ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN PLOT ANALYSIS
I’m going to spoil the heck out of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #5 for the rest of the column. You’ve been warned. If you haven’t read it yet, turn away now and come back after you’ve read the issue. If you have no plans on reading it, I think you might take something away from the following bit of business, in any case. I want to talk about plotting and story structure and the way storytelling has changed through the years, specifically — and how ULTIMATE SPIDEY exemplifies a few of those things.
Stan Lee wrote a short story back in 1962. Brian Bendis wrote a novel in 2000-01.
Lee wrote prose, while Bendis wrote a screenplay.
Lee loved the caption box. Bendis loves dialogue.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of one style over the other. They’re just different. It’s left to individual tastes as to which one works better.
It’s a difference between narrative plotting and dramatic plotting.
Show, don’t tell.
It’s also a difference of generations. Today, everything moves much faster. It’s quicker. Long sentences bore people. Shorts sentences rule the day. Watch an episode of the original THE FUGITIVE television series, then watch one of this season’s remake. You’ll see the difference. There’s no room or time for hesitation or pause. Everything happens and then you quickly cut to something else happening. Action begins as you establish, not after. (X-FILES breaks this rule a lot, but usually in service to heightening suspense and mood.)
Stan Lee’s story was told with caption boxes and expository monologue. Brian Bendis’ is told through dramatic action. Captions are eschewed, except to show a change in time or location. (That’s the textbook definition of a “scene,” by the way. It’s an event that happens within a specific time or location. Change one or the other dramatically, and it’s a new scene.) In fact, Bendis uses but one caption box – to establish Harry Osborn’s bedroom on story page one – in the entire fifth issue.
Lee’s use of all the exposition also served to distance the reader from the story. If you’re told what’s happening instead of looking at it and seeing what’s happening, there’s a certain barrier there. To that end, I think Bendis’ technique of taking his time to show us Peter Parker’s life and all his relationships beforehand just makes the Spider-Man moment in this issue all the more powerful.
I can give you an easy example from AMAZING FANTASY #15. Check out the third panel of page four. (Do what I did – use THE ESSENTIAL SPIDER-MAN #1 for this exercise.) This is the first time Peter Parker has used his powers. He’s spent the past couple of panels climbing up the side of the building. In the third, he’s pictured atop the building, grabbing a pipe and twisting and bending it right around. Stan Lee provides the thought balloons. “It’s incredible! I reached the roof in just a few seconds!”
And then, “What’s this?? I crushed this steel pipe as through it were paper.”
Putting aside the fact that no teenager these days would talk like that, look at what just happened. Two or three things happened all at the same time in the same panel, and Lee had to have Peter think it to point it all out. In today’s comics, that would have been a three to five panel sequence, with much more spare thought balloons and captions. You’d see Parker reach the top of the building. He’d bounce up to the roof. He’s grab the pipe, he’d bend the pipe, he’d probably look at his hand in amazement. Every one of those actions is a separate panel. That’s the technique of showing the action. Stan Lee told us the action. But that wasn’t necessarily wrong in his time. It’s just that in today’s narrative universe, “show, don’t tell” is the unbreakable law.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has a great many more luxuries than Stan Lee had. For one, it has the time and space it needs for that story. Remember – Spider-Man started out as a short story in AMAZING FANTASY and became a surprise hit, leading to the on-going series. Bendis also has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It’s easier to construct the story arc after you know all the characters. Bendis can go through just under 40 years of Marvel history and pluck out the characters he wants to use from the get-go. Thus, you get Mary Jane Watson right out of the starter’s box.
It’s very similar, in a way, to THE PERFECT STORM. That movie did something different in that it took the time right off the bat to introduce us to all the characters who would be on that fateful ship. Only after we came to learn and care about the characters were they sent off on the doomed ship. The risk they take with that is in boring the audience in the first half. Nothing happens. It’s just characters talking and doom impending. It’s all about the set-up. If ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has received any criticism (unwarranted, in my opinion, in this case), it’s that it’s too far stretched out and nothing has happened yet. Where are the costumed villains?
The most recent (and fifth) issue of the series is the pivotal issue for the series so far. It’s the moment when Peter Parker truly becomes Spider-Man, and a lesson or three can be learned from the way Bendis and Bagley handle this.
