Thursday, October 27, 2011

Series Spotlight: Ultimate Comics - Spider-Man

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #1
This summer, Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, was killed in the Ultimate universe of Marvel Comics. This event did not resonate beyond comics fandom until Peter's replacement would be revealed as Miles Morales, a black Hispanic middle-schooler. Some praised Marvel's bold move, while others dismissed it as "politically correct" nonsense. With all of this controversy, comics fans were anxious to see how the actually series would turn out. Now that the first two comics have been released, we can see if the story lives up to the hype.



First, however, a quick background on Ultimate Spider-Man. The Ultimate universe was created by Marvel in 2000 to draw in those who were not long-term comics fans, particularly those who enjoyed the movies made based off of the X-Men, and soon after Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. It is an entirely separate universe from the main Marvel world, where Peter Parker is still very much alive.

The idea of a black Spider-Man was first thought up by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso in 2008, inspired by Barack Obama's run for President. The development of this new character was also influenced by a campaign to have black actor Donald Glover play Spider-Man in the up-coming reboot of the film series (obviously, they went for less controversial choice and cast Andrew Garfield), as well as the season two premiere of Community, which showed Glover's character Troy in Spider-Man pajamas. When it was announced that Peter Parker would be killed off in the Ultimate universe, work on this idea went into full-speed and Miles Morales was created.

Miles's story in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man starts out months before his first appearance in the pages of Marvel comics, where he is waiting with his anxious parents to see if he made it into a charter school. After learning that he will be attending this school, he visits his uncle. We learn that his uncle is a burglar that was shown earlier in the comic, who has stolen a spider from the lab of Norman Osborn (a.k.a. Green Goblin) that is infected with the same chemicals as what turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man. As most can expect, the spider bites him and gives him powers, which sets off a series of complications for our young hero.

The introduction of the character was perfect, showing him not as a superhero but as a normal young man and as a son. This echoes Peter Parker's average-hero characterization, which is what attracts people to his character and will most likely make readers fall for Miles as well. It's also very accessible for someone like me, who has never read an Ultimate comic before in my life, and not much Marvel in general. From what I understand, this is the aim of the Ultimate line, and I applaud Marvel for not just creating stories for new readers to get into easily but also for doing it well with this book. Brian Michael Bendis' writing is full of both exciting scenes of discovery and slower moments full of vulnerability, particularly in the second issue, which is the stronger of the two released so far. My favorite scene was the one with his friend, which mixes nerdy excitement over superpowers with the burden of them, creating a situation that's lovely in its portrayal of how young Miles truly is. I was worried about how a child superhero would work as Spider-Man, as unlike a character such as Robin or one of the many teenage superhero teams, he is on his own with no other superheroes to connect to. However, throughout the comic, and in this scene and the one with his father afterwards, they show that they will keep the childishness of the character true. Not as a gimmick or caricature or as an adult in a smaller body, but as an exploration about how a middle school student would truly deal with the responsibility given to him.

My criticism lays mostly in the art. Sara Pinchelli's animation-like, bold line art is a perfect fit for a comic about a kid, and she wonderfully captures expressions that mix cartoony exaggeration with realistic nuances. However, her panel compositions can become stagnant, particularly when it comes to more dialogue heavy scenes. Sometimes the repetition works, like the page with Miles attempting to show a friend his powers and failing, as it highlights the humor of the situation and the dialogue. Oftentimes, it just makes the comic seem a little flat. For example, an intense conversation between Miles and his father in a park would have been more interesting if instead of a splash page of them sitting on a bench with a lot of world balloons about them, we saw panels that illustrated the text, and provided more emotion and insight. The colors, done by Justin Ponson, also bother me, with their over-reliance on gradients and highlights. When that style is done in a more muted way in the book, it works well, and the bright color palette is a great decision. Often, however, it seems as though the simple, cartoony drawings and the more rendered, shiny coloring are competing, never fully meshing into a coherent image. If this were more toned down, or possibly even switched to a more animation-like cell shaded style, the coloring would serve the art better. Overall, though, I loved the art and my issues are more nitpicks that major concerns.

The decision to make an alternate universe version of Marvel's most popular hero who is black and Hispanic is a very smart one, that allows for more inclusivity in a major way. There are many superheroes out there who are black and/or Hispanic, but to do it with one as iconic as Spider-Man sends a much larger message to young kids. So far, the comic has not really touched on race issues. However, I hope that future comics will, as like it affected him in the real world, in the fictional Ultimate Marvel 'verse it would be realistic for it to be dealt with, even (or maybe particularly) in a subtle manner.

Making the character a child was also an interesting choice, though one that I wasn't initially supportive of, as expanded on earlier in the review. However, after reading the comics, as well as Alonso's comments that he wanted a hero for his son to look up to, I've changed my mind. The most important audience for this comic is children, who will see that race should have nothing to do with being a hero through a character they can truly relate to. Kids may look up to adult heroes, but they see them as untouchable. One of the reasons the Teen Titans cartoon for the 2000's did well was due to showing heroes that also had to deal with typical preteen issues, and I think that if Marvel markets this really well to kids, they could have the same sort of success. There will be an Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon released in the next year; however, planning began before Miles was created and Peter Parker will be the star of it. I bought my copy of issue two from the magazine section of a Barnes & Nobles, where it was with other superhero comics, which is a step in the right direction. Placing it on display in the children's section, possibly near other books about superheroes, would work even better.

It is also interesting to compare the attention this series has gotten with DC's recent controversy over rebooting all of their comics, known as the New 52. DC has been criticized for being too regressive in terms of minority and female characters. In particular, the return of the formerly wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon to her former title of Batgirl after spending twenty years as information broker Oracle and the recent treatment of Catwoman and Starfire in their first New 52 appearances have riled up anger from some fans. Marvel, on the other hand, has been hammered, not just by comic fans but the mainstream media, for creating a black Hispanic hero. That the larger outrage is at Marvel than DC says a lot about how much progress superhero comic fandom needs to make towards inclusivity.

Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man is an enjoyable read and is sure to become another hit for Marvel with its great writing and poppy art. Their choice to take a new direction cause a lot of controversy, but in the end it paid off greatly, and I can't wait to pick up issue three!


Hayley Weber is a junior cartooning major who hails from the most boring part of New Jersey. To distract herself from this sad fate, she reads and draws girly comic books, watches weird British TV shows, and stalks her favorite bands.

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