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.

DSC_0474

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.

DSC_0473

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.

Comic Book Review: Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1 – Power and Responsibility (Marvel, 2001)

USM-1Year: 2001
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Ultimate Spiderman #1-7 (2000)
Writer(s): Brian Michael Bendis, Bill Jemas
Artist(s): Mark Bagley (pencils), Art Thibert, Dan Panosian (inks), Steve Buccellato, Marie Javins, Colorgraphix & JC (colours)
ISBN: 0-7851-0786

“With great power comes great responsibility.” In 1963, these prophetic words launched one of the most successful and recognisable characters of the 20th Century…Spider-Man! The powers granted bookish Peter Parker by a radioactive spider have fueled the imagination of fans worldwide for nearly 40 years. With the dawning of a new age, however, comes a hero for a new millenium…Ultimate Spiderman!

Updating Spider-Man for the 21st Century was no easy task, and it took the brilliant minds of Bill Jemas and Brian Michael Bendis to do just that. With the artistic talents of Mark Bagley and Art Thibert breathing new life into this legendary mythos, Spider-Man has reasserted himself as one of the most popular characters in the world!

When Marvel first established the ‘Ultimate’ line of comics, it was a genius move. Rather than take the controversial move to reboot the entire Marvel universe from scratch and bin decades of existing canon (as DC would later do with their New 52 series), the Ultimate comics had their own separate universe, giving Marvel the opportunity re-introduce all of their popular characters for a younger generation. It meant that the characters fans knew and loved could be drastically revamped to be a bit grittier, more realistic and more “with the times”.

The Ultimate universe still feels fresh and new to me but in reality, it’s now on the verge of being twenty friggin’ years-old. Holy shit – where has that time gone? I haven’t kept up with where its at now but I imagine that it too – like the ‘main’ universe – is drowning in its own baggage and backstory.

It should come as no surprise that Spider-Man was the first character (alongside the X-Men) to be revamped and launch the Ultimate line. Marvel absolutely did the job too, re-telling the character’s origin story in an up-to-date, more believable fashion while remaining faithful to the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko source material from the 60’s. Peter Parker is still a shy, bullied high school student for example. He still gets bitten by a radioactive spider and Uncle Ben is still killed by a burglar but not before reminding his nephew that, with great power comes great responsibility.

The difference with Ultimate Spider-Man, however, is that the pacing of Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man is so much more realistic (well…as realistic as the whole shebang can be) rather than being rushed through in a single issue. It takes Peter the first five issues to even begin to get used to his new powers, for example, with Uncle Ben making it until the end of issue four. Furthermore, Spider-Man doesn’t battle his first supervillain until the sixth and seventh issues.

USM-3
[Source]
It allows the human side of Peter and the supporting cast to shine through as much as the fantastical superhero action. We see Peter gradually come out of his shell then turn into a bit of an entitled asshole before being brought back down to earth when Uncle B is offed by a burglar that he could have previously stopped but didn’t because it wasn’t his problem. But we also see how Flash Thompson (and his new jock side-kick, Kong) make Peter’s life a misery at school and we can empathise with Peter fighting back even while he’s burning his relationship with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. We see the tentative, awkward attraction between Peter and Mary-Jane. In short, Marvel really nailed teenage/high-school life of the time and made the character much more relevant to younger readers who wouldn’t have been able to relate so easily to the 1960’s original. The premise is the same but the language and culture in Amazing Spider-Man #1 was so outdated by then.

While Peter struggles to come to terms with his new abilities, survive school and maintain relationships at home, Norman Osborn is working on his ‘Oz’ formula and keeping a beady eye on the results of Peter’s accident which occured when his class toured his facilities. Right from the off, Osborn knows who Peter is and sees through the costume. Frustrated with investors – and seeing how Peter’s physical abilities were enhanced by the spider bite – Norman injects himself with the Oz formula. A major lab disaster follows and the Green Goblin is born out of the flames and death.

This version of GG is a monstrous, Hulk-like creature that can generate and hurl explosive fireballs and leap huge distances. The creative team essentially kept him resembling a Goblin (albeit far more muscular and beastly) but swapped the glider for superhuman abilities and the pumpkin bombs for organically-generated fireballs. A tattered purple robe compliments the villain’s green skin and makes him instantly identifiable as the Green Goblin, despite the physique and characterisation being completely different. It’s a fantastic re-imagining in my opinion.

 

USM-2
GG looking hench in the Ultimate universe. [Source]
As I’ve already said, the pacing of the origin story is much slower in Ultimate Spider-Man but at the same time, the character development and action trade places every few pages so the story doesn’t ever feel drawn-out for the sake of it.

