Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ultimate Spider-Man and The Obligations of Superheroism

Please note that there are spoilers below for last month's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man 22

Ultimate Spider-Man 23
Brian Michael Bendis's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man has consistently been one of my favorite ongoing superhero comics. I love the new character of Miles Morales and his supporting cast, the writing is some of Bendis's best stuff of recent years, and we've been spoiled by the wonderful art of Sarah Pichelli and David Marquez. And being that the book takes place in the Ultimate Universe, Bendis has more freedom to take chances and to play with the status quo. In recent issues Bendis has, through bold story turns - though through vastly different means, not entirely unlike Dan Slott in Superior Spider-Man - flipped the established paradigm of what makes (a) Spider-Man, and raises fascinating questions about the nature of superpowered vigilantism.

Stan Lee always laments that he never got to write the Great American Novel. Except that he did: The Amazing Spider-Man with Steve Ditko. In addition to being just a damn fine comic book, the Ditko-Lee Peter Parker/Spider-Man is probably the best known superhero globally (with Superman and Batman) and one of the best examples of the revolutions introduced by the Marvel Age of comics. Spidey's origin is in the very DNA of nearly every modern superhero story: teenager gets powers, uses them for fun and profit, could have stopped a random robber, robber kills uncle, decides to help people with his powers. That's the quick and dirty version, but what actually occurs is far more complex, as it would be several issues of Amazing Spider-Man and several months after Ben's death before Peter Parker becomes (what we now know as) a Superhero.

Miles Morales's path to Spider-Man is much different than Peter Parker's. After getting Spidey-like powers by similar mechanisms as Ultimate Peter Parker, young Miles Morales takes up the mantle of Spider-Man. As Peter Parker had just very publicly died, this is done as much in tribute to Parker with the eventual blessing of Parker's family and friends, and, disturbingly, elements within the fractured government including SHIELD and The Ultimates. I say disturbingly because Morales is just fourteen years old when he gets the Spider-powers - this is a young man who should be in school, not fighting crime on the streets and especially not acting as a paramilitary, a child soldier, fighting other superpowered beings. While there is argument among members of The Ultimates about the propriety of allowing Morales into their ranks, they eventually acquiesce. There was a Civil War on, and cannons need fodder.

Perhaps that is too harsh, but maybe we need to be harsh when approaching the stark reality of allowing children to fight alongside adults in adult conflicts. Batman's continuously unforgivable penchant of recruiting children to fight his battles being a prime example of this in the DC Universe. And then, why vigilantism? The idea of the superhero - dressing up in funny costumes and using fantastic powers to fight crime (and more frequently ne'er do wells in funny costumes with fantastic powers of their own) - is such an odd pursuit and a uniquely American genre of fiction. The why and how of superheroism has been explored to death by so many over the last 75 years, and what Bendis is doing in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man is by no means revolutionary. But it is raising some interesting questions about the internal logic and ethics of costumed crime-fighting.

Art by Sarah Pichelli
The tragedy of Peter Parker is instantaneous - in his very first appearance, his inaction leads to the death of a loved one. The specifics are a little different for Ultimate Peter Parker, and Ben dies too, though it takes a few issues. But the tragedy of Miles Morales - the death of a parental figure - takes twenty-two issues to happen, and has the opposite effect of Ben Parker's death. Last month, in a shocking twist, Miles's mom dies in his arms, the direct result of his role of Spider-Man. The Venom monster was targeting Miles's dad (a near lethal case of mistaken identity for his dad), and Miles's mother dies in the crossfire as the NYPD and Miles tries to stop Venom. Classic Uncle Ben dies because Spider-Man wasn't being a hero. Miles's mom dies because he was.

In today's new issue #23, there is a sudden and audacious time jump forward (and quite a long one for the sliding, decompressed timescale of superhero comics). It has been some time since the events of the previous issue, and Miles has put away the Spider-Man costume for good. His focus is on academics and girls and family, not on the vigilante ridiculousness that got his mom killed. His best friend and Spidey co-conspirator, Ganke, is still holding out hope for Spider-Man's return, and so, apparently is Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman. She pressures him into taking back Spider-Man, "How many people could you have saved [since you stopped]. You fall off a horse, you get back on." Miles demands Jessica respect his wishes, with Jessica responding with the well-worn Power and Responsibility guilt trip.

Jessica's actions, quite nearly demanding that Miles become Spider-Man again despite his losses, regardless of the amount of time that has passed, seems frankly unconscionable. The boy's mother died in his arms because of the Spider-Man, and you try to guilt him back into it? If anything, Miles is being responsible with his power. Responsible to his family and friends, as he notes, and I would argue responsible to himself. But in the Marvel Universe (both of them) there almost seems to be a societal expectation of costumed superheroism, despite the vociferous protests of civilian entities of various superpowered actions. In a world where so many people have so many varied superpowers, it's just plain what you do. A decade ago in Grant Morrison's New X-Men, Charles Xavier brilliantly breaks down the necessity of costumes for his X-Men as nothing more than what the American public expects from those with powers. In our reality, if powers even remotely like those in superhero comics existed, one would expect those with them to profit off them, and there would be frankly nothing wrong with it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Human beings at the peak of physical perfection are well-paid athletes and entertainers. The super-smart are entrepreneurs or cogs in multi-billion dollar corporate machines. Those who are selfless with their skills or time do so by effective volunteering. Not a single human being on Earth would make the mental leap between unique physical or mental attributes and costumed crime-fighting. (And those on this Earth who dress up and go out on "patrol" - the so-called "real superheroes" - are nothing more than ineffective fools.)

Art by David Marquez
As a reader sympathetic to the character, a character that Bendis and his artistic collaborators have made me care about, I actually kinda wish that Miles would remain Spidey-free, that he would finish school, go to college, maybe meet the right girl and have a rewarding life while playing a positive role in his community. He's smart, he has a solid foundation in his father and his schooling, and has a bright future ahead of him. But it is unrealistic to expect that Miles will remain a civilian. The book is called Ultimate Spider-Man, not Ultimate Miles Morales. The expectations of a society that almost demands vigilantism while decrying it in the same breath are also the expectations of the readership (like some weird metafictional quantum observer effect). And even if Miles doesn't want to be the superhero, his hand might be forced by basic virtue of living in a city where crazy superpowered shit happens every day.

Bendis has been writing one version or another of Ultimate Spider-Man for thirteen years. He clearly loves the gig and keeps it entertaining, downright enthralling. It's not the Great American Comic, but it is consistently one hell of a read. The new drama of the Ultimate Spider-Man is so deeply opposite of the usual Spider-Man dynamic, yet so perfect for a character called Spider-Man. He wants to do right by his family, his friends, and his community. He has the same troubles as any teenager, just heightened by his powers, powers that come into conflict with those desires.

This is a world of colorful powers in conflict, and to not be a party to the never-ending four-color war is almost anathema, taboo. As much as he wants to be left alone and to live his life away from the perils of supeheroics, the world demands otherwise, his own feelings be damned. Miles is a victim of his own powers, and ultimately of the society in which he lives.


  1. Thanks for the post! You've won me over to the Ultimate Spider-Man comics--I will definitely have to read up on them!

    What do you think of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon? Not having read the comics, I'm not sure how closely it follows. But it sure is good fun! I go into details about why I love it over at my blog:

  2. I haven't seen the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, but I do know they have absolutely nothing to do with the comics.