Ultimate Spider-Man Collection

by Brian Michael Bendis, et al.

Cover image

Script: Brian Michael Bendis
Pencils: Mark Bagley
Inks: Art Thibert
Publisher: Marvel
Copyright: June 2004
ISBN: 0-7607-6133-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 992

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the Barnes and Noble limited edition hardcover, which includes the first three Ultimate Spider-Man hardcovers (which correspond to the first six trade paperbacks), or Ultimate Spider-Man #1-39 plus #1/2. Marvel's reuse of the same name for the hardcovers and paperbacks despite the trade paperbacks being half the size is highly confusing. This hardcover is still available as I write this, direct from Barnes and Noble, but I expect it will go out of stock fairly quickly.

I used to be a serious comic book reader and occasional collector, primarily of Marvel comics, but stopped in the mid-1990s when the quality of Marvel's work went badly into the toilet. Since then, I've read Neil Gaiman's work and a few other self-contained graphic novels, but very few superhero stories. A friend loaned me this, though, and I thought I'd take a look at what Marvel is doing these days.

Like many other superhero comics fans, one of the greatest appeals of reading and collecting comics was piecing together and understanding the entirety of the universe in which the stories were set. Nearly every Marvel comic took place in the same overarching universe, sharing the same geography, metaphysics, rules, species, and characters, although of course some characters rarely appeared outside of specific series. (DC did the same thing, of course, as did some of the smaller publishers, but Marvel was primarily what I read.) This is both the strength and the weakness of the largest comic book companies; on one hand, the shared continuity and universe is one of the major appeals for many of their fans and leads those fans to buy comics they otherwise wouldn't, but on the other hand, it becomes very difficult for new readers. It's rather intimidating to start reading a story that cannot be fully understood without tracking down the implications of forty years of history spanning hundreds of series.

Occasionally, a comic book company will try to deal with this by wiping the slate clean and telling a story completely outside existing continuity, or resetting everything in a grand fashion. Mostly, these efforts fail; they don't attract the new readers they were hoping for, and the existing fans spurn them because they don't add to the grand universe they've come to love. The Ultimate comics are Marvel's latest effort, and they've succeeded far beyond expectations.

The basic idea of the Ultimate universe is to take Marvel's strongest heroes and tell their stories over again from the beginning, starting from scratch without any of the established backstory and reworking the original stories for a modern audience. The original stories were also often pretty amateurish and poorly done and can be vastly improved in a rewrite. This collection covers the first three and a half years of the Spider-Man story.

For those not familiar with Spider-Man, his defining motto is "with great power comes great responsibility." Through a scientific accident, he gains super-strength and the ability to walk on walls, but originally uses those abilities just for his own end and to support his family. As a result, he fails to stop a criminal when he could and horrible things happen as a result, leading him to swear to never stand aside again when he could help. In the moral department, it's a bit heavy-handed and trite, but the original story struck a chord and became insanely popular, and Spider-Man's strongly moral attitude (with a lot of help from his wise-cracking) has been a centerpiece of the Marvel universe ever since.

The retelling expands significantly on this origin, spending the first seven issues or so on it and fleshing out Spider-Man's relatives far more than the original series. I liked this quite a bit, particularly being able to get some sense of why Uncle Ben was such a central figure in his life. I was also particularly impressed with how Peter's relationship with M.J. is handled, and was delighted when he just told her early on that he was Spider-Man, something that in the regular Spider-Man comic was dragged out far too long and unrealistically.

In the Ultimate universe, Spider-Man's origin is linked closely with the Green Goblin rather than being a complete accident the way it was originally. This makes a lot of sense and works fairly well. Other early villains are Kingpin, Doctor Octopus (still one of the best Spider-Man villains) and, unfortunately, Venom, who is incredibly popular for reasons that I don't understand. I really didn't care for the Venom storyline; in the Ultimate universe, they needed some explanation for where the Venom costume came from since there was no Secret Wars or strange alien machine to produce it, and they chose to tie it into research Peter's dad was doing. That struck me as a bit too artificial and convenient, and the research was badly unbelievable even for a superhero comic.

The handling of Peter's relationships starts out fairly well, but then turns into a lot of teenage misunderstandings, a love triangle, and a variety of other predictable and not particularly fun nonsense. As I've said about other plots in the past, it's not unrealistic, it's just not something I'm particularly interested in reading about. I wish Bendis had stuck with the direction Peter's relationship was going when he told M.J. about being Spider-Man.

Those of you who aren't familiar with the basic Spider-Man story and his standard cast are probably pretty confused right now, and while you wouldn't be confused by the stories, I'm not sure you'd find much reason to enjoy them. At least half of my enjoyment was comparing the new story against the story I know and seeing what Bendis decided to change and how it affected Peter's development as a character. There are some great moments in here and some beautiful art, but with the weak Venom plot and problematic handling of interpersonal relationships, I can't recommend this very highly. It's interesting for old Spider-Man fans and pretty good generic superhero fare, but you probably already know if this is something you want to read. I enjoyed it as nostalgia, but it didn't interest me enough to buy Ultimate Spider-Man on an ongoing basis.

Amazing Fantasy #15, the first ever Spider-Man story, is included in this collection as a bonus. This is amusing just to show how horrible the writing and the art was in the original. Stan Lee's writing is painfully forced, telling rather than showing for the entire issue, and Steve Ditko's art is, frankly, atrocious. It particularly stands out next to Bagley's beautiful pencils for the rest of this collection. The original is special because it started off the modern Marvel universe, but it's not something anyone would want to read for its own sake.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-02-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21