Too serious about comics.


Best Comic of 2013: Superior Spider-Man

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superiorspidermanOh, it WOULD be, wouldn’t it?

It’s probably not a huge surprise that Superior Spider-Man is getting this accolade from us. We’re both huge fans of the character and in previous years we’ve given nods to Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Spider-Men in our end of year lists. But when you consider that 12 months ago, Dan Slott killed Peter Parker and allowed the body of his greatest foe to usurp his life, shouldn’t we be upset? Shouldn’t we be angry? Shouldn’t we be joining those who think Dan Slott has gone too far and calling for his immediate removal?

Well, no. Because Superior Spider-Man is the most original, compelling and consistently brilliant storyline that the Spider-Man titles have seen in years. Whether rehabilitating forgotten 90s characters like Stunner, bringing back early ideas Lee/Ditko ideas like The Living Brain or finding a new and twisted take on existing foes like The Vulture, Slott has managed to create a Spider-Man comic that simultaneously revels in the character’s lore while forging a new one with every issue. The story of Octavius’ second chance is hugely compelling. We may hate him for what he’s done, but at the same time he’s trying to be better, and often facing people so much worse than him that it’s easy to know who to root for. It’s a superhero soap opera with all the classic tropes, and too few comics can do that in such a sincere manner without feeling dated or hokey.

And Peter Parker may not actually be appearing in the comic, but in very real a way this entire run is about him. In every decision Octavius makes that puts others at risk, in every victory he uses to further his image and agenda, in every moment where his confidence spills over into arrogance, you can’t help but think: Peter Parker would’ve done this differently. Where Peter felt he had to put the costume on to save lives, Octavius does it to prove a point: that he’s better than everyone else. He may be getting results now, but we know that it can’t last forever. Half of the fun of reading Superior Spider-Man is waiting for the slip-up that undoes him.

Of course, the entire run isn’t down to Slott alone. He’s had some top collaborators, too. Ryan Stegman has never been a bad artist, but his work on Superior Spider-Man is something else, cementing his place as one of the industry’s best. Chris Yost’s appearances as co-writer haven’t slowed the series down at all, and should the day come when Slott leaves the series, one can’t help but identify Yost as the natural successor. And, of course, editor Steve Wacker – now sadly outgoing following a promotion into Marvel’s animation – has had such a phenomenal output over the last few years that it’s impossible not to recognise his contribution. But ultimately, this is Slott’s baby. He masterminded the story and since its on his shoulders that the abuse inevitably comes to rest, so should the praise. In Superior Spider-Man, Slott has cemented himself as one of the character’s top writers, the equal of Roger Stern, J. M. DeMatteis and Gerry Conway.

You might argue that in a market where you’ve got books like Hawkeye, Daredevil and Young Avengers practically straining to out-innovate one another, Superior Spider-Man is just a little too traditional to be called the best book of the year. But here’s our take. It’s not the most surprising book. It’s not the most clever. It’s arguably not even the best-looking or best-written in a purely objective sense. But when it comes down to it, there’s no other superhero title we’d rather read each week, because through its combination of passion, plotting and execution, it’s managing to be the most difficult thing of all: impossible to put down.

Best Comics of 2011: Spider-Island

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‘Tis the season, and you know what that means: another best-of list! Once again, we’re choosing the ten series (or stories) that we think gave us something special this year. As ever, we make no claims to be definitive or exhaustive, but these are the books we enjoyed and the reasons why. The posts start today and will hopefully run every day until the end of the month, when we’ll reveal our favourite comic of the year. Enjoy!

Over the last few years, Amazing Spider-Man has been an incredibly consistent read with occasional stand-out moments and a tight grasp on the character. In particular, Dan Slott’s run has been at times powerful and at times hilarious. It’s safe to say that the character is enjoying a period of sustained high quality and creative confidence – so what better time to do the first ever Spider-Man-centric crossover than now?

One of main problems with crossover events is that a lot of the time, they forget to deliver an actual story. Sure, there’s a plot, and on a good day it’s even one that makes sense – but many of them lack a heart or moral centre. You can’t say that they’re actually about anything. This year’s Fear Itself is a prime example: allegedly about fear, but actually about magic hammers.

