Lately I’ve been writing about comic books mostly from a mythological sort of angle, either as they pertain to mythological symbolism or how they can be used as real-life lessons the same way a myth would’ve been used in ancient times. Typically, stories by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, or Jack Kirby work best for this sort of analysis. Brian Michael Bendis is of a different school of comic book writing. His work seems more similar to television writing, which is a different, more modern, and updated form of fiction. The issues he writes aren’t usually about any great metaphors; they are slice of life stories. They don’t tell the tales of legendary human archetypes or attempt to explain the mysteries of the mind. His stories talk about growing up as part of a certain culture.
It’s a completely different direction from the ripped-from-the-headlines super-hero allegories Ultimate Universe co-conspirator Mark Millar had in mind for the books he initiated (which, it appears, Grant Morrison helped him to conceive). They are more of the Aaron Sorkin variety: characters talk a lot; action is secondary to dialogue; super-heroics take a backseat to character development. It isn’t epic poetry, it’s serialized character drama. So, while that is an intriguing, difficult-to-pull-off, adult, and contemporary way of telling a story, it’s not necessarily where my head has been lately.
I have often found it difficult to get into Bendis’s writing for this reason. I have, in the past, criticized it for being too talky. For not being symbolic enough. I think my go-to line is to ask my friends, rhetorically, why a guy who wants to write dialogue so badly is working in a medium that is based upon graphic storytelling. I suppose after seeing the comparatively high-concept super-hero work in Millar’s Ultimates and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, I figured Spider-Man would have been better utilized as perhaps a science-fiction fable about the gods and monsters that might belong to a civilization whose members are interlinked with information tools. These tools create a web of communication upon which balance the social and economic livelihood of a 21st-century mega-tribe. It is on that web that such a super-hero as Spider-Man would exist.
Just as the majority of the initial wave of Marvel super-heroes were created as a reaction to atomic science and nuclear warfare, this new, “Ultimate” line would have to be created as a reaction to communication tools and the information age. Post-9/11 news cycles. Post-Steve Jobs news readers. Post-Barack Obama political opinions. Twitter. Reddit. Webcomics. A proper Spider-Man, for such a thematic thrust, would wind up as a cross between a street wise journalist and a messenger god, his spider-sense being a finely-tuned antenna into the activity of the community around him.
Granted, some of the more recent developments in technology and social media, such as iPads and Twitter, hadn’t actually been invented when the Ultimate Spider-Man series was started, and so it wouldn’t be fair to fault Bendis for not building that stuff into the base code of his Spider-Man. I just always wanted him to really stretch for something more in the conceptual realm than in character drama. So, coming to this series from my usual vantage point has proven to yield a particularly dry well.
That was until I found it more appropriate to look at the series not as folklore but as film. Is it a good story about people? Do I like the characters? Is it funny? Do I like the dialogue? Would I believe these people were real? Would I like them if they were real? Is there something here to relate to? From the perspective of a network television series, is it a good show? And yes, you see that it absolutely is. If you were to hold this up next to shows like Heroes, Smallville, or even the recent Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon series (which was largely influenced by Bendis’s work), I would say that this work is much more enjoyable than all of those examples.
It seems as though television super-heroes have the hardest time telling tales that are faithful to their story and also good works of film. With Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis has found that perfect balance between how much super-heroics need to be “on screen” and how much character stuff needs to be on. More than any other Spidey writer before him, barring Stan Lee, Bendis understands that the part of Spider-Man that makes him so compelling is that he was the first super-hero who was a character first and the super-hero second. He saw that Spider-Man’s story is best when the super-hero aspect is understood as the inciting event of character development, rather than the donning of a mask and the invoking of a god.
Spidey isn’t trying to fight a war on crime or protect the planet; he’s trying to make it through high school. He’s trying to ask girls out and overcome insecurities, while keeping his grades up and not pissing off his friends. He’s got to do all that and be a super-hero. Not because he wanted to be, or because he’s already such an extraordinary person in some way that he earned these powers, but because nothing ever goes right for him. So now he’s got that problem, on top of everything else. The rest is just him growing up, having to deal with it.
