Review by Frank Plowright
The only real choice with Ultimate Spider-Man if you want to buy the actual books is whether to go for the hardcover combination, Vol. 4, the equivalent Vol. 4 in the bulky paperback Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection. Of course, you could head for the slimmer original paperbacks Irresponsible and Cats & Kings. Whichever format, any true superhero fan should have these stories in one form or another. Thanks to Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley they’re consistently edge of the seat whether dealing with Spider-Man in web-slinging action or the problems he faces at home and school as Peter Parker.
Due to the necessities of dealing with Venom, the previous volume rather pulled back on the Parker civilian life, but that’s featured over almost the entire opening chapter, which is great sitcom. The remainder of the volume has Spider-Man meet the X-Men for the first time, something with future consequences, introduces the Black Cat and Elektra to the Ultimate universe, and introduces a new mutant, an amusing doofus. The Kingpin is also revisited, opening an interesting ethical discussion picked up again down the line. Is he better in place profiting from crime, yet controlling the lower levels absolutely, or would the world be better without him. His standing is played out as the subject of a discussion between reporter Ben Urich and a would-be Senator standing for election. It’s a finely written conversation, twisting the truth before the moral high ground is regained, and subsequent events play out amid a highly emotionally charged undercurrent.
A question of judgement hangs over Mark Bagley’s sexualisation of women in this collection. He’s stuck with the way the Ultimate X-Men are costumed in their own title, but presumably the designs for Elektra and the Black Cat are his. In the mainstream Marvel universe these are provocative characters, but the objectification is unwelcome, and while his art has so many strengths, posing women sexually isn’t among them. Even more disturbing is the attempt at sexualising Mary Jane, who we should remember is aged 15 in this version. Otherwise Bagley’s plusses are many, and he could give far more highly regarded artists lessons in movement and making us see what someone’s feeling by their facial expression alone.
There is one mis-step here. Readers of the original monthly serialisation were surely not best pleased to discover an entire chapter given over to Aunt May visiting her therapist. Even accepting that, her blaming Spider-Man as the personification of her concerns never convinces. She’s far better in earlier chapters, and there’s another good role for Gwen Stacy. Everything amount to a further hefty dose of great drama accompanied by Bendis’ facility for supplying Spider-Man’s consistently funny patter, and some good art.