In the midst of DC Comics relaunching its entire lineup of superhero comics, and hogging the media spotlight for months, Marvel drew some significant attention over the summer thanks to a USA Today headline stating “The New Spider-Man: Half-black, all hero,” a headline that was subsequently edited online to reveal the other half of his ethnicity.
Another angle the story might have taken would have been this: “Alternate Reality Version of a Famous Character Replaced by a Different Kid in a Somewhat Similar Costume, Yet Again.”
Obviously, no one would have cared about that. Parallel Earth versions of superheroes are a nickel a dozen and heroes are replaced by other characters all the time. Captain America may be Steve Rogers in the movies, but a half dozen other guys have worn the red, white, and blue and played the good Captain over the decades. One alternate reality Spider-Man was Miguel O’Hara, from the Spider-Man 2099 series published almost two decades ago. It’s nothing new.
But because the race angle was dominant in that Spider-Man headline from USA Today, and possibly because the lead tied in his new look with the multicultural heritage of President Obama, old-fashioned racism reared its tired head as obtuse commenters clamored that “politically correct-land is so dumb” and “Who are his adversaries? Insurance man? Used car salesman man?” Meanwhile, the ever-trenchant media clown Glenn Beck blamed it all on the First Lady.
Thus, the non-story about yet another incarnation of a superhero became a story, because of ignorant reactions to the non-news. Of course, Marvel didn’t mind the increased attention, I’m sure.
Peter Parker is still alive and swinging by the way, in the regular Marvel Universe, in a Manhattan currently overrun by people with powers just like his as part of the “Spider-Island” mini-event running through a handful of titles this season.
The Ultimate universe, now the home of the Miles Morales Spider-Man, was originally launched a decade ago as an initiative to target younger readers. By bringing in new talent, like then-indie writer Brian Michael Bendis and former-Grant-Morrison-protégé Mark Millar, and then using those fresh voices to retell classic Marvel stories for a contemporary audience, Marvel openly courted a potential new audience by making the characters “cooler.” Ultimate Peter Parker wasn’t a photographer for the Daily Bugle, he helped run the Daily Bugle website! On the Ultimate X-Men team, Ultimate Wolverine had a soul patch, and Ultimate Iceman wore a do-rag!
Bye-bye dusty, dated old comic book corniness. Hello hipness!
The stories were paced differently than the Marvel classics, too. While Stan Lee and Steve Ditko told Spider-Man’s origin in only a few pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, the decompressed “relevant” version of the Ultimate character’s origin took a full six issues. The slower pacing is often mocked (just as I’m doing now!) but it did provide a different take on the characters and milieu. By slowing down the story, the characters had room to breathe, and writer Brian Michael Bendis did what he does best: he humanized comic book characters who had long settled into trite caricatures. Sure, the superficial details of the Ultimate universe were often embarrassing in the way your uncle is embarrassing when he tries to show you the new app on his iPhone that makes funny noises, but in the early days of the Ultimate universe, many of these youth-oriented, decompressed stories were better than what Marvel was publishing in their mainstream universe at the time.
It’s no surprise that writers like Bendis and Millar became the most prominent writers on the mainstream Marvel universe, when they jumped up to the big leagues. Though there were rumors, early on, that success with the Ultimate line would have led to the cancellation of the mainstream Marvel Universe and the new, hipper version taking its place, what actually happened was that the Ultimate universe peaked in popularity then withered away to almost insignificance, while the creative teams from the Ultimate universe took over the varsity Marvel comics and recreated much of mainstream Marvel in the image of the Ultimate line. In storytelling approach, if not in superficial attempts at coolness (thankfully).
So now here’s Miles Morales, the new Ultimate Spider-Man, with his first issue having hit the stands this past Wednesday. Written by Marvel architect and Ultimate universe launcher Brian Michael Bendis (who has written many, many different comics over the last ten years, but has continued to write every version of Ultimate Spider-Man all along the way), this debut issue shows what is genuinely interesting about this new series. It’s not that it’s gasp an ethnic character in the role of a superhero, it’s that the Spider-Man concept an intelligent but kind of nerdy boy, coming from a struggling family, living in a dangerous world, trying to do what’s right with these weird powers he’s gained resonates beyond the particulars of Peter Parker. By recasting the series and providing a new set of friends and families (and, presumably, foes), Bendis has taken a step in giving Ultimate Spider-Man a renewed purpose. It’s not just another alternate reality Spider-Man. It’s not Peter Parker stories that seem vaguely familiar as we wait to see how Bendis will do a new spin on the Ultimate version of Man Mountain Marko or the Puma.
This new series frees up Bendis to tell new stories about a genuinely new character. One who has the Spider-Man name, and maybe some of the powers (though the first issue gives us a swerve in that regard), but who will not be just a variation on Peter Parker. The first issue bodes well.
It also benefits tremendously from the artwork of Sara Pichelli and the colors by Justin Ponsor. It’s a fine-looking comic, quite a departure from the original Ultimate Spider-Man #1 as drawn by Mark Bagley all those years ago. Bagley, the long-running artist of the series during its Peter Parker days, has an oddly bulimic style where big-headed characters cavort on wiry bodies in inelegantly-designed, cramped panels. The print version of the new Ultimate Spider-Man #1 actually features, as a back-up, a reprint of a 9/11 tribute story drawn by Bagley, and displaying his clumsy artistry in the same place as Pichelli’s beautiful linework simply shows how much better this new version of Ultimate Spider-Man looks compared to what has come before. It’s a strong first issue all around, establishing new characters and a new, yet familiar, setting with efficiency and grace.
Nobody will care about the ridiculous reaction to the announcement of Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man in a month or two (if anyone even cares about it now), but if the misguided media interest directs a few more readers at the Bendis/Pichelli/Ponsor Ultimate Spider-Man, that’s not such a bad thing. It’s comic worth reading. Not because Michelle Obama pulled strings to spread her liberal agenda to the comic shops. But because it’s actually a good comic, one that anyone, of any age, might enjoy.
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.