Spider-Island was one of the rare ones. Not only did it have an entertaining, coherent plot, it actually felt like it had a story to tell: about Peter Parker, and how it’s not his powers and costume that make him Spider-Man, but how he chooses to use them – a concept explored by putting him in a situation where everyone has powers just like him.

Of course, Spider-Island also crossed over into other books and span out several miniseries, and there’s a reason this entry isn’t for Amazing Spider-Man, but for Spider-Island: because those crossovers were almost universally fantastic. The Cloak and Dagger mini by Spencer and Rios was utterly sublime, while Avengers one-shot by Christos Gage was hilarious. Rick Remender’s Venom issues were a virtual masterclass in hooking readers. It wasn’t all gold (Heroes for Hire, in particular, felt rather tacked-on) but as far as crossovers go, almost every book had a place and purpose.

It probably helps that two of the main villains of Spider-Island were Kaine and the Jackal, and as a 90s Spider-Man reader I’m predisposed to loving anything that builds on the clone saga (even though it’s clear Ben Reilly’s never going to return when there’s so much mileage in Marvel merely teasing his return) but there was so much going on to enjoy. The identity mysteries behind the Spider-King and the Jackal’s master. The romantic interplay between Peter, Carlie and MJ. And, of course, the iconic final image of the Empire State Building. This was a classic story, crossover or not.

Even the fact that it brushed aside the weird identity-protecting spell that only complicated Spidey’s status quo can be praised. Technically, philosophically, artistically, there wasn’t a weak point anywhere. It not only sustained itself as an event, but as a  Spider-Man story too. The story beats were character-centric, not plot driven, grounding the story around Peter Parker in ways that the recent Daredevil crossover, “Shadowland”, failed to do with Matt Murdock.

Ultimately, what we witnessed in Spider-Island was a story that’s going to set the agenda for the next year of stories and provide the benchmark for any future Spider-Man crossovers. For a story born from the ashes of the clone saga, that’s not just remarkable:  it’s actively impressive.

James Hunt | 22nd December, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Dan Jurgens’ Spider-Man

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Title: Sensational Spider-Man
Creative Team:
Dan Jurgens (story, pencils), Klaus Janson (inks)
Core Issues: Sensational Spider-Man #0-#6
Essential Crossovers: “Media Blizzard”, “The Return of Kane”, ”Web of Carnage” and “Blood Brothers” (multi-part stories, each also taking place in the other monthly Spidey books)
Years: 1996

In converstion with James about George Perez recently, I remarked that the legendary Teen Titans/Crisis/Avengers penciller had achieved one of those rare feats in comics – that is, becoming a widely-revered artist with both the Big Two publishers. There are a handful of artists that have done it, but very few in the great scheme of things that have achieved the same level of respect on both sides of the divide – but Perez has undoubtedly managed it, to the extent that you couldn’t really call him a “DC” or a “Marvel” artist over the other.

Dan Jurgens, meanwhile, is very firmly a “DC” artist – but he had a shot at becoming another one of those exalted few in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, a pairing that seemed for all the world like a perfect matchup – Jurgens drawing Spider-Man – ended up only lasting around half a year, and culminating in disappointment all around.

Having spent the first half of the ’90s establishing himself as the definitive Superman artist of that era, the prospect of seeing Jurgens apply his bold, clean-cut style of superheroics to Spider-Man was a mouthwatering one; and while he’s always been a better artist than writer, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his scripting of the Man of Steel, and again his style seemed a good fit. But from the outset, circumstances were difficult: the high-profile launch of Sensational Spider-Man, the new “third” monthly Spider-book given to the writer/artist, also happened to be the first issue featuring Ben Reilly as Spider-Man – new hairstyle, costume and all.

For those of us who actually liked Reilly, this was no bad thing (even less so if you happened to like the Bagley-designed costume, too – which I certainly do/did). But unfortunately, while he had a game stab at setting up Ben’s new supporting cast and setup (the launch issue #0, while a little bogged down in the sort of expository talking-to-self narrative of which Jurgens has always been fond, was actually pretty good fun), Jurgens’ heart wasn’t really in it. He wanted to be writing and drawing the real Spider-Man – but as far as Marvel were concerned (publicly at least), Ben was in it for the long-haul.

