Eight Thoughts on Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1-2

The right-wing media went apeshit over Peter Parker being replaced by Miles Morales, based on a single seven-page sequence (really its own short story) in Ultimate Fallout #4. Lots of people were perfectly prepared to slur this choice for Peter Parker’s replacement as a form of affirmative action, given that Morales has Hispanic and African-American ancestry. And that’s if they didn’t say worse things.

Ultimate Fallout #4, bottom of page 7

Even among comics readers, plenty were cynical. After all, super-hero comics seem increasingly defined by both hype-generating “events” and hollow, often shoddy storytelling. And this new Spider-Man had been preceded by one of those events, “The Death of Spider-Man,” which struck many as fairly lackluster.

It’s therefore altogether refreshing to see what writer Brian Michael Bendis has done with his new Ultimate Spider-Man. Because this is a story that couldn’t have been told with Peter Parker. And it’s a powerful and affecting one.

1. Race

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1 coverTo its credit, this isn’t a story about race. This is not yet another case in which a black character is defined by his race, strangely making him seem even more other while ostensibly trying to be diverse.

On the other hand, this isn’t yet another case in which race makes no difference, in which we suspect that the character could remain the exact same, if the colorist had forgotten his or her style guide. And while such stories are welcome now and then, they can be almost as insulting as patronizing stereotypes, because they pretend race doesn’t matter. Has zero social implications. Doesn’t exist at all, except as a different tone in that style guide. That the experience of a black and a white character is exactly the same.

Achieving this balance, acknowledging the black American experience without wearing it on one’s sleeve, can be difficult. It’s risky for white writers, especially, because erring too far one way or the other can leave one open to charges of racism.

But Bendis has managed to do it. The result isn’t a story about race. But it is a story that involves race. That’s colored by it. That’s shot through with it, in various ways, without ever becoming the subject.

And the result is a different story than any Spider-Man comic ever published.

That ought to be the criterion by which change is judged. Not whether people should or shouldn’t meddle with super-hero icons. The question isn’t whether it’s okay to kill a character. Nor make DC’s Amanda Waller skinny, as DC’s reboot has done. Nor replace Peter Parker with someone part-Hispanic, part-black. Described like this, in the abstract, such decisions can only be debated as commercial ones. As moves made by corporations to protect or renew their characters.

But these characters only exist in stories. It’s there, and only there, that these are more than cardboard stand-ups or figures engraved on lunch boxes or emblazoned on movie posters.

The only real criterion by which to judge such decisions is whether it opens new and fruitful veins for storytelling.

Bendis reminds us of that. And in doing so, his Ultimate Spider-Man is a breath of fresh air, in the event-driven super-hero comics market, in which change seems all too often to come for its own sake, with shockingly little regard to the storytelling implications.

2. Decompression

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2 coverIf you don’t like decompression, you probably already don’t like Brian Michael Bendis. But at his best, Bendis has used decompression exceedingly well, and that’s fortunately the case here. All that happens in Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1-2 is that Miles Morales gets his powers and talks with people. He hasn’t made his costume. In fact, every page of these two issues takes place about 11 months before that sequence in Ultimate Fallout #4 — and the rest of the relaunched Ultimate titles. There’s not a single fight in the entire 41 pages (#1 has the extra page).

And yet, despite all of this, Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli have managed to make these 41 pages both beautiful and touching. And they’ve done so through a series of what decompression arguably does best: really, really good character moments.

Those are the moments Bendis does best. One of the most powerful moment in his Daredevil run was when Peter Parker dared to proclaim, to J. Jonah Jameson in a Daily Bugle staff meeting, that he knew Matt Murdoch wasn’t Daredevil because he knew who was. Lying, of course. And because of the decompressed style, the reader felt the drama of the scene. That sense of being able to hear a pin drop, when the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, and you can’t believe what’s happening, even though there’s not a super-hero costume in sight. “Riveting” doesn’t do that scene justice, and it couldn’t have been done in any format other than decompression.

Similarly, in the previous few years of Ultimate Spider-Man, no character was more moving or more interesting than Jameson, who realized the error of his ways in libeling Spider-Man, then discovered the hero’s identity. His conversation with Peter Parker, in the wake of those events, was far more interesting than the super-powered-identity-theft storyline that occasioned that conversation. Equally, Bendis managed to dot Peter Parker’s death with a few touching moments involving his supporting cast, which completely overshadowed the super-hero action. For my money, that supporting cast’s story, in Ultimate Fallout, worked better than Spider-Man’s melodramatic death.

Reading both some of the scenes with Jameson and those starring Peter’s survivors in Ultimate Fallout, I found myself fighting back tears. And I don’t care about these characters, at least when written by other writers. I have no great history with them. No real emotional connection.

