Ultimate Spider-Man Turns Twenty: Our 8 Favorite Moments
Apr 04, 2020
By Troy-Jeffrey Allen
Let’s talk about Ultimate Spider-Man for a moment.
This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Ultimate Marvel line's flagship title. Initiated by then Marvel Publisher Bill Jemas, Ultimate Spider-Man was always intended to be the first in a line of “new reader-friendly” comics featuring the company’s more popular creations. Ahead of its release, it was met with skepticism by fans, retailers, and speculators - and understandably so. Just two years prior (in 1998), Marvel had attempted a Spider-Man reboot with fan-favorite artist-writer John Byrne. The response was favorable but, ultimately (no pun intended), excised from continuity shortly after its run concluded. This created an atmosphere of doubt around the announcement of Ultimate Spider-Man two years later. All those concerns were put to rest once the book hit shelves in late 2000. Ultimate Spider-Man transitioned from a sleeper success to a bonafide hit! Thanks in no small part to the combined storytelling might of an indie creator named Brian Michael Bendis and the exemplary artwork of Mark Bagley.
But when we look back on any great story that we truly love, we always remember the moments. How they made us feel when we experienced them for the first time. So, here are eight favorite moments from the first 200 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man!
1. “Big time superhero coming through!”
Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1 (JAN072434)
While Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original 1962 origin story ran 11 pages, Bendis opted to tell Peter Parker’s transition into Spider-Man over the course of seven issues. Initially, both artist Mark Bagley and publisher Bill Jemas weren’t on board with dragging out an origin story that anyone familiar with pop culture already knew (radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, power, responsibility, etc.). However, this approach gave the reader ample time to relate to the main character and his supporting cast. It also gave plausibility to the villainous arc of Norman Osborn a.k.a. The Green Goblin.
In Lee and Ditko’s run, Osborn wasn’t revealed to be The Goblin until issue 39 of The Amazing Spider-Man. Bendis reversed engineered the entire reveal, allowing Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man to mirror Norman’s transformation into The Green Goblin. Which allowed Bendis to build to a big showdown at Peter’s high school between Goblin and Parker. It’s during the climactic battle that Peter finally reveals his Spider-Man costume. Providing readers with a thrilling moment where he leaps right over his unsuspecting classmates! Declaring “Big time superhero coming through,” as he literally springs into action.
2. “I’m Spider-Man.”
Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 (JAN072434)
One of the best issues of Ultimate Spider-Man is the typically unlucky #13.
After surviving near-death battles with Green Goblin, Electro, The Enforcers, and The Kingpin – Peter Parker can’t keep his double life secret anymore. So he confides in his best friend: Mary Jane Watson.
In this version of Spider-Man, MJ and Peter are on the outskirts of high school popularity (no doubt the inspiration for the MCU’s current interpretation played by Tom Holland and Zendaya). They study together, they hang out after school together, and their families are close. Still, they haven’t made the leap into boyfriend and girlfriend. That begins to change the moment Peter tells MJ that he is Spider-Man – the costumed hero that fought a mutated Norman Osborn in front of their high school.
The thing that makes this issue special is that it’s completely action-less. It is, however, filled with gentle character moments and one hilarious interruption by Aunt May.
3. A tough lesson in adulthood.
Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Colletion Vol. 1 (JAN072434)
If there is one constant theme within the Spider-Man mythos, it’s “coming of age.” Writer Brian Michael Bendis leans into this repeatedly during his Ultimate Spider-Man run. In issue eight, Peter - now working for the Daily Bugle newspaper - just can’t understand why every adult around him opts to turn a blind eye to the blatant criminal activity of The Kingpin. Particularly, the journalist at The Bugle.
Prompted by the continuing guilt of his Uncle’s murder (remember: power and responsibility), Peter decides to push back as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Putting his ideals of truth and justice at odds with J. Jonah Jameson and The Kingpin.
4. The Black Cat kiss
Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Vol. 7 (MAR171168)
Two additionally impressive things about Ultimate Spider-Man: firstly, artist Mark Bagley’s mastery of emotional manipulation. Secondly, the writer’s reimagining of classic Spider-Man stories. The second appearance of Ultimate Felicia Hardy a.k.a The Black Cat is a perfect example of both.
