Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #23. Written by Brian Michael Bendis (All-New X-Men, Guardians Of The Galaxy) and drawn by David Marquez (Fantastic Four: Season One, All-New X-Men), the issue takes a one-year time jump to enhance the central conflict and give the book a renewed sense of direction. Warning: spoilers ahead.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Daredevil was the world’s unluckiest superhero, but he certainly gets some competition from Spider-Man, whose life has had just as many downs, but also a few more ups than the horned hero of Hell’s Kitchen. Tragedy is a major part of most superheroes’ DNA, but Marvel has a tendency to put its characters through the wringer in a way that DC tends to avoid, largely because it’s difficult to make such immensely powerful characters legitimately suffer. When characters are inherently flawed, it’s easier to exploit those weaknesses, and the early Marvel creators developed the human as much as the hero, even with gods like Thor. That human side is fallible, and when the masks come on, that imperfection is still there behind the superhuman disguise.
At his conception, Spider-Man’s greatest weakness was his youth. A teenager granted extraordinary powers is more likely to use them for his own benefit rather than helping others, and Peter Parker’s self-centered behavior cost him the man who meant the most to him. Because of Peter Parker’s example, when Miles Morales gained spider powers, he knew he had a duty to become a hero, but the difficulties of youth still hindered Miles’ development—they just manifested differently. Miles’ willingness to trust his less-than-ideal adult role model led to him being easily manipulated by his villainous uncle, and his fear of coming clean about his secret identity made his family a target for a rampaging Venom in the last storyline. Miles suffered his biggest loss yet as a result of Venom’s attack, failing to save his mother from a policeman’s bullet that accidentally hits her when she’s trying to save hospital patients from the monstrous symbiote.
There were two defining moments in mainstream Peter Parker’s superhero career, the deaths of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, events that were spaced more than 100 issues apart. Uncle Ben’s death taught him the importance of using great power with great responsibility, while Gwen’s death revealed that no one in Peter’s life is safe as long as he chooses to remain Spider-Man. Miles experienced similar events, but in his storyline, they were spaced 10 issues apart. Losing his Uncle Aaron was the Uncle Ben moment, and losing his mother teaches Miles the same lesson Peter learned when Gwen Stacy was thrown off the George Washington Bridge. Everyone that Miles loves is at risk if he is Spider-Man, and he decides to embrace a new kind of responsibility, leaving his superhero life behind to dedicate his life to the family and friends he still has.
Cue the “One Year Later” page. For readers who haven’t read any of writer Brian Michael Bendis’ interviews following last issue, the first page of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #23 will come as quite a shock, skipping the mourning period following Rio’s death and jumping straight into a new status quo for Miles. It’s a smart move on Bendis’ part, reintroducing readers to Miles at a point where he’s already begun the coping process after his mother’s death. That prevents the book from being weighed down by the heaviness of grief (see: what’s happening in Batman And… over at DC), and while the aftershock’s of Rio’s death are still being felt, #23 is about much more than dealing with tragedy. It’s about growing up.
The first thing that sticks out with the one-year jump is that everyone looks older. This may seem like one of those “well, duh” observations, but in the world of superhero comics, age can be a very uncertain thing. There aren’t too many characters who have transitioned from child to teen to adult hero, and once they reach a certain age, their biological clocks stop ticking and timelines are altered so that they don’t look any older. It’s why most superheroes fall somewhere between their 20s and 40s, despite being around for far longer than that. That’s not the case for Miles Morales, who has the benefit of existing in the Ultimate universe, where superheroes aren’t beholden to how the mass public perceives them.
Bendis didn’t want to establish Ultimate Peter Parker’s age because he wanted to keep him in high school for as long as possible, but with Miles, the writer has discovered the benefit of a set timeline. When Miles was first introduced, he was a scrawny 13-year-old that looked like a kid dressed up like a superhero for Halloween. The old Miles was Spider-Boy, but that kid is gone now, replaced by a young man at the start of #23. He’s firmly in puberty’s grasp, with a few inches added his frame, the baby fat removed from his face, and bushy eyebrows that bring focus to his sad, angry eyes. The issue begins with a close-up of Miles’ forlorn face, staring out at nothing in particular until his girlfriend brings him back to the present.
