In 1962 writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko took a gamble and introduced readers to a new kind of super hero; one whose super powers didn’t insulate him from the problems of everyday life. The character was Peter Parker and his more famous costumed alter ego was known the Amazing Spider-Man. In both his civilian and heroic guises, Parker’s life was complicated, with the problems of one identity often spilling over into the other. This everyman approach to super heroes proved incredibly popular and Spider-Man quickly became Marvel Comics’ flagship character.
By the year 2000, Spidey had been a worldwide icon for decades thanks to his appearances in comic books, Sunday newspaper strips, television, video games and more. His comics involved almost 40 years worth of continuity, all documenting the life of Peter Parker with fans watching him grow up from nerdy, unpopular hight school student to a married man. In an effort to create a new, reader-friendly Spidey comic, Marvel took another gamble and restarted the web-slinger’s adventures in modern times through a series titled “Ultimate Spider-Man.” Ten years and 150 issues later, this second version of the franchise character is still going strong. In honor of this achievement, CBR today kicks off a four part feature. Part one looks at the origins of the series, memorable storylines and the departure of the title’s original artist by talking with the man who’s been with “Ultimate Spider-Man” from the beginning: writer Brian Michael Bendis.
These days, Bendis is one of the biggest names in comics, but when Marvel’s Ultimate line was launched in 2000, he was an Eisner Award-winning indy creator who was still in the midst of the long and difficult process of getting his foot in the door at Marvel. The Spider-Woman series he had been tapped to do had fallen to the wayside and his only other work had been the final story in the Ultraverse imprint that Marvel had recently acquired. It was his initial work on “Daredevil,” which at the time was the flagship title of the Marvel Knights imprint, that eventually earned him the “Ultimate Spider-Man” assignment.
“They had been working on ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ for months, maybe longer, before they even knew my name. It was part of a line called ‘Ground Zero Comics,’ which would have been a marketing disaster on every level. Even at that time, with what little marketing knowledge I had, I knew that ‘Zero’ was a marketing negative. So Marvel President Bill Jemas changed it to the ‘Ultimate Line,'” Bendis told CBR News. “Bill had been working on what would become ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ with another writer. That writer had written the first issue and made the mistake I would have made if I didn’t get to see that mistake made. It was so slavish to ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15 that he didn’t really add anything to it. I probably would have done that too, if I hadn’t seen what it looked like when you do that.”
Jemas was looking for a writer to tackle both “Ultimate Spider-Man” and what would become the second book in the “Ultimate” line, “Ultimate X-Men.” Unable to find the distinctive voice he had been looking for, one day Marvel Knights Editor and future Marvel Editor in Chief in Chief Joe Quesada suggested Bendis. After sampling some of Bendis’ crime books, Jemas approached the then virtual unknown creator to pen “Ultimate Spider-Man.”
“I got offered the job and was literally handed a shoebox full of notes and concepts. I was smart enough to ask for the other writer’s draft. I read that and I went, ‘Oh, I know what to do!’ I literally just started typing. I typed what was pretty much the first issue over a weekend, which was as fast as I’ve ever written anything. I was just writing, writing, writing and I stopped at a place in the story where I hadn’t said I was going to stop,” Bendis explained. “I thought I was going to get Peter into costume in the first issue, but I only got him up to the ceiling. I kept all of Bill’s good ideas and discarded all the wobbly ones. I handed it in and said, ‘Here’s my best foot forward. If I’m meant to do this project, you’ll love this.'”
Jemas did indeed love Bendis’ script for the first issue of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and attempted to enlist him to write “Ultimate X-Men” as well, but the writer struggled with the title. Instead, they agreed he would tackle another title for the Ultimate line at a later date and got right to work penning Spider-Man’s adventures in what would eventually become the Ultimate Universe.
“The funny thing was, ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ was originally only supposed to be a six issue miniseries. I ignored that. I had done this once before with Todd McFarlane, when I was hired for ‘Sam and Twitch,'” Bendis remarked. “That was also a miniseries and they were so happy with the result that I said, ‘Let’s just keep going, and if it doesn’t sell we’ll just stop.’ Meanwhile, I was trying to get as much work out of it as possible and I was also having a very good time. With ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ I said, ‘You guys are going to go for broke on marketing, so let’s just keep going with it. I’ve got a billion stories to tell and if it gets canceled, it gets canceled.’ Meanwhile, I just wanted the job.”