Still, we got some good material out of the run – even though the publication style of the time means it’s difficult to follow Jurgens’ issues alone as one whole, as only the first and last issues actually stood alone. The rest were all individual chapters of storylines spread across all three monthly Spider-books – so in Sensational we get part one of the Mysterio-starring “Media Blizzard” (the only story that had little to do with the ongoing saga, also featuring an utterly cracking redesign for my favourite Spidey foe), part two of “The Return of Kaine”, part one of “Web of Carnage”, and parts one and five of “Blood Brothers”. It’s all a bit bewildering, really.

Nevertheless, through all of that, Jurgens was working hard to try and carve out a niche for Ben himself. Of the three monthly books at the time, Sensational was the one that really seemed to care about the character – it’s the one that gave him his job and supporting cast – while Amazing and Adjectiveless were more concerned with the longer-term, Clone-Saga-fallout ramifications. As such, there’s some good character material – and of course, Jurgens got to play with his one major contribution to the Spider-mythos, courtesy of Ben’s brief relationship with the photographer Jessica, who turns out to be the daughter of Uncle Ben’s killer. A potentially intriguing plot, it’s wrapped up in far-too-hasty fashion due to Jurgens’ last issue on the title being as early as #6 (one suspects he would have drawn the story out far longer had he stuck around – as it is, that last issue is simply a rush-job of loose-end-tying). Tired of being stuck writing the adventures of a fake Spider-Man (even though at the time the editorial line was that Ben was the “real” one), he left the Spidey books, never to return.

The cruel irony is that if only he’d stuck around for a bit longer, he would have had the chance to do what he wanted after all – the new creative team of Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo only had to do five issues themselves before Reilly was promptly dispatched, in the “Revelations” storyline; and by the first issue of 1997, Peter Parker and the classic duds were back. It’s a shame, as Jurgens’ run had been an interesting new direction – and looked terrific, especially under the inks of Klaus Janson – and it would have been nice to have seen him have a crack at the character proper. Although I can’t help but wonder, if he had stuck around, how long it would have taken for him to put Spidey in a time-travel story…

Seb Patrick | 7th February, 2011

A new Spidey

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Although we wouldn’t usually go so far as to sit nit-picking at a superhero movie costume here on Alternate Cover (there are plenty of other sites that do that), I’m sure regular readers will know (especially from reading our “30 Days” posts) that as far as we’re concerned, Spider-Man is a bit different. More than anything, it’s the one character/comic that unites our comics tastes, and so when we get our first glimpse at a cinematic version, there’s going to be interest and excitement. So with the first pic of an in-costume Andrew Garfield emerging online this week, we thought we’d sit down and have an email chat about what we thought of it, and post our thoughts here.

Seb: Well – first off, there’s the design itself (as opposed to what it tells us about the story, which we’ll come to). And, from what we can see (and there’s still plenty yet to see, of course), I like it. Two points I’ve seen made (both by Jamie McKelvie, in fact) are (a) that the gloves look like the design team trying to justify their work, and (b) the whole thing’s a bit Ben Reilly. Neither of those are a problem for me (you know how much of a fan I am of the Reilly costume, after all). It’s a bit more modern-looking, and since we were never going to get just a reuse of the Raimi suit (which itself was as comics-accurate as we’re ever going to see, raised webbing aside), I think it’s a nice mixture of “fresh” and “still obviously Spider-Man”.

James: Hmm. I don’t hate it or anything, but it does feel a bit like they’ve messed with a design classic for no good reason other than to avoid criticisms that it’s too close to the Raimi version. I admit that one was already perfect, and there was little they could do to better it, but if it ain’t broke…

To be fair, I’ll have to see it with the mask before I make a final judgement, but at this point I’d call it “acceptable.” I’m not massively jazzed by it, nor do I hate it. I do like the texture on the blue area, and the lack of raised webbing makes it look more like the comic version in that sense, but the mild redesigns don’t do it for me, they seem arbitrary. As much as I do like the Ben Reilly redesign, for example, I’m not sure I’d call it “better” – it’s starting to look very of-its-time in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities, whereas Spider-Man’s classic outfit hasn’t succumbed to those ravages, just because Ditko’s design was beyond that in the first place.

