The coming of age story is one of the most enduring story types in Western literature. From Telemachus in the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn and more recently the boy wizard Harry Potter, readers young and old enjoy seeing young men and women struggle, but eventually succeed in the process of growing up. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s complete run on Ultimate Spider-Man is easily a coming of age story. However, the three issues that conclude the Kingpin part of “Learning Curve” are a miniature coming of age story in three acts. It could even be compared to the 1984 film Karate Kid. In the beginning of the film, Daniel is beat up by the Cobra Kai gang even though he knows karate. In the middle of the film, Daniel trains with Mr. Miyagi so he can beat Cobra Kai in an officially sanctioned karate tournament. In the last act of the film, Daniel uses his training to beat Cobra Kai and also learn some life lessons about personal responsibility and friendship. Ultimate Spider-Man #10-12 mirrors and even supersedes Karate Kid as a coming-of-age story. Peter Parker is beaten up by the Kingpin and his goons, but then decides to use his brain and make a plan before succeeding in defeating the corpulent crime boss. But instead of the training exercises and montages of Karate Kid, Bendis and Bagley use action, dialogue, visual cues, and the character of the Kingpin to make Spider-Man’s coming of age story one of their best arcs of Ultimate Spider-Man.
Ultimate Spider-Man #10 is aptly named “The Worst Thing”. It is a no-holds-barred look at Spider-Man’s worst defeat at this point in his career as a crime fighter. To add insult to injury, the comic also looks at Peter Parker’s strained relationships with both Aunt May and Mary-Jane Watson. In her only scene of the three issues, Aunt May asks Peter, “Do you like me?” The minimal use of dialogue and panels focusing on May and Peter’s facial expressions makes this moment even more emotionally poignant. Bendis understands that Uncle Ben was the anchor of May and Peter’s lives and continues to explore how his loss affects them.
On a much lighter note, Peter and Mary-Jane’s relationship suffers somewhat in this issue when Peter bails out on their date because he is sore from fighting Electro. Bagley puts a long, black telephone cord between Mary-Jane and Peter to show how his double life as Spider-Man is estranging them. Because Mary-Jane reacts negatively to his cancellation of their date, Peter considers telling her that he is Spider-Man. In his inner monologue, Peter remarks that he and Mary-Jane have never fought before, and this statement shows how close they are as friends. The note passing and phone calls pay off in Ultimate Spider-Man #13 which is just a conversation between Peter and Mary-Jane.
Before having problems with the two most important women in his life, Spider-Man is literally beaten down and defeated by Kingpin and his mutant hitman, Electro. He gets unmasked and thrown out of the window. The injury he sustains from being electrocuted by Electro makes him cancel his date with Mary-Jane, but it is the damage to Peter’s reputation that hurts him the most in this issue. Kingpin is both strong and intelligent. These factors enable Wilson Fisk to become the main crime lord in New York and also utterly humiliate Spider-Man by connecting him to the murder of one of his lieutenants, Mr. Big. Kingpin kills two birds with one stone by strangling Mr. Big to death in a Spider-Man mask. His tactics are brutal, but carefully calculated. In contrast, Peter Parker does some quick web research and bursts into the Kingpin’s office with no battle plan or anything. He realizes this too late and remarks, “Dear Peter Parker. You suck. Sincerely Peter Parker” after falling out of Kingpin’s window. Failure as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man is a big part of the first act of this coming of age story. Bagley makes good use of scale in his art and makes sure Kingpin towers over Spider-Man. Kingpin’s facial expression never changes in contrast to Spider-Man’s spastic quips about Carson Daly and terrified inner monologue. Bendis and Bagley drop Spider-Man to his lowest state, but begin to rebuild him at the end of the issue.
Peter Parker is intelligent too. Before getting spider powers, his intelligence was his only asset. However, in his fights with Green Goblin, the Enforcers, Electro, and Kingpin, it seems his intelligence has deserted him. He eventually gets Green Goblin away from civilians and does some research on Kingpin’s organization, but ends up relying on his superpowers and brute force. This tactic barely works against the insane Green Goblin and the non-powered Enforcers, but the metahuman Electro and Kingpin take him down. However, at the end of Ultimate Spider-Man 10 and the beginning of issue 11, he has an epiphany. This moment is the turning point of the story arc and happens when Peter Parker isn’t in costume, but in history class where they are discussing Richard Nixon and Watergate. While other students give shallow emotional responses to why Nixon recorded so many tapes of himself, Peter realizes that it was because Nixon thought he was “untouchable” and didn’t have to answer to anyone. He makes the connection between corrupt politician and businessman realizing that Kingpin has the same weakness. Steve Buccellato’s sepia toned flashbacks draw attention to the security cameras that Peter realizes were all over the Kingpin’s tower. This moment is just a small step in the maturation of Spider-Man’s career as a crime fighter. His relationship with Mary-Jane also improves as he apologizes for canceling their date on short notice. This scene show the balance that Bendis strikes between Peter Parker and Spider-Man as he uses the issue’s opening fight scene to reveal how unprepared Spider-Man is, and then he gives him a nice dose of character development.
