Thursday, March 22, 2012

Comic Review -- Ultimate Spider-Man #160 / Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Andy Lanning, and Justin Ponsor

Spider-Man is one of those characters in comics who, whether you like him or not, is undeniably a touchstone of modern popular culture.  You've heard of him, and you probably know a lot more about him than almost any other iconic comic book character, Superman and Batman notwithstanding.  And in the 50 years of history and storytelling during which he's existed, he's endured tragedies and triumphs of titanic proportions.

So when you hear he's going to be killed off, it tends to get your attention.

Now, I know there are some caveats to that statement, the most obvious being that this isn't the "real" Spider-Man, the one from 1962, who was bitten by a radioactive spider.  This is Ultimate Spider-Man, from Marvel's alternate, Ultimate universe, who was created in 2000 by Brian Michael Bendis for a more modern age.  He's younger, less experienced, and as some might argue, less worthy of the mantle than the original, prime Spider-Man.

Another detraction could come in the vague supposition that death in comic books--no matter which universe it takes place in--isn't real and lasting, and that he'll probably be back in a few years, when it's convenient.  Therefore, this really isn't any big deal.

To that statement, I would ask this: how many times--in any universe--has Spider-Man actually died?

He's been beaten, bruised, broken, and bloodied to within an inch of his life.  He's had his loved ones stalked, attacked, kidnapped, and in some cases, killed.  He's suffered self-doubt innumerable times, been tortured and tormented by himself as well as external foes.  He's been cloned, replaced, buried, mutated, manipulated, and stretched far beyond his limits... on countless occasions.  And through it all, he's come out more or less on top, a little battered, but wiser and stronger for all his ordeals.  Spider-Man, for all his gifts, is a writer's punching bag or whipping boy, tormented and brought back to show that we all have the ability to come back from the worst of circumstances.

And he's never, in any incarnation, been killed.  Well, not to my knowledge, anyway.

I'd also add a sidenote that death in the Ultimate Universe has thus far proven permanent.  I do hope and expect it will stay that way.

By the time this issue begins, things have gotten down to the breaking point with Norman Osborn's vendetta against Peter.  The boy had already been injured by a gunshot before Osborn and four of his other super-powered cronies showed up in his neighborhood, intent on killing him.  Iceman and the Human Torch, his roommates, helped out briefly and are now knocked out, lying in front of his house.  Kraven, Vulture, and Electro have been taken out of the fight, but Peter, who's now lost his mask and whose identity will now be known to the world, is desperate to get his Aunt May out of their neighborhood and out of harm's way after she shows up.

Osborn, as the Green Goblin, is relentless, continuing his assault even as crowds gather and watch the high-powered slugfest.  Gwen keeps trying to get May to safety, but she won't leave, concerned for her nephew's life.  Despite another brief surge of help from the Human Torch, the Goblin continues to get stronger as Peter's injuries threaten to drain the life out of him before the fight is over.  His anger at Osborn keeps him going though, and he uses any means at his disposal to beat him further.

Still the Goblin comes, and Peter's execution is stayed briefly as Mary Jane hits Osborn with a truck.  Peter kisses her in gratitude, then throws her to a safe distance and uses the truck to batter Osborn into submission.  It explodes from the fight, throwing Peter onto his front lawn, where his entire neighborhood seems to have gathered and is watching.  911 is called, and everyone tries to help the injured young man, but his injuries are too severe.  With a final gasp to Aunt May that it was all worth it because he was able to save her, Peter dies in front of his loved ones.  A few moments later, an apparently dead Norman Osborn smiles, content that he was able to kill Spider-Man.

What I like most about this story is that this isn't some grand, epic battle to the finish, with the world at stake, as you tend to get with so many superhero deaths.  No, this was a neighborhood brawl, a kid defending his home turf, his neighbors, and his family from a crazy guy and his buddies who have it in for him.  Peter's biggest motivation, at the end of everything, is keeping his loved ones safe and out of harm's way.  It's a fitting setup and sendoff for a hero who in so many ways exemplifies the everyman in all of us.

I also think it was a realistic death in the sense that it was caused, essentially, from the simple fact that Peter was just overwhelmed.  The gunshot from the Punisher, however unintended, had already put him at a disadvantage, and Norman's sudden escape and teamup with Electro, Kraven, and Vulture just made things way too overwhelming for Peter, who was already injured and exhausted, pushed to his limits, and not given any chance to get his bearings.  He made some bad tactical decisions, like waking up Torch instead of Iceman to fight the Goblin briefly, and that in concert with everything else (including Osborn's singleminded determination to kill him) was just too much.

Peter's final words to his aunt are particularly heartbreaking, because they exemplify how selfless he is in his devotion to her.  She was essentially his mother, having raised him from a young age, and his inability to protect Uncle Ben is only, in his eyes, justified by his ability to protect her from harm, even at the cost of his own life.  When you consider all that he had to live for and the future he could have had if he'd lived, his willingness to sacrifice it all without even a moment's hesitation makes his death all the more tragic.

Artistically, there's little I have to say that isn't generally known about Mark Bagley.  The man's been drawing Spider-Man since I was collecting comics as a teen, and I've always loved his renditions of Spider-Man and his supporting characters.  His style may be a little cartoony, with rather big eyes and expressions on his characters, but I think it really works for Spidey's world, and can't think of anyone else I'd want to draw for Peter's last hurrah.  The action scenes are pulse-pounding, the emotions are clearly and dramatically conveyed, and the story visually takes on the intimate yet high-stakes fight with aplomb through his efforts.

Overall, I was genuinely moved by this issue.  Ultimate Spider-Man hasn't always been my favorite character--he's simply not my Spider-Man--but his charm is undeniable, especially for modern readers picking up comics for the first time.  It is a worthwhile passing, deserving of praise and respect, but at the same time, I'm glad I can go back to the prime Spidey's adventures more or less unscathed.  Highly recommended.

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