Plenty of the familiar Spider-Man supporting cast is also re-introduced and revamped in these first issues. The likes of Jameson, Liz Allen, Doctor Octavius Ben Ulrich and Captain Stacey all make minor appearances – for now.

I also have to mention the fantastic artwork by Mark Bagley. His work is so easy on the eye and his characters are always full of personality and visible emotion. The inks are bold and the colours bright, leading to an overall art style that is energetic and pure comic-book without ever stepping into the cartoon or overly-exaggerated territories.

My only criticism is that I couldn’t put this trade paperback down and so it was over all too quickly, leaving me hungry for more. I’ve read Ultimate Spiderman before though, all the way up to the introduction of Silver Sable, so I’m aware of how the plot unfolds, but it’s been so long that this book feels fresh and exciting again. I’m very much looking forward to tracking down the rest of the trades and continuing to re-visit what I consider to be Marvel masterpiece of story-telling and visual eye-candy.

Comic Book Review: Shanna The She-Devil TPB (Marvel, 2006)

shanna-1Year: 2006
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Shanna The She-Devil #1-7 (2005)
Writer(s): Frank Cho
Artist(s): Frank Cho
ISBN: 0-7851-1038-0

When a covert military team crash-lands on a remote tropical island, the soldiers make a shocking discovery: an abandoned Nazi lab holding the results of a long-term human experiment. The soldiers release the project’s sole survivor: a super-strong warrior woman held since birth in an incubation tube. Known only as Shanna, this voluptuous blonde possesses the strength of twelve men and a tenacious ferocity to match. On an island swarming with bloodthirsty raptors and an unstoppable T-Rex, the soldiers will need to win her trust – and quickly – if they hope to survive their unexpected tour of duty in this savage land!

I could go ahead and waffle on about my interest on Marvel’s B-Tier and below characters being the driving force behind my purchase of this particular graphic novel. Or I could tell you that my motivation behind adding Shanna The She-Devil to my bookshelf was formed from a desire to read something from Marvel that was self-contained and not up it’s own arse, lost in a network of crossovers and events. Both of these reasons would actually be true but I’m just going to be honest here: I bought this because it features a voluptuous vixen of a female lead and dinosaurs – two of the best subjects that can grace a comic book.

Before reading this, I had no idea who Shanna was. I recall seeing her briefly share a panel or two with Kazar in an early issue of New Avengers (when the team visited the Savage Land) but that’s it. All I saw was a sexy Jungle/Cave girl drawn by the awe-inspiring Frank Cho and I was sold. This particular 2005 mini-series is possibly a prequel to Shanna’s story but that’s just an educated guess based on how a stranded military unit find her, suspended in a tank of fluid – a leftover Nazi experiment who initially acts upon instinct alone without the knowledge of society or morals.

shanna-2
Perving on Shanna: not advisable. Doesn’t he see the strategically-placed spray and foam anyway?

The team take Shanna back to their makeshift stronghold where she gradually develops, learning to speak and understand her surroundings at an incredible rate. Unfortunately, they also unwittingly take a deadly, weaponised virus back with them in amongst some medical supplies and it gets released, infecting several members of the team and giving them less than ten days to live. There is an antidote but it means returning to the lab: a six-day round trip over an island teeming with carnivorous dinosaurs. A suicide mission in other words.

Fortunately, they have Shanna.

Neither the wild nor the dinos scare Shanna. Super-strong and agile, Shanna is a superhuman warrior – the perfect weapon born of twisted Nazi experimentation to create such a being.

The plot is pretty throwaway and so is the attempt at adding some depth through “Doc”‘s journal entries where he narrates the situation and describes Shanna’s progress as she slowly morphs from an instinctive killing machine – driven by pure survival – into a more human-like person, capable of empathy and reasoning. The main draw here is obviously the non-stop action that sees Shanna fighting hordes of raptors and even a T-Rex.

Frank Cho wrote AND illustrated this series and his breathtaking artwork is THE reason to have this Graphic Novel in your collection. When it comes to drawing bodacious babes with dramatic curves, Cho is a god in my opinion. Aside from having an enviable talent for bringing stunning women to life in the pages of a comic book, he is also a master of anatomy and realistic physics which makes for some truly dynamic action scenes and believable movement. I don’t want to keep banging on about Shanna’s figure but just look at how he makes her breasts swing around whenever she’s in motion – a lot of artists don’t bother putting this much energy into a moving character.

shanna-3
Physics at work. And lots of dead dinosaurs.

