There are no masks, tights, or supervillains in Ultimate Spider-Man #13. There isn’t a fight scene. No one gets hurt. The whole comic is about a teenager having a conversation with his girlfriend and aunt. It is a triumph of characterization over action. These 20 pages of mainly close-up panels and word balloons do wonders for Mary-Jane Watson and Aunt May as characters. Brian Michael Bendis completely subverts the damsel in distress trope and makes Mary-Jane fascinated and happy about Peter’s superpowers. He also uses these characters to explore the similarities between superpowers and teenage sexuality in a progressive manner. Comics have explored this subject before (E.g. Most mutants get their powers at puberty), but Bendis’ ideas on the subject are funny, honest, and heartwarming. The balance between characterization and themes along with Bendis’ dialogue and Bagley’s art makes Ultimate Spider-Man #13 the best issue of the series’ first year and possibly the entire run.
Ultimate Spider-Man #13 seems to be driven by Bendis’ dialogue, but it is actually Mark Bagley’s art that bears the brunt of the storytelling. The first act of the story only has one word balloon per panel and a lot of reaction shots of Peter and Mary-Jane. Bagley uses these things to capture the tension and awkwardness of revealing a deep, dark secret to a person one has romantic feelings for. In conjunction with Bagley’s pencils, Bendis uses short snippets of dialogue and eschews the lengthy conversational exchanges that have become his trademark. However, once Peter reveals his secret identity, Bagley’s panel structure becomes less rigid, and the art jumps off the page as he scampers up walls to Mary-Jane’s surprise. Mary-Jane also starts jumping up and down, and Peter tells her to stop because it sounds like they are having sex. The shift in panel structure illustrates the superpowers as teenage sexuality perfectly.
Bagley also uses his art to show the disconnect between Peter and Mary-Jane’s perceptions of each other. Mary-Jane thinks he is leaning in for a kiss, but Peter is merely declaring his friendship for her. Bagley nails the punch line of this visual gag when Mary-Jane punches him in the head and laughs. In general, Bagley’s art dictates the tone of the story, and his close-ups of the characters’ face add depth to Bendis’ dialogue.
But Bendis’ dialogue is spectacular this issue and along with the art acts as a foundation for character and thematic development. This issue has a lot of humor, especially when Aunt May butts into Peter and Mary-Jane’s conversation. She pretends to be old-fashioned and asks about “hanky panky.” When Peter says that he and Mary-Jane aren’t doing anything inappropriate, she quips, “And I’m Katie Couric.” These flashes of comedy along with Aunt May telling Peter that Mary-Jane is a great girl, and that his parents met in high school help flesh her out as a character. In the “Growing Pains” arc, May said she felt disconnected from Peter, but this scene cements their bond. And Peter cares about May. She is the primary reason that he has a secret identity and is not using his powers to become a “rock star” or famous public hero, like the Ultimates.
Bendis’ meatiest bit of dialogue is Peter explaining his reasons behind wearing a mask and not revealing his identity to the general public. Without the using the words “power” and “responsibility”, Peter echoes the principles in Uncle Ben’s earlier speech when he talks about not wanting his loved ones and the students at his school to be attacked by his enemies. Peter has come a long way from the teenager giving lip to Uncle Ben and getting grinded on by Liz Allen in issue 4. But he also looks out for himself. Peter’s closing speech bubble is about the media hating him for “no reason”, and the government taking him away from his school and family if they found out about his powers. Over the years, Spider-Man has been a strong individual hero beginning with his co-creator Objectivist Steve Ditko, but he has always had a close-knit group of friends and allies that he cares about. Throughout Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter’s friend group will grow to include fellow students like Gwen Stacy and Kong to superheroes like the Human Torch and Shadowcat. He seeks his own good and the good of others as exemplified by his articulate speech to Mary-Jane. Bendis’ dialogue enhances his characterization as an intelligent teenager, who can be a little awkward and a bit of a “goofball” at times.
Finally, Bendis gives Mary-Jane Watson agency and depth as a character. She is her own person and not Spider-Man’s girlfriend. But she does have romantic feelings for him and initiates their dating relationship after making a sarcastic joke about “not dating superheroes”. Mary-Jane is confident, funny, and beautifully drawn by Mark Bagley. She has a full range of emotions from joking with Peter, to being astonished when Peter can stick to the walls, and happiness when Peter says she his “best friend”. Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is the pinnacle of their beautiful friendship that has been hinted at since the first issue. This friendship is also a primary reason why Peter Parker is the real person, and Spider-Man is the mask. Peter Parker would rather have a normal life as a high schooler than fight crime lords and science experiments gone wrong. With its lack of superheroing, Ultimate Spider-Man #13 spends time showing Peter Parker’s seemingly normal life. However, it is not so normal. French kissing is put on hold for revelations about secretly being a superhero. Ultimate Spider-Man #13 reads like a slice of life or romance comic, but the burden of Peter Parker’s responsibility as Spider-Man casts a dark pall on the issue’s funny or tender moments.
Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is a technically sound comic with solid artistic direction from Mark Bagley and a mix of spare and quick hitting dialogue from Brian Michael Bendis. These are the raw tools from which a masterpiece is made. This issue shows that superhero comics can be about characters’ feelings and relationships as well as their costumed adventures. This kind of character driven storytelling has been bubbling under the surface from the beginning of the run, but Ultimate Spider-Man #13 represents the moment where Bendis and Bagley show it could be both a consistently great superhero and teen romance comic.