Ultimate Spider-Man is a great comic. It’s been a great comic for over ten years, now. But is it a comic that we’d ever have thought might make the top of our “Best of the Year” list? Possibly not – because, as good as it is, it’s always been a comic that’s just there - solidly excellent every month, but never really standing out.
But in 2011, it stood out. Boy, did it stand out.
Of course, the book’s year can be divided into two distinct segments – and it would be remiss not to look at the final months of Peter Parker first, since although it’s largely for the Miles Morales issues (to which we’ll come shortly) that this has made the top spot, it’s fair to say that even before then, the book was one of the best superhero reads out there. The tail end of the Black Cat/Mysterio arc was perhaps the only slightly disappointing part of the book’s run this year – as much as I liked the new Ultimate version of Mysterio, the story surrounding the Kingpin’s magical macguffin thingy didn’t really feel like the sort of thing a Spider-Man book should be doing, and had an unsatisfying resolution (I’m hoping, mind, that having escaped without us learning anything at all about him, old smokey-head will become an adversary for the new Spidey in times to come).
At this point, the comics had a “Death of Spider-Man: Prelude” banner on them. But even at this point, I don’t think the majority of us really believed that Peter was going to be killed off (for what it’s worth, my prediction was that he was going to kill Norman Osborn, and in guilt give up his Spider-Man identity for a while before reinventing himself/coming back). What this means is that although at the time the Chris Samnee-drawn issue #155 felt like a pleasant interlude, in retrospect it’s entirely heartbreaking. Here we find Peter on the up, for the first time in a while – making peace with J. Jonah Jameson, getting sweet new webshooters designed by Tony Stark, and finally getting back together with Mary Jane. At the time, it seemed like the start of a brand new era – and maybe it was Brian Bendis’ intent that we’d think that. In fact, as it turned out, it was a cruel tease of what might have been, but served instead as his last moment of true happiness.
In retrospect, the execution of the Death of Spider-Man arc – from a publishing point of view – wasn’t as good as it could have been. The main problem is that fully half of the story played out in a different book entirely – Marvel having been swayed by the PR move of having Mark Millar involved in a big event story again – but fortunately, barely any of the Avengers vs New Ultimates material was actually all that relevant to Peter. In fact, since it’s really two stories running parallel, you can ignore the irritating scrap between other heroes (aside from the fact that it is kind of handy to know just why Peter gets shot at the moment he does) and instead follow Ultimate Spider-Man‘s story of Norman Osborn and the Sinister Six’s final revenge on Peter.
Although it does suffer slightly from some pacing issues (the middle few chapters are a little samey), it’s nevertheless a story packed with a growing sense of menace, and a number of twists and turns (the sudden death of Dr Octopus is almost as shocking as the events of the final issue). And while it’s a little odd seeing Mark Bagley back on the book after all this time, the work is strong, and it’s hard to argue (as good as the artists that followed him have been) that it was entirely appropriate that he should return to draw the character’s final bow. The last issue, #160, is suitably dramatic, and gives Peter a fantastic final “hero moment” – it’s only a shame, again from a publishing perspective, that it ends so abruptly with the moment of his death, and that the subsequent (and highly emotionally-charged) funeral sequence would take place in the separate Ultimate Fallout miniseries. But this is nitpicking, and not reflective of the quality of the story itself – which was just as high as you’d expect throughout.
So, then, ended the Ultimate Peter Parker era. And as much as many of us trusted Bendis on this book, there was a healthy amount of concern come September over whether or not putting an entirely new character behind the mask and webs could ever work. Fortunately, it only took the first issue to blow that scepticism out of the water – because as it turns out, the relaunched Ultimate Spider-Man is nothing short of magnificent. In the five issues released this year, we’ve been treated to a full and involving origin story that has simply been a delight from page one.
Some may have complained that it took as many as those five issues just to get Miles Morales into the costume that we kept seeing on the covers – but the character himself is so engaging, and the world around him has been built so well, that I honestly didn’t even notice over the first few issues that the book was lacking the simple detail of him actually being, you know, Spider-Man. If anything, the manner in which he comes to take on the costume, at the end of issue five, is so satisfying that I’d say ultimately it was worth the wait anyway.
The true masterstoke on Bendis’ part has been in understanding exactly what a “legacy hero”, if they’re ever to exist, should be. They should be entirely new and original in their own right, while still having a justifiable reason to have the name of the original character slapped on the front cover of their book. Ultimate Spider-Man achieves this perfectly. The setup around Miles is drastically different from that of Peter, from his family circumstances to his friends to his personality. He’s been fantastically well-established in such a short space of time that he feels like he’s been around for a while – but he’s as far as can be from just being a retread of Peter. And yet everything that the comic is about is so instantly, recognisably and perfectly what a Spider-Man comic should represent. And scenes like the beautiful tenement fire rescue sequence in issue #3 are just pure, perfect, inspiring superhero comics.
As regular Alternate Cover readers will know, myself and James are about as die-hard a pair of Spidey fans as you’re likely to find. So we’re exactly the sort of comics reader who might have been outraged at the replacement of Peter Parker. But Miles Morales is not only a brilliant, likeable, heroic character – he’s exactly the kind of guy who should be allowed to call himself a Spider-Man. The emergence of this fantastic new character, coupled with the expert craft and storytelling of both Bendis and the increasingly-stratospheric Sara Pichelli, mean that Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t just an unmissable comic – it’s a comic that actively brings a huge sense of joy every time an issue comes out. And that’s why, after over a decade of consistent high quality, it’s actually reached its highest ever point this year – and marked itself out as our undisputed favourite comic of 2011 in the process.