Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection Book 1
by Bill Jemas & Brian Michael Bendis
(Art by Mark Bagley, Art Thiebert and Dan Panosian)
Collecting the first thirteen issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, this book retells the story of how high school student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the amazing/spectacular Spider-Man. As he develops his superhero identity, Peter runs afoul of enemies such as the Green Goblin, Electro and the Kingpin.
If there's one thing we're all sick of is seeing incredibly familiar superhero origins retold over and over again. Do any of us ever want to see another retelling of how Bruce Wayne's parents were shot? No. And to be honest that was my feeling going into this book; we all know about the radioactive spider, Uncle Ben being shot and the whole great power, great responsibility thing. Do we need to see it done all over again? No.
But despite all of that, this is, at least, an enjoyable retelling of an overly familiar story. There are new elements and new takes on old elements too, some which resonate better than others (the less said about Uncle Ben's ponytail, the better). The other thing that this book has going for it is that, despite all the tragedy in Peter's life, it's still a hopeful and upbeat story. Too much of the Ultimate line is bleak and cynical, but here Peter is still just a good kid trying to do the right thing and by the end of the book he has actually struck a significant blow against the seemingly untouchable Kingpin. In short, this is how Spider-Man should be.
For me the thing that tipped this book out of just 'enjoyable' and into 'actually good' was Peter's relationship with Mary Jane. For a long time the comics and movies have tried to distance themselves from the Peter-MJ relationship, focusing instead on the likes of Gwen Stacy and even going so far as to erase their marriage from extistence, but for me growing up in the 80s and 90s, Mary Jane was Peter's great love. I'm a bit of a romantic soul and seeing their relationship done with such heart here really jumped the book up a notch. It's significant that the high note that the book ends on is not the defeat of Wilson Fisk, but rather Peter and MJ admitting their feelings for each other.
4 out of 5
(Art by John Romita Jr., Jimmy Palmiotti and Brandon Peterson)
The Earth of the Ultimate Universe is threatened by the impending arrival of Gah Lak Tus and Sam Wilson has to convince the alien android Vision to aid Earth in its most desperate hour. Later, the Vision has to confront a deranged human scientist who has plans to use Gah Lak Tus' technology to take control of the planet but inadvertantly unlocks powers he can't control.
This book is split into two halves, by the two writers respectively, one set before Warren Ellis' 'Ultimate Extinction' and one set after. The first part reveals how the Vision goes from being the giant disassembled robot first seen in Ellis' 'Ultimate Nightmare' to the svelte female android who appears in 'Ultimate Extinction'. This part of the book brilliantly captures the tense feeling of the-end-is-nigh that the impending arrival of Gah Lak Tus engenders. The second part of the book, beginning immediately after '...Extinction' sees the Vision choosing to leave the Earth to continue her quest to warn inhabited worlds against the Uncreator. However, the discovery than an A.I.M. scientist is attempting to harness Gah Lak Tus' power draws Vision back into yet another battle to preserve Earth from destruction at the hands of her nemesis.
I have to say that I quite like the 'alien android' version of Vision we get in the Ultimate Universe (no disrespect to Paul Bettany intended), as she's the perfect counterpoint ot the malevolent machine hive mind of Gah Lak Tus. Here her nature is explored further by the connection she makes with a sentient plastic android created, and abused, by A.I.M.
4 out of 5
Ultimate X-Men: Ultimate Collection Book 1
(Art by Adam Kubert, Andy Kubert, Art Thibert, Danny Miki, Aaron Lopresti, Tom Raney, Tom Derenic, Scott Hanna, Joe Kubert and Lary Stucke)
A collection of the first twelve issues of Ultimate X-Men (by Millar), plus the #1/2 special (by Johns). As the mutant terrorist Magneto launches his campaign to humble humanity, his rival Professor Charles Xavier begins gathering young mutants together in opposition to Magneto's genocidal plans. Meanwhile the sadistic Colonel Wraith continues to kidnap mutants for use in his Weapon X black ops programme.
The first half of this book is by far the best, with the war between the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants feeling truly high-stakes for the first time in a long time. Here we see a particularly threatening version of Magneto who feels like a real danger to all life on Earth, instead of the fairly sympathetic version that the X-Men movies have been showing us for the past couple of decades. There's a particularly vivid scene where Magneto, enacting his plan to wipe out the United States, forces a stripped-naked George W. Bush to lick his boots clean. Where this first half of the book falls down, however, is in retreading very familiar territory. I grew up reading the original X-Men comics, then watched the brilliant 90s cartoon and then went to the cinema for all but the most recent X-Men movies. As a result, the story of the formation of the X-Men, their struggle against human prejudice and their confrontation with Magneto's opposing philosophy is something I have seen time and time again. Here, apart from just how dangerous Magneto is, Millar doesn't add anything particularly new (unless you count just how promiscuous 19 year old Jean Grey is).
The second half of the book is less exciting and interesting than the first, focusing on the Weapon X programme. Here's Millar's familiar cynicism and mean-spiritedness shines through and you're left feeling somewhat dirty. I get what the writer was going for, showing humans at their worst when enacting prejudices, but it does not make for particularly enjoyable reading.
