The whole idea of Marvel “Point One” books is to give new readers a place where they can enter the Marvel timeline. These stories are ongoing and complex, so even though each issue essentially has a “Previously on” page that fills you in on the character and storyline, it’s not going to mention all the nuance that has come before.
And “nuance” is what makes Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 2 one of the best things going in comics right now. As you and I progress through the series every couple of weeks, I’ll try to bring up what makes this character special to me (and it’s not his race, even though I’m happy there’s nothing Aryan in him – if you want Blonde Hair and Blue Eyes, jump on Uncanny X-Men), hopefully organically. There won’t be a lot of discussion of Miles from this issue, a “Point One” that is supposed to provide an entry point for those readers who wanted to give Ultimate Spider-Man some time before investing in a comic that might not last a year.
On that point (one), this issue is only mostly successful. If you want a quick primer on the first sixteen issues of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, this issue has it on the surface, but because our focus is on Ultimate Betty Brant, the real joys of the issue come from knowing the context of the story. While the other characters reference that the Divided We Fall crossover storyline recently ended, Brant brings us up to speed on the previous plotlines with Miles Morales and his Uncle Aaron, secretly The Prowler (…or he was before he got himself blown up by some faulty equipment). The good creamy center of this issue is not in those details, however; it can be found in seeing how these characters have changed since the death of Peter Parker, which requires a bit more commitment to the Ultimate Universe.
It’s the end scene between Betty and J. Jonah Jameson that this is most apparent. If you haven’t been reading the Ultimate Spider-Man series and have been going off the original 616-Earth characters or the movies, this scene suddenly reverses what you expect from both Brant and Jameson. But, longtime readers of the Ultimate Universe know that Brant has always been kind of trashy and caught Jameson’s ire in Ultimate Spider-Man #121. There was even the assertion that she dated Kraven the Hunter for a brief time, possibly for the fame. Meanwhile, Jameson’s character here is building off the “Ultimatum” storyline where he memorialized Spider-Man as a hero, even though he wasn’t dead, then had to do it AGAIN when Parker died. Those events were moving, they changed J.J and we get to see that new Jameson here. Also popping up from Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2 #1 is the 42 spider that bit Miles and Doctor Marcus, last seen being terribly threatened by Norman Osborn. Here he accidentally gives Betty Brant all she needs to connect Spider-Man to the wrong person.
THAT is the suspension of disbelief this issue hangs on. Unlike Maria Hill’s questioning of the Morales family, Brant’s narrative of The Prowler’s death has all the correct facts, she’s just unable to assemble them. Why? It seems like Brian Michael Bendis is making the argument that because Peter Parker died a noble death taking a bullet for Captain America and fighting villains in Queens that the Spider-Man persona might be the most trusted public symbol outside of President Captain America (yes, he’s President in the Ultimate U). Committing to the death of Peter Parker has given Ultimate Spider-Man a constant momentum. A lazy version of “New Spider-Man” just has Morales fighting Parker’s rogue’s gallery, giving us more of “Spider-Man” while not developing Miles beyond 616 Silver-Age Parker, who had less depth than we all give him credit for. What I love about “New” Ultimate Spider-Man is that Bendis has committed to the premise of Miles so much that it took him a year to earn Peter’s webshooters. And to do that, he had to impress Aunt May all the way back from Paris (where she’d fled after Peter’s death). Because everyone in the Ultimate Universe feels like they failed Peter Parker one way or another, everyone seems ready to give Miles a chance and – up until recently – even Miles was trying to impress the ghost of Peter.
What happened to Peter is what turns Robbie, Ben Ulrich, and Jonah into the heroes of this issue. They all failed Peter, either by demonizing Spider-Man or by chasing a story that put Peter in jeopardy. They watched him die fighting and because of that these characters are forever changed.
David Marquez‘s pencils make up for some lackluster Maria Hill faces earlier in his run. When Betty Brant isn’t in profile, she’s making the expressions she needs to for us to simultaneously think: “Hey! She’s reporting!” and “Hey! She’s kind of a money-hungry bitch!” at the same time. Marquez does great with action, but it’s stories like this where it’s hard for me to differentiate good art from happy accidents. Here, Betty’s expressions are great as long as they are straight on. In profile, Betty only has two faces: “I’m thinking” and Bitchface (for Bitchface, look at her getting Dr. Marcus’ attention in the parking lot).
Where Marquez doesn’t fail me here is with J. Jonah Jameson. I never thought he’d out the new Spider-Man, and was especially sure once Betty fingered the wrong black guy (AWK-ward), but what sold me is even when you see JJ is thinking, you can go back and look at the panel and see that he’s tired. JJ knows Betty can sell her story, but he’s tired of attacking people’s character on the front page of The Bugle. So Stark is going to make billions, so what? So 47% of people are mooches on the government….wait…sorry, that’s Mitt Romney…so 46% of the population thinks Captain America is a media tool, so what?
Ultimate Spider-Man #16.1 has no Miles Morales. If you hadn’t read the exposition on the first page, you might not even know how close Betty got to finding the real Spider-Man. It’s only a Point One issue in the sense that it catches you up to where the story is in case you skipped sixteen issues. But where this issue shines is in its portrayal of the Bugle staff as polar opposites of where they were at the inception of the Ultimate Universe. Peter Parker is dead and this weighs heavily on everyone, that sort of slow change in established characters over the years pays off here, but won’t pay off if you haven’t been keeping up.
Then, just when I thought this issue was secretly pandering to long-time Ultimate Spider-Man readers, they bust out Venom for the last page. The art says: THAT’S RIGHT, NOOBS, HE EXISTS HERE TOO! and we’re out.
Overall, I opened USM V.2 #16.1 with hopes of spending more time with Miles considering we left him in #16 as a new member of The Ultimates, but instead I got a nicely rewarding story about the ongoing scars left of those involved in both the Parker and Spider-Man mythos and I enjoyed it. Hopefully Bendis can keep a steady hand if Venom is back, seeing as how Ultimate Venom can easily become a mess (and didn’t we last see him as a prisoner of The Beetle on the way to Latveria?). It looks like we might not have to worry about this for a hot second, because Ultimate Spider-Man #17 will concern itself with the “connection” between Spider-Woman and the Miles. I’ll be back with that issue on November 7th (two days after Jersey Halloween)!