This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the superhero who is arguably Marvel Comics’ greatest and most well known of their entire costumed pantheon, the amazing Spider-Man. And much like almost anyone who has crossed the half century mark, the wall crawler has survived his share of crises and misadventures both on and behind the printed page. Once known for being a down to earth hero with a simple yet memorable supporting cast and one of the best rogues galleries in comic book history, 2015 has seen the web-slinger embroiled in a war across realities with an army of counterparts against bland imitation vampires before becoming an international tycoon with an armada of mechanized gear. Once known as a solo hero who occasionally would team up with other heroes when needed, he’s been a regular member of at least one Avengers team for over a decade. And with Marvel Studios (and Disney) having brokered a deal to share film rights (and royalties) with the struggling Sony, it won’t be long before Spider-Man headlines his own series of feature films once again. Spider-Man’s fans, writers, and even editors from the past and present seem to have agreed to disagree about the proper course of action his comic book franchise should take, and whether that course of action is occurring currently or belonged to a bygone era. Such a backdrop makes a run such as “Spider-Man Ultimate Collection” stand out even more than it did when it was new.
In 1998, Marvel Comics was struggling with both bankruptcy and relevancy. This caused the publisher to have to outsource the production of several comic books to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmoitti’s “Event Comics” company. Those four titles (Daredevil, Black Panther, Punisher, and Inhumans) became their own imprint in “Marvel Knights”, which quickly made a name for itself in terms of both sales and quality. It was through this success that Quesada ultimately rose to the position of editor-in-chief and finally chief creative officer, shaping the destiny of the Marvel Universe in all forms ever since 2000. Originally kept apart from the greater “Marvel Universe” of comics with edgier characters and grittier themes, and saw top tier creators such as Brian Bendis, Steve Dillion, Garth Ennis, David Mack, and Michael Oeming begin career runs within Marvel on various properties. Seeking to replace the recently canceled “Spider-Man’s Tangled Web” series with another regular series telling stories set outside of his main series (“Amazing Spider-Man”), the original plan was to kick off “Marvel Knights Spider-Man” with a run by then hot writer/director Kevin Smith. Due to “scheduling issues” (which would become routine with his comic work), Smith’s run would ultimately become a separate mini series, and the reigns to “Marvel Knights Spider-Man” were handed to Mark Millar. At the time, Millar’s career had shifted away from “kiddie books” (“Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Superman Adventures”) and being Grant Morrison’s ghost writer (“The Authority”) to helping found the “Ultimate” imprint with “Ultimate X-Men” and “The Ultimates”. Alongside Bendis, his influence and ideas were helping steer the overall line of comics with his rise in popularity. Teamed with artists Terry Dodson and Frank Cho, the end result was a year long run broken up into three arcs which all came together into a single, cohesive story line involving everything Spider-Man seemed to be about and would help shape the direction of the wall-crawler for years to come.
This “ultimate collection” (which isn’t to be confused with any “Ultimate Spider-Man” collection) contains all three arcs from 2004-2005 (“Down with Dead Men”, “Venomous”, and “The Last Stand”) into one easily read trade paperback. When Spider-Man manages to publicly defeat his arch nemesis the Green Goblin after yet another grueling battle, he tries to quickly brush off the physical and emotional injuries and delve into the rest of his life. He’s married to the love of his life in Mary Jane, he’s helping his beloved aunt May finally move out of her old house in Queens to be closer to them, and he’s trying to settle into a teaching career at Midtown High. Unfortunately, the defeat of Green Goblin kicks off a whirlwind of misery for all of them when May is kidnapped by someone who’s figured out Spider-Man’s identity and seems intent to taunt him with the threat of her murder. Desperate for leads and with an entire rogues gallery of suspects, Spider-Man reestablishes ties with his ex Black Cat as well as delves into the seedy underworld of costumed villains in the search for clues. Moral lines are crossed and a secret history of super-villainy itself seems to be revealed for the first time. Faced with unreliable superhero allies and nearly his entire rogues gallery of villains pitted against him, an increasingly fragile and battered Spider-Man has to survive attacks from not only Electro and Vulture, but a brainwashed Dr. Octopus and more than one man wishing to become an even deadlier Venom than the original. The end result is a dramatically violent showdown on docks and bridges against a dozen of his deadliest enemies with not only his life, but the lives of everyone he loves in the balance.
