Ultimate Spider-Man #1 is one of the most important comics issues of the 21st century. The series was the brainchild of Marvel publisher Bill Jemas, who wanted to create a Marvel universe that was accessible to new readers and wasn’t weighed down by over 40 years of continuity. This approach had been tried before in Spider-Man Chapter One (1997) by John Byrne, but Ultimate Spider-Man would be set in an alternate universe giving it more freedom to explore and revamp the character. The series featured Peter Parker as a sophomore in high school, and Parker wouldn’t leave or graduate high school at all in Ultimate Spider-Man. Jemas chose indie comics writer Brian Michael Bendis to write the series. In 2000, Bendis was a rising star in the comics industry and had won the Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in 1999. He was known for the crime comics Jinx, Sam and Twitch (set in the Spawn universe), and Torso. Though Ultimate Spider-Man is predominantly a teenage soap opera and super-hero comics, it has had crime elements from the first issue, like Norman Osborn putting a hit on Peter Parker.
The artist was Mark Bagley, a Marvel veteran who had a 64 issue run on Amazing Spider-Man from 1991-1996 and was the artist and co-creator of Marvel’s Thunderbolts. This unlikely combination of indie crime writer and a journeyman super-hero artist spawned the longest writer/artist run on a comics series in Marvel history. Ultimate Spider-Man was one of the first comics series that successfully used decompression and told a complete story in six or seven issues focusing on character in addition to plot and action. This kind of writing had been done before on books, like Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men, but Bendis’ stories were driven by dialogue and not narration. Ultimate Spider-Man‘s best and most emotionally rewarding stories were ones that focus on characters and not super-hero action. These issues and story arcs dealt with Peter Parker’s interpersonal relationships with his friends and family and not on web-swinging. His best enemies were ones that had a personal connection with him, starting with Norman Osborn.
Ultimate Spider-Man #1 opens with Norman Osborn holding a genetically enhanced spider while telling a lab assistant the story of Arachne. He also yells at his lawyer on the phone about the new “Oz formula” that he is developing. As much as this issue is Peter Parker’s story, it is also Norman Osborn’s. The reader doesn’t see the lunatic Green Goblin in this issue, but a corrupt, arrogant businessman, who is also extremely interested in science and genetic enhancement. For example, when his hitman Shaw fails to run over Peter Parker with his car, Osborn calls off the hit and wants to study Peter Parker instead. He even pays for his hospital bills and sends a fruit basket to Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Osborn is no mad scientist, but is rather clever and calculating. He alludes to nicotine in cigarettes when an employee asks him about the legal ramifications of “secret” additives in his Oz formula. Though he is completely unsympathetic, a terrible father, and ruthless corporatist. Osborn is an excellent villain, who could actually exist in the real world of stem cell research and genetics engineering. Because his formula gave Peter Parker his powers, he acts as the “father” of Spider-Man and a foil to Peter Parker’s true father, Uncle Ben.
Uncle Ben doesn’t spout his famous line “With great power there must also come great responsibility” in this issue, but he has a well-developed relationship and rapport with Peter. From his dialogue, the reader learns that he is an old hippie who still wears a pony tail. Uncle Ben is roughly the same age as he was in Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita’s original Amazing Spider-Man stories. Though Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May, and even Kong will be fleshed out as supporting characters, Uncle Ben is the character (other than Norman Osborn) who has the most depth in Ultimate Spider-Man #1. He shares a series of moments with Peter ranging from humorous to serious, like asking him about his and Mary Jane’s science project at the mall, joking with Peter about Aunt May’s banana bread, and sending Peter to his room. Uncle Ben is incredibly self-aware: he knows that Peter and Mary Jane are meant for each other; he is suspicious of Norman Osborn who thinks Ben will sue because of the spider bite; and he understands that Peter is an introvert, who doesn’t have any kind of psychological disorder. Ben even unknowingly stumbles across the source of Peter’s fainting spells when he asks the nurse to have him tested for drugs because the Oz formula is basically a very powerful type of anabolic steroids. Every scene with Uncle Ben endears him to the reader and makes the emotional effect of his coming death much more powerful.
One of the strengths of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man is the supporting cast he crafts for Peter. The seeds for these characters are planted in this issue, which features Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osborn, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson, and Kenny “Kong” McFarlane. Aunt May is a little one-note in this issue babbling about pop psychology and “homeopathic” food. However, she shares a great scene after Uncle Ben sends Peter to his room that shows her love and care for Peter even if her parenting style is on the “free-range” style.
Throughout all of Ultimate Spider-Man,the most important relationship for Peter is between him and Mary-Jane Watson. Bendis eschews a lot of the “will they, won’t they” soap opera storyline from the older comics and focuses on why Peter and Mary-Jane are friends which Bagley shows in little ways in his art. For example, Peter is resting on Mary-Jane’s shoulder on the way back from the field trip where the spider bites him. She also smiles at him when he’s sitting alone in the cafeteria and delivers a witty retort to the cheerleaders who are making fun of Peter’s accident. This scene is a glimpse of the witty, intelligent Mary-Jane Watson that Bendis writes as a perfect match for Peter Parker.
The other high school students are relatively one-dimensional with Liz Allen as the blonde ditz and Flash and Kong as jock bullies. Flash and Kong just exist to get Peter angry and eventually engage in his first fight with his powers. This scene shows one of the weaknesses of Bendis’ run. Sometimes he spends an entire issue just having Spider-Man punch a villain, who has no reason to fight, except that it’s a super-hero comic and there must be a fight scene. However, the fight with the bullies is only one page long and captured in detail by Bagley, but there seems to be no motivation for Kong and Flash’s attack beyond pure cruelty. However, Bendis eventually gives Kong an upgrade as a character and reveals Flash’s motivation for his bullying.
But Bendis’ greatest achievement is his portrayal of Peter Parker, who is the real protagonist of Ultimate Spider-Man, not Spider-Man. “Powerless” is the title of issue, and a perfect one word explanation for his character in Ultimate Spider-Man #1. Peter is powerless to dodge the dropkicks and burrito salvos of Flash and Kong. He is powerless to hang out with Mary-Jane at the mall. He is powerless to stop letting Harry Osborn mooch off his homeworkh And he is powerless to avoid the spider bite which changes his life.
However, Peter Parker isn’t the meek milquetoast portrayed in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Amazing Fantasy #15. He makes the occasional snarky comment (hinting at his sarcastic wisecracks as Spider-Man) and is self-aware enough to not go into detail about his science project with Uncle Ben. He also has an attitude and takes down Kong without saying a word after him and Flash have been tormenting him all issue. But to counteract his teenage sarcasm and temper, Peter Parker is a scientific genius. Bagley shows this with a two page of spread of Peter’s basement lab in which he is working on “molecular adhesives”, which will become the basis of his web fluid. He even channels his anger to do Internet research about arachnids and falls asleep while reading a book about entomology. In Ultimate Spider-Man #1, Peter Parker acts as a surrogate for the teenagers that Bill Jemas hoped would read the comic. He is intelligent, but not averse to skip school and get into arguments with his adopted parents. Even though some of the slang is dated (nosh, references to the dot-com bubble), Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man will never be dated as long as there are nerds, geeks, outsiders, and just teenagers in general.