So let’s just say that Bendis, while not infallible, has a knack for this decompressed, character-driven material. And it’s in full force here.

Do decompressed issues like Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1-2 deliver bang for your buck? No, they don’t advance the plot very quickly. But when was the last time a comic book truly moved you? Or actually made you feel something? That’s pretty rare in any medium.

So if the “bang” in “bang for your buck” is super-hero fisticuffs, look somewhere else. That’s not what this story is about. But if you consider powerful, emotional material just as much of a “bang,” if not more so, than buildings and people exploding, perhaps this story is for you.

3. Waiting for Superman

The first nine pages of Ultimate Spider-Man are really a prologue of sorts, in which Miles Morales doesn’t appear at all. They’re competently done but nothing revolutionary. Their most important development is that a burglar in a super-villain costume robs Norman Osborn’s lab. In the process, he unknowingly brings back a radioactive spider, created by Osborn’s lab in an attempt to duplicate the accident that empowered Peter Parker.

Waiting for SupermanOn page 10, we cut to Miles Morales, accompanied by his African-American father and Puerto Rican mother to a lottery drawing for a seat in a charter school. It’s a scene familiar to viewers of the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, and one doesn’t have to agree with that film’s controversial conclusions to understand that such lotteries are a symptom of the disgusting state of primary education in the United States. For many parents, getting their children into a charter school seems the only way to save those children from morass of failing schools. It’s too often the difference between a child having a future and not having one. In some cases, literally. And absurdly, this golden ticket is won not through merit but through a lottery — as if a parody of democracy, in which everyone should be treated equally despite their merits or lack thereof.

And that’s the absurd state in which we meet the Morales family. It’s a state of near-total dejection. Of heartbreaking desperation, because these are all loving parents, or they wouldn’t be there. And of heartbreaking randomness, in which this lottery for education recalls the chaos of bullets on a beachhead, the importance of their impact dwarfed only by the lack of any justice in whom they strike. A combination so extreme that it not only argues against any principle of cosmic order or justice, but indeed makes such pretense incredibly offensive.

It’s the perfect metaphor for super-powers. No cosmic judge made a radioactive spider bite Peter Parker, yet left countless children around the world to starvation, genocide, and rape at the hands of militias. To imply otherwise is to offend any rational person’s sensibilities. Peter Parker wasn’t a hero because a spider bit him, nor because of any inherent goodness. Rather, he became a hero when his uncle’s death and the demonstrable fact that he might have prevented it made him see, in a radical way, not so much the fact that power entails responsibility but the manifest need to carve meaning and goodness out of a world that was obviously neither meaningful nor good.

No, Peter Parker simply won the lottery, just as Miles Morales does here.

Or as Mary Jane might put it, he struck the jackpot.

Now, Bendis doesn’t say all this. He’s shown that he knows what defines a hero, in his writing of Peter Parker. But he may not connect it to a meaningless universe. In fact, he plays with the idea by having the lottery ball that decides Miles Morales’s future carry the number 42, the same number written on the spider that thief unknowingly carried home. It’s a clever little touch, one that can be read as either coincidence or as evidence of an unseen mover, behind the scenes. But it also connects Miles Morales’s educational future with his coming radioactive spider bite.

One grants super-powers and occasions super-hero stories such as this, filled with wondrous and unimaginable powers.

The other, very real, also sets people’s lives onto an entirely different course, one difficult but also, too often, unimaginable for those trapped in failing schools.

Ah, but this is all abstraction. All metaphor, uncovered by the critic. The real wonder is in the way Bendis and Pichelli portray the scene.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, top of page 11

Here’s the sense of circus, the parents and children pressed into a school gymnasium, complete with balloons, to hear whether fate will bless them with a future, an escape.

It’s hard to describe how perfect that third panel is, with a mother exclaiming with joy, except that her joy is the depression of others. Look at the subtle expression on the face of Miles’s mother, as she turns her head only partially, dejected but pressing on. And look at Miles, slouched in his chair, knowing he won’t be chosen. While his father, showcasing his male pride, declares the whole proceedings a joke and speaks the obvious, what the whole room knows but won’t say: that the world’s gone insane.

Nor is it easy to describe the power of the very next panel, which sums up all of the busy elements the previous panel fused into perfection into a single, devastating image.

from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, page 11

It’s a panel without any meaning, except in the context that’s been so carefully built. A name. A name that could be anything. Of someone we’ll never meet. But a name that’s charged with meaning because it’s not Miles Morales. Not that of this dejected boy.

Here’s injustice. Here’s everything the super-hero’s supposed to fight. Only it’s not wearing tights at all.