In the eyes of many fans both online and off, this run represents one of the last “truly great” Spider-Man stories which Marvel published before subsequent crossover events and editorial pushes would pull the web-slinger apart more so than any villain could. As a result, a lot of hype has been attached to this collection, which doesn’t always benefit it when read with a decade of hindsight. For better or worse, Mark Millar has a very particular style of writing, especially in terms of dialogue. His characters seem to string along a combative series of one-liners more than actually converse, in between delivering occasional monologues or exposition. It could be a dubbed a “can you top this” style of writing dialogue which gives an air of attitude and juvenile posturing throughout the piece (even in Spider-Man’s narration of events). It is a style which has worked wonders for Millar in terms of getting him work within Hollywood, but it can become predictable or even grating for some of his comic book work. Lines such as “God!”, “Oh God!” or “Are you serious?” pop up often enough to serve as fuel for a drinking game. Furthermore, few writers of the modern era seem as quick to date themselves in pop culture references of the time more so than Millar. The very start of this run begins with two men debating whether VHS or DVD is the better home video format, which was topical in 2004 but only now serves to date it as poorly as shout-outs to Vietnam or Reagan did in older eras. HBO dramas of the era and even “The Passion of the Christ” are not only mentioned, but become notable plot details for at least one character. And despite all of the intense and often amazing action sequences and scheming among characters, in the end it is ultimately a freak bolt of lightning that saves Peter and MJ, which teeters closer to the realm of anti-climax than would be recommended. Emboldened by the “edgy” imprint, more civilians tend to die during the story’s proceedings than had been common in Marvel Comics of the time.
Fortunately, this run also contains a greater number of strengths which overcome the above flaws rather well. First among them is the absolutely phenomenal artwork by Terry Dodson and Frank Cho (as well as inker Rachel Dodson and colorists Ian Hannin and Laura Martin). Both known for “cheesecake”, Dodson and Cho deliver absolutely amazing artwork for all of the characters presented within, including several redesigns of notable villains (such as Electro, Vulture, and Venom) as well as stunning (and brutal) action set pieces. The Dodsons do most of the art for the run, with Cho and Martin only contributing two issues out of the twelve. Fortunately, their styles seem to compliment each other enough that while the differences are there, their work still flows together to maintain the overall “look” of the run. It may be true that Mary Jane and Black Cat may rarely have looked prettier (with the latter having more than one “questionable” pose), but in the end both get as immersed into the action as Spider-Man does. Felicia in particular proves to be quite vicious when riled. One criticism the run may have is that it was catering to its artists by finding an “excuse” to feature as many of Spider-Man’s enemies as possible (much like the “Batman: Hush” run by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee two years earlier did for the caped crusader). Such a criticism seems to dissolve into nothingness upon seeing how consistently great the art is.
Secondly, while Mark Millar may have an obnoxious way of presenting dialogue, at heart he understood the characters he was dealing with and had some imaginative ideas to challenge them with. There are plenty of times where Spider-Man himself talks like some of the teenagers that his alter ego teaches, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker for the wisecracking hero. Millar also captures the many angles of Peter Parker, who is an intelligent and noble hero who is also plagued by guilt and self sacrifice yet in the end will fight to the last for those he loves or even strangers around him. Before retroactive continuity would later claim that they were “cohabitating” for twenty years, Mary Jane is in top form as the supportive, sassy, and courageous wife of both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. While she is Peter’s emotional rock to cling to during the entire ocean of an ordeal he goes through, she isn’t slavish to the point of being weak willed or boring. MJ has her own ideas and tenacity, doing what she can to help both of them survive from clearing battle zones of bystanders to even packing heat. Felicia Hardy/Black Cat has often been written in problematic ways by a variety of writers past and present, but Millar nails her duality of at heart being a good person who simply has grayer morals than the lead hero. She may still pine for Peter’s heart, but ultimately she respects that he is married and even works with MJ when she has to. While she is willing to do things that Peter never would condone (such as stage a jailbreak, steal or deliberately disfigure a villain), there are lines that she won’t cross nor does she want to see Peter cross, either. And while over a dozen super villain technically appear in this run (from the Owl to the Chameleon), the two who benefit the most are Norman Osborn and Mac Gargan. Years before Osborn would take over both the “Thunderbolts” program as well as “SHIELD” itself during “Dark Reign”, this story cemented his role as one of the major figures within the secret corporate underworld that “runs” everything from behind the scenes. Millar’s Osborn is in rare form as a scheming manipulator who can plan out a revenge scheme for years in addition to being stark raving mad enough to don a goblin costume and try to blow up Spider-Man himself. Gargan, despite being among Spider-Man’s “A-list” villains as the Scorpion, has always seemed to be dismissed as yet another crazed brawler in a green suit. In this story, Millar makes him far more cerebral and chilling then he usually is, perhaps remembering that he started out as a private eye (and therefore was reasonably intelligent). His evolution into a newer and deadlier Venom proved to be interesting enough that Marvel Comics ran with it for six years. Millar even makes great use of Aunt May despite her being a hostage for much of the run, capitalizing on the progression that J. Michael Straczynski made with her on his “Amazing Spider-Man” run.
