Ultimate Spider-Man #1: “Powerless”
I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve never been a big Spider-Man follower before. Yes, I did see the movies, the sequel literally brought me to tears, and I consider it to be one of the best comic book movies ever made. But actually reading the comics? Rather daunting considering Spider-Man’s convoluted history. So when I picked up Ultimate Spider-Man, rather cautiously I might add, I knew it had two things going: the Ultimate U., a sort of jumping on point for new readers unfamiliar with a particular character’s history. Second, the writing of Brian Michael Bendis, who’s run on Daredevil I was ensconced in at the time.
Ultimate Spider-Man starts with the main character’s namesake, a spider. More precisely, a spider perched on the gloved hand of Norman Osborn, the CEO of Osborn Industries. Norman is showing off the spider as part of his laboratory work on a new wonder drug he calls Oz. What can be gleaned from Bendis’s script and Mark Bagley’s pencils is that it is not going too well according to his lawyer. After a thorough chewing out by Norman, we see the spider dropped back into its container.
The next few pages take place at the food court in the mall. We meet Peter Parker, sitting all by his lonesome doing homework. Kudos to Bendis and Bagley for making this look like an actual scene from a mall. I can actually hear everyone’s voices echoing around me. Here, we observe Peter’s obvious longing for the beautiful Mary Jane Watson. He’s eavesdropping on her conversation but soon gets pelted with French fries from Flash Thompson. After a few sympathetic glances from MJ, and a flying taco to boot, in walks Uncle Ben.
Now this isn’t your father’s Uncle Ben. It’s to be noted here that this series started in 2000, and one’s imagination can do a little stretching and picture Ultimate Uncle Ben marching in protests over the Vietnam War and demonstrating for President Nixon’s resignation. He’s got a ponytail, and it appears, at least in MJ’s eyes, that he’s pretty cool to be hanging out at the mall with his nephew.
In high school, Peter is forced to endure more embarrassment at the hands of Flash and his sidekick, Kong, in the hallways. It is in these halls, the reader is introduced to Harry Osborn, son of Norman. He’s trying to play the protective buffer between Peter, Flash, and Kong. “Petey, when are you going to learn to stay out of their way?” As if Peter intentionally stalks the hallways looking to get tripped up by bullies like Flash and Kong. Harry has his reasons for befriending Peter: Peter “helps” him with his homework, but not in the sense of popular kid telling the school nerd to literally do his homework, Harry probably does do his homework, but just needs a little help from Peter. He even tries to boost Peter’s sagging self-esteem by telling him how many millions he’ll make with his own Internet company someday.
Of course, any day in high school wouldn’t be complete without the ever-intimidating physical education class. This is one class Peter wishes he could skip; yet he seems to get some sadistic pleasure sending the gym teacher into a conniption when he throws up an air ball playing basketball.
That evening at the Parker home, Ultimate Aunt May gives an amateur diagnosis of Peter at the dinner table: he has social anxiety disorder. Uncle Ben tries to put her at ease, saying he’s just a “contemplative little man”. Just like his father. It isn’t until Harry and Peter are in the basement with a chalkboard full of equations that we see how contemplative Parker & Son are. Before Peter’s parents perished in a plane crash, Parker Senior was working on a couple of patents. One in particular was for a molecular adhesive. Peter has been trying to duplicate his father’s work, but to no avail.
With biology homework out of the way, Harry returns home to remind his father that his science class is visiting Norman’s lab. Unfortunately, Norman has no time for his son, giving him the cold shoulder. The next day, Peter’s science class is touring the lab when that spider, apparently somebody having forgotten to put its lid back on, drops out of the sky and bites Peter on the hand. After Peter faints and Kong squashes the spider, we see Norman discussing the accident with his advisers. For the first time, we see that Norman has a soft side, or at least a guilty conscience; he decides to pay Peter’s medical bill. But he has a deeper interest in Peter; he wants to keep an eye on him and see how he reacts to the spider bite. Aunt May and Uncle Ben can’t believe Norman’s kindness and opt not to sue him because “Harry is a pal to Peter. Maybe his only one.” Ben tells May that everything is going to return to normal now. But this is only the beginning for Peter.
The next day we see another hallway encounter with Kong. But a swift kick to Peter’s butt is thwarted. In the last two panels, everything starts to slow down when Peter realizes he is the target of Kong’s foot. A look of panic crosses his face, as Peter actually knows what is about to go down without even seeing it. With this newfound sense, he dodges Kong’s foot and flips him over onto his stomach. Everyone, including Peter, is shocked. But before he can bask in his victory, Peter once again faints.
