Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ultimate Spider-Man

Miles Morales never wanted to be a hero. He just got bit by the wrong spider and the wrong time.

Since 2000, Brian Michael Bendis and a variety of artists have crafted the acclaimed Ultimate Spider-Man series. Marvel's Ultimate imprint was intended to tell more realistic stories of their iconic characters, doing away with some of the goofier aspects and convoluted history that had built up over the decades. And one aspects of this new, more real reality is, when a character dies, they aren't coming back. No more clones or alternate dimension dopplegangers--dead is dead.

This finality was brought home recently when Peter Parker was killed defending his Queens neighborhood. But his legacy lives on in the Ultimate universe, especially by inspiring a new Spider-Man, Miles Morales.

Miles and the Ultimate Spider-Man team got some nice press last year when it was revealed that the new Spider-Man was a 13-year-old half-black, half-Latino kid. But more than anything, Miles is a 13-year-old kid, wobbling between uncertainty and wild over-confidence, struggling to separate his personal moral code from the expectations and demands of others.

Miles' parents are, if not struggling financially, certainly not comfortable either. The same day Miles gets bit by a genetically engineered spider similar to the one that gave Peter Parker his powers, he's accepted into an elite charter school that could open up new horizons for him. All Miles' parents want is for him to work hard and do well in school. At first, Miles goes along with the plan, but after Peter Parker's death, he begins to wonder why he was given his powers, what he owes himself, and what he owes the world. All of this is further complicated by Miles' father's own checkered past and the revelation that Mile's cool Uncle Arron is the small-time supervillain, Prowler.

When flipping through the most recent issues, trying to find some pictures to use for this post, I realized that some of my favorite weren't action shots of Miles climbing up walls. They were ordinary scenes of people talking. Comic books are not a word-heavy medium--most of their information is conveyed through images--but Bendis is a master of revealing layers of character with minimal dialogue. Mile's stammering and tic of repeating himself shows a kid who's a lot less confident that he's letting on. Likewise, Uncle Arron's smooth patter make it clear why the 13-year-old Miles idolizes him, while still signaling to any reader with more life experience that he's somebody to avoid.

Bendis is helped out by artist Sara Pichelli. While a lot of comic artists makes their names drawing big, bold action scene, Pichelli is a master of subtle emotions. Miles' parents determination to make a better life for their son is largely unspoken but palpable in their expressions and postures.

Spider-Man has always focused on two themes: the importance of family and the oft quoted, "With great power comes great responsibility." Both themes were present in the very first Spider-Man story written way back in August 1962. Now, 50 years(!) later, Bendis is finding a fresh perspective on those themes as Miles comes into his own as a young man and a superhero.

Ultimate Spider-Man is a monthly, ongoing series. The first collected edition, containing issues 1 through 5 is available now. The second collected edition, containing issues 6 through 10, comes out June 27th.

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