And then Miles Morales is called, and his future deforms in an instant, as surely as if he were bitten by a radioactive spider.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, top of page 12

There’s a lot one can say about Bendis’s dialogue, which at its best captures a thrilling David Mamet-like naturalism and at its worst can seem unnecessary or confusing or cluttered on the page. But what can one do but feel the force of a mother’s emotions, as she stutters, “Oh — oh, you have a chance. Oh, my God, you have a chance.”

Because what she’s saying, of course, is that he didn’t. And what does it mean for a mother to say such a thing to her child? To confess, in the joy of winning the lottery as she must have hoped but never believed could happen, that she wasn’t able to provide a chance to her son.

The pathos of that line. It says more about her character than most characters typically get in a year of issues.

And then there’s Miles’s reaction: still dejected, despite the good news. A lesser writer might have made him jump for joy. But children, if they have good parents as Miles so clearly does, never care about their future, nor could, as much as their parents. And Miles, as children sometimes do, feels injustice very acutely. He’s been dejected throughout the whole proceedings, as if simply hopeful to get them done. He knows it’s a farce. A horror. That his victory means a loss for every other child and parent present. And that merit had nothing to do with it. And that he’s helpless to change this broken system, in which he’s caught, despite his victory.

The narrative doesn’t back away from this. It lets us feel the joy of Miles’s mother, but it doesn’t let us forget that others have had their hopes dashed. That girl, almost clutching her backpack, has a story. Has a life, which hasn’t just turned, and the hope that it would makes that same stretch of road before her all the sadder.

But notice how the narrative so carefully avoids going too far. Because that second child looks disappointed but hardened. How easy it would have been, to have him cry too. And yet that’s the the line between the fine execution of pathos and the syrupy, and crossing it makes something that’s emotionally powerful suddenly feel manipulative.

When Miles tries to confess his feelings about the injustice of all of this to his still-shocked mother, her response is equally well-balanced. She tells him, ”Just focus on you. You got in. Focus on that.” The child, new to the world, feels injustice. But the parents, accustomed to this world, to living in it, focus on themselves. An on their son. Because they know, as children sometimes do not, that they can’t save the world. They’ve learned this. They’re lucky to save themselves. Or their son.

from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, page 12

No, victims don’t always sympathize with other victims, nor the poor with other poor. Make even good people desperate enough, and they’ll focus on survival.

Again, how easy it would have been to make Miles’s mother sympathize with him. With the others present in that room. To fail to do so must have seemed, to some, to make her a less likable character, a less noble one. How easy it would have been, to make her live up to some impossible standard of perfection. And yet how wrong that would have been. Because her reaction doesn’t demean her, doesn’t make her any less human or likeable or understandable. In fact, just the opposite.

The whole lottery sequence is a mere three pages. It is a fact of many American childhoods, yet it’s something I’ve never seen in fiction before, let alone a super-hero comic.

And yet it’s so obviously a super-hero story. A young protagonist, up against a terribly unjust world, one to which everyone else seems habituated. And in the hands of Bendis and Pichelli, the lottery has all the authoritarian caprice of the strongest distopian future ruled by Doctor Doom, all the moral outrage of the best depictions of Gotham City’s dark alleyways, only all the more powerful for being true.

The whole lottery sequence is a mere three pages. And yet, on their own, they’re one of the best super-hero stories in recent years.

Waiting for Superman indeed.

4. The Good Thief

As the story continues, Miles, without his parents’ consent, visits his Uncle Aaron. And he’s promptly bitten by the same spider the burglar unknowingly carried home. Meaning Uncle Aaron is a burglar and arguably a super-criminal.

It’s a contrivance of the plot, allowing Miles to be bitten by the spider. But it’s also potentially dangerous, because means that Aaron Morales, African-American brother to Miles’s father, is a professional thief.

And yet, by that point, we’ve already been shown that Aaron is anything but a stereotypical black thug. He clearly cares for Miles and is happy to hear about the lottery. In fact, it’s clear that Aaron is a good uncle figure, a confidant, to whom Miles can talk when he can’t talk to his parents. And that’s exactly why Miles is here, since he’s still troubled by the injustice of the lottery yet can’t express these feelings to his parents.

Aaron’s response? He doesn’t want Miles to go through what he and Miles’s dad did, growing up. Aaron doesn’t glorify this tough upbringing, and he describes it only to indicate how much Miles should appreciate this new opportunity. And he gives Miles the best advice of all: “make the world the way you want it to be, not the way it is.”

from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, page 14

Remaking the world, however, is something Aaron and his brother haven’t been able to do. Because as readers realize when they see the spider, Aaron’s still a thief.

Miles’s illness, after the spider bite, causes Aaron to summon Miles’s father, and it’s immediately clear that the two brothers do not get along. Miles’s father even asks (quite naturally, given his son’s condition) what Aaron gave the child, as if Aaron might have drugs in the apartment. Aaron is appropriately horrified.