To help Bendis bring “Ultimate Spider-Man” to life, Jemas recruited veteran Spider-Man artist Mark Bagley, feeling Bagley’s mainstream style would be the perfect complement to Bendis’ indy sensibilities. It took Jemas two tries to convince Bagley he was the right artist for “Ultimate Spider-Man,” and even then the artist only initially agreed to a six issue run. “The second issue came out, and his retailer, who I believe is Cliff Biggers who puts out ‘Comic Shop News,’ pulled Mark aside and said, ‘Are you nuts? This is the book you’ve been waiting for,'” Bendis explained. “So he decided to stick with it and I just made googly eyes at him till he agreed to be friends with me. [Laughs] We’re still friends to this day, which is fantastic.”
When word of the series first leaked to the fans about Bendis and Bagley’s collaboration, they were skeptical, to say the least. “All the bashing that was going on was over the concept of it, which was not brought on by anything I had done or said, but by the fact that Marvel had tried something like this before. Stuff that I was at the time unaware of, like ‘Chapter One,'” Bendis stated. “So readers were already suspect of it. Plus, we were using words that people on the internet don’t always like to hear, like ‘reinvention.’ [Laughs] Words that we used for our recent ‘Moon Knight’ announcement that scared the crap out of ‘Moon Knight’ fans. ‘Reinterpretation? What? Don’t reinterpret the thing that I love!’
“You just kind of have to prove yourself in situations like that by putting the work out so people can see the love and affection that’s going into it. And with this, boy, did people just turn on a dime. The turnabout was unbelievable,” Bendis continued. “I remember Joe Quesada said to me, ‘Welcome to comics.’ I said, ‘Well, I have been making comics for, like, eight years.’ He goes, ‘No,no, no. Your little ‘Jinx’ book has sold a few thousand copies, but now you’re in Comics. Now you’re writing Spider-Man.’ And he was right. Everything changed; the perception of my work, the way people reacted to it – it all changed. It was crazy.”
When readers first entered Bendis’ world of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” they were greeted by many recognizable faces, though many were slightly or radically different from the characters that longtime Spider fans were used to. For instance, instead of being a frail old lady that Peter Parker had to care for, Aunt May was a vibrant woman who took a very active role in her nephew’s life.
“I grew up in a single parent household. My mother raised me and my brother by herself. That was a truth that I knew. I just decided that I would write Aunt May as if she were my mom. My mom is cool and tough and all of these things. Only my brother knows what a dead-on impersonation it is. My brother has said to me, ‘That’s just creepy.’ Everyone else just sees it and goes, ‘That’s honest,'” Bendis said. “It’s a dead-on impersonation, though. I’m not the only person in the world who was raised by a single parent or had a relationship like that with whoever was raising you. A lot of people related to it and said, ‘That’s what my world is.’
“When Uncle Ben died in our book, people were like, ‘Augh! You should have just killed Aunt May! We’ve already seen Uncle Ben die!’ They thought it was supposed to be like a ‘What If?’ story or an alternate universe. We kind of had to retrain people so they knew that’s not what this is,” Bendis continued. “This isn’t one of the dimensions in the Multiverse, despite the fact that there is a video game out there saying it is. I think this is another interpretation of the character, like how the movies or any of the TV shows are.”
And Bendis didn’t stop as simply changing up the supporting cast in Peter Parker’s world. He also updated other aspects of Peter Parker’s life, like his web fluid and his occupation. “In ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ we were going to keep Peter in the 15-16 age range, so there had to be a logic to some things. Number one was that no major metropolitan newspaper was going to hire a guy of his age. We made him a web intern, which was still pushing it, but we got away with it because I guess people wanted to see him be a part of that environment,” Bendis explained. “Of course, nowadays I know there’s many professional photographers, but newspapers buy photographs from anybody and anywhere. Were looking at the TMZ’s of the world. If Peter wanted to go sell pictures of Spider-Man, he could probably sell them to anybody. It’s just kind of funny how much the world has changed, even during the time this book has been around.
“With the web fluid, I believe it was around the time we were getting arguments about organic web shooters. The movies had organic web shooters and Avi Arad loved the idea of organic web-shooters, so they brought them into the comics. I understood the biological mindset of organic web-shooters, and I was happy to write them when I wrote them, but to me, Peter inventing something was part of who he was. It’s not that he’s just some guy who has super powers. He’s someone who could be an M.I.T. kid. If it wasn’t for Spider-Man, he might already be in college,” Bendis explained. “I wanted that element, and I added something that I was personally thrilled with; the idea that his father had started this formula and that he had finished it. He had finished it in a way that deals with the loss of his parents when he got old enough to do so. That, to me, seemed very character important, and now his legacy with his father is part of Spider-Man.”