S: The lack of raised webbing is definitely an improvement, for me – not just for authenticity, but because it look a bit less daft. It’s about the only thing I didn’t like about the original one back when it first showed up online (and man, now I’m all nostalgic about what A Big Deal it was when that picture turned up – since back in 2001, we didn’t actually have reasonable cause to expect that comic book movie costumes would try in any way to have respect for their source material. How times have changed…). Not that it ruined the outfit or anything, it just seemed a bit of a stretch, and dominated the design somewhat.

J: See, I don’t remember feeling even a little bit irritated by the raised webbing the first time around. I just thought “yeah, that’s an acceptable interpretation.” In fact, seeing the new costume makes me understand where it came from – the webbing is incredibly subtle on this version, and I can see how once he starts moving, you’ll stop seeing it.

Another thing that bugs me is that obviously, while we don’t know what the story’s going to be, I’m not convinced that the new costume looks like something a kid could have created. The Raimi version stretched credibility (and rightly glossed over where it came from) but this one looks slightly *too* slick in terms of the detailing. Maybe they’ll explain that, maybe not, but either way it’s a factor that’s stopping me from being too enthusiastic.

S: Well, since the film does appear to be going not only down the route of rebooting, but of actually retelling the origin (which is something I’m not hugely enthused about – it feels like a huge waste of running time on something that nobody needs to have retold to them only a few years after the last time, and I’d rather see them go straight in with an entirely new story), I’m going to bet we’ll be given the Ultimate Spidey explanation of it being the wrestling costume he gets given. Even if the film doesn’t go back to the origin, and just starts with him early in his career, that’s the explanation I’ll have in my head.

J: Yeah, that’s why I was being a bit cautious about whether his costume looks like he made it himself – I’m expecting them to say that he didn’t.

S: Of course, the other thing that the pic tells us about the film itself is that he really does look like he’s wearing… WEBSHOOTERS. What make you of this? Or do you particularly even care?

J: Not really! I’m one of the few people (probably) who always thought that organic webshooted made more sense, for a movie. The web fluid/shooters aspect of the character is one of the few things that, for me, isn’t “true” to Spider-Man’s concept – casting him as a junior scientific genius means you’re in danger of losing the “everyman” element. I’ll be interested to see how the film tackles it, but it really doesn’t bother me either way, because the arguments for both interpretations are sound.

S: And also: while it would have been nice to have got a full-on, masked picture of the character, it’s good to see that in a Peter Parker sense, Andrew Garfield looks the part. In terms of physique (even if they’re deviating with the costume) they’re clearly looking to Ditko this.

J: Yeah, that’s something that’s undeniably working. There was never a problem with Raimi’s more Romita-esque interpretation version, per se, but this is one instance where going a different route is both interesting and artistically legitimate, rather than redundant. All things considered, I think Garfield has it nailed – even if the costume’s not exciting me, his look and posture in that photo is enough to make me believe he’s going to be a near-perfect (Ultimate) Peter Parker.

Seb Patrick | 15th January, 2011

30 More Days of Comics #5: A comic that reminds you of a person

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It’s a lot easier, nowadays. What with the internet, and living in London, I’m never really short of people to talk about comics with. My flatmate is an avid X-Men and Morrison fanboy, I often find myself at gatherings surrounded by other nerds, I run a website with the most comics-knowledgeable friend I’ve ever had, and I even get to hang out with creators sometimes. It’s all a far cry from when I was at high school. Aside from inheriting various comics from my Dad, it had always been much more of a solo hobby growing up. So when I found someone who shared it, and with whom I could have Proper Conversations about my growing discovery of the finer nuances of the form, it was much more of a big deal.

The first memory I have of James Harrison (I wouldn’t normally use someone’s full name at this point, but I have to distinguish him from James Hunt Of This Parish somehow) was during a Games lesson, when he seemed unnaturally amused by my impersonation of an American Gladiators commentator pronouncing the name of fellow Scouser Eunice Huthart. I don’t recall why or how we became friends after that – it was school, you just sort of drifted into these things – but it was probably around the time we discovered that my house was on his walk home, and so started walking that way together. It would have been at some point after that, meanwhile, that we each discovered that the other was a comics reader, and from that a firm friendship was inevitable.