Clearly, Aaron might be a thief, but he’s no stereotype. It’s Miles’s father who thinks the worst of Aaron, and that’s only out of protective concern for Miles.

Aaron could have easily come off as a racist stereotype. A little slang dialogue might have been enough. A single reference defending thievery, perhaps. Then, in the ensuing criticism, defenders of the comic would have asked whether it was possible to ever depict an African-American as a thief without spurring cries of racism.

Well, here’s the answer to that question: an African-American who happens to be a thief but who no one but the most reactionary could call a racist depiction. In fact, outside of being a thief (which he keeps hidden from Miles), he’s quite the role model. Every bit the responsible, rather excellent uncle, just as Miles has quite excellent parents — and touchingly so.

5. Invisible Man

At the end of the first issue, Miles runs away from Aaron’s apartment. And it’s here that the first issue ends, with the obligatory splash page. Only it’s not the threat of a fight scene. It’s Miles Morales’s new powers materializing for the first time, and they’re not ones shared with his predecessor. Instead, he turns invisible, perhaps borrowed from some spider’s ability for camouflage.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2, bottom of page 2

This theme of Miles’s powers continues into Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2, in which a running Miles Morales leaps a full six feet before turning invisible again. Accosted by bullies, he discovers another new power: the ability to shock people, apparently reflecting a spider’s sting.

Miles then visits his friend Ganke, whom we haven’t previously seen or heard of. There’s some excellent, funny dialogue (including a line about pants that, when I first read it, I felt compelled to read out loud to the girl I was with). Miles worries about whether he’s a mutant. In the wake of Ultimatum, mutants aren’t exactly popular in the Ultimate Marvel universe. Miles still hasn’t learned to control his powers. Then his dad arrives to retrieve him.

That night, Ganke texts Miles with news that Spider-Man (still Peter Parker) has told police that he was bitten by a radioactive spider. And Miles Morales discovers that he can climb on walls, which provides the second obligatory splash-page ending.

All of this is done well enough. And one can hardly blame Bendis for using the discovery of super-powers for his ending images. After all, this is a super-hero comic, and Bendis is violating the rules of the genre enough by avoiding fight scenes. The closest the first two issues get to super-hero action is the brief sequence in which Aaron, in costume, breaks into Norman Osborn’s lab, early in issue #1.

Invisible ManBut while discovery and discussion of super-powers isn’t the most novel element, despite some excellent dialogue, it’s interesting that invisibility is the first power Miles Morales exhibits. Bendis may not intend it, but this too is informed by race. It recalls Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man. There, the unnamed black protagonist and narrator isn’t literally invisible, but he feels invisible because everyone sees him only as a stereotype.

But there’s resonance here beyond the novel’s title. Ellison’s narrator at first resents his invisibility, but he comes to appreciate the way it allows him to remain unseen and inconspicuous. Sounds very much like the arc of Miles Morales, who so far doesn’t like his powers and fears anti-mutant discrimination. Through a series of somewhat episodic experiences, Ellison’s narrator struggles with black identity, much as super-heroes struggle with their identity in their episodic stories. Ellison’s narrator may even be said to have a “secret identity” because his name is never revealed to the reader.

That’s not to say that Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 is a literary classic on par with Invisible Man. But both deliver narrative merit that goes beyond the usual norms of their fairly restricted genres, whether super-hero comics or black protest literature.

6. Shame

But between Miles’s dad taking him away from Ganke and Ganke texting Miles that evening, Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2 offers another stunning, character-based scene. And like the lottery scene in the previous issue, it’s something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, at least in a super-hero comic.

Before Miles’s father takes his son home, he stops and sits on a bench. He’s got to clear the air, because Miles ran away from his angry father and Miles doesn’t understand his father’s attitude toward Uncle Aaron. So Miles’s father, being a good father and not inclined to sweep what’s happened under the rug, has to explain this to his son. And it’s clearly difficult for him.

He begins by asking Miles why Miles thinks he doesn’t want them to visit Uncle Aaron. That’s a rather brilliant touch for two reasons. First, it shows that Miles’s father is interested in what Miles thinks, which can then serve as a foundation for revealing the truth, rather than simply imposing it without regard for what Miles already thinks or feels about the matter. Secondly, it’s a sign of how difficult this conversation is for Miles’s father, who perhaps hopes that Miles has figured out some of the truth or at least wants Miles to get the conversation going, because it’s so hard for the father to do so.

Miles’s father then explains that, although Uncle Aaron “may seem like a great guy… he’s not. I’m not saying this because I’m mad at him… I’m saying this because… he is a thief.” The qualification, “I’m not saying this because I’m mad at him,” again shows both (1) consideration for what Miles might be thinking or feeling and (2) reluctance to reveal the truth.

