Monday, September 14, 2009

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2

Although a few things may have changed in Peter Parker's life since he was presumed dead at the climax of Magneto's summertime attack on humanity, for the most part it's been business as usual in his newly-relaunched eponymous ongoing series. Peter has swapped lady friends, taken a new job and finally clued in Aunt May to his alter-ego, but otherwise very little has changed. He still attends classes at Midtown High with Kitty, Gwen and MJ, still manages to skip classes to fight crime with minimal consequences. A glowing preemptive obituary from J. Jonah Jameson has made Spidey a much more popular hero than in the past, but he still feels just as ostracized from the general population as ever, if not more so.

On board with the series from the very beginning, nobody has a better grasp of these characters, or perhaps of the Ultimate Universe as a whole, than USM writer Brian Michael Bendis. With the new launch and renumbering, Bendis had a big chance to shake things up and completely change the tone and identity of this series, but (for better or for worse) he's opted instead for a direct continuation of what was working before. That makes this an extremely easy series for old fans to jump right into without missing a beat, although he's also been careful to keep it open and welcoming for new readers. Bendis has kept marching right along with the curious, conversational asides that made the original series so approachable, constantly toying around with the specifics of the heroes' identities, their powers and the average man's reaction to them. This month, for instance, while Johnny Storm lies incapacitated in the living room, Aunt May wonders if he'll ignite her couch in his sleep. I'd never really thought of it that way before, but the question alone cuts through some of the tension of the moment and grounds the book more squarely in reality. Hey, it's a valid question.

Bendis has his flaws, though, some of which are coming a bit more into focus with the new series. Gwen, in particular, has been treated like an entirely different character since the relaunch. I get that a lot has changed in these kids' lives since the end of the last series, but I'm not entirely sure how that would lead to her transformation from the mature, older sister-type into the bubbly, cheery teeny bopper she's been for most of the last two issues. The rest of the cast has gone through some similar changes in the new series, too, although none are quite so profound as Ms. Stacey's. They're familiar, but skewed. Almost like a new writer is still trying to figure them out.

Which is precisely the status of new artist David Lafuente. Following up on the quality of work put forth by Mark Bagley and then Stuart Immonen is no small task, and so far it's one I haven't discovered Lafuente is up to. His ultra sleek, manga-influenced visuals float somewhere in between John Romita Jr. and Archie Comics, rarely settling in one place for long. His emphasis on the lead characters as kids is important, because it's easy to forget most of them don't even have their driver's license yet, but also drains a lot of the magnitude from the book's more serious moments. Perhaps most unsettling, Lafuente still hasn't managed to produce an illustration of Spider-Man in costume that I've been happy with. He's a work in progress.

The same can be said for the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man as a whole. It's very familiar, but also ever so slightly off base. It's like watching Magnum PI with Don Johnson playing the lead role. He's saying the right words, doing the right things and the look is right, but something's just... off. Long standing fans will want to give this a borrow, because the new developments have a lot of potential, but everyone else may want to settle for a brief flip through first. It isn't the world-killer it's been in the past.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5

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