3 out of 5
Ultimate X-Men: Ultimate Collection Book 2
by Mark Millar & Chuck Austen
(Art by Adam Kubert, Danny Miki, Esad Ribic, Livesay, Chris Bachalo and Kaare Andrews)
Collecting issues 13 to 25 of Ultimate X-Men, this book sees the X-Men confronting Professor X's immensely powerful son and the Hellfire Club, facing division within their own ranks and introduces the new characters of Gambit and Shadowcat.
The first 'Ultimate Collection' of this series had the benefit of consisting mostly of just two main, self-contained storylines. Here, however, we get a whole bunch of unrelated plots unfolding one after another, giving this book a feel of simply a snapshot of an ongoing series, rather than a stand-alone book of its own. The book also suffers from not having Magneto as the villain, with Charles' son David being as powerful a threat without being as compelling or engaging.
I did enjoy the tension within the X-Men themselves which leads several of them to, legitimately, question whether the Professor is using his powers to control them into being a team at all. Added to this is philosophical rift created by the revelation that Charles did not kill Magneto, but instead mindwiped him into a completely new personality.
This book isn't great, but there's enough interesting stuff going on to keep you turning the pages, just don't expect a solid plot resolution at the end.
3 out of 5
Untold Tales Of Spider-Man: Strange Encounter
by Kurt Busiek & Roger Stern
(Art by Neil Vokes and Jay Geldhof)
When the dangerous mystical Lantern of Lantarr is stolen by two petty criminals, it sets in motion events which lead to the first encounter and team-up between Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, neither of whom can win the day alone.
This is a perfectly serviceable short adventure set in Spidey's early days as a crimefighter (he's still at high school and dating Betty Brant). The artwork is colourful and lively and the scripting is nicely in tune with the style of the classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era.
This book certainly doesn't break any new ground nor delve too deeply into anything or anyone involved, however. I'm also never a fan of the 'everyone's memory gets erased' way of getting out of difficult questions; it's cheap, cliche and means that the events in this book may as well have never happened.
3 out of 5
by Joe Sugg & Matt Whyman
(Art by Amrit Birdi)
The first book of the series. Evie is a teenaged social outcast whose life is made difficult by her cruel bully of a cousin Mallory. When Evie's father dies she discovers that he has secretly created a virtual world for her to seek refuge in, called E.Scape, which changes to reflect her personality. However, when the spiteful Mallory also accidentally enters E.Scape, the world begins to fall into chaos and violence.
First off, we'll address the elephant in the room. Joe Sugg became 'famous' as a YouTuber and his name is plastered all over the cover of this book, despite it being made clear on the inside flap that he didn't write or illustrate it. It always annoys me when someone uses cover space to promote themselves without including the people who actually did all the work. So, before I'd even started it, this book was not off to a good start.
What follows is an impressive contradiction in terms in that it manages to be unfathomably shallow. Evie is a total loser, who just happens to be smart, emotionally mature and pretty; the very pinnacle of the Mary Sue trope. Similarly unrealistic is Mallory, who is a bitchy prom queen type, whilst also being an edgy rebel, who really has a heart of gold under it all. This book has every American high school movie cliche rolled into one, which is bizarre because despite looking like those movies too, it's actually set in Britain. There's even the handsome quarterback, who's that cliche in every way except that he actually plays rugby. Who was this book made for? It's like they Americanised it in the hopes that it'd make them an international hit. For my money, having this weird mid-Atlantic aesthetic robs the book of any character it could've had.
Then we have E.Scape itself. It seems that the creators had the idea 'What if the Matrix was also social media?' and then never bothered developing the concept any further. Oh look! Mallory's being horrible in E.Scape which turns it into an unpleasant environment which eventually turns on Mallory too. What a brilliant allegory (*slow, sarcastic clap*).
Whilst there are a few tiny glimmers of interesting ideas here, this book is every bit as bad overall as a graphic novel written by a twenty-something YouTube 'influencer' could be expected to be. It will insult the intelligence of anyone above the age of ten.
1 out of 5
by Joe Sugg & Matt Whyman
(Art by Amrit Birdi)
Book two. Although she has rebuilt her relationship with her cousin Mallory, Evie finds herself pining for the world of E.scape and suffering from a crush on the mysterious stranger she befriended there. An attempt to reopen the gateway into E.scape inadvertantly allows that stranger and the brutish Oak to manifest in the real world. Meanwhile, Evie returns to E.scape and goes in search of her mother, who she learns was sucked into the virtual world years earlier.
After hating the first book of the series I only read this one because I already owned it. It is marginally better than its predecessor, but only marginally. The setting and plot are just as shallow and uninspired as they were before, with the only real improvement being that the writers don't seem to have tried to cram in an awkward and pompous moral to the story this time around.
Once again there's potential here but its never really realised. For example, instead of exploring a virtual world which has gone through a total rebirth and is just begining to regenerate, we instead spend time discovering that the nerd Lionel has learned how to pick up girls from watching online videos (presumably a rather blatant plug for Joe Sugg's YouTube channel, but I can't say for sure because I have no intention of ever looking him up).
It's still rubbish, but it is, at least, slightly better rubbish than before. I should also mention that Birdi's artwork has been the one solid aspect across both books.
2 out of 5