Monday, September 29, 2008

Bookstore Sale 2: Ultimate Spider-Man Vols. 1-3 (Hardcover)

[My former university's bookstore has a giant selection of Marvel trades on sale, so when I buy some, I'll review them here.]

Apologies for the week without posts (except for the Splash Page link), but I had some personal stuff come up last Monday. Actually you're lucky you got the post that day since it was only half written when said personal stuff came up (surprisingly, the Iron Man stuff was already written--surprising, because you'd think the stuff I wrote that day would have been the angry ranty stuff), but I figured I should at least get it done. Regular posting resumes as of now. So...

Ultimate Spider-Man Vols. 1-3 (hardcover)

I read the first dozen or so issues of the series years ago on Marvel's website (remember those pop-up panels?) and wasn't that impressed. The book wasn't bad by any means, it just wasn't that great either. It was solid and aimed at someone far different from I... which is odd considering that I was a geeky 18/19-year-old guy. Wait, wasn't I part of the target audience for the Ultimate line of books? Probably not since I was at the end of the teen age spectrum and a lifelong comic book reader. The book was, at best, quasi-targetted for me... But seeing how I was more into Warren Ellis books with swearing and politics and KICKSPLODE!, you can see why I didn't have much patience for Amazing Fantasty #15 stretched out over half a year...

I also have little patience for origin stories, especially when they're origin stories that I've seen/read dozens of times before. Sure, it's altered slightly here, but it's still the same Spider-Man origin we all know and love/loathe. I went to Catholic school for my entire pre-post-secondary education, so it's like, if I have to hear the Nativity story ever again, I will shoot someone. Same deal. But, as I said, I wasn't the target audience (supposedly).

Then there was the lack of swearing and sex in the book. Honestly, it didn't ring true to me. I was in high school and this was the same sanitised, Saved by the Bell, after-school special sort of high school. There were jock bullies, there were geeks, there were popular girls, there were freaky outsiders, and... *yawn* Big deal. I think I'm weird in that I went to a high school where that shit didn't happen. There were the odd jerks, sure, but, mostly, I wasn't singled out for being smart except in positive ways. People had their own groups of friends, but there wasn't the popular kids and the freaks... there were just different groups of people that had lots of people cross over and really... that was it. But, my school was probably unique in that way... though that doesn't mean that Ultimate Spider-Man didn't fall into those same annoying trappings.

The lack of insane amounts of swearing and naked breats bothered me--from a marketing perspective. Marvel claimed this was a line of books aimed at teens, but didn't examine what teens like: swearing and tits. Look at American Pie, it's full of swearing and tits, and teens loved that movie. Loved it. Not producing comics on a similar level seemed like proof that Marvel didn't really know what it was doing. And, being a teenager myself, why was I going to waste my time on a book supposedly aimed at me that didn't include swearing and tits? Didn't they know that's what I really wanted?

I also wasn't that into the modernised superhero line concept. What books I saw (Ultimate Spider-Man online, and Ultimate X-Men through my dad--him being part of the actual audience of the Ultimate line) didn't impress me much. The updates were pretty... unintelligent, in my opinion. I still cringe at Bendis's Ultimate Dazzler... really, a punk rock artist calling herself Dazzler? Really?

But, over the years, I've slowly read more and more Ultimate books. I got the two Ultimates hardcovers, read Warren Ellis's first Ultimate Fantastic Four storyarc along with his Ultimate Galactus books and Ultimate Human. So, I've mellowed a bit in my old age of 25 and figured I'd give Ultimate Spider-Man a chance to impress me with the insanely cheap priced hardcovers on sale at the bookstore.

In short, I enjoyed what I read (the first 39 issues are collected in these hardcovers) and hope to get the other six hardcovers and keep on reading the book that way, eventually. However, my younger self wasn't necessarily wrong in his opinions, either.

The updating of Spider-Man's origin isn't revolutionary in any way. It's pretty standard stuff in its cliches. The expansion of Peter's home life is interesting as we see him grow and change in the story in relation to Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He does become a little drama queen in the middle of the story, which is just ugly to watch in his cringe-worthy little temper tantrums.

One thing I didn't like was the alteration to the "Peter lets a thief get past him and the thief then kills Uncle Ben" scene. In the original, the thief runs past him, making his passive stance more understandable, but here, he's in the thief's way and still allows him to pass. It does make him more active and justify his guilt in a larger way, but it also pushes him beyond sympathy in many ways. It also wasn't believable, for me. I believed the old version where he watches a thief runs past and does nothing--I can't buy him stepping aside for a thief. It's a fine line between not caring about others and actively assisting in a crime. An intriguing choice and I'd like to know why it was made (maybe it's in the backmatter of the hardcover, which I totally skipped over).

Otherwise, the first arc was perfectly enjoyable and... I want to use the word "safe." It was safe, it was nice, it was like a cozy blanket of Peter-Parker-in-high-school goodness. Actually, that's this series. It's totally a cozy blanket of Peter-Parker-in-high-school goodness! It's a nice hug for us fanboys who are so familar with the character that this slightly changed spin is just what we need. I didn't engage with the material in the same way I usually do... this is like mindless TV in comic book form! It's nice and safe and warm and... feels nice. And I'm saying that's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with that--it's very enjoyable. There's an art to creating something like that and Bendis does it well here.

I found watching Bendis grow as a writer fun. The first few issues are a little choppy and montage-y. It's alright, but Bendis gets much better at transitions and storytelling as the series gets into its second arc. However, I'm not a big fan of these constant long arcs that don't always have a clear beginning/end. In these three hardcovers, there were two issues you could call self-contained, and it seems like a lack of breathing space hinders the book. And by "breathing space," I mean a slight break from the ongoing personal problems of Peter Parker, too. I understand why the book is structured this was as it's meant to keep piling up on Peter, culinating in his desperate pleas to Nick Fury to take away his powers somehow. These first three years of stories are about things going to hell for Peter, but... only one self-contained issue? (I'm on the fence about issue 13 with Mary Jane...)

I don't have much to say about a lot of the updates of characters. I did enjoy the Kraven stuff. That Spider-Man was involved in the deaths of two of his friends' parents so close together was a little contrived and made the death of Captain Stacey less meaningful--that it was a fake Spider-Man doesn't necessarily make it better.

I do really like that the characters in this book are more intelligent than their Marvel Universe counterparts and seem to figure how that Peter is Spider-Man pretty easily... or, when he's unmasked, have no idea who this random teenager is. It's a bit of logic injected into the book.

Still not a big fan of Mark Bagley's art. But, it works well here and serves the story.

I plan to keep buying the hardcovers for this series. I doubt it will ever be my favourite book, but it's a nice little read. Like I said, it's a warm blanket of familiarity and comfort. It doesn't have the problems of reading comics from the 1960s, but it isn't too far off either. I'm not sure how well it works when read by teenagers not exposed to comics before, but I still don't think that was ever the target audience. I mean, my teenage self would have laughed and made fun of this comic... and I was Peter Parker in high school.