Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Spider-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.

The reason this book exists is the very reason that so many people find it hard to "get" superhero comics. Briefly? There's another "Marvel Universe"* outside the regular one with all the heroes you probably know (from the movies if nowhere else**). This "Ultimate universe" has the same heroes, mostly, although with sometimes subtle, other times profound differences. Perhaps the biggest difference is that "Ultimate" Spider-Man--a youthful Peter Parker--died. In the Ultimate universe, at least so far, dead means dead (unlike the regular Marvel Universe, where people die and come back to life over and over, like clockwork). But before too long, Miles Morales, a thirteen-year-old mixed-race youth, gained spider-powers and assumed the mantle of Spider-Man. These two universes existed side-by-side on the comics store shelves for a dozen years, but until Spider-Men, there had never been a cross-over story bringing them together.

If you're confused, you probably don't read superhero comics all that regularly. And therefore, Spider-Men might not be the book for you to start with. Writer Brian Michael Bendis (who's scribed Ultimate Spider-Man from day one) does his best to set the stage(s) for this event: we get a very clear idea of who Peter Parker is, and a somewhat less-clear but still revealing portrait of Miles Morales. The first chapter opens with a several-page monologue by Peter/Spider-Man about why he loves New York City; once Peter gets transported to the Ultimate universe and Miles shows up, we see how the young hero is slowly fitting into the super-fabric of his own version of the city.

But the heart of the book--and I do mean heart--lies in the meeting, mid-point in the narrative, between "our" Peter Parker and the Ultimate versions of Peter's Aunt May May and Gwen Stacy (who, in our universe, was Peter's girlfriend until she was killed at the hands of the Green Goblin, in one of the most momentous story lines in the character's history--a death which haunts him only second to that of his Uncle Ben). Clearly, beyond the hook of the first cross-over between these universes, what writer Bendis is most interested in is these characters.

At first, May and Gwen--like everyone else--chides this adult Spider-Man for dressing up in the dead Parker's costume (his identity having been revealed to the world at his death). Once Peter unmasks and, predictably, May faints at the knowledge that her beloved nephew (at least a version of him) is alive and in her life again, the three characters have a lengthy conversation, which moves from tentative outreach and regret to gradual acceptance and, eventually, a kind of joy.

It's pure soap opera. But then, that's really what superhero comics are, when they work well. The costumes and powers and fights are part of the genre, of course, but the serial nature of superhero comic book storytelling has relied on the emotional histrionics of soap opera since at least the birth of the so-called Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four began the trend, but Lee and artist Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man arguably perfected the formula. Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man artist Sara Pichelli show a lot of comfort working in larger-than-life, character-based psychodrama here.

Pichelli's artwork is lean and clean and very much what good super-hero comic art looks like now, with detailed environments and some very nicely exaggerated spider-poses on our eponymous heroes. But if anything, her depiction of facial expressions is a bit restrained--which would be fine in a literary slice-of-life comic, but super-soap gives you a license to kick up the histrionics. Still, that's a small quibble. I prefer my cartooning a bit more expressive and abstracted (see: Ditko and Kirby again), but as contemporary superhero art goes, this is fine stuff. Layouts are varied but always readable, moving the story forward without much in the way of flashy distractions.

I haven't talked much about the plot or the villain here. But really, beyond the fact that Spider-Man goes to the Ultimate Universe*** and meets not only his replacement but also several other heroes, the plot's incidental to the character interactions. If you haven't read many superhero comics--particularly Spider-Man comics--the character stakes might not mean all that much to you. (Again, serial storytelling means that you get to know these characters in depth; a small verbal aside here can feel freighted with import if you've followed the characters beforehand.) But for regular Spider-Man readers, Spider-Men provides a dose of emotion and a bit of wonder. And Peter's mysterious discovery at the very end ensures that there will be more where this story came from, in some other fashion.

*Actually, there are an infinite number of them, but I'm trying to keep this simple...

**Although the Marvel movies often conflate the "original" and "ultimate" versions of these heroes...

***Where everyone talks in a mixed-case typeface, unlike the all-caps "regular" universe. No, there's no particular reason I placed this footnote in this sentence; I just wanted to shoehorn in a font-nerd reference somewhere...

by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785165339
ISBN-13: 978-0785165330
128 pages, $24.99