Away from the ladies, Cho also knows how to put together a good action sequence using a spread of small panels and sound effects. In this book especially, he is able to turn a fairly straightforward plot into a seven-issue action spectacle that never feels drawn-out for the sake of it.

Shanna The She-Devil isn’t ground-breaking nor would it ever be a critical darling but fuck the critics because this is raw, unrestrained fun – a welcome dosage of action starring a badass, ultra-sexy jungle girl kicking the shit out of dinosaurs and fighting with primal savagery. There’s gallons of blood too and some pretty graphic deaths whenever a soldier is offed by a dinosaur or when Shanna is tearing through a pack of a raptors with two machetes. In short, it’s a bit of a turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy book and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially when Frank Cho is on illustrative duties.

Aside from the wafer thin plot and so-so attempt to try and add some depth to Shanna’s character, the only other gripe I have with Shanna The She-Devil is that it was just a mini-series. By the time I reached the end, I found myself wanting more.

Comic Book Talk: Ghost Rider #1-#27 (1990-)

GR-1The 90’s gets a bad rap when it comes to comic books. The 60’s and 70’s established many of the characters and ongoing books that readers are familiar with while the 80’s featured countless classic story arcs and famous runs on big name comics. Fast forward to the modern day and the likes of Marvel and DC are enjoying more exposure than ever and, as befits the age we live in, the comics themselves enjoy slick presentation and the individual titles are far more integrated into the main ‘universe'(s) with frequent crossovers and major ‘events’.

By contrast, the 90’s is often cited as the decade of forgettable storytelling, uninspiring ideas and a lack of anything “big”. Thing is though, while many of the mainline books suffered a period of stagnation in the 1990’s, it simply isn’t true to claim that the decade as a whole is worth forgetting about because there were some fantastic comics. Case in point, the 1990 Ghost Rider reboot which is one of my favourite runs of any comic to date.

The powers of the Ghost Rider are picked up by new lead character, Dan Ketch, and he struggles to cope with the Rider’s furious need for vengeance as well as his own personal life which begins to spin out of control once he begins moonlighting as GR. This is a different Ghost Rider to the original Johnny Blaze incarnation and so this run had the freedom to go its own way while posing numerous questions and mysteries regarding the Ghost Rider.

I’m only going to talk about the first 27 issues here in this post because from there on, the Sons of Midnight crossover project began and I haven’t read any further since I need to track down some more comics to fill in the gaps in my collection. Those 27 issues however are pure dynamite. This is a dark book that doesn’t shy away from violence, blood and innocent death. A core of recurring, brand-new villains are also established for Ghost Rider to contend with and while they don’t exactly have the most dynamic of personalities between them, the psychotic brutality of their actions and the joy they extract from killing, makes them fascinating adverseries for GR to face off against.

Blackout is a crazed, sharp-toothed killer that enjoys ripping people’s throats out, Deathwatch is an evil businessman that cracks necks and appears to draw energy from the death of his victims and Zodiac is a sick serial killer that continually manages to escape the vengeful wrath of Ghost Rider. This trio of villains are collectively behind a wave of violent murders and disappearances in the Forest Hills area of Queens, New York. Ghost Rider might be a powerhouse of a character with high immunity to damage but he struggles to permanently put these sickos down. Deathwatch for example hides behind the persona of a respectable businessman and pulls the strings from the shadows. Blackout on the other hand deduces GR’s identity and makes things personal, striking out at those close to Dan Ketch. He even attacks the hospital and tears the throat out of Ketch’s comatose sister! You end up really despising these villains and rooting for Ghost Rider as he takes on a sort-of anti-hero role, beating the shit out of bad guys and not being constrained by the morality codes that the likes of Spiderman and the Avengers abide by. As I said before, this is a dark book.

DSC_0439

During these 27 issues, Ghost Rider also encounters Dr. Strange, teams up with The Punisher to take on Flag Smasher and battles the Brood alongside the X-Men. Mephisto makes an appearance, Ghost Rider has his first battle with Scarecrow and Johnny Blaze himself even shows up but the motive for his return isn’t what you might expect.

The thing that really makes this run of Ghost Rider so special is the creative team behind it. After reading some truly woeful Spiderman arcs in the late 90’s from Howard Mackie, I didn’t ever expect to praise the same guy for his writing but here, it is superb. The human side of Dan Ketch and the effect that his actions as Ghost Rider have on the supporting cast is as integral to the ongoing plot as are the villains that refuse to give up and die and Mackie does a great job of striking a balance between them. Better yet is the artwork which is absolutely stunning in that raw, detailed style that only comics from the 80’s and early 90’s could deliver before presentation as a whole moved to another level and computer work sucked some of the soul and purity from the pages.

