Monday, November 5, 2012

THE ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Part One - December 1994

Written by Stan Lee & Peter David

The Plot: Peter Parker and his aunt May are mugged after she cashes her Social Security check. The next day, Peter attends a science exhibit at Empire State University, overseen by the eccentric Dr. Octavius. A spider is dosed by radioactivity during the exhibit. The appearance of the spider causes Octavius to drop an isotope, which creates a large explosion. Meanwhile, the radioactive spider bites Peter and grants him powers. He leaves the exhibit and coincidentally meets the mugger from the day before. He uses his new powers to get the money back, then buys a camera from a drug store to photograph the accident scene at ESU. Peter sells his first photo to the Daily Bugle, shortly before creating a costume he uses in an open-invitation wrestling match. Peter arrogantly allows a thief to escape that night, only to discover later that this thief has killed his uncle Ben. After capturing the thief, Peter begins his career as Spider-Man. He faces his first supervillain when he stops Octavius from using his anti-gravity device to destroy the UN. Having learned a lesson in responsibility, Peter vows no one will be hurt due to his inaction again.

Web of Continuity: It’s obvious from the first few pages of this story that it isn’t intended to match the continuity of the comic book. Some of the variations include:
  • Peter’s age is given as seventeen when the spider bite occurs. Most comics, at least since the Parallel Lives graphic novel, list his age as 15.
  • Dr. Octopus wasn’t present when Peter was bitten by the spider, unless you consider Chapter One in-continuity.Oddly enough, it’s implied that the radioactive spider also bites Dr. Octopus, which might be an attempt to explain how he survives the explosion.
  • The story establishes that Flash and Peter met in the third grade.I believe it’s been established somewhere (Untold Tales of Spider-Man?) that Peter was fairly popular at school until he met Flash in middle school, and lost his friends to Flash.
  • Robbie Robertson is already the Daily Bugle’s city editor at this point, even though he was introduced as the new city editor back in Amazing Spider-Man #51. Peter also begins selling photos to the Daily Bugle immediately in this continuity. (He even sells photos of Spider-Man capturing the burglar who murdered his uncle, which seems out of character and slightly ghoulish.)
  • Another landmark from the early issues is rushed through, as Flash knocks Peter’s glasses off the day after he’s bitten by the spider. In the comics, several issues passed before Peter realized he didn’t need glasses.
“Huh?” Moment: The opening of the story acts as if Aunt May must choose between putting her check in the bank, or going to a check-cashing place and paying to have it cashed. Why wouldn’t her bank cash the check?

Review: Before the Ultimate Spider-Man comic brought us Harry Potter Peter, aging hippie Uncle Ben, and a superfluous origin retelling, The Ultimate Spider-Man novel presents an anthology of Spider-Man short stories by various comic book and science fiction prose authors. And a superfluous origin retelling. I have no evidence to support this, but my theory is that the imaginatively titled Spider-Man began life as Stan Lee’s treatment for a Spider-Man movie. Beat by beat, this reads like a screenplay. The three acts are clearly defined, and many of the standard comic-to-film alterations are here. The hero and the main villain have a merged origin, Peter is rushed into the status quo he has at the end of the first year of Amazing Spider-Man comics, a peace conference at a large set-piece the UN is teased repeatedly throughout the story until it plays a part in the climax, and the villain is given a vague death scene at the end, because villains pretty much always have to die in superhero movies. There’s even a scene that has the newly empowered Peter Parker playing basketball and embarrassing Flash Thompson on the court. Surely that will never appear in a Spider-Man movie.

Theoretically, I wouldn’t mind this so much as a Spider-Man movie. Not today, given that two cinematic Spider-Man origin stories already exist, but pre-2002 this would’ve been tolerable. The only Hollywood cliché that truly bothers me is Dr. Octopus’ anti-gravity isotopes, which apparently only exist in the plot to provide an “epic” visual for the hypothetical film's climax. They add nothing to the story, distract from the grounded nature of Spider-Man’s origin, and give Dr. Octopus fairly outrageous skills as a scientist. He already wields four indestructible metal tentacles…now he has an anti-gravity gun, too?

At ninety-six pages, this is by far the longest story in the book, which is another bullet point I’m using in my “originally a screenplay” theory. When asked to write a short story for a Spider-Man prose anthology, who would submit a hundred-page origin retelling? Unless you already had this lying around, and assumed it would never be used, I can’t imagine why it would occur to anyone to pad out Spider-Man’s origin story like this. None of this means that this is a bad origin retelling, of course. I’m not generally interested in origin retellings, and kind of wonder who the audience for them is supposed to be, but judged on its own merits this is an enjoyable story with enough wit and heart to make you care about Spider-Man.

Written by Tom De Haven & Dean Wesley Smith

The Plot: After the Vulture injures Spider-Man in battle, Peter seriously considers retiring as Spider-Man. He accompanies Aunt May on a trip to Atlantic City, where he meets Damon, a mysterious older man who claims he was once a superhero called the Black Bee. Damon asserts that he knows a “suit” when he sees one, but Peter refuses to confirm his dual identity. After hearing Damon’s story of giving up and surrendering to self-pity, Peter’s inspired to keep going. He soon captures the Vulture, and later that night, visits Damon’s apartment. When Damon is mugged nearby, Peter tries to help him, only to be rescued by a newly motivated Damon.

Web of Continuity: This story is set “concurrently with the events of Amazing Spider-Man #7.”

Review: Obviously, this is a story about Peter learning a lesson about perseverance and the importance of never giving up. A lesson he forgets every few years whenever a writer wants to regurgitate “Spider-Man No More!” It accomplishes what it sets out to do, the execution is competent and the story never drags, but there’s nothing here to make this any better than all of the other “lesson” stories that Spider-Man must endure. Usually, when Peter learns this lesson, it’s because he realizes that he has a responsibility to Uncle Ben, or to the values he was raised with, or to the innocent people who need help. This time it’s more about Peter’s self-esteem, which is a slight variation, but the story remains fairly generic. I was relieved to discover that the mysterious 5’2” man with black hair that Peter meets at the beginning of the story is Damon, and not Wolverine, though.

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