In addition to the new takes on long established characters, “Ultimate Spider-Man” also debuted an entirely new supporting cast member in the form of Kenny “Kong” McFarlane, who began the series as a friend of Peter’s school nemesis Flash Thompson, but would eventually come to befriend Peter. “Initially, he was going to be a high school Kingpin. It was going to be that Kingpin was in [Peter’s] class, too. I jettisoned that idea because it was actually dumber than it just sounded,” Bendis revealed. “I liked Kenny, though. I liked that he was a follow-around puppy to Flash that was going to grow out of that. I liked that he was someone that going to grow out of being mean to Peter; someone who was going to be caught between Peter’s world and the jock world. I also wanted someone who would figure out Peter was Spider-Man and be cool enough not to ever tell anybody.”
In the series’ introductory arc, Bendis also introduced readers to the Ultimate Universe’s incarnation of Norman Osborn and, of course, his alter ego of The Green Goblin. In the second arc the writer welcomed Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, into the Ultimate Universe. These two villains would go on to become Peter Parker’s biggest adversaries in the first, 100-plus issue volume of “Ultimate Spider-Man.”
“Once I finished the first arcs featuring both of those characters, I felt that these two men represented the lessons that Peter had to learn. Kingpin represents injustice and how it can really thrive in this world; the ‘greed is good’ of it all. That he will not win against this,” Bendis said. “Norman was a little bit like his anti-father. Both of them were teaching a very specific lesson and both of them were larger concerns that we could come back to. For a while, it was almost like we were going back and forth, rotating. It wouldn’t be conscious, but often with storylines I would do Norman, Kingpin, different kind of story, Norman, Kingpin, different kind of story. We were really telling two big, epic dramas at the same time.”
In February 2003, the writer switched things up and tried his hand at an Ultimate take on one of Spidey’s newer foes with the arc titled “Venom.” “I believe this was the last year Bill Jemas was with Marvel. He came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to do Venom.’ I had already in the press said, ‘Venom sucks. He’s the worst. I’ll never do Venom,'” Bendis said. “I thought about it, though, and there was something visually striking about Venom. I had to come to terms with the fact that these type of villains don’t suck. They just get overdone or led astray. There’s something interesting about them initially, and that’s why they got so overblown. I remember how excited I was when I saw Spider-Man’s black costume, so I went back to what that felt like and developed this story.
“This story was the only time Bill and I didn’t really see eye to eye. He was gracious enough to allow me to do it my way, and in the back of the hardcover you can see Bill’s proposal which was that Spider-Man had accidentally created Venom out of the web fluid and Venom actually comes out of his web-shooters. I convinced him that doing that would kind of ruin the web shooters, because how could you shoot webs if you thought that Venom was going to pop out at any minute? Bill deferred, and I was happy.
“I went about this story and started reading the DNA book that had come out that year. It was about what was trying to be accomplished with DNA in the modern sciences, and I thought, what was the coolest and most heroic thing that Richard Parker could be trying to do when died? It was to cure cancer. Then, what’s the worst thing that could happen out of all of this? He accidentally creates Venom instead, and dies trying to stop it. Now you’ve got yourself an epic Peter story that no 15 year old could possibly rise to.”
Following “Venom,” Bendis kicked off an arc titled “Irresponsible,” featuring the debut of the Ultimate Universe’s first original super villain, the infamous Geldoff, a character who continues to haunt Bendis to the this day. “[Laughs] I laugh because I’ve just started working on the ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ cartoon for Disney XD, and the Geldoff jokes had just started to die down. Now that we’re in the room once a month to do ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ Geldoff jokes have come from a whole new audience, my co-writers the Men of Action [Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle] So I’ve got another audience to carry on an eight year old joke,” Bendis remarked. “The truth of the matter, honestly, is that it wasn’t supposed to be the biggest deal in the world that I had created the first new villain! I just came up with the idea for this character. Many writers have attempted their version of a, ‘What would Peter be like if he didn’t have an Uncle Ben?’ character. That’s what I was trying to do here. It just so happened that I decided to make it a new character, and somehow someone made it a big deal that this was the first non-Marvel Ultimate character and they marketed it as such, when it was really just this dude.
“It was funny…and then I get my balls busted for years and years. It even happened last week. I twittered that I had taken my writing assignment for the first half of the season of the Spider-Man cartoon and that I’m writing a story that I think people will be happy that I’m writing. I didn’t say what it was. I checked my responses later on and it was like, ‘Geldoff,’ ‘Geldoff,’ ‘Geldoff.’ They wouldn’t let up on it. It’s never going to go away.” [Laughs]
While the audience of “Ultimate Spider-Man” was underwhelmed by Geldoff, they really enjoyed Bendis’ creation of a brand new romantic entanglement for Peter Parker. In 2005’s “Ultimate Spider-Man Annual” #1, Bendis and artist Mark Brooks chronicled the first date of Spider-Man and his new girlfriend – Kitty Pryde from “Ultimate X-Men.”