As we hurtled towards sixth form, our comics discussion was of course largely centred around things like Sandman and Watchmen - but prior to that, we had a shared interest in superhero stories, and in a lot of the same characters. Aside from Kingdom Come, which I remember causing a fair amount of discussion at the time of publication due to the artwork (we were teenagers – Ross basically seemed like The Best Thing In The World back then) and our both liking alternate timelines and Elseworlds in general, perhaps the biggest of these shared favourites was Spider-Man. This mutual fandom was fostered by the Panini reprint title of the time – I say “of the time”, it’s actually still going (albeit on its third volume) today – Astonishing Spider-Man, which kicked off in late 1995, and which between us James and I bought pretty much every issue of for about the first couple of years of its existence. I’d picked up a couple of the earlier issues myself, but after that we basically settled into a routine where James would buy it and read it, then lend it to me, and we’d discuss what was going on during the next walk home.

And this, basically, is the reason why for all these years I’ve been forced to admit that yes, I do have quite a fondness for The Clone Saga. Because it was basically my first exposure both to reading a long-running story in serialised format as it happened (alright, time-shifted a little while from its US publication, but still), and having someone to discuss it with as it was going on. Even when the comics themselves were poor – even at the time we knew Maximum Clonage: Omega was basically the worst comic we’d ever seen, and Spidercide the single worst character concept in history – we were hooked, and in many ways the storyline was a shaping influence on my later continued Spidey fandom. And we even went back over it all over again a couple of years down the line, thanks to discovering the groundbreakingly excellent Life of Reilly articles while on the school computers.

In 2001, James and I (who by this point had also, bizarrely, become distantly related courtesy of two members of our respective families independently meeting one another and getting married) went our separate ways – after finishing our A-Levels, I took the relatively normal path of going to University, while he moved to America to start a new life, initially staying with some friends he’d met online. I’ve kept in touch with him sporadically both online and over the phone since then, but haven’t actually seen him in person for those nine years. Before he left, however, he bestowed a gift on me – something he had no intention of lugging across the pond with him, and which would simply gather dust if he left them at home: around twenty-five issues of Astonishing Spider-Man.

Since then, I’ve moved house a number of times, and my comics collection has grown from… well, from basically just those reprint issues and a handful of trades, to something that takes up an entire bookcase. On a handful of occasions I’ve wondered if it would make things more convenient to finally get rid of them – after all, despite my affection for it, I’ve had no great desire to go back and read the Clone Saga (particularly in the incomplete form offered by the issues I’ve got) for quite some time, and they take up a bit more space than regular comics due to their cardstock covers. But it took me a while after James left the country to meet somebody else with whom I could have regular, in-person conversations about comics – University was quite a lean time for that, as although I was visiting a regular comic shop for the first time, it was indie music that was the common thread between me and most of my friends; and it wasn’t until a year or so after that that I finally encountered the bloke with whom I run this here site. Getting rid of those comics (even if I weren’t a shameless hoarder anyway), though, would be to throw away a reminder of the other James H, my first ally in the world of comics fandom – so for that reason, they’ll probably always have a home on my shelf.

Seb Patrick | 21st November, 2010

World War Hulks: Spider-Man vs Thor #1

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wwhsmvt1Dammit, Gillen, you did it again.

At the risk of turning this site into a place that does little other than eulogise about comics created by the Phonogram team (and there were some other pretty ace books out this week, as it happens, which I’ll hopefully get to covering shortly), I can’t help but want to draw attention yet again to another excellent bit of work from Mr Gillen, K. When I first heard about this project, it hardly sounded like the most appealing or worthwhile use of his talents – Hulk stories aren’t generally my cup of tea at the best of times, and I’d hardly class “the best of times” as being a crossover, as part of the current Jeph Loeb run on the Hulk books, in which various heroes become “hulked-out” versions of themselves. So while I’ll always pay attention to anything Gillen puts out at the moment, this didn’t look as if it was going to be that good.

