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Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man #1 – REVIEW

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I love Dan Slott’s high speed, over-the-top style on Amazing Spider-Man, and find it a great celebration of everything that makes comic books fun. That said, I prefer what Brian Michael Bendis does with Ultimate Spider-Man, as he makes sure to work in quieter thoughtful moments that allow readers to feel more connected with the characters. This approach works really well here to establish the cast and status quo for readers and is a welcome contrast to the quickfire pace of Amazing Spider-Man #1.

IMG_0677Miles is struggling with the absence of his dad while encountering the classic superhero challenge of needing an alibi for his whereabouts. He’s now wondering if he should “come out” to someone he cares about, which is a big decision given that it had already led to his father abandoning him. Bendis helps readers get (re)acquainted with Miles through a series of conversations that he shares with three of the most important people in his life: girlfriend Katie Bishop, best friend Ganke Lee, and trusted confidante (and Peter Parker’s former girlfriend) Mary Jane Watson. These conversations provide a well-executed balance of heart with necessary exposition.

The reading experience for these scenes is anchored by Dave Marquez’s expressive and impressively lifelike artwork. The one-on-one time that Miles gets with Katie, Ganke, and Mary Jane benefit from Marquez’s thoughtful staging and beautifully-rendered facial expressions. While we might not be seeing Miles on the big screen anytime soon, each panel in these scenes feels highly realistic and could easily be a still from a film.

As for our main cast, Katie is sadly still a bit of a cipher. She was a background character for several issues, staring wistfully at Miles from across the classroom and then quickly established as his girlfriend following the “One Year Later” jump. Yet we still don’t really know anything about her. How and why did she and Miles finally connect? What’s her story? She’s there at this point because the plot says she needs to be, but the character needs a chance to be developed, which would in turn further flesh out Miles as an individual.

Meanwhile, Ganke playfully reminds Miles of his critical role in making Spider-Man a reality, and Mary Jane poignantly reflects on her experience of living with Peter’s secret identity as she asks Miles to carefully consider the implications of revealing his secret.

IMG_0676This issue isn’t just Coffee Talk with Miles, as Bendis sets up an arc with lots of high-stakes potential. SHIELD has been dismantled following the Cataclysm storyline, leaving its super-powered prisoners to be taken into custody by the government. In a bold roll of the narrative dice, Bendis reveals that a major character from the past is in fact alive, if a tad mentally unwell. This is hardly the first comic book to resurrect a character, but I was still surprised to find myself feeling indifferent to this particular revelation. Bringing back the past in this way almost seemed like a “necessary evil” to somehow validate this issue as a Spider-Man book. That said, I’m admittedly looking forward to the inevitable confrontation.

Meanwhile, two criminals in armored body-suits are committing a series of thefts.  Given their familiar-looking silhouettes, they’re labeled by the media as the “Spider-Twins” although they’re not linked to Spider-Man himself. They’re working on a mysterious agenda yet aren’t particularly worried about being noticed.

While the action sequences may be fleeting in this issue, Dave Marquez really delivers when things get intense. He’s given two pages without dialogue, allowing him to create a tension-building scene that closes with a chilling final image. If you’re a digital reader, you owe it to yourself to go through this scene in Guided View, as it’s practically cinematic. Justin Ponsor’s warm colors breathe life into the art throughout the book and add a particularly enjoyable nuance to the surprise ending.

Okay, that ending.

IMG_0678I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was a bit disappointed about the “shocking” final panel. Far from being a “PC gimmick” (ugh), Miles Morales represents an opportunity for Marvel to define a new take on Spider-Man. Unfortunately, it seems that every time his narrative starts to build some momentum, it’s either forced to take second place to larger events within the Ultimate universe or sidetracked to incorporate an element of Peter Parker’s world. I can understand wanting to link the character to his predecessor in order to give readers a comfortable reference point, but Miles has been Spider-Man since 2011. Other than tangling with his uncle the Prowler and a ganglord version of Scorpion early in his run, it seems like a significant portion of Miles’ present is somehow tied up in Peter’s past. Yes, Spider-Man as a character has to face those challenges regardless of who’s behind the mask, but as a reader I’m eager to see Miles’ story move further into uncharted territory and rely less on the series’ history.

The revelation in the final panel is intended to provoke a strong reaction (Bendis himself joked that he’d have to unplug his computer on release day). It’s clearly meant to shock, drop jaws, and perhaps even inspire a punch in the air from longtime readers. As a fan of the lead character (the one whose name is now the title), all I could do was roll my eyes. Because really, what is the drama of this moment? Those who’d read the original Ultimate Spider-Man series will recognize this exact plot beat as having been used in that run. The truth remains to be seen, but at this point it seems to be one of two possibilities – neither of which are particularly interesting to me as someone who wants to see Miles’ story move forward. The potential outcomes hold interest, but at this point, it’s seemingly at the expense of further postponing the development of a not-so-new anymore lead character.

The cynic in me says that it’s a #1 issue and what better way to hook new readers than to get the really cool stuff out of the toybox right away? But I’m also very aware that I’m not the writer.

Brian Michael Bendis has carefully crafted a remarkably consistent run of this story over the past 14 years. He’s more than earned the benefit of the doubt. I’m cautiously optimistic that this latest curveball will play out in a way that doesn’t 1) repeat a plot device used before and 2) cheapen his great lead character and supporting cast for the sake of recycling the past. At this point, I’m less interested in nostalgia and more eager to get back to Miles, the whereabouts of his dad, Katie as a better-realized individual, and the new “Spider-Twins.” Miles Morales is a great character waiting to realize more of his potential. Hopefully he gets that chance soon. This issue is strong enough that I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

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