And Miles’s father is both clear and nuanced. When Miles asks, “Is that why you don’t like him?”, Miles’s dad says, “Listen, I love him. Your father would not be here if not for him…” There’s no melodrama here, no exaggerated, unrealistic reactions. Bendis carefully, delicately resists that. Instead, Miles’s dad clearly feels a debt to his brother but, as a father, doesn’t want that same brother around his son.

And his reason isn’t that Aaron is a thief. It’s that Aaron “doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

This is so clearly difficult for Miles’s father, and yet all that difficulty is only a product of how good he is as a parent, how caring he is for his son, whom he treats not as a commodity to be protected but as an individual, who deserves to know the truth here and is capable of processing it.

But Miles isn’t stupid, and he’s curious about how his father “would not be here if not for [Aaron].” Miles’s father finds this painful to explain, and Miles asks if Aaron has “been to jail.”

And it’s there that the entire conversation pivots, because Miles’s father has to tell the truth. “Yes. And so have I.”

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2, page 13

As shocked as Miles is, it’s hard not to focus on his father. Bendis and Pichelli are so excellent in their depictions that we can feel this father’s shame, the humiliation he must feel, in making this confession. And yet we also understand that this shame, so very palpable, is occasioned by Miles’s father realizing that he needs to share this with his son, because his son has to understand why his father feels the need to protect his son from that son’s rather cool uncle. As painful as the revelation is, it’s already been put into a context, in which it’s only occurring because this man is such a good father that he loves and understands his son enough to force himself to reveal this shame.

And it’s this that makes the revelation so very not racist, despite that it could so easily have been. Because making both of these black men former convicts risks being seen as stereotypical. And yet, given the high incarceration rates of black men in the United States, this is part of the black experience. Certainly not the sum of that experience, so that it must be included in any depiction of a black character. But a part of that experience, and a significant part at that.

Ultimate Spider-Man addresses this, and bravely so. Yet it avoids doing so in anything that could be characterized as stereotypical. Because this isn’t yet another stereotypical black man, embracing criminality while forsaking his fatherly responsibilities. Far from it, this is a black man very much forsaking criminality while embracing those fatherly responsibilities. And it’s only because of this that he’s forced to address his past, and through it this aspect of the black experience. But instead of celebrating that past, he’s so clearly ashamed of it, so horrified by having to reveal this to his son, out of love for that son, because his personal fear of his son thinking less of his own father is less important to him than the risk of his son cavorting with a criminal influence.

“This is very hard for me,” Miles’s father says. “I’m telling you my biggest — this is my biggest shame. And I’m telling it to the person that it most shames me to tell it to.”

This is riveting stuff. Novel, even. And so deftly executed, so delicate and precise in its nuance and character, that it’s profoundly moving. An illustration not of comics’ continuing problems with race, although it’s brave enough to risk that. Instead, it’s an illustration of how powerful the medium of comics can be.

And also, of course, how super-hero stories can work, can mean more than fight scenes to determine who’s more powerful or cooler. Because Miles’s father here — boy, there’s a hero. There’s someone doing the right thing, despite how much it hurts. He’s not a hero because he’s some paragon of unexamined righteousness, with whom no real person could possibly identify. Rather, he’s a hero because he’s imperfect, because he’s willing to examine and think about his own moral choices. And because, most of all, he’s able to tell his son what his son needs to know, when it would be so much easier to hide his feelings and his past and his reasoning behind the veneer of unquestionable parental authority.

Miles’s father explains that his life was hard, although he’s careful not to say this excuses his actions: “When we were kids we didn’t have — we didn’t see any other opportunity coming our way. Not saying we didn’t have other opportunities… I’m just saying we couldn’t see them.” It’s a nuanced and wise statement, one that achieves a perfect balance of understanding why someone might turn to crime without excusing that choice.

And then Miles’s father goes further, and no one could ask for a better, more concise, more powerful description of how much he appreciates Miles and Miles’s mother, nor the bounty these represent for his life — a life in which such richness once seemed impossible for a young man who might not have even able to appreciate such richness.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2, bottom of page 14

It’s hard to adequately describe how good this conversation is. The power Bendis and Pichelli find, in a conversation between a father and a son.

This is a father’s love for his son. And if you want thoughtful, well-done super-hero comics, stories filled with hope and love, yet never boring or two-dimensional because of it, then I have a comic for you.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2, top of page 15

The entire scene runs six pretty stunning pages. It ends by tying back into Miles’s super-powers, as he and his father see Iceman and the Human Torch, and Miles’s father expresses resentment towards super-powered people, lumping them all in with mutants, and even then failing to discriminate between good ones and bad ones. Miles takes the message: despite the intimacy of their conversation, he won’t tell dad about his confusing and frightening super-powers.