It is, though. In fact, it’s kind of great. The same lightness of touch that Gillen has expertly brought to his Marvel work so far – most notably on S.W.O.R.D., and any Thor scenes involving Volstagg – makes him perfectly suited to exploring what would happen if Peter Parker turned into the Hulk. The surprising answer is: instead of going and smashing things, he’d go and try to read about dinosaurs in the natural history museum. I mean, obviously. Oh, and he’d still crack jokes – just, not particularly subtle or witty ones (“Thor is the bluest one there is”). Meanwhile, ThorHulk – being far more of a proponent of the “smashy smashy” approach – doesn’t particularly want to waste time trying to pronounce “TEE-RANN-O-SAAAAURUS”, and wastes no time in making his feelings clear to Spider-Hulk. You can probably imagine what ensues.

But what really makes this work is that instead of simply presenting us with this diametric conflict, Gillen shows us why these characters behave like this when reduced to extremely simplified brain functions. Charming flashback scenes (very nicely rendered by Jorge Molina, who also does a great job in the “present” by having a mass of hulking muscle in a Spider-Man costume still somehow inherently feel like the real Spider-Man) show just why Peter has such a connection to the museum – and, perhaps more impressively (since the nerd is always the easy one for us comics readers to identify with), give a compelling reason for why the idea of stopping and reading, instead of fighting the imminent threat, irks Thor so much (you probably don’t need telling that it has something to do with Loki).

In other words, you tell Gillen to do a story where Thor and Spider-Man both turn into the Hulk and pound the stuffing out of one-another… and he gives you a mildly thought-provoking, and often very funny, character piece. I can only wonder what he would have done if asked to turn in a mildly thought-provoking and often very funny character piece, but in the meantime, it’s yet further evidence of just how on form he is with this stuff at the moment. Cracking.

Seb Patrick | 19th July, 2010

Spider-Man: The Clone Saga #6

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spidermantheclonesaga6There’s a crazy wave of self-cannibalising nostalgia going on at Marvel, which seems about as recklessly insular as any comic has dared to be since X-Men: The Hidden Years. And yet, the problem with all these very bad idea for comics is that they’re actually turning out to be pretty decent. X-Men Forever has Claremont writing some of his best material in years. X-Factor Forever looks fantastic. And even Spider-Man: The Clone Saga has turned out to be, well, reasonably entertaining. Especially for a comic with Howard Mackie’s name attached.

Of course, on its own terms, Spider-Man: The Clone Saga has completely discarded its original premise of “telling the Clone Saga the way it was supposed to go”. The final issue has a few twists which are nothing short of complete madness – particularly in a Marvel Universe where Norman Osborn has been nothing but the world’s most amoral, psychotic villain for a good year and a half now. And it’s well documented that the Clone Saga was supposed to end with Ben taking over and Peter retiring to raise his child. That isn’t remotely the situation that we’re left in here.

In fact, the issue ends with a status quo that couldn’t reasonably have existed in the Spider-Man comics – Peter and MJ have their baby, and Ben rides off into the sunset as the Scarlet Spider. It’s never definitively established which is the clone – not in a way that’s sufficient for me, and not in a way that would be sufficient for the characters. Peter doesn’t quit being Spider-Man. May doesn’t die. It’s all gone a bit wrong, really.

There are some good moments – Kaine gets his redemption, the twist of who was masterminding the entire plot wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, and there is a level of coherence to the entire plot that was completely missing from the original. Overall, though, it’s hard to know what to make of it. There’s a suggestion that it could turn into some kind of “Scarlet Spider Forever” spin-off, and based on the events of this series, it’s likely that the series wouldn’t be entirely terrible either – but it brings us back, once again, to the question of these comics’ origins. Who, precisely, are they for? Spider-Man: The Clone Saga has been technically competent but also creatively bankrupt. A nice nostalgia trip, perhaps, but one that went on just long enough. Let’s hope this is the last of it.