DSC_0437

Javier Saltares kicks things off before being replaced by regular artist, Mark Texeira (also known as simply ‘TEX’). Both men really bring the book to life with grim, brooding artwork but Texeira in particular is on another level. Ron Wagner steps in from time-to-time too and honestly, I rate him almost as highly as Texeira. There really is no weak link in the art department for these opening 27 issues.

Overall, I cannot recommend this volume of Ghost Rider enough. I don’t disagree that the 90’s served up some real duds in the comic book arena but in my experience, it is the B-Tier characters and books that give the decade some appeal. In particular, I love the dark characters and horror themes that Marvel saw fit to push out in the early 90’s; the 1990 reboot of Ghost Rider being a front-runner (or should that be ‘rider’?). It remains to be seen whether the rest of the run manages to uphold the same quality and thrilling reading but I have high hopes.

Comic Book Talk: The Amazing Spiderman – New Ways To Die [ASM #568-573]

The six-part “New Ways To Die” storyline in Amazing Spiderman is sort of a bookmark for me as this is when I stopped following Marvel’s most famous hero and ceased consuming Marvel comics in general. I’d simply gotten burnt out on the massive crossovers and wasn’t too crazy about some of the things that had happened in the Marvel universe. Sometimes I have a peek at some of the events that have happened since 2008 and I have to say that I won’t be returning to the fold any time soon.

In any case, New Ways To Die was a nice place to conclude. I was genuinely enjoying the Brand New Day arc that returned the tone of Amazing to that of the 60’s/70’s where Peter Parker’s life wasn’t so dark, miserable and tied-in with the rest of the Marvel universe. It allowed for some much-loved support characters such as Betty Brant, Ben Ulrich and Harry Osborn to return. BND also saw the return of simpler stories while nurturing some ongoing plot threads in the background.

DSC_0173

New Ways To Die sees the Thunderbolts, led by Norman Osborn, travel to New York to take down Spiderman, who is being implicated in a series of murders – killings that have all featured one of his spider tracer devices at the scene of the crime. Behind the scenes, it is candidate for the mayor’s office, Randall Crowne, who brings in Osborn and his team to eliminate Spiderman in the interests of boosting his election campaign. Dexter Bennet of the DB newspaper (formerly the Daily Bugle) is on smear duties, putting the Spiderman serial killer story on the front pages at Crowne’s behest.

All of this is just the backdrop and part of the ongoing Brand New Day storyline as are the appearances of Goblin-esque ‘Menace’ who has notable encounters with Spiderman and the OG Goblin of them all, Osborn.

The real attractions of this storyline are Osborn being as evil and calculating as ever and the emergence of a brand-new symbiote. Eddie Brock – the original Venom – is now trying to live out his final days as a cancer sufferer, helping a New York food shelter in order to make amends for his actions as a supervillain. Unfortunately, the (then) current Venom – Mac Gargan – encounters Brock at the shelter when hunting Spiderman and Eddie suddenly transforms into a new white-coloured symbiote, suitably dubbed Anti Venom. It was great to see Brock as a symbiote again and I really liked the design of Anti Venom. For me, there was only ever one Venom and the Mac Gargan incarnation of the character was something I never truly warmed to.

DSC_0174

Another major treat throughout this six issue run was John Romita Jr’s superb artwork. I have always been a big fan of J.R. Jr ever since first seeing his work on Spiderman in the 90’s and it looks better and better as the years pass. I know many don’t agree but I love his take on the symbiotes with their extending limbs, huge demonic mouths and almost comical abilities so it was a joy to see him illustrate the debut of Anti Venom. Heck, I didn’t even really mind Gargan when drawn in his style.

The battles are illustrated superbly and the interactions between Spiderman and Norman Osborn are fantastic, especially seeing as how Osborn looks and sounds as evil as ever here. He has brought the Thunderbolts in for a reason but really, he just wants to get at Spiderman himself. As a result of BND, Norman no longer knows Spiderman’s secret identity and this allows for a little bit of cat and mouse between him, Peter and Peter’s alter ego.

Overall, this was a very fun run of Amazing Spiderman that continued the Brand New Day trend of injecting much-needed life and raw entertainment into the book. The artwork is first class and Anti Venom was an excellent debut character that put Eddie Brock back in the picture at long last. Upon re-reading these issues, I’m even tempted to pick up some more Amazing from this era and perhaps even re-acquire the issues that led up to New Ways To Die from the very start of Brand New Day. That’s the power of a good comic book.