After the editorial mandated origin story, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley get to cut loose and tell their first official Ultimate Spider-Man story. The name of the story arc is “Learning Curve”, which signifies that Spider-Man will develop as a hero while taking his share of lumps along the way. Ultimate Spider-Man #8-9 begins to develop this theme by contrasting Spider-Man’s thankless job as a student and Daily Bugle webmaster with the Kingpin’s opulent gala and highly skilled criminal goons: The Enforcers. However, Bendis doesn’t make Spider-Man entirely good and Kingpin entirely bad. He uses the events of these issues and ones from the Green Goblin’s attack on Midtown to make Spider-Man look more like an anti-hero and Kingpin more sympathetic. However, the primary strength of these issues is the re-introduction and introduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s supporting cast and villains. These characters aren’t just filler, but they comment on Parker and (especially) Spider-Man’s actions and shed light on him as a character and development as a crime fighter.
After a fun cold open where Spider-Man easily subdues the Shocker (a running gag throughout the series), Ultimate Spider-Man #8 shows the Daily Bugle staff who made their first appearance two issues ago. Along with the occasional TV news update, they are the Greek chorus of the series just like the Gotham news broadcasters in The Dark Knight Returns. The Daily Bugle is especially important in this story arc because they unknowingly employ Spider-Man while being simultaneously owned by the Kingpin. This knowledge adds even more tension and dark irony to a story which could just be Spider-Man taking revenge on his uncle’s killer’s employer. The newspaper staff, including Robbie Robertson, Ben Urich, and Betty Brant, show up, but they don’t get much to say or do. For now, they just move the plot forward. Brant’s computer problems give Peter Parker his job as webmaster, Urich’s writing gives him some leads on the Kingpin, and Robertson acts as referee in the newsroom battles. But J. Jonah Jameson doesn’t just comment on Spider-Man, but shapes the character’s destiny in a huge way.
Through his scathing headlines and editorials, J. Jonah Jameson is responsible for the negative perception of Spider-Man in the general public. This is virtually unchanged from his early appearances in Amazing Spider-Man, but Bendis delves into the reasons why Jameson publishes these stories and why the negative press isn’t completely a bad thing. Basically, Jameson publishes stories about Spider-Man as a menace to sell newspapers. He calls him “our O.J.” and tells Peter Parker that people want stories with a clear good and bad guy concluding his speech by saying, “They’ll read what you give them.” This statement falls in line with one of the bigger themes of the Ultimate Universe (explored in length in Mark Millar’s Ultimates): the idea of superheroes as celebrities. People are interested in reading about celebrities in magazines, on the Internet etc. Therefore, they want to read about superheroes. But whereas “official” heroes, like Iron Man, Captain America, and the Ultimates get good press, the media sees Spider-Man as a menace to society after he wrecked Midtown in his fight against the Green Goblin. They cast Spider-Man as a “bad guy” because he is mysterious and not sanctioned by the government, like the Ultimates. The media, especially J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle, shapes who Spider-Man is and will continue to throughout the series. Because of negative headlines about him breaking and entering onto private property to get information, Spider-Man chooses to be “smarter” while going after the Kingpin. Jameson’s writing and speech about him helps him mature as a hero in a twisted way.
As well as the Daily Bugle, Peter Parker gets to interact with his fellow students in Ultimate Spider-Man #7-8. They have their own interesting observations about Spider-Man. Kong is a complete fanboy who only talks about Spider-Man, and he compares him to the Punisher after he takes down The Enforcers. This comparison is unfortunate and shows that Spider-Man might be close to crossing the line while hunting down the Kingpin and his men. Bendis also doesn’t ignore the traumatic effects of Spider-Man’s battle with Green Goblin at Midtown High. Liz Allen is sick and tired of hearing about Spider-Man and bursts into tears when Kong won’t be quiet about him. This shows the partially negative effect that Spider-Man is having on Midtown High. It also hints at deeper problems for Liz Allen, which will be explored later in Ultimate Spider-Man.
Peter Parker’s most meaningful interaction is with Mary-Jane Watson. The first arc established their friendship, and these two issues build on this. Mark Bagley’s art illustrates their relationship in subtle ways. For example, when Peter Parker is thinking about how to get to the Kingpin in class, the panels zoom in closer to his face as Mary-Jane is cropped out of the image. This shows that if he gets too obsessed with revenge, he pushes away people who care in his life. Bagley’s art also touches on the positivity in Peter and Mary-Jane’s relationship. His small square panels with Peter and Mary-Jane’s lively expressions reveal the romance crackling under their awkward teenage faces. New colorist Steve Buccellato uses black and white to contrast Peter Parker’s “appointment” at the Kingpin’s gala with the bright colors used for Mary-Jane’s face and background. Peter’s secret identity will make close relationships difficult, but in his quest for revenge, this doesn’t matter.
The first obstacles in Spider-Man’s vendetta against the Kingpin are his Enforcers led by Mr. Big. The other members are Fancy Dan, a skilled martial artist; Ox, who is almost as strong as Kingpin; and Montana, who uses a lasso. Bendis gives these characters colorful dialogue that fits their personalities and aliases. Their banter is entertaining and is in marked contrast with Green Goblin’s grunts. Even though Spider-Man beats him with the help of his web fluid, his fight with them shows how he isn’t prepared to take on the Kingpin. He almost gets strangled by Montana, and only Mr. Big’s resentment towards the Kingpin gives him any kind of lead. The fight scene isn’t random, but reveals how much Spider-Man has to improve as a hero. If non-powered gangsters are giving him this much trouble, how will he fare against actual super-powered humans? His conversation with Mr. Big shows that one doesn’t take down a crime boss by searching around on the Daily Bugle’s web server. Bendis contrasts Mr. Big’s stoic dialogue with Spider-Man’s jokes about wet t-shirts to show that Spider-Man isn’t ready to end organized crime in New York despite his idealism and thirst for revenge.
Ultimate Spider-Man is a solo book, but its rich cast of supporting characters help flesh out its protagonists even more than his own inner monologues. Lines of dialogue from characters like J. Jonah Jameson, Mr. Big, and even Liz Allen reveal that Spider-Man is still just a teenager with superpowers who doesn’t know the effect his actions have on others. He tried to keep civilians away from his fight with Green Goblin, but still caused a lot of collateral damage. To counteract this damage, Kingpin gives money to Midtown hospice to help the victims of Spider-Man and Green Goblin’s brawl. Technically, Kingpin is doing a better job improving life in New York even though he sells drugs and has people killed by his commands. This makes Kingpin, who only appears once in Ultimate Spider-Man #9, a much more nuanced villain than the Green Goblin. In a world of mad scientists and super soldier projects, Kingpin is just a businessman. Soon, he will give another outside perspective on who Spider-Man is and his development as a hero.