James Hunt | 25th February, 2010

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #3

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ucsm3I was writing the eulogies for this book in the build-up to Ultimatum, I really was – but not since Pope John Paul II has a death been so prematurely announced. If anything, the current run of the series actually makes a lot of what preceded it look weaker as a result – and I mean no disrespect to Stuart Immonen, whose work on the series I firmly enjoyed, as with the first few years of Bagley’s run. But Ultimate Spider-Man (as I’ll insist on continuing to call it) is vibrant, and fun, and exciting, and funny, and just Bendis doing what he’s done so very well for the last ten years – telling a contemporary Spidey story that’s not afraid to strike out and do its own thing.

Crucial to my enjoyment of this opening arc, I’m sure, is the reinvention of Mysterio. Long my favourite Spider-Man villain, in spite – or perhaps because – of his inherent lameness, it’s great seeing him taken seriously without losing most of the elements that make him… well, Mysterio. He may have lost the flair of his ludicrous costume and stagey speech – but crucially, Bendis has kept the inherent sense of showmanship – it’s just one that manifests itself in a different way, as in the video message of last issue. The costume design is simple, yet classy and effective; and when it comes down to it – yep, he robs banks by hypnotising guards and making it appear that giant spiders are rampaging through the streets. What’s not to love?

Always crucial to a Spidey book – at least in my book – is making the reader chuckle as much as thrilling with the action. It’s something that USM has often excelled at, and it continues here – the unexpected resolution of an instance of the classic “Spidey surrounded by the police and expecting to get arrested” scenario is laugh-out-loud funny while at the same time emphasising a genuinely intriguing status quo change – I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Spidey book where he’s so completely beloved by the entirety of New York, but I reckon Bendis will have plenty of fun with it before the inevitable comedown. And the strong character work continues, too – like so many characters (in both the Ultimate and 616 universes), Johnny Storm is far more worthwhile when showing up in this book, and his addition to the regular cast can only make for more laughs. Meanwhile, it’s good to see a bit more peeling back of the circumstances of Peter and Mary Jane’s split – and I remain hopeful that it might stick a while longer this time, as keeping Peter and Gwen together would be another good way to mark out the book’s distinct identity. Plus, of course, this version of MJ could do with some stories of her own (the Jessica Jones subplot shows promise) in order to establish viability as a character in her own right.

LaFuente’s visual style is still taking a bit of getting used to after so many years of the straightforward superheroics of Bagley and Immonen – but even though his almost childlike Spidey has generally failed quite to convince, it can’t be denied that the “wide eyed” style works a treat for the comedic slant of some of the set-pieces here, and there’s no denying that his effervescent work has contributed to the series’ newfound energy. Frankly, then, if having to sit through something as unbearably wretched as Ultimatum means we get an Ultimate Spider-Man this good as a result – well, any chance we could do it every couple of years?

Seb Patrick | 13th October, 2009

Spider-Man : Clone Saga #1


clonesaga1Even as one of the Spidey fans who will happily admit that there are things to like about the ill-fated Clone Saga (although much of that is no doubt down to nostalgia over it being one of the first major “runs” on a character that I got into; not to mention one of the first about which I could read a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, courtesy of the excellent Life of Reilly online columns), this retelling feels kind of pointless. There’s no denying that, yes, mistakes were made, and the story didn’t turn out the way it should have, and all the rest of it – but is the way to fix that really to have another go? Would it not be better just to… leave it alone? Get on with telling good stories in the here and now? Still, I suppose there are enough people like me with enough of a passing interest in the whole sorry saga to want to buy anything to do with it (or, at least, anything that sticks good old Ben Reilly on the cover), so in a way, the concept sells itself.

But if you’re going to try to convince people that you had a really great story to tell if only you could have been left alone without editorial interference… well, it needs to be better than this. All this reads like is a distinctly average Howard Mackie comic from a decade or more ago. There’s reams of exposition – some of it necessary in a sense, given that we’re picking up on plot threads that many readers will never have encountered; but even Claremont didn’t feel the need for quite this much in the similarly-pitched (and far superior) X-Men Forever. It’s often fairly insulting to its readers’ intelligence – with that curious ’90s habit of painfully spelling everything outm including a really quite inordinate amount of time being given over to the relevation of Mary Jane’s pregnancy, played in such a way (repeated visits to the doctor, throwing up in the toilet, “I have… some news for you”) that I’m inclined to believe we were meant to think it a surprise. There’s no zip or sparkle to the dialogue, anywhere – everything is functional, doing a job without ever inspiring or exciting.

