Spider-Man’s not a mutant, but he has hung out with them enough times over the years to warrant another SuperiorSpiderTalk.com list! This countdown will take a look at some of the very best stories involving Spidey and a mutant — including team-ups, battles and everything in-between!
For entry No. 5 we look at Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Brooks
For a guy who was basically middle-aged for the bulk of his run scripting Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis really knew how to capture some astonishingly honest and genuine teenage romance/love moments (then again, I’m a middle-aged guy espousing this opinion in the present day — so perhaps some actual teenagers would disagree with my assessment). BMB’s ode to Peter/MJ in an early issue of Ultimate Spider-Man remains among my very favorite Spidey stories of all time, and this entry, which involves the early courtship between Peter and the mutant Kitty Pryde, is yet another starry-eyed look at young lovers.
What makes Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1 a truly special story is how Bendis and artist Mark Brooks take what should otherwise be a gimmicky premise — let’s romantically link the two most popular teen characters from Marvel’s Ultimate line — and make it work because of how they’re able to zero in on what precisely makes such a coupling make perfect sense in the grand scheme of things.
Storyline-wise, Peter is just getting over his self-imposed break-up with Mary Jane, who he believes he can’t see anymore because his life as Spider-Man keeps putting her life in danger, while Kitty is bummed over the fact that Bobby Drake/Iceman no longer seems interested in her (fairly or not, the “only becomes interested in you once you’ve moved on to someone else routine” is something I found exhausting about many of the women I was interested in dating in high school/college). So in that regard, both Peter and Kitty are young and available, but this book’s script gives their imminent romance far more meaning and value than just the sheer convenience of it all.
The comic begins with a classic side-by-side sequence from Bendis/Brooks depicting the similar social predicaments for Peter and Kitty. Despite the fact that both possess powers that are far greater than their peers, Peter and Kitty find themselves all alone with no prospects on the horizon. Additionally, both are dealing with a sense of being insulated within their own respective bubbles — Peter and his balancing act between being Spider-Man and a high school student, and Kitty, who spends day and night around the same group of hormonal mutants at Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters.
However, Kitty has the foresight and courage to go outside of her bubble (with a little coaxing from the mind-reading Jean Grey) to change her luck. Meanwhile Peter seems almost too content to just be a high school outcast who pines for the girl next door. The power of hindsight shows that this is likely a bit of foreshadowing from the creators that hints at how this relationship will eventually end (with Peter being almost too quick to go back to MJ once he knew he could “trust” her again), but in the moment this is also a good bit of character work from Bendis. Peter’s almost aloofness to the idea of finding a romantic partner outside the four walls of Midtown High pays off his shyness and lack of confidence, while Kitty is a little more forward and cocky (sometimes to her own detriment).
Bendis’s characterization carries over to a sequence where Kitty essentially asks Peter out on a date. Again, Peter is such an outcast, he almost comes across as being stand-offish to Kitty over the phone when she asks about hanging out sometime (alone, as normal people and not as superheroes). Meanwhile Kitty is aggressive to the point of thinking she might have turned Peter off with her advances. In both scenarios, Bendis so expertly gets inside each character’s head, making them both inherently likeable even though they’re both acting like stupid teenagers.
Once the two characters are physically together, on their date, the pairing makes too much sense for it to not have happened sooner, or even in the “mainstream” Marvel Universe (or at least pair Peter off with another teenaged mutant like what I was advocating during my write-up of Untold Tales of Spider-Man #21). In this pairing, Bendis channels all of the best qualities of Peter’s past loves from the 616 – the heart-warming puppy love of Peter/Gwen, the swagger and sass of “face it tiger” MJ, and the “can take care of myself” independence of Black Cat. Even while Kitty awkwardly stumbles through parts of the conversation with Peter, he still finds himself emboldened by the fact that there’s an attractive young woman who’s interested in him and is physically able to take on a supervillain (or an ordinary crook like Shocker).
More broadly, Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1 is an important milestone for the series because it marks a moment where the Ultimate Universe really strays from its 616 counterpart. Sure, there are elements of the Peter/Kitty pairing that feel familiar to 616 romances (as I just mentioned earlier), but Peter, and more specifically teenaged Peter, never had a girlfriend quite like Kitty in the mainstream MU. On Twitter recently, Untold Tales scripter Kurt Busiek guessed that we never saw a lot of X-Men/Spider-Man team-ups in the Silver Age because Kirby and later Roy Thomas plotted Uncanny while Amazing Spider-Man was mostly handled by Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr./Stan Lee. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was probably a missed opportunity for Marvel to not have its two chief teen properties (who were both cast as outcasts) mingle more during the heyday of the “Marvel Age.”
Fortunately, Bendis and Brooks recognized the shortcomings of their predecessors and remedied this problem in a way that feels natural and organic and is also a ton of fun to read about. Ultimate Spider-Man was at its very best when every line of dialogue and every physical twitch felt real and authentic and that’s what Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1 has in spades.