For those of you still wondering, “Wolverine Goes to Hell” remains my choice for the best comic book title of 2011. Not being content with that very minor accolade, Marvel has also served up what I consider to be the worst title of the year with the latest “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” collection. Where “Wolverine’s” title had a beautiful simplicity in how it simultaneously delivered its high concept and told you exactly what you’d be getting inside, “Death of Spider-Man Prelude” is clunky and artless without really delivering any kind of buildup to the title event.
Seeing as how we’re already five issues into the tenure of Miles Morales, the new “Ultimate Spider-Man,” it’s not really much of a spoiler to say that writer Brian Michael Bendis actually did make good on the event teased in the title. I remember reading an interview with him over a year ago where the man stated that he and Mark Millar had made plans to do something with the character that had never been done in a mainstream comic before. Though killing the title character and replacing him with a complete unknown is not exactly a new thing in comics, doing it for an A-list hero is.
That being said, if this volume was actually intended to be a buildup to that event it fails pretty hard. With Peter Parker set to die in the next volume, you’d think that events would start conspiring to make that idea a reality. It could be something explicit like the return of a villain like the Green Goblin, Venom, or the complete “Ultimate Sinister Six,” or something more nebulous like a feeling of dread at the idea that the character’s time was running out. Fractured as it was, Grant Morrison did this well in the first third of his “Batman” run with the build up for The Black Glove as an organization that had spent decades planning the hero’s downfall. While we knew that Batman wasn’t going to die, the constant attacks on the character’s mind and his family history were a new threat for the character and at least allowed the audience to suspend disbelief and embrace the idea that maybe the hero was out of his depth in this situation.
There’s nothing of the sort here aside from the title. If it wasn’t for that clunky bit of hype, the fact that the character dies in the next volume would’ve seemed like a spur-of-the-moment decision to boost sales and re-ignite interest in the character. And let’s face it, regardless of what kind of spin Bendis an company try to put on this, that’s exactly what this event was designed to do. Rather than the culmination of over a decade’s worth of stories, the whole reason we’re getting this story is because sales on “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” were at historically low levels before the “Death of Spider-Man” arc started. If sales hadn’t cratered after the most recent relaunch, then this storyline wouldn’t have been necessary at all.
But what about the contents of this particular collection? In spite of all the bitching contained in these last few paragraphs, this volume is just as good as you’d expect from this series. The fallout from the “Chamelons” arc is handled extremely well as we get to see the personal toll it takes on Peter, his friends, and the smoldering emotional wreckage of his relationships. It also has Carol Danvers discussing the matter of what to do with the teen superhero with Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, who each have their own opinions on Peter’s usefulness and capability. The short version is that they decide that Peter needs some tutelage on how to be a proper superhero and that his idol, Tony Stark/Iron Man is just the man to give it to him. Fortunately, they’ve got just the situation to test the waters with when the Black Cat gets her hands on an object of immense power that used to belong to the Kingpin, and is now sought by Mysterio.
The writing is top-notch here, which elevates what is essentially a formulaic plot. While the Black Cat/Mysterio clash provides the setup for most of the action, it’s the character arcs that prove to be most interesting here. Seeing Peter try to work things through with Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy provides a compelling look at how they relate to one another and where they factor into his life. Best of all are the all-too-brief moments with the now pro-Spider-Man J. Jonah Jameson. His utterly believable change-of-heart towards the character has been one of the highlights of the entire series and the follow-through on his discovery of the character’s real identity in the previous volume is handled masterfully here. The conversation he has with Peter in the final issue collected here is a joy to read as it’s not only something that could never be done in the regular Marvel universe, but still feels completely true to the character that has been established here.
Really, the worst thing I can say about this volume is that it’s the most artistically chaotic one in the series to date. I’ll admit that after many volumes where Mark Bagley was the sole artist, followed by Stuart Immonen, and then David Lafuente in the previous two, seeing SEVEN artists here doesn’t feel right. Granted, they’re all quite good, and some of the sequences were clearly intended for separate artists, seeing all of the different styles clash here flies in the face of a series known for its artistic consistency.
Issues with the art, the title, the whole “Death of Spider-Man” event aside, I guess the worst thing about this volume is that it’s still at the top of its game, creatively speaking. After reading this, it still feels like the idea of Peter as Spider-Man still had lots of mileage left in it and that there were plenty of great stories left to be told with him. I am looking forward to reading about the adventures of Miles Morales, because it’s still Bendis at the helm, but I doubt that they’ll make me forget the fact that this series was cut down in its prime.
(Well, until the bring back Peter as part of the “New Clone Saga,” or something. Come on, you know that’s a storyline Bendis has to be considering.)