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Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility. Written by Bill Jemas and Brian Michael Bendis. Pencilled by Mark Bagley. Inked by Art Thibert and Dan Panosian. New York: Marvel Comics, 2000-2001. 1v. (unpaged). $14.95. ISBN 0-7851-0786-X.


Teens, kids, adults

NOTE: This volume collects Ultimate Spider-Man #1 issues 1-7.

Ultimate Spider-Man is a revamp of the Spider-Man story to make it more appealing to today's adolescents. Peter Parker is a skinny, short 15-year-old brainy geek who is constantly being picked on by the jocks at his school, especially Flash Thompson. He lives with his up-to-date Aunt May (who surfs the Net) and Uncle Ben (who has a ponytail). His only defender is Harry Osborn, son of millionaire industrialist Norman Osborn, and apparently his only friend is Mary Jane Watson.

On a field trip to Osborn Industries, Inc., Peter is bitted by a spider that had been injected with an experimental compound. The compound-venom mixture at first seems to be killing him, but it stabilizes, and he begins to gain a variety of spider-related powers that he has great fun using in secret. Norman Osborn watches his progress (from afar) with great interest and even manages to steal a blood sample (courtesy of Dr. "Ock" Octavius).

Peter is also becoming more aggressive, and in a fight with Flash he accidentally breaks Flash's hand. Flash's parents threaten to sue the Parkers if they don't pay his hospital bills, but the Parkers are so poor that they can't pony up the necessary $2,500. Feeling responsible, Peter dons a mask and becomes a pro wrestler, and leaves his cash salary in an anonymous envelope for his aunt and uncle.

When the wrestling arena is robbed, the manager accuses Peter of stealing the money, thus ending his wrestling career. On his way out, he fails to stop a petty thief from running away from a store. As you're quite aware, his selfishness results in the murder of Uncle Ben and one of the only quotable lines in the history of superhero comics: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Meanwhile, Norman Osborn has figured out that Peter is Spider-Man, and he decides to experiment on himself. The result is a trashed Osborn Industries, a dead Mrs. Osborn, and a highly mutated creature that will eventually be called the Green Goblin. Spider-Man makes his public superhero debut fighting the Green Goblin at his high school. Harry thinks it's after him, but Peter knows it's really after him.

I'm of two minds about this book, which is extremely popular with both adolescents and adults. One is geez, yet another revamp of a classic superhero that does violence to the original mythology. How many times is this story going to be retold? The other is, hey, they did an OK job of updating the story.

When the story focuses on Peter and his struggles is when it has the most power. If not quite believable as a brainy adolescent--Peter doesn't sound right; any 15-year-old bright enough to solve a chemistry problem left by his dead father should sound like a miniature version of his dead father--his emotions ring true: his quiet burn when he's abused, his mixed delight and confusion at his new powers, his short-term pride in his athletic prowess (he replaced Flash Thompson on the basketball team, briefly) and his long-term disgust with his own behavior, his agony at the death of Uncle Ben... these are all portrayed well. And I always liked the Spider-Man concept; 90% of heroes are not thought out nearly this well.

Where the story falters is the usual crop of dumb details that plague most superhero stories. Would Peter really be hanging around with his school enemies at a wrestling match? If Mary Jane has the nickname "Brainy Jane," why doesn't she display some smarts? Uncle Ben is tall, handsome, athletic, wise, patient, and oh-so-unbelievable as a person; he's a walking icon. (Example: he won't sue Osborn Industries because he doesn't want to screw up Peter's friendship with Flash. Yeah, sure.) May doesn't have a lot to do and looks as if she's going to end up being roughly the same useless individual she was in the old version. And why are they so poor, anyway? Why does Harry dare to appear in public (especially in a place where his father knows he would be) when his father is apparently gunning for him? And there's no real good reason given why Peter doesn't trip up the thief, especially when he's cranky and feeling vengeful; I could understand it if he was unaware of the guy until too late, or if the guy just brushed past him, but to do the little sidewalk dance with the guy and then let him go is ridiculous.

The art is standard superhero stuff, with nearly all the male characters looking like square-jawed male models, except that I like the skinny little Peter--though wouldn't his shirts stop fitting if his arm muscles got that big? And if his muscles are that bulgy in his Spider-Man suit, how come they're not noticeable in his regular clothes?

Despite my usual gripes about superhero books, this one is a cut above the usual and will definitely appeal to teenagers and kids. Highly recommended.


Copyright 2002, D. Aviva Rothschild


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