Trades for 2-13: Ultimate Spider-Man vols. 11 and 12

A quick one-two trade review for today because I'm under the weather, with a throat cold. I coughed up about a pint of blood this morning.

See what I go through for you guys?

cover by Bags and IsanoveUltimate Spider-Man vol. 11: Carnage
by Brian Bendis, Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna with John Dell
collecting Ultimate Spider-Man #'s 60-65
(Amazon, out of print)

For a $12.99 trade that contains six full issues, this one feels pretty sparse. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of things that happen here. Peter gets the medical care of Doc Connors, who then gets the idea to test on Peter's blood for scientific research -- to find a cure for cancer and all that, which leads to the bloody creation of Carnage and the death of Gwen Stacy. This isn't your papa's Carnage either, it's a mindless amalgam of Doc Connors' and Peters' blood, with mixed but unreal memories of the two, that has to feed on human beings to live. It wreaks a path of empty murder that ends up killing Gwen, and Peter undergoes a deep issue or two of anger and frustration over his life.

Bendis totally nails it in this way: anybody would love to spin a web, any size and catch thieves, just like flies, but it actually, spine-crushingly sucks to be Spider-Man. Everybody around him ends up dying, and it's in some tangential way his own fault. Peter gets so frustrated that he storms out of detention and goes on patrol, without his costume (right image). Gwen gets killed in this trade, but the story isn't Gwen's death -- it's Peter's grief and his emotional turmoil.

One more thing about this trade: a major theme in Ultimate Spider-Man is father figures. We barely get to see Uncle Ben alive, so when he dies, he dies as the ideal father. Scattered throughout the series, we see attempts from other men to fulfill this role, and it rarely works out. Doc Ock is, literally, the creator of Spider-Man, so you'd think he'd be a great role model, but oh wait he's Doc Ock. Norman Osborn goes insane in trying to recruit Peter for human genetic progress, so that fails as well. When Doc Connors tends to Peter's wounds, Peter talks to Doc, about Mary Jane, about research grants for a whole page. They spend 3 two-page spreads discussing how Peter's blood can revolutionize the human body. Both of them are scientists at heart, and when you get down to it, Doc Connors ought to be the perfect role model for Peter. But he isn't. Because life sucks, especially when you're Spider-Man. People die around you, and it's all because of you.

Carnage is a realistic, bleak take on death that I could have done without, but, considering the full pedigree of Ultimate Spidey stories, it's a worthy addition.

cover by Mike Bagley and Richard IsanoveUltimate Spider-Man Vol. 12: Superstars
by Brian Bendis, Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna
collecting Ultimate Spider-Man #'s 66-71
(Amazon, $10.39)

Here's a trade that contains the same number of issues, but feels significantly thicker in my hands. This could be because there are three different stories collected, all in two-issue storyarcs. Spidey has three crossovers with, respectively: Wolverine, the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange. The first is positively brilliant, a lighthearted "Freaky Friday" body switch between Wolverine and Spidey. I have the two issues myself in a long box somewhere, so someday I'll treat you to a cover-to-cover read-through of the story.

Together, these two storyarcs represent an optimism in comic books that's hard-found anywhere else. The Fantastic Four haven't even gone public yet, and Spider-Man gets to meet all these new, exciting different people and have these wacky adventures. This is the perfect kind of book to hook in new readers: Girl in Four Colors had a recent post on DC's survey on the accessibility of comics that relates:

I work with inner-city kids, mostly youth of color, mostly poor. You know where they get their comics? They get them from the library. They read them in school. They pick them up in used book stores. They buy collected editions on Amazon, or from the Scholastic catalogs they’re given in school. The only time most of the kids I work with step foot in a comic book store is on Free Comic Book Day, and yet they are avid fans of these characters and avid readers of their stories.
Superstars is the kind of book that a young reader would run into at the library, and fall in love with the title.  This youthful optimism is continued in the teenage romances, between Liz and Johnny, and Peter and Mary's decision to have a fancy date. The final storyarc takes the heavy hammer of realism and ends that optimism. A psychic demon takes hold of Doctor Strange, and in Spidey's attempt to help out the Master of Mystical Arts, he himself gets possessed by the demon. Peter has this nightmare in which all his villains attack him, and his own friends and family taunt him that they'll all die because of him. Of course, Stephen Strange defeats the demon, but the demon haunts Peter so much that he fails to let Mary in, when she knocks outside his door. To repeat: it sucks to be Spider-Man.

One last thing: the art does a great job of capturing this youthful optimism, in Peter's life as well as the Ultimate Universe. Here's the page in which Peter and Mary resolve to go on a fancy date:
Young love, huh? Check out the third panel, that close-up of Mary Jane. Doesn't she look delighted? It might be me, but her face, with the dimples and the eyes, there's a deliberate nod to John Romita Sr., back to the happier times of the main-universe Spider-Man. Good stuff, guys. Good comics!

NEXT WEEK: BPRD: 1946 and Y: The Last Man: Girl on Girl. And maybe The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues.

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