It’s a familiar scene. Super-hero stories often enough have featured characters spouting off about super-heroes or mutants, unaware that they’re doing so in front of a super-hero’s alter ego. It’s nowhere near as novel as the scene it ends, although it’s a good segue between this scene and returning to the focus on Miles’s new powers.

Bendis makes this segue more fluid by having Miles’s father appeal to his son, immediately prior to Iceman and the Human Torch appearing. Miles’s father recognizes that part of the problem is that Miles feels he can talk to Aaron, so Miles’s father tries to claim that his son can tell him anything.

from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2 page 15

Parents often make such statements, although they also understand that language doesn’t make it so: no matter how considerate they are, no matter how open to conversation and confession they may be, they are still parents, and the authority this carries complicates their role as confessor. It’s a delicate balance of concerns, not unlike the many Bendis and Pichelli have had to judge and balance in these character-focused sequences.

It’s the perfecting ending to the father-son conversation, because it brings it back around to its beginning. The talk was occasioned by Miles running off to Aaron, and this necessitates Miles’s father explaining why he regards Aaron as a bad influence, despite that Aaron seems like a good guy. But to close that conversation, Miles’s father must also address the underlying problem: that Miles needs an adult to whom he can talk, and Aaron serves that purpose.

This delicate relationship is undercut by the appearance of super-heroes, and it’s hard not to feel that the segue isn’t merely between scenes or narrative concerns but also between genres, moving from realism to super-hero. And Miles’s father, whom we felt close to for being a good father and for showing his shame, becomes suddenly distanced from us by showing that he’s a bigot, when it comes to mutants.

This obviously undercuts the message of Miles’s father, that Miles can tell him anything, and it’s not exactly unconventional, in super-hero narratives, to have such dialogue undercut. It’s a little like someone saying “At least we’re safe!” right before a threat arrives. But in the context of the wider conversation, it shows that Miles’s father, while an inspirational and touching figure, isn’t perfect. As a protective father, he sees mutants in the same way he sees his brother: as a threat to his son.

But by treating all super-powered people as mutants and all mutants as dangerous (a dominant view in the Ultimate Marvel universe since the events of Ultimatum), Miles’s father might even be accused of racism. After all, mutants have long been used as an allegory for race. Surprisingly, the attitude Miles’s father has toward mutants echos the racists who might lump him in with his brother, as black criminals who don’t deserve redemption, nor could possibly love their sons enough to confess their shame.

And in this way, should we be inclined to look beyond the narrative convenience of the segue, we may see that even those who have suffered from racism aren’t immune from it. Miles’s father is a hero of a father, but not because he’s perfect. Not because he’s got everything figured out and is consistent in all of his beliefs. That only makes him human. And it is this humanity, this imperfection, this shameful past, that makes what he does for his son all the more heroic.

He’s trying to be the best father he can, and that’s more heroic than winning any fistfight.

7. Sara Pichelli

Of course, no discussion of Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 would be complete without mention of artist Sara Pichelli. The Italian artist is not exactly a newcomer, having worked on Star Trek comics for IDW and on various Marvel comics. But despite praise for her work from reviewers and from Marvel, she hasn’t had a major, defining work — until now.

Her work on Ultimate Spider-Man actually began with the previous volume, beginning with #15 (Dec 2010). She went on to illustrate parts of #150 (Jan 2011), all of #151 (Feb 2011), and part of #152-154 (Mar and Apr 2011), prior to the “Death of Spider-Man” storyline. Her work there was good but didn’t jump out the way it does on the new series.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2 #151, bottom of page 8

Between the two series, Pichelli’s linework has evolved. Her work on the previous series was undeniably good, but it was ever so slightly more cartoony than her current work. This fit well with that earlier series, the look of which had been defined by the expressive, even whimsical style of David Lafuente. But now Pichelli has her own series, and she’s made it her own, adopting a considerably more realistic style.

As part of this, she’s started more frequently using screentones (those repeated patterns, usually of dots, that used to be applied to paper through transferable sheets, such as Zip-a-Tone, but which Pichelli achieves inside the computer). They can be seen many of her panels, including the now-famous image of Miles removing his mask. Pichelli has said the screentones help the series achieve a “pop” feeling, and she’s right.