The first three pages is all the dramatic set-up for future payoff. First of all, it’s a scene unto itself. There’s a certain time and location that it takes place in, and once those change, the scene is over. It also has the distinct advantage of starting the issue off on a note of some action and excitement. Starting the issue off with Aunt May’s talking head might have been a bit too blah. Anyway —
Harry Osborn awakes to find his house on fire, his mother dead, and a strange man flying around and hurling fireballs at his house. What Harry doesn’t know that we think we know, however, is that his father is the one hurling the fireballs, acting as the Green Goblin. Right there you have the parallel between Harry and Peter, who lost his parents and just lost his surrogate father figure. The difference here is that Peter’s father was a kindly hippy, while Harry’s father wasn’t nearly so gentile or loving. Those effects will, most likely, be felt further down the line in the series.
Yes, it’s Uncle Ben that died unseen at the end of the last issue. (I had speculated some about this in Pipeline2 #79.) In the end, I’m glad to see that. As Geoff Gardner wrote in to point out, it’s Peter’s loss of a father figure combined with Aunt May’s frailty that drives him so much. If it were Aunt May who had died, at least Uncle Ben would have been able to physically care for himself alone. (That’s not the rantings of a misogynist. That’s the way Aunt May is portrayed, albeit to a much lesser degree in the Ultimate book.)
Bendis and Bagley (along with ace colorist JC) do a great job in keeping this issue self-contained, while still filling in new readers. It’s crucial that when Peter flashes back in his mind to the events of earlier in the series, the reader sees that in order to get the same effect. The slightly rounded panel corners, along with the re-used panels from previous issues and the change in coloring, make the flashbacks more obvious. They also fit in remarkably well. They don’t take you out of the story, or feel like they’re being needlessly repetitive. These weren’t the types of flashbacks that authors stick in to catch first time readers up to the events of the series. They make sense and fit in. Bagley does an excellent job in positioning Peter Parker around the panels to make it look like he’s actually thinking the things in the flashback. In one example, Peter’s head is even cocked at the same angle and shown from the same side.
It’s textbook stuff, often stuff straight from a director’s text.
In a nice tip to the past, Bagley’s panels of key moments mirror quite closely Steve Ditko’s. There’s even a little nod to the work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the credits to this issue. Nicely done, and slightly revamped to take care of current continuity. (In the Ultimate universe, for example, Peter Parker isn’t using web shooters, so the burglar is caught and hung out the factory window by a rope, instead of webbing.)
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has been a real treat so far. Bendis and Bagley and Thibert (and Jemas), et. al. are doing a bang-up job. Now let’s just hope that the Outreach programs gets this comic into some newbies’ hands. I think it’s a good reason to start reading comics.
It’s Diana, not Fergie, that Jenny Sparks has tea with in her recent mini-series. See? Toldja I didn’t follow the royals that much. Thanks to the hordes who wrote in who pay more attention to that kind of stuff.
Those Batman Halloween specials I reviewed in PCR Extra #7 on Thursday weren’t the first pairings of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. At the very least, they did a CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN mini-series together a few years earlier. Anyone who’s read (and remembered) Loeb’s interview in COMICOLOGY #1 could have told you that! But it took Pipeline reader Carlos Nicolini to write in to remind me. Thanks, Carlos!
And Nic Goodchild wrote to assure me that MOSTLY WANTED #4 (due out in July 2000) did arrive in comic shops, albeit months late. ::sigh:: Time to go back issue bin diving!
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT – MORE ON THE WAY!
I’m going to do a third column again this week. All this Ultimate discussion just crowded out anything else I wanted to talk about. So I’ll save it for Thursday. Come back then for some more comics reviews, as well as my New Year’s Resolution, and the start of my look back at the year 2000.
It’s become de rigueur to have one of these things at the bottom of your column at CBR, so I think I’ll join right in.
You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board. It’s another New Year’s Resolution of mine to get that thing jumpstarted, and it seems to be working so far. I’m posting Quicky Reviews of books as I read them, so feel free to jump in on those conversations. We’ve even got a discussion of the practicality of the Ultimate line running over there right now.
There are now just over 175 columns archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they’ll all be on CBR.
And, finally, I’ve begun writing DVD movie reviews for the gang over at DVD Channel News, where right now you can find my reviews of Airplane!, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, and Princess Mononoke.