And you wonder quite how the whole “saga” is supposed to fit into six issues, considering how slowly this one goes – it’s true that a number of plot elements are touched upon, but they’re all background and setup; and it feels like about as much time is spent on Peter and Ben’s first meeting as was done so in the original story. Clearly, a lot of superfluous elements are being cut out, and that’ll almost certainly be a good thing – but on the other hand, there was a certain level of richness of depth given to Ben and Kaine’s world and background (most notably in The Lost Years, the callback to which in the opening pages serving as a reminder that the writer-from-back-then who it’d be really nice to see tackling this is J.M. deMatteis) that you feel simply won’t be squeezed in here.

It’s not completely rotten, or anything. It does a successful job of recalling the style of the Spidey books back then – it’s just that, set against the current Amazing run, you begin to realise how little fun there was at the time. And it’s true that there’s a mild nostalgic glow in seeing Kaine pop up again – but if his role’s going to be as drastically changed as the early hints suggest, it feels like a bit of a waste. On the art front, meanwhile, it’s an uncomfortable mixture – Todd Nauck is clearly trying to bring a ’90s style to things, but stops short of the full-on Bagley/Buscema/Lyle look of the time, and the result is something that’s weaker than his recent work has tended to look elsewhere.

At the end of the day, though, it is still a comic that holds appeal for those of us interested in the story and wondering if it could maybe be told a bit better. It’s a book to which a probably-misguided sense of loyalty means I’ll still keep buying despite being underwhelmed by this issue – and I suspect that, in contrast to the surprise critical acclaim doled out to X-Men Forever, that’s about as much as Marvel might have hoped for. Unless they really thought Howard Mackie had suddenly become a genius in all that time away. But that would just be silly.

Seb Patrick | 6th October, 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #606

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asm606I don’t know whose idea it was to suddenly start running an entire batch of stories about Peter Parker’s love life – nor whether or not it was simply felt necessary to do them in order to justify the whole marriage-scrubbing fiasco – but irrespective of the fact that it’s probably annoyed a lot of action-seeking fanboys, in my book it’s worked superbly, with the majority of the last few issues proving as enjoyable as any since the relaunch. Of course, with such stories going on, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Black Cat would show up once more. And, while it may be slightly difficult to reconcile her status and actions here with the Felicia of the surprisingly-decent Marvel Divas, there’s no denying that it’s good to have her back.

Joe Kelly is clearly having tremendous fun on the book, with a lightness of touch arguably matched only in the current Spidey team by Dan Slott; this entire issue surfs on a wave of zingers, put-downs and comebacks, most notably in the easy repartee between Peter and Felicia. In and of itself, there’s not a huge amount of immediate story – if anything, it feels like a bridge between “proper” arcs, setting up assorted plot threads, most notably in finally doing something with/about Dexter Bennett. The exception, of course, comes with the closing pages – a genuinely surprising moment (at least, if it turns out to be an actual status-quo changer, rather than a spur-of-the-moment thing) even though it’s telegraphed by a cover that turns out to be rather more literal than one might have expected.

The ever-solid, if rarely spectacular, Mike McKone handles the mixture of action and talkybits quite well – the fact that he’s so clearly channelling the Dodsons (right down to the wavy-haired version of Peter) perhaps forgiving a slightly, ahem, top-heavy interpretation of Felicia (and at least his version is an immeasurable improvement on the J.Scott Campbell stick insect on the cover). Some nice expansive shots of Spidey swinging amid skyscrapers, a helpless mugger dangling from a webline, particularly impress.

It doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but this is fun stuff – mixing various of the elements that have always gone towards setting Spider-Man books apart in their own little corner of superhero-dom. And you can’t ask for much more from the return of a well-liked character (er, that’s assuming you like Felicia as much as this reader) than to have them show up characterised correctly and also largely steal the book. Although I’m really not sure whether we actually needed to know the quality of Spidey’s… erm… prowess…

Seb Patrick | 29th September, 2009