on some Powers) he'll credit them. The main comments I've been able to find online were an admission that he probably shouldn't have been listed as the cowriter for the first volume of Secret Warriors. There is also a note, relevant to this discussion, that Jemas came up with some of the major aspects of Ultimate Spider-Man, including the plot structure for the first few issues (which is confirmed by some of the extra features in the Ultimate Spider-Man hardcover.) http://www.rangerboard.com/showthread.php?t=138119

  9. Nick MB

    Although Bendis does write a lot of scripts, the idea of him having ghost writers never really rang true. His plotting and dialogue always have a very specific voice - irrespective of whether that's good or bad - which makes it seem like it's always one guy. He also categorically denied it back in 2010, including a subclause saying that he "never will" - https://twitter.com/brianmbendis/status/22778105741

  10. Thomas Mets

    Accoridng to Marvel's website, Ultimate End #5 has been delayed for another week, so it won't come out until next Wednesday. BD, I should note I did really like Ultimate Spider-Man #1, and still do. I think decompression had an advantage in that it was a new way to telling stories, so it was a preferable alternative to stories that were denser but didn't offer anything new. Of course, things are different when decompression has been the norm for over a decade. Al, I get the weirdness of figuring out where years like 2000 fall on the spectrum. I remember some guy arguing that 1980 was in the 80s, because there was no year zero. Generally, my take is that these aren't compatible. The first century ended with the Year 100, so the 20th Century should end with the year 2000. The 90s doesn't mean it's the 200th decade of the Common Era, but years that could be represented as 199X. Weirdly I think the Ultimate MJ was essentially an update of Gwen Stacy, a smart relatively normal girl, while the Ultimate Gwen ended up being an update of the classic Marvel Jane, the center of attention. I have not heard about Bendis having ghost writers.

  11. parabolee

    I have to second Al's comments about the Spec Spider-Man cartoon, thought it was a great and a much better "modern" retelling of Spidey's youth.

  12. Al

    There are debates among historians (like myself) about how the dating system should be counted. I am firmly in the camp which says decades and centuries should be counted like this: 1990-1999 is the 1990s. Which by extension means the 21st century began in January 1st 2000, because centuries are labelled by adding one to the first two numbers. ‘2000’ = ‘20’ + 1 =21. 21dt century. So USM would be a 21st century product. As for USM...I am sorry...I find it and Bendis himself incredibly overrated and frankly failing in the objectives the book claimed to be seeking to fulfil when it began. It was supposed to be a modern day reimagining of Spider-Man from scratch, pulling in his complex decades long history into something more coherent and filtered through the setting of a teenager in high school living in a grounded universe which is not used to superheroes quite yet. In places that is what it was, but in other ways, and this got worse as it went on and on, it simply decided to do things which were arbitrarily different for no justifiable reason. An early example would be Norman Osborn being a literal Goblin monster which isn’t a more realistic or grounded take on the character. At best it is simply different and at worst it is actually far less interesting and subtle than what existed in the 616 universe. Then you have Mary Jane’s major personality change which made her a nice character unto herself but summarily not Mary Jane. Gwen got an upgrade but she wasn’t even an embellishment of 616 Gwen so much as a wholesale rewrite for no reason. Even venom, the most acclaimed arc of the earliest issues, has major problems for whilst ti fixed many of the perceived flaws in the 616 Eddie Brock character, he was incredibly weak as a character when he actually became Venom when compared to his 616 counterpart. 616 Eddie Brock might’ve had problems but 616 Venom had a fun personality early on, he wasn’t a gnarling blob monster. Frankly the Spec Spidey cartoon by Greg Weisman took the core concept of USM and actually did something much better as it was fuindamentally the Ditko run but updated and more coherent and cohesive, with relatively few changes for the sake of it. Also I actually thinkt he idea of making Avengers a general MU book for everyone has wrought a lot of damage tot he Avengers and the MU as a whole. It’s better these characters do in fact have their own corners rather than be jumbled up together. And as we list off Bendis’ accomplishments I do wonder how mny of those he is responsible for and how many were in fact his ghost writers. I really disagree that Ultimates informed the MCu characters of Iron Man or anyone else. Maybe in tiny nuggets like Hawkeye’s family but MCU Cap is a distillation of 616 Cap and MCU Iron Man is really just his own thing, not Ult or 616 Tony.

  13. parabolee

    Significant? Yes. Good? No. Hated the Ultimate comic. My obsessive Spider-Man collector nature lead me to buy the first 60+ issues, but I had given up any hope of enjoying it within the first 12 issues. I just acquired the Miles run on the comic in order to get caught up since he has joined 616. Hear good things about it so if Miles is a great a character as I hear he is, then it will have been worth it I guess. I hate that anything related to Spider-Man is inspired by this truly awful comic. Hated the look of Peter, hated the modern version of all the characters. Especially hated Hulk-Goblin. I even disliked the art! All bubbly and childish, made it look like a Spider-Man comic for pre-teens. This comic was only marginally better than Chapter One, and in fact to be honest I dislike it more.

  14. BD

    Nice write up and I agree this issue was one of the most influential of the last 15 years. I also agree it's not all good. Decompression isn't always good, especially with higher comic prices. Also if you're writing for the trade, you rely on people buying the single issues. If people don't feel they get enough value for the money the series goes away and no trades. I'm a fan of Bendis but I do think he stretches himself a bit thin. His Avengers was for the most part good, his Guardians not so much. His Miles Morales run is awesome, Ultimate End... Not so much.

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