I was writing the eulogies for this book in the build-up to Ultimatum, I really was – but not since Pope John Paul II has a death been so prematurely announced. If anything, the current run of the series actually makes a lot of what preceded it look weaker as a result – and I mean no disrespect to Stuart Immonen, whose work on the series I firmly enjoyed, as with the first few years of Bagley’s run. But Ultimate Spider-Man (as I’ll insist on continuing to call it) is vibrant, and fun, and exciting, and funny, and just Bendis doing what he’s done so very well for the last ten years – telling a contemporary Spidey story that’s not afraid to strike out and do its own thing.
Crucial to my enjoyment of this opening arc, I’m sure, is the reinvention of Mysterio. Long my favourite Spider-Man villain, in spite – or perhaps because – of his inherent lameness, it’s great seeing him taken seriously without losing most of the elements that make him… well, Mysterio. He may have lost the flair of his ludicrous costume and stagey speech – but crucially, Bendis has kept the inherent sense of showmanship – it’s just one that manifests itself in a different way, as in the video message of last issue. The costume design is simple, yet classy and effective; and when it comes down to it – yep, he robs banks by hypnotising guards and making it appear that giant spiders are rampaging through the streets. What’s not to love?
Always crucial to a Spidey book – at least in my book – is making the reader chuckle as much as thrilling with the action. It’s something that USM has often excelled at, and it continues here – the unexpected resolution of an instance of the classic “Spidey surrounded by the police and expecting to get arrested” scenario is laugh-out-loud funny while at the same time emphasising a genuinely intriguing status quo change – I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Spidey book where he’s so completely beloved by the entirety of New York, but I reckon Bendis will have plenty of fun with it before the inevitable comedown. And the strong character work continues, too – like so many characters (in both the Ultimate and 616 universes), Johnny Storm is far more worthwhile when showing up in this book, and his addition to the regular cast can only make for more laughs. Meanwhile, it’s good to see a bit more peeling back of the circumstances of Peter and Mary Jane’s split – and I remain hopeful that it might stick a while longer this time, as keeping Peter and Gwen together would be another good way to mark out the book’s distinct identity. Plus, of course, this version of MJ could do with some stories of her own (the Jessica Jones subplot shows promise) in order to establish viability as a character in her own right.
LaFuente’s visual style is still taking a bit of getting used to after so many years of the straightforward superheroics of Bagley and Immonen – but even though his almost childlike Spidey has generally failed quite to convince, it can’t be denied that the “wide eyed” style works a treat for the comedic slant of some of the set-pieces here, and there’s no denying that his effervescent work has contributed to the series’ newfound energy. Frankly, then, if having to sit through something as unbearably wretched as Ultimatum means we get an Ultimate Spider-Man this good as a result – well, any chance we could do it every couple of years?