As mentioned previously, Millar introduces many great ideas into the Spider-Man lore as well as works alongside his artists to construct one pulse pounding action sequence after the next. The “secret history of super villains” dating back to the 1940’s works within the greater Marvel Universe and proves to be quite fascinating in itself. The time taken within the criminal underworld, from Electro and Vulture at a strip joint to Tinkerer running auctions for super villain identities prove to be very memorable. Even the world of superheroes in context to Spider-Man is explored, with the Avengers seeming to be fundamentally opposite to him due to vastly different life experiences as well as government connections, and the X-Men being too bizarre even for a hero who had two “clone sagas”. After so many years of Spider-Man being one of the “world’s greatest heroes” or at the beck and call of SHIELD, it is refreshing to be reminded that it wasn’t long ago when he didn’t blindly trust the government’s beloved heroes and stood up for himself. It is often forgotten that Peter’s birth parents were spies who not only died on the job, but were successfully framed for treason; that alone would make Peter think twice about wholeheartedly trusting the powers-that-be with all his secrets. It also is always refreshing to be reminded how incredible a character Mary Jane is and what a fantastic supporting character she’s always been to the franchise, especially in an era where Marvel’s senior editors and creative officers seem to have taken her for granted at best or scapegoated her at worst. The fact that Mark Millar, a writer who would go on to write some of the most cruel and vile things current mainstream comics have ever known in “Kick-Ass”, “Wanted”, and “Nemesis” genuinely believes in the power of Peter and MJ’s love for each other to overcome any threat or challenge, when many of Marvel’s top brass no longer do, speaks volumes about how badly things have gone over the past six years.
In many ways this arc serves not only as a time capsule in terms of Spider-Man stories of the recent past, but it may also serve as a line in the sand after which the character was never the same again. Despite his experiences here, Spider-Man wound up joining the “New Avengers” before this run had quite completed. His dilemma of being embroiled in bizarre crossovers continued with “The Other” (in which Spider-Man magically transformed into a giant spider, died, and then gave birth to himself) and ultimately 2006’s “Civil War”, which Millar himself wrote and helped craft. For better or worse, after his famous “unmasking” scene, neither the hero or his franchise would be as they were. In the name of quick fixes and increasingly outlandish premises, combined with misguided nostalgia for an era which never was, the world of Spider-Man has not been as grounded or as easily processed since this run ended. No better evidence for this is needed beyond the fact that Brian Bendis had to practically rescue Mary Jane and place her in his “Iron Man” relaunch because the franchise she helped craft no longer saw a place for her within it, due to it being too busy telling the story of a global billionaire superhero who has an armada of spare lovers and fancy gadgets.
For just under $35 (or less if bought on Amazon or a shop which offers discounts, such as Bay Ridge’s Galaxy Comics), readers new and old can read a tale which may have ended a decade ago but feels like it already existed in a previous generation compared to many of Spider-Man’s current stories. While it does have its flaws as well as plenty of over-the-top moments, at its core is a story about a hard luck superhero and those who love him trying to come out on top of perhaps the worst super villain conspiracy they’d ever faced up until that point. It is one of the best Green Goblin stories following his resurrection in the mid 90’s as well as one of the last places where Black Cat could be said to have been handled well and avoided being either a stereotypical sex kitten or scorned harpy. It offers an always wonderful and together MJ and a Spider-Man who may be overwhelmed or immature at times, but in the end always goes down swinging and refuses to quit no matter what. It may not live up to all of the hype surrounding it online, but it is light years ahead of anything Spider-Man has been in this year…or last.