This is what makes Spider-Man compelling, not extra-terrestrial beginnings or magical spells. This is why Spider-Man would easily make for an amazing television show, and hopefully the creative team behind the character’s current animated endeavour, Ultimate Spider-Man, has given this enough thought. There have already been two other Saturday-morning cartoon shows based on Spider-Man since the launch of the Ultimate Universe, and neither of them lasted very long.
It’s because Bendis understands these truths about the character that Ultimate Spider-Man is such a consistently good Spider-Man series. Now, this isn’t to say that Dan Slott’s current work on the mainstream Marvel Universe’s flagship Spider-Man title, Amazing Spider-Man, isn’t consistently good, it is, but Bendis has been doing this since 2000, and he hasn’t missed an issue. It’s been all him, the whole way, and it’s all been consistently enjoyable Spider-Man work. The guy deserves some major props for that.
It’s also because Bendis understands these truths that he is able to translate them so well to a new character. Changing Spider-Man from Peter Parker to Miles Morales must have been like jumping from one train to another one moving in the opposite direction. He had to take the core of the Spider-Man character and change everything else around it. New face, new mask, new abilities, new neighborhood, new cast, new lessons to be learned. But it’s the same lessons, because everyone has to learn them. This is what makes Spider-Man so enduring. Bendis knows this.
While Dan Slott’s Spider-Man is a very sci-fi-influenced take on the character and could almost be seen as reminiscent of the grandiose adventures found in the BBC series Doctor Who, Miles Morales is a take on the character that is linked to his coming of age. He is a young kid in a big city with a complicated family, and he’s trying to choose the right path to take to become a man. He is still a student, not yet a master. He is, at this point, a myth in training. Slott’s take on the character is appropriate for a long-running Spider-Man series, one that dates back to the year before the BBC debut of “Doctor Who,” and that features an adult protagonist that has already matured into a legitimate super-hero. However, Bendis has found that the Ultimate Spider-Man is the Spider-Man that is not yet a man. The “-Man” part of his title is something he has yet to earn.
As I write this, Marvel has announced that in June of this year, it will publish a crossover event between Miles Morales and the Earth-616 version of Peter Parker, titled Spider-Men. It will be interesting to see what kind of lessons Miles can learn, not just from a living version of Peter Parker, whose visage Miles adopted in his honor, but one that has outlived his Ultimate Universe counterpart, wasn’t murdered in the line of battle, and is a full-fledged Avenger (and an understudy for the Human Torch’s slot in the Fantastic Four). This would be a terrific opportunity for growth for the character, provided the event goes beyond the typical super-hero team-up formula of a convoluted meeting, a dick-measuring contest, and a hatchet-burying alliance.
Although Peter Parker will always be a key component of the Spider-Man saga, in the Ultimate Universe, he wasn’t destined to live past 16-years-old. In this universe, it was in dying that Peter Parker earned his Spider-Manhood, saving his family and atoning for Uncle Ben’s death. Peter Parker is not the final, Utimate Spider-Man.
It’s tragic, in a way, to have a childhood hero killed at such a young age, but it makes for a very different look at the story. If Parker hadn’t lived past high school, if he was merely the first iteration of Spider-Man, a sort of prototype, who else could carry that title? In the origin of the Peter Parker Spider-Man from the Ultimate Universe, there was not one super spider, but several, so what if each of the other spiders that Osborn was running tests on lead to a different super-hero with a different combination of nurture and nature, DNA and identity? What would their powers be? Most importantly, how would that new Spider-Man adjust to these responsibilities? Surely not in the same way as his predecessor.
With Miles Morales, the Spider-Man experiment continues. It has moved ahead to the next test subject. It’s now Miles Morales’s turn to step up and see if he can undergo the trials of growing up with world-altering decisions resting on his shoulders, while staying out of trouble. If he is incorruptible and can weather the trials to become a true adult member of the super-hero brotherhood of which only strong, superior men are the members, he may call himself “Spider-Man.” If he can do all of those things and also give us the chance to see life in America from a vantage point that we don’t often get to see it from, and possibly free our minds a little in the process, then he might very well prove to be the Ultimate Spider-Man.