Old school Spidey fans (guilty!) will recall that Black Cat and Spider-Man’s original relationship had a tiny bit of kink attached to it. As long as the masks stayed on, Black Cat could find herself attracted to Peter Parker. In Ultimate Spider-Man #85, writer Brian Michael Bendis adds a whole new level of odd to the equation with Black Cat being blissfully unaware that Spider-Man is a teenager. After endless flirtations (most of which Peter awkwardly reciprocates), the moment comes where Parker’s hormones win out over common sense. Hilariously, artist Mark Bagley plays up the cringe-worthy moment where Peter unmasks for Felicia. And, just like in the classic continuity, she is immediately repulsed. Bringing Peter Parker’s stupid ego back down to reality.
5. Gwen Stacy will cut you!
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Gwen Stacy is sweet, kind, immaculate…right? Not Ultimate Gwen Stacy.
From the moment she first appears on panel, Ultimate Gwen is a clear contrast to all the other kids at Peter’s Parker’s high school. She’s a head-turner and, interestingly enough, a bit of a wildcard compared to her classic self. That becomes very clear when she comes to Peter’s defense after a bully treats his backside like a field goal kick. At this point, Peter is Spider-Man already. So he puts on quite an agonizing performance in order to not give away his secret identity. But it turns out that the new kid on the block, Gwen Stacy, don’t play that. She breaks out a switchblade on the bully and threatens to prison shank him if he ever touches Parker again!
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If there is another constant in the Spider-Man mythos, it’s that Peter Parker just can’t catch a break. And that’s what we get with Ultimate Spider-Man #28. Similar to issue 13, this is another great, minimalistic standalone story filled with character. The Rhino is on a rampage in Manhattan and only one boy can stop him...Peter Parker. The catch: Parker is still just a teenager. And leaving school grounds while trying to make a quick costume change can be difficult. Especially with hall sweep, overly-concerned teachers, bullies, and drama queens at every turn!
7. Ultimate Venom
Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Vol. 3 (JUN100679)
Once again, I have to commend the emotional visuals of artist Mark Bagley. I also must give a shout out to inkers Art Thibert and Rodney Ramos for really setting the tone here.
Starting with Ultimate Spider-Man #33, Bendis, Bagley, and company shift the series in a darker direction. The catalyst being the first appearance of Ultimate Venom/Eddie Brock. In this interpretation, Bendis weaves a more relatable origin story for Venom. One filled with deeper emotional connections that give you insight into Peter, Aunt May, and Peter’s dead parents. This allows one of Spider-Man’s premiere villains an arc that truly feels full circle and pre-destined to unravel Parker's personal life.
8. The Death of Peter Parker and the Rise of Miles Morales
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Lastly, I have to talk about the boldest move of this entire series: killing Peter Parker and introducing Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man. Needless to say, Miles is now a household name. But back in 2011, his impending debut (which, technically, happened in Ultimate Fallout #4) was a giant question mark for readers.
Actually, come to think of it, Miles supplanting Ultimate Peter Parker kind of fits. Before Ultimate Spider-Man #1 debuted in 2000, it also received its fair share of head-scratching. Audiences just didn’t quite know what to do with it. And just like Ultimate Peter Parker’s debut, the risk of the Miles Morales switcheroo paid off.
As for Ultimate Peter Parker’s demise, that moment itself ranks pretty high on the list of Spider-Man moments period. After breaking Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s record for a consecutive comic book run (100 issues!), Bendis and Bagley reteamed one more time to send off the series they created and say goodbye to young Parker. Because of that, every line and every panel feels bittersweet. Especially, Peter’s final words to Aunt May. A moment that even choked up writer Brian Michael Bendis as he completed Parker's last issue. "Listen, I sat there typing this thing with tears in my eyes like a big baby!" Bendis said in a USA Today interview. "I went upstairs to my wife, and I go, 'I am so embarrassed. I think I've literally been crying for 45 minutes.' I've had real things happen in my life I didn't cry about, and yet I'm crying about this. I became very proud of it, and that's not an adjective I often put on myself.”
Two decades later and it is easy to take the series’ (and the Ultimate line in general’s) impact for granted. Without Ultimate Spider-Man’s early success, however, there would likely have been no Ultimate line, Brian Michael Bendis might have never become the superstar writer he became, Miles Morales would have never existed, and several of Hollywood’s most recent interpretations of Spider-Man would not exist. Like much of Marvel at the time, Ultimate Spider-Man is a testament to the importance of executing bold new ideas, respecting the source material, and allowing new blood to be injected into the comic book industry. All while understanding what makes classic characters tick.
Troy-Jeffrey Allen is the producer and co-host of PREVIEWSworld Weekly. His comics work includes BAMN, Fight of the Century, the Harvey Award-nominated District Comics, and the Ringo Awards-nominated Magic Bullet.