“It literally came about in the most organic way possible. I didn’t want to do something like Sam and Diane on ‘Cheers’ or the couple on ‘Castle.’ You don’t want to get your lead couple together and break them apart too many times. Once MJ and Peter broke up, the obstacles in between them should be legitimate. There should be this thing that’s clearly holding them apart, and this was a bold one. It could have blown up in my face, because people really liked Peter and MJ and Peter and Gwen,” Bendis stated. “Adding this thing could have gone badly, but I had introduced her in the book when the X-Men had come by and she clearly had a crush on him. So it was established previously, and then when we got to the annual, I pitched this. It was like, ‘Wouldn’t a nice Jewish girl be nice for Peter?’ This was easily one of the top five things that went over the best in my whole career. The response to that was huge.”
The audience had a similar response to the arc Bendis and Bagley kicked off in August of 2006. Indeed, the positive response and the quality of the arc surprised many longtime Spider-Man fans because it was an Ultimatization of one of the most notorious stories in Spidey history, “The Clone Saga.”
“That story is a personal highlight for me,” Bendis stated. “I think it’s probably the best crafted story of the whole run, just in terms of what I wanted to do and how it paid off. This was like ‘Venom,’ though. It was another one of those things where people joke about it all the time. It’s like a punchline storyline. What ends up happening at the Marvel retreats is, quite often the writers that are of my generation sit at the feet of Ralph Macchio or Tom Brevoort. Ralph was the editor of ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ for many years. He was a never-ending source of inspiration and stories and warnings to me about what works and what doesn’t work.
“He’s seen it all, and I listen to him. Even if I go my own way sometimes, I listen very carefully to things that he says. We talked about ‘The Clone Saga’ and the reason it had went on for so long was because it was insanely successful. People loved it, and then [Marvel] just got greedy. So after talking about it at length with Ralph, I said to myself, ‘There’s an amazing idea here, so I will try it. I’ll control my “jump the shark” moment,'” Bendis revealed. ” ‘The Clone Saga’ ended up working very well. I think it’s Bagley’s strongest stuff, too.”
“The Clone Saga” ran in “Ultimate Spider-Man” #97-105, and with the release of “Ultimate Spider-Man” #103, Bendis and Bagley broke the record for longest continual run on a Marvel Comics series by two people, a record previously held by the legendary “Fantastic Four” team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Bendis and Bagley would do one more arc of “Ultimate Spider-Man” after the clone saga, and then the artist decided it was time to leave the book, wrapping his run with issue #111. He penciled the first half of the book and the series new artist Stuart Immonen penciled the second.
“I completely understand why he was done with the book. I can’t believe he stuck around for six issues, let alone twenty, let alone fifty. Every time we got to an anniversary issue or the end of a story, I would think in the back of my head, ‘He’s going to be done.’ So I started throwing things into the storylines that were visually arresting for him, that were different from him drawing webs all the time. I knew that’s what was going to get to him; how many times he was going to have to draw those goddamn webs. Something else happened with Bagley, though,” Bendis recalled. “About 20 issues into the run, he called me up and said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go out of my way to create Spider-Man visuals that we haven’t seen before and I haven’t done before.’ If you look you can see very specific poses and angles on classic poses that only he could do and no one else had done. Some of it’s subtle and some of it’s bold, but he decided that he was staying on the book and that he was going to make it interesting for himself.
“Over the course of a couple of those years, we were putting out 18-24 issues a year. We were tearing though stuff with no lack of quality on his end. What had happened throughout the course of the 10 years or the 100 issues was that we began to become very close friends. I would fight the idea that there’s anyone in this industry who respects and admires Mark more than I do. I wait patiently for the day we can find our way back to each other. I completely understand, though, that he needed to go do other things.
“To this day, I can’t tell you how much I love this man and how much I admire him. I’ve said privately in meetings and publicly on the internet that it’s my opinion that people like Mark Bagley should be given reward after reward and award after award because they are exciting draftsmen, insanely professional and are nice to their fans everywhere they go. But instead, because of the nature of humanity, we reward people who are late with their books, we pay attention to people who misbehave and talk shit. I wish the world worked backwards so the person who was kicking ass quietly and with class was lauded for his amazing professionalism day in and day out. I’m sorry if I’m overstating this, but I believe wholeheartedly that’s how it should be, and it’s not.”
Join CBR soon for part two of our feature where Bendis discusses more of the past of “Ultimate Spider-Man” as well as his present and future plans for the book