Ultimate Spider-Man #11 shows that Peter Parker can use his brain to find out information about Kingpin’s security cameras via a fake email, but he is a bit over his head when it comes to certain things in his life. For example, he doesn’t understand why Mary-Jane was so mad that he cancelled their date when she has never gotten mad at him before. (Answer: She has romantic feelings.) Along with struggling to patch up his relationship with Mary-Jane, Peter has a short conversation with Liz after the school forces him to see a counselor because of the Green Goblin attack. Liz’s terse responses tshow how big an effect the Green Goblin/Spider-Man battle has had on her and the school. Slowly, Peter begins to realize the consequences his actions have on others. This is a big part for growing up for any human being: superpowers or not, and Bendis takes some time looking at Peter’s personality and interactions with others before setting up Spider-Man’s inevitable rematch with the Kingpin.
As well as showing his development as a person, Ultimate Spider-Man #11 shows Spider-Man make strides as a superhero. Instead of bursting in and breaking windows, Spider-Man silently takes down security guards and keeps to the shadows as he looks for the security DVDs that show Kingpin’s illicit activities, including killing Mr. Big with his bare hands. Bagley with the help of inker Art Thibert uses more shadows in his art to show Spider-Man’s change in tactics. The infiltration of Kingpin’s tower felt more like reading a Batman comic than a Spider-Man one. (Mark Bagley did the art on the first Spider-Man/Batman crossover and later had a short run on Batman when Dick Grayson was Batman.) As Spider-Man becomes a more effective hero in this issue, cracks start to show in Kingpin’s empire. He doesn’t get a definitive answer from his henchmen about Spider-Man’s whereabouts and even goes on a rant about superheroes and the “costume fad”. Like Nixon, Kingpin is getting more paranoid as his power starts to slip.
The title of Ultimate Spider-Man #12 is “Battle Royale”, and it is an extended fight scene between Spider-Man, the Enforcers, Electro, and Kingpin. But unlike Ultimate Spider-Man #7, it has a great deal of characterization bubbling under the surface and isn’t Spider-Man grappling with the Green Goblin for a dozen pages. The tension between loyal Ox and the more ambitious Fancy Dan and Montana drives a wedge between the Enforcers and Kingpin. Throw in Electro’s inferiority complex, and the reader gets one of the best bad guy arguments since the three trolls bickering over which way to cook the dwarves in The Hobbit. In contrast to the dissent in Kingpin’s ranks, Spider-Man has the perfect strategy. After pretending to get captured, he uses his speed and agility to avoid the Enforcers’ bullets, lasso, and fists in wide-screen panels that look like the slow-mo fight scenes in film contemporaries Blade or The Matrix. The cinematic brawl seems like the perfect conclusion to Spider-Man’s coming of age story, but then Bendis throws in a huge twist with the Kingpin.
Spider-Man’s rematch with the Kingpin is one of the most brilliant moments of Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man. Basically, Spider-Man defeats the Kingpin with fat jokes. In this scene, Spider-Man uses humor as an offensive instead of a defensive weapon. He exploits Kingpin’s one tiny insecurity and breaks him down mentally though his cutting one-liners before webbing him with his super strong web fluid. Spider-Man turns the tables on Kingpin and defeats him through embarrassment instead of brawn. In issue 10, Spider-Man learns that humiliation is more painful than a physical defeat so he humiliates Kingpin instead of beating him up, like he did with the Green Goblin. He also delivers the DVDs to Ben Urich whose article exposes the Kingpin and forces him to flee the country. In one final coming of age moment, Spider-Man defeats his enemy by using the lesson that his enemy unknowingly taught him. At the end of Ultimate Spider-Man #12, Peter Parker has done some real good by putting a halt (for now) to the Kingpin’s criminal activities and also takes charge in his relationship with Mary-Jane by asking her to come over and talk about “something important”.
Ultimate Spider-Man #10-12 shows Peter Parker’s maturation as hero and person in miniature. From his unmasking by the Kingpin to his epiphany in history class and his final defeat via humor, Peter Parker and Spider-Man show much character growth in an organic, not rushed way. At the end of the day, the Kingpin isn’t completely defeated and doesn’t even get charged with any crimes despite a DVD showing him a kill a man with his bare hands. This shows the ongoing nature of growing up that will continue throughout the Ultimate Spider-Man series as Peter Parker’s interpersonal relationships develop, and more villains continue to afflict him when he is Spider-Man.