Assuming you've read USA Today or been anywhere on the Internet this week, you've probably heard that Spider-Man is dead. Ultimate Spider-Man, that is. That should come as no great surprise, seeing as how the title of the story was "The Death of Spider-Man." But expected or not, it's still a significant development for the first and longest-running Ultimate book on the stands.
As we wait to see what will become of Peter Parker's surviving friends and family and who will don the costume in the next volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, we're also looking back on the legacy of this great franchise. In this feature, we examine what made Ultimate Spider-Man so special and what Marvel's Ultimate writers need to focus on as they chart the next chapter of Spider-Man's career.
Note - we've avoided spoiling the details of issue #160, but this article contains general spoilers for the "The Death of Spider-Man" event.
Revitalizing the Market
Ultimate Spider-Man was a book the comic industry desperately needed in 2000. Marvel was still regrouping from a brush with bankruptcy. Readers had fled in droves during the market crash of the '90s. Those who attempted to get back in the game found too many mainstream superhero books to be convoluted and inapproachable.
Ultimate Spider-Man was conceived as a way to counter the notion that comics couldn't appeal to new readers who weren't up to date on 40 years of continuity. The series offered a brand new version of the Marvel Universe – one that was streamlined and updated to reflect contemporary society. The Ultimate Universe was a slightly more grounded place, one step closer to reality and where the sillier aspects of the Marvel Universe were toned down. More importantly, it marked a fresh start for new and old readers alike.
The importance of having an accessible, continuity-light universe has lessened over the years as Marvel's writers have worked to make all books more approachable. Still, readers owe a debt of gratitude to USM as one of the primary books that started the trend.
A Younger Peter Parker
It's hard to point to any Ultimate characters as being superior to their classic counterparts. There are just too many decades of classic Marvel stories compared to the ten years the Ultimate Universe has been around. But the best Ultimate characters are the ones that offer a different reading experience, and Ultimate Peter Parker set the standard.
Peter Parker was brought back to his roots in USM. He was once again a high school student struggling to juggle the pressures of his academic, work, social, and superhero lives. Rather than being married to Mary Jane, he was left free to enjoy the trials and tribulations of teenage romance. This version of Spider-Man was prone to make mistakes, leading a more dangerous and unpredictable lifestyle that nearly resulted in his death several times before the series finale.
Even his villains and allies were streamlined and updated alongside Spider-Man. Men like Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus became integral to Peter's origins. Aunt May was re-imagined from a frail and aging old woman into a hip, strong, confident mother figure. New additions rounded out Peter's supporting cast, including Kitty Pryde as a new love interest, Kong as a bully-turned-friend, and Iceman and Human Torch as new partners in crime-fighting.
It's interesting to note how the Brand New Day shift in the regular Spider-Man books attempted to introduce many of the qualities that were already standard in Ultimate Spider-Man. If not physically younger, regular Spidey once again lives a chaotic and freewheeling life. Clearly USM was on to something.
A Consistent Creative Team
It's always frustrating to see a particular book moving in a strong direction until a new creative team comes on board to shake things up again. Lengthy creative runs are all too rare these days. Ultimate Spider-Man is very much an exception to this rule. Writer Brian Michael Bendis introduced Ultimate Spider-Man #1 in 2000, and he wrapped up the series in 2011. Bendis has written every issue of the series and various spinoffs like Ultimate Six, Ultimate Doomsday, and Ultimate Origins.
There's something to be said for that level of consistency. Where other Ultimate books have varied in quality over the past decade, USM has remained dependable. Bendis is frequently able to seed plot points in his stories that don't fully pay off for years. Even after 160 issues, Bendis has barely scratched the surface of some characters.
USM has also been able to boast an unusual degree of visual consistency. Mark Bagley was the sole artist on the series for the first 110 issues, eventually allowing him and Bendis to break the record set by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four. Even after Bagley's departure, the series was host to a small group of artists including Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, and Sara Pichelli. And even as Marvel prepares to launch a new volume of the series in September, Bendis and Pichelli remain on board to keep things consistent.
USM in Other Media
If Ultimate Spider-Man succeeded in drawing in new readers, the series has also managed to expand into other media and win over Spidey fans. Activision released a USM video game in 2005 that aimed to tell a new story within the confines of the Ultimate Universe. While the game is no longer considered canon, it was an impressive attempt to unite the two media. Activision later revisited Ultimate Spidey as one of the four main characters in Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions.
The series has also exerted a clear influence on Marvel's animated television projects. Spectacular Spider-Man adopted the book's approach of presenting a younger, streamlined Spider-Man universe while also drawing in some more traditional elements. Now Marvel is currently developing a new cartoon called Ultimate Spider-Man. Based on early promo art and the fact that Bendis is involved in development, it's safe to assume this new series will borrow even more from the comic.
Even the live-action films are looking to USM for inspiration. Next year's Amazing Spider-Man will reboot the franchise and feature a younger Peter Parker. USM was a young, unproven series when Sam Raimi was filming the first Spider-Man. 160 issues later, the book offers a wealth of source material for the new filmmakers to draw from.
Ultimate Peter Parker is dead. If the title "Thee Death of Spider-Man" didn't make that obvious six months ago, issue #160 sealed the deal. Though Peter made his final great sacrifice, Spider-Man will live on as Marvel launches a new volume of the series this fall.
It's an interesting move to continue the story of Spider-Man without Peter Parker. But it also continues the tradition of shifting focus away from the most iconic Marvel heroes in the Ultimate Universe. In the mini-series Ultimatum, everyone from Wolverine to Daredevil to Magneto to Doctor Doom was killed. Now Spider-Man is just the latest casualty. The challenge has been and continues to be establishing the Ultimate line as something with enough originality and accessibility to stand apart from Marvel's regular universe.
There's no telling who will be wearing the costume this fall. Will it be an entirely new character? Is the preview cover a red herring and the new hero is actually Spider-Woman? Will Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane make use of their latent genetic upgrades? Is Peter Parker not quite as dead as he looks?
Whatever the case, Bendis and the other Ultimate writers will need to ensure that the new Spider-Man retains the same core appeal of the old. Spider-Man needs to be a noble hero, yet still as conflicted and prone to mistakes as any teenage hero would be. Spider-Man needs to be a character who relies on brains as well as brawn in every battle. And most importantly, Spider-Man needs to be a hero who understands that with great power must always come great responsibility. Some things should never change.