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Looking back over ten years after its launch, it's easy to forget the climate in which Ultimate Spider-Man was launched. The first Spider-Man film was being filmed and coming close to release, the mainstream Spider-Man comic was struggling to pull in readers after an ill-advised attempt to remove Mary Jane Watson from the mythos and create a single (but widowed!) Spider-Man. This would later be reversed with a change in writer, when J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame, took over. The Spider-Man books had also recently experienced a largely-ignored reboot with John Byrne's "Spider-Man: Chapter One", which was a bizarre attempt to rewrite Spider-Man and his villain's origins and tie them all in together, so when Ultimate Spider-Man was announced as a modern-day retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin, there were purists who were understandably apprehensive about further butchering of their classic stories in an attempt to "update" the stories.
Fans of the classic Spider-Man stories shouldn't be worried as this is a different Spider-Man, in a different and 'Ultimate' universe. As with those 1960's origin issues, this is set in contemporary times and since that was the year 2000, some of the references are slightly dated twelve years on. Whilst Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original story for the birth of Spider-Man was crammed into 11 pages, this Spider-Man's journey into becoming a costumed hero takes seven issues, and introduces the Green Goblin as his primary nemesis.
This initial volume is written by Brian Michael Bendis, who had enjoyed success with his indie title, Powers, and with art featuring long-time Spider-Man artist, Mark Bagley. The story introduces Peter Parker and his school-mates during a trip to Oscorp, a science laboratory owned by the father of one of the students. The familiar events happen and a genetically-enhanced Spider (as opposed to the traditonal radioactive) bites a young Peter Parker, transferring its Amazing powers onto the boy. As with the traditional story, he first uses these powers for his own personal gain and the development of his powers is nicely dovetailed into his own changes through puberty, something that was echoed somewhat in the Spider-Man movie that followed. Again, there is a heavier focus on the characterisation of the human characters of the Spider-Man saga, with Uncle Ben getting a lot more personality and face-time than he ever had in the initial storyline (and some since). By allowing us to care for the Uncle Ben character, Bendis allows us to hope that along with the minor differences he has added to the Spider-Man legend, there may also be a chance of Uncle Ben surviving and having a larger impact on his nephew's life as a costumed hero.
Bendis also ties in the origin of the Green Goblin to Spider-Man's own genesis, giving the two arch-nemeses a stronger connection than they ever really had in the main book, up until the infamous Gwen Stacy on the bridge moment. The only downside is that Bendis removes the complex split-personality aspect of Norman Osborn by having him turn into a Green Hulk-like creature whenever he injects himself with the OZ serum. Whilst this is a more frightening visual and creates a less hokey version of the villain, compared to a man in a halloween costume on a glider, it does dampen down a lot of what made the Green Goblin iconic, reducing him to a Hulk knock-off who can throw fireballs.
The artwork here is fantastic, as Mark Bagley knows how to draw his Spider-Man, and after years illustrating him in the mainstream universe, Bagley makes some subtle changes to make this version seem more youthful, such as a slightly larger head and feet (something that the behind-the-scenes sketches at the back of the book reveal). Whilst the initial few chapters are a bit scratchy and Bagley takes time to work out a design for the new characters - his Peter Parker in particular seems to vary slightly from panel to panel and doesn't really settle down until the end of the book - it remains a clear-cut and well drawn book. Later volumes improve on the artwork, with the addition of more visually dynamic characters, such as Doctor Octopus and Venom, but this is a nice start and it is clear that the artwork evolves over time.
Despite the hurdles it had to overcome, Ultimate Spider-Man managed to shake off the prejudices of an alternate universe book and not only became a Top 10 selling book, but also helped launch the Ultimate Universe, with Ultimate versions of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men following within the next few years. The legacy of the book reaches further than that with the creation of the Ultimate Spider-Man video game, set firmly in the comic book's continuity and the forthcoming Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon which looks to borrow heavily from the modern approach that Bendis took when it came to revitalising the Spider-man franchise. I have to say that Ultimate Spider-Man was one of the books that brought me back into collecting comics on a weekly basis and is one that I still pick up twelve years later (and Bendis is still writing it!)
(+) Well written, mature narrative and characterisations, excellent use of Marvel history, Great Art (-) If you prefer pure action over use of continuity, history and characterisation you might not like.