The result is sometimes impressively detailed, bright but realistic. Few comics artists renowned for their realism deliver panels with as much background as Pichelli does here. Yet this detail only occasionally overwhelms, as can sometimes happen in comics narratives when detail begins to attract attention to itself instead of allowing the reader to focus on the story. In part, this is because Pichelli keeps objects discrete, with bold outlines that generally prevent a sense of clutter while maintaining the illusion of realism.

from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #2 page 5

At the same time, Pichelli infuses even her realism with a pop aesthetic. She’s not afraid of motion lines, and she sometimes uses screentones to indicate action or surprise. These techniques have generally been seen as the opposite of realism, yet Pichelli manages to combine the best of both worlds, mixing impressive detail with a pop sensibility that propels the story forward.

from Ultimate Spider-Man V3 #1 page 16

And of course, all of those character-driven moments simply wouldn’t work without Pichelli’s ability to communicate characters’ state of mind through facial expressions and through posture.

8. Bright World

I don’t know whether subsequent issues of Ultimate Spider-Man will be as good. We do know that, at some point (probably several issues hence), the story will catch up to that preview story from Ultimate Fallout. We’ll probably get to see Miles react to Peter Parker’s death, probably becoming Spider-Man in honor of Peter. In that preview story, Miles was told that his costume, a copy of Peter’s, was in bad taste, and we can assume that he’ll stick with this, because the costume he’ll later adopt is already on the cover of each issue of the new title. But for my money, I’m in no rush to get there, as long as the journey continues to feature such powerful, character-driven scenes.

The new Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t Watchmen. It doesn’t change the medium, nor the genre. At heart, it’s still a fairly conventional decompressed super-hero origin, although expertly and beautifully done, with some novel, touching character-driven scenes.

And though it’s smart, it’s never cynical. In short, it’s the perfect comic for everyone who complains about the darkness of comics and wants their heroes heroic.

Because for all the color of its characters, the story itself is still bright and primary.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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4 Comments

  1. Miguel Rosa says:

    “This is riveting stuff. Novel, even. And so deftly executed, so delicate and precise in its nuance and character, that it’s profoundly moving. An illustration not of comics’ continuing problems with race, although it’s brave enough to risk that. Instead, it’s an illustration of how powerful the medium of comics can be.”

    This is where I begin disagreeing with your excellent article. For me there’s little in this story that depends on the comics medium to work. It’s a powerful story, yes, but is it because it’s done in comics? Or in spite of being a comic book? A theatrical play this could have been; the orchestration of images and words is very conservative, very safe.

    As for Pichelli’s “bright but realistic” (why that but? The world is bright! We see in technicolor, not in washed out pastel tones, like in Vertigo books), you must explain better the connection between pop aesthetic and motion lines because I don’t get it. Motion lines predate pop art by decades. One could argue it’s an essential tool of visual storytelling. I know from the ’80s onwards motion lines start dying in American comics, much to the detriment of narrative clarity. But motion lines are necessary, in realistic art and otherwise; they’re the most economic way of showing movement in comics. Pichelli isn’t doing anything revolutionary, she’s just drawing comics the way they should be drawn.

    It doesn’t surprise me to know she’s Italian. Europeans still uses all these “outdated” tools like thought balloons, cartoonish expressions to denote states of mind (something the Hernandez brothers also do, in fact something outside mainstream comics is done all the time!), and motion lines.

    It’s deplorable that the mainstream is full of static illustrators.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Miguel!

      I think that if you look at the panels in question, they employ the comics form well. A stage play could not have captured these different angle or points of view. A film might be able to, but even then, there’s something to the pacing, to the way the reader can linger on these “moments” within the narrative, that works very well in the comics format, but which are impossible in film, in which moments pass as quickly as they do in real life. (Or at least, they do without slow or fast motion, which would be jarring here.)

      But you’re right, it’s not revolutionary in terms of how it employs the medium. It just works and works well.

      I agree about European comics, of which I’m quite a fan. But in American comics, such techniques have fallen out of fashion, and they’re strongly identified with pop, even if they predate that as a narrowly-defined movement. And again, I’m not saying this technique is revolutionary, merely that it’s pop.

      The use of bright colors is also pop. What I’m trying to get at here is that the artist’s work is bright and has a pop sensibility, but it’s also realistic, and the two are generally seen as being at odds. They need not be, but I think if you look at most bright, pop-aesthetic comics (think Darwyn Cooke), they outright eschew realism. Meanwhile, realistic art (think Phil Jimenez or Bryan Hitch) generally avoids these pop characteristics, even if the story is bright and unrealistic.

      Does that help at all?

      Again, thank you so much for commenting so thoughtfully!

  2. First, I find myself in real appreciation of your close reading of these first few issues of USM vol. 3. Too often it’s easy to get lost in the hype surrounding the sensationalistic change Bendis brought about without actually looking at why this change rises above the hype and delivers some real substance. Consider where our beloved funny books have been going with the DC 52, this sort of change is one that is certainly welcomed.

