Wednesday, December 10, 2008
As a longtime DC Comics loyalist, I'm a little surprised that my favorite monthly comic of late is a Marvel imprint. I ignored "Ultimate Spider-Man" when my husband started getting it a couple of years ago, and now I'm totally hooked on it. I think it's that rare comic that would appeal to non-geeks, or people who haven't entered a comic shop in years, or ever.
Penned by Brian Michael Bendis, USM is a modern retelling of the classic Spidey story, which takes place during Peter Parker's high school years. Bendis clearly remembers what it's like to be a teenager — all that angst and self-doubt, plus the burden of being a superhero with a secret identity. A lot of bad stuff happens to Peter, which is part of what makes him such a sympathetic character: He's lost his beloved Uncle Ben. His Aunt Mae has serious cash flow problems. His friends sometimes wind up dead or overtaken by monstrous, alien symbiotes. Few people, including the cops, appreciate his masked crusade against crime. The one bright light is his romance with Mary Jane Watson, and even that comes with all kinds of adolescent drama.
First, the action. The recent storyline with Venom is one of the most chilling things I've seen in comics in a while. Peter's onetime friend, Eddie Brock, is literally consumed by this monstrosity, and he needs human flesh the way junkies need a heroin hit. One comic in this arc opens with Eddie talking to a series of strangers on a park bench, and it isn't until the end of the book that we realize he's been eating them, one by one. Don't buy this for the kids.
Of course, the action would be meaningless if I didn't care about the characters. Bendis writes Peter and Mary Jane's relationship with tenderness, and in a way that seems true to their age. In the most recent Annual, for example, he managed to make me care about a familiar fork in the road of teen relationships: Like, since they were in love and stuff, should they do it? Normally, I'd have fled from this kind of After School Special storyline, but Bendis not only presented it well, but also resolved it in a sweet and unexpected way. (However, I could have done without learning they're only 15, which made me a tiny bit queasy.)
I'd be remiss not to mention Bendis' longtime collaborator, artist Mark Bagley, who departed after Issue No. 111 — an almost 7-year run. His successor, Stuart Immonen, has turned out to be a fantastic choice, IMHO. Pick it up.