That’s right, Miles Morales has a girlfriend, and it’s Katie Bishop, the Ultimate version of everyone’s favorite female Hawkeye. Bendis has a history of inspired Ultimate pairings, and the romance of Miles and Katie looks to follow in the footsteps of the great Peter Parker/Kitty Pryde relationship. What used to be a dynamic duo of Miles and his best friend, Ganke, is now an awkward trio with the addition of Katie, who couldn’t care less about Ganke missing out on a limited-edition Lego set and has no clue about her boyfriend’s former extracurricular activities. Miles wants to tell her, but Ganke advises against it, and that’s when Spider-Woman texts him.
Bendis has built a strong supporting cast around Miles Morales that seamlessly incorporates characters from Peter’s life to keep Miles firmly connected to the Spider-Man legacy. A female clone of Peter Parker, Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew, is Miles’ mentor and S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison, while Gwen Stacy has become a comforting figure for Miles as adjusts to his new lifestyle. Both women are trying to reach out to Miles in different ways this issue; Jessica pushes him to put his costume back on, but Gwen just wants him to know that she understands his pain and wants him to know that she is here to help him. She lost her father in Spider-Man-related circumstances and doesn’t want Miles to suffer the way she did, but even the mention of the name Spider-Man causes Miles pain.
Although Miles will forever connect Spider-Man with his mother dying in his arms, giving up the name doesn’t mean that he’s given up the bad luck. While having dinner with his father, Miles’ spider-sense goes off just before an explosion knocks them to the ground. The issue ends with Bombshell, one-half of a mother-daughter supervillain team, facing off against fan-favorite heroes Cloak and Dagger in their Ultimate universe debut. It’s an explosive end to an issue of talking heads, setting the stage for some major superhero action after #23 gives readers an introduction to the new emotional lives of these characters. More than any of his other superhero titles, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man is the place where Bendis has shown his ability to balance dramatic character development with superhero action and comedic dialogue. This issue begins with Lego-centric banter between friends, then shifts to a father and his son dealing with grief, and ends with superheroes battling it out on the streets.
With original series artist Sara Pichelli departing to draw Bendis and Neil Gaiman’s Guardians Of The Galaxy (it’s still shocking that Gaiman will be co-writing a Marvel space opera series), David Marquez takes over as ongoing artist with #23. His digital rendering results in sharp, detailed visuals, but it doesn’t quite have the same fluidity as Pichelli’s work. That said, he does admirable work navigating the emotional beats of an issue that has almost no action, especially during a silent sequence where Miles walks into his bedroom and discovers a briefcase from S.H.I.E.L.D. containing a new costume. The layouts emphasize Miles’ hesitance to open the package and his increasing anger when he reads the note that comes attached, breaking down the moment into a series of smaller panels that slow down time as he reads the words: “How many lives could you have saved?” As he crushes the paper in his hands, all Miles can think of is the one life he that he couldn’t.
The most remarkable thing about Marquez’s work is how clearly the one-year jump reads in his character designs, pushing this book’s teen cast into the growth-spurting height of adolescence. Miles, Ganke, and Katie look like young adults now, but the older characters have changed as well. The addition of a beard considerably ages Miles’ dad, and Gwen Stacy, now working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, has moved away from her bad-girl image in favor of a look that is closer to her regular Marvel universe counterpart. The people that are Ultimate versions of preexisting characters are connected to those original iterations through clever costuming touches: for Katie, a small band of purple across the top of her dress, and for Gwen, it’s the ubiquitous headband she wears to hold back that mane of blonde hair.
These characters might be wildly different from what came before, but the heart of the original inspiration comes through in Bendis and Marquez’s work on this series. Fans of classic Spider-Man stories that are unhappy with the current direction of Peter Parker can find the spirit of the hero alive and well in Miles Morales, even when he’s ditched the costume. And for people who have yet to enter Miles’ world, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #23 is a perfect entry point into one of the best superhero titles currently being published.