Ultimate Spider-Man, Vol. 1: Power and Responsibility
written by Brian Michael Bendis
illustrated by Mark Bagley
What can be said about Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s initial story arc on Ultimate Spider-Man? Well, a lot. A whole lot. But before I can talk about the triumph that is their work on the title, I need to first backtrack to a time of much darkness and desolation in the world of Spider-Man (and comic books in general): the 1990s.
In the ‘90s, Spider-Man had hit a low point. Between a failed relaunch (Chapter One), convoluted storylines (The Clone Saga), and trying to make his world more “x-treme” (Maximum Carnage), Spidey was in terrible shape. In order to give the nearly four-decades-old franchise a shot in the arm, Marvel hired indie writer Brian Michael Bendis and paired him with the seasoned Amazing Spider-Man artist Mark Bagley (one of the few good things to come out of the ‘90s). Their mission: Reboot Peter Parker’s world as if he was bitten by the mutated spider in the year 2000 as opposed to the 1960s and give a whole new generation of readers a chance to connect with everyman Peter Parker.
And with this announcement came the naysayers: fans wanted Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada’s head on a plate; they claimed it wouldn’t go past 12 issues; they said this Bendis hack wouldn’t last.
But they were all wrong. The title was a runaway success and continues to this day to be one of Marvel’s bestselling titles. Bendis and Bagley took the well-known story (Peter getting bitten by a genetically engineered spider and, after the death of his dear Uncle Ben, learning that with great power must also come great responsibility) and breathed new life into it—and the world of Spider-Man hasn’t been the same since.
This opening six-issue story arc, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, contains some of the best Spider-Man stories ever published, right up there with Roger Stern and John Romita, Jr.’s Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut two-parter and the classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Master Planner Saga. While the tale may seem like little more than an obligatory origin story on the surface, the way Bendis and Bagley updated the story to weave the Machiavellian Norman Osborn into his world—a force that will plague him for years to come—bumps this from simple origin to a complex, emotional drama. Bendis’s plotting subtly and masterfully shows Parker and Osborn as two sides of the same coin: both geniuses, both affected by the same serum, but while Peter feels intrinsically motivated to help those around him, Osborn feels only the need to help himself. This dichotomy puts the two in direct opposition, and Bendis lays the groundwork for many more battles between the two, battles that are fought not just physically, but mentally as well.
While Bendis is worthy of all the praise I give him in this review (and more), artist Mark Bagley should be equally commended. While there are a lot of artists that don’t have much in their stable (“Big boobs? Check. Six-pack abs? Check.”), Bagley has a remarkable range that puts him in his own league. Whether he is tearing at your emotions with a simple image of Peter and May’s heartbreaking embrace over Ben’s murder or he’s dazzling you visually with sweeping pages of Spider-Man merely swinging through the city of New York, Bagley’s art stuns, captivates, and amazes. While it’s a shame that Bagley is no longer on the title, his contribution will never be forgotten.
While I believe this is easily one of the best superhero comics ever published, Ultimate Spider-Man only gets better after this. When Bendis starts incorporating more of his trademark patter and knack for crime stories, the stories become truly amazing, and the reader feels privileged to be along for the ride. Do yourself a favor and pick up this trade paperback—and the 21 others that follow it.