Waking up in the hospital, Peter is interrogated by the doctor about potential drug use. After denying these absurd charges (Aunt May comes to his defense), the good doctor elects to do some blood work. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn’s promise to keep tabs on Peter is held up when a vial of his blood gets stolen and analyzed by Norman’s scientists. They discover the Oz drug is killing him, so Norman decides to have him killed; a simple solution to what was once a threatening problem. While walking to school the next day, Peter’s senses go off again, alerting him to the potential danger: a car is about to hit him. With an acrobatic flip off the roof of the car, Peter avoids death. Thinking it’s just an accident, he approaches the car, but his senses kick in, and he takes off. When Norman hears of the failed attempt, he calls it off, telling his hit man that he wants to “…study that kid—not kill him!” It is in these panels that the reader can assume what Norman is thinking: the Oz drug had an unexpected reaction to Peter, and instead of killing him, it’s given him superior strengths that are far from human.
Peter is also putting the pieces together. After drawing blood, examining it under his own microscope, and some searching on the Web, he learns that spiders, like the one that bit him, have a heightened sense of knowing when something dangerous is about to strike. Peter seems to be in shock at this discovery. So are Uncle Ben and Aunt May when they learn that Peter skipped school that day. Peter explains how much of a nightmare school is for him. Ben and May press him with questions regarding his wellness. Peter’s response is out of character for him, we can see that he’s struggling with these recent events. Leaning up against a wall, he starts to leave the living room, when little dime-sized pieces of the wall come off on his fingers. It’s like the small circles of sweat that our own fingers produce on a surface when we are nervous. Only in Peter’s case, the surface sticks to his fingers. The look of sheer panic in his eyes says it all. “I’m sensing danger before it happens and now I’m sticking to walls?”
Storming up to his room, Peter falls asleep only to jolt awake in the early morning. As he lies in bed, a thought occurs to him. Getting up, he approaches his wall and begins to climb it. Finally we see a full-page shot of Peter upside-down in his bedroom. In an issue titled “Powerless“, we see it end with Peter Parker, not bulked up on steroids or juiced up on hormones, but the same scrawny, glasses-wearing Peter Parker with a newfound sense of power: a spider sense, if you will.
So ends the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man. Since this was my introduction to the Spider-Man legend, I thought this was an exciting issue to read. The dialogue and artwork flowed smoothly. We not only meet Peter Parker but other supporting characters who will play pivotal roles in issues to come. Peter spent most of his time bearing the brunt of ridicule from high school bullies around every corner. That is why the title “Powerless” is so fitting. When he’s not having food thrown at him, he’s getting tripped up in the hallways. Even Harry Osborn, one of the more popular kids, can’t boost Peter’s street credibility with the rest of the school. Peter is just a bit socially awkward, but what he lacks in social skills, he more than makes up for with his intellectual skills.
I like the basement scene with Harry and Peter. Down in Peter’s lab, not only do we see how smart Peter is, but also his late father. The debate on how Spider-Man swings around has always been a hot issue. In the movies, his webs came out from the wrists, all-natural. In the comics the webs were shot out from little web shooters he wore on his wrists. Here in the Ultimate U., it’s firmly established that, through his father’s invention, Peter uses a molecular adhesive to do his web slinging. I found it a simple and logical way to address that issue.
The buildup to the fatal bite is flawless. Instead of it taking place in the first few pages, we’re treated to a day in the life of Peter Parker. After so much harassment by his peers, I was actually begging that spider to bite him. But all this torture puts us in Peter’s shoes. I never cared to play basketball during gym class because all I threw up were bricks. Seeing Peter standing at the foul line, taking his shot, took me back to those days.
Now the bite itself, I liked how it played out: a simple bug bite, a fainting reaction, that’s it, no harm done. He actually doesn’t go to the hospital until the second time he faints. But in Peter’s scientific mind, the red flags don’t go up until he dodges the two attempts on his safety. He doesn’t actually see the gun but senses the serious danger when he approaches the carÂ…after flipping over it, which is something he does on a regular basis, right? Finally, after all that goes down, the gears in his head start to turn. All this weird stuff starts happening after the bite.
Overall, the issue does a terrific job of planting the seeds for this series and storyline. Turning that last page, I knew I was hooked. Fortunately, I was reading this in a trade paperback format, so my wait for the next issue was only a page away. For you, dear readers, I urge you to come back in two weeks and see what happens next to Peter Parker in volume one of Ultimate Spider-Man.