Comic Book Review: Ultimate Spiderman Vol.2 – Learning Curve (Marvel, 2002)

Ultimate-1Year: 2002
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Ultimate Spiderman #8-13 (2001)
Writer(s): Brian Michael Bendis
Artist(s): Mark Bagley (pencils), Art Thibert (inks), Transparency Digital (colours)
ISBN: 9780785108207

“High school, puberty, first dates – there are many pitfalls to being young. Compound these with intense personal tragedy and super powers, and you can start to visualise the world of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man.

Following the murder of his uncle, the assault on his high school and the confusing signals from the beautiful Mary Jane Watson, Peter finds himself on the brink of manhood: getting a job at the New York City newspaper, the Daily Bugle, to help support his family and taking on extracurricular activities…like bringing down organised-crime head honcho Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as the Kingpin!

Award-winning writer Brian Michael Bendis, with the one-two punch of artists Mark Bagley and Art Thibert, have put Spider-Man back at the forefront of the cutting-edge storytelling…where he belongs!”

[Note: for a review of Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1 and an overall impression of the Ultimate universe’s version of the character, click HERE]

“Learning Curve” turns out to be a highly-fitting cover title for this next set of Ultimate Spider-Man issues. Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13 continues the approach of the previous issues by presenting Peter’s early adventures in a slower-paced, more realistic fashion, striking a spot-on balance between his personal life as a teenager and his fledgling activities as Spider-Man.

Appropriately, these issues are restrained when it comes to introducing new villains for Peter to deal with. The main antagonist this time is the Kingpin and the Enforcers. Peter’s sense of justice pushes him to seek out Wilson Fisk in order to end his criminal reign over New York but, he soon finds that he is in over his head and still just a green superhero with a lot to learn.

Spider-Man takes a fair beating in these issues and even gets unmasked by the Kingpin before being thrown out of a skyscraper window. He also struggles against the Enforcers and the Kingpin’s other employee – Electro. While Peter eventually triumphs over Fisk and his henchmen, it is, nevertheless, a sobering reminder to the young superhero that he has much to learn. He still has to get to grips with his “Spider Sense” for instance.

The series also continues its more gritty vibe with the villains. The Kingpin, for example, looks pretty much the same as he does in the regular Marvel universe, but he is much more a deadly adversary here with savage strength and (literal) wall-shattering punches. There is even a scene where he murders Fredrick Foswell by crushing his head to a pulp with his bare hands. This IS still a mainline, colourful comic book though, so you don’t get to see the gory details but the expressions of horror on the faces of the Enforcers and Electro, plus Foswell’s death screams, are enough. THIS version of the Kingpin doesn’t fuck around.

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As for Electro, he doesn’t sport a loud costume this time around and the origin of his powers are still a complete mystery to Peter. Hopefully, we see more of him in future issues.

Outside of his second life as the wall-crawler, Peter’s personal life continues to evolve at a rapid pace. With Uncle Ben gone, Peter feels obliged to find a job to help contribute to the house he shares with Aunt May, thus – while trying to sell photographs of Spider-Man to the Bugle – he stumbles into a part-time web designer role. It’s a clever nod to the (far-fetched) way that Peter Parker earned money in Amazing Spider-Man, but THIS version of Peter ultimately (no pun intended) ends up with a far more modern job befitting of a geeky teenager in the new millennium. Peter being at the Bugle also means that Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Betty Brant and Ben Ulrich are all introduced to the Ultimate Spider-Man universe.

The biggest plot development in Learning Curve, however, is Peter’s blossoming relationship with Mary Jane. After all the shy looks and awkward moments in the first volume, MJ asks Peter out on a date. Unfortunately, he has to blow her off to recover from the beating he suffered at the hands of the Kingpin and Electro the night before. Consequently, Peter decides to simply cut to the chase and tell Mary Jane his secret before he messes her about too much and spoils their friendship. If you haven’t read Ultimate Spider-Man before, then this is perhaps a bit of a shock if you’d spent years reading the ‘main’ universe and following Peter’s unlikely, long-term concealment of his secret identity.

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But here, it really works. It’s far more believable, as is the much more immature initial reaction of Mary Jane’s when she tells Peter that he should be famous, like a rock star. Once Peter dispels this idea, by reminding MJ of the potential deadly implications of his identity being common knowledge, the pair come close to sharing their first kiss before Aunt May butts in and embarasses Peter by trying to broach the subject of safe sex!

Overall, Learning Curve is a masterfully-paced second volume of Ultimate Spiderman that leaves you just as intrigued with what will happen to Peter and his supporting cast as with what new developments will occur in the world of Spider-Man. This could have felt rushed and unrealistic had Bendis decided to introduce as many of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery as possible in this next set of issues but, as with Power and Responsibility, this second volume of Ultimate Spider-Man wisely sticks to the same template and allows Peter Parker to grow at a more authentic pace.

It’s also simply an incredibly fun read that I couldn’t put down, partly due to the fantastic writing, partly due to Mark Bagley’s superb artwork. Those things alone make Ultimate Spider-Man worth reading.

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