    Miguel brings up a good point in that it’s less revolutionary than it is simply the use of preexisting “tools of the trade” done exceptionally well. But I think perhaps one could make an argument that the resurgence of an approach long out of favor brought suddenly to the forefront could be revolutionary. At the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like either of you are truly at odds with one another (especially after reading Julian’s response).

    My one point of frustration with the pundit-debate over this series is the common defense of the change where defendants state that it’s not the “real” Peter Parker (of the ASM continuity) so people shouldn’t be upset. Since it’s happening in the Ultimate line, it’s all make believe anyhow so no *real* comic character is being harmed in the production of this storyline (as if ASM Parker was real too…). The problem with this line of argument is it undercuts the validity of telling a story like Bendis and Pichelli give us. Saying that we can tell the story of a non-Caucasian Spider-Man/Peter Parker in the USM universe because it doesn’t “count” there and the “real” SM/PP is still safe is condescending to put it mildly and reinforces certain… stereotypical norms by preserving the sanctity of past arcs. I’m not trying to exaggerate here, but I know that this response isn’t far off the mark from discussions I’ve had with people who are excited at being represented (finally) by a costume that is nearly as well known as Superman and Batman.

    What you do here, Julian, seems to provide a FAR more substantial defense of Bendis and Pichelli’s shift in the story through looking at how these creators deliver a very real story arc worthy of our consideration. Instead of pointing to the *real* Amazing Spider-Man and assuaging our fears of losing that Peter Parker, you validate the reality that Bendis and Pichelli capture in this new series. And as you point out, I’m sure we’ll see some lagging in story lines now and then–even the best have their “off days–but it’s refreshing to see a superhero comic apply some substantive storytelling techniques to mainstream comics.

    Well done.

    • Thank you so much for your very kind thoughts and high praise, Forrest.

      What really spurred me to write this was much of what you’re describing. With so many disappointments and poorly-told stories lately, here’s one that, while not revolutionary, is a beautiful super-hero story. And one that, I have to repeat, uses its much-hyped change to a character to tell a compelling and even touching story that couldn’t have been told before. And that, as you say, is kinda revolutionary after all. Very well-put.

      And to me, as you point out, it is the story that ultimately rules. I simply do not care, nor do I expect anyone else to, whether some corporate super-hero (many of whom I love) is getting replaced or a new costume or new powers or anything of the sort. That’s not news, any more than a fond make of car changing its look should be news, except to the most rabid of fans. How about a car that works? And here’s a story that works on so many levels. This is something I’d give to a new comics reader, and that can’t be said very often of super-hero comics.

      And you’re right about how references to the “real” Spider-Man carry a certain implication… which is a good point I hadn’t thought about. I wish I had. Part of my bias is that no Spider-Man is the “real” Spider-Man. As Alan Moore said, they’re all imaginary stories. Spider-Man is a fictional character who grows and changes. The question should never be narrow fidelity to what Lee and Ditko did a half century ago. Fidelity to the spirit, maybe, but certainly not the character, who was pretty thin, nor the storytelling style, which wouldn’t fly today. The question must always come down to excellent stories, on their own merit. And it’s only through them that any super-hero has any meaning. Otherwise, they just exist to sell lunch boxes.

      The fact that so many can point to Miles Morales and say, “he looks like me… finally” is indeed touching. I didn’t want to address that, because while I do find it touching, I don’t wish to have the quota / political correctness debate all over again. I’m not for quotas either, generally. No one wants a token black or Hispanic character, I shouldn’t think. And the days of Power Man are over, much as I did dig Power Man and Iron Fist, as a child. What we need is diversity, but a diversity that does recognize difference, without being pandering or insulting about it. And while it’s clear that Miles Morales is poor, or at least in a bad school, and yes, his black father and uncle have been to prison, there’s no pandering here, no stereotypical depiction of these facts. Instead, there’s such a touching portrayal of a loving and courageous father and mother that they could serve as examples to people of any race or ethnicity. How hopeful that is. How bright and wonderful. And how delicate, in showing how Miles himself sees the world as broken, in ways they are used to, and must in some sense rebel against them to make a finer world, despite them being so loving. There’s something sublime there, in that balance.

      I stand with that character. To identify with race is hard for me to process, with how I was raised to believe in America, to be perfectly blunt about it. I don’t mean this in a self-serving way: I do see race, I do have white American cultural characteristics, and to say otherwise would be silly. But I’ve so often had more in common (and more meaningful experiences) with people of different races than my own. So race, I don’t pledge allegiance to that. But these characters, this child, this mom, this dad — that, I can stand behind.

      As, one should think, should all those raised with the values of super-heroes.

      Nothing could honor Peter Parker’s ethos more.

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