Reader Request Month: Ultimate Spider-Man #13

This next reader request comes from Elias_A on Twitter:

Like Caleb yesterday, Elias let me choose from a few stories. And while this blog has long turned its nose up at the Ultimate Universe, Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is a comic I’ve been dying to write about for years. So here we go…

Ultimate 13 cover

My long-time aversion to all things Ultimate Spider-Man at first started from a place of ignorance, but slowly evolved into a matter of stubborn pride. I had only read through the entire Brian Michael Bendis run on Ultimate Spider-Man (and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man or whatever it renamed itself sometime after issue No. 100) two summers ago at the desperate urgings of my podcast partner Dan Gvozden. And, for the most part, I liked what Bendis put together, though one specific issue from this run felt like it was in a class by itself: Ultimate Spider-Man #13. I absolutely adore this comic and would probably rank it somewhere in my top 10 for best single issue Spider-Man stories (aka, one-and-dones). I’m not just talking Ultimate Spider-Man, I mean, ANY version of Spider-Man. This comic resonates that much with me.

Which is funny because this comic is essentially just a single scene between Peter and Mary Jane. There’s no action – no Spider-Man – and there are panels upon panels of just the two of them staring at each other like a couple of dorky teenagers (which they were). And yet, unlike in other stories by Bendis, who is notorious for deeeeeeccccccooooommmmmppppprrrrreeeeesssssiiiinnnnggggg everything to the point of madness, Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is so damn special because once you reach the final page of Peter laying on his back with a big goofy smile on his face, you’ve realized that you’ve witnessed a moment where Peter’s world has changed so profoundly, in a way that we don’t typically see in comics unless it’s an origin story or the death of a significant character. Seriously, when does any kind of comic book (not to mention a Spider-Man comic) capture such a level of sincere and honest happiness as Ultimate #13 does?

Ultimate 13 01

For those who have not had the pleasure of reading this comic, Ultimate #13 shows Peter revealing his secret identity as Spider-Man to his high school crush, MJ. Mary Jane is at first incredulous when Peter stammers his way through admitting that he’s a costumed superhero, but once he gives her a very quick demonstration of his powers, she is overcome with joy and support. Peter is put at genuine ease when she doesn’t run away from terror, and then is further elated when MJ admits that she thought Peter had invited her to his room to try and kiss her (which she wouldn’t have minded). Aunt May then breaks up the “study session” and lectures Peter about not doing any “hanky panky” in the house.

All told, this comic takes about three minutes to read, and yet it stands as a truly defining issue in Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate run. Up until this point, Ultimate Spider-Man’s narrative didn’t completely match-up with the mainstream 616 Spidey, but it could still be considered similar enough to read more as an origin retelling than a total reimagination of what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had put forward decades earlier. But Peter admitting his deepest darkest secret to MJ in Ultimate #13 is something that, at least from my perspective, put the series on its own divergent path from that point on.

But beyond the magnitude of Peter’s revelation, this comic is just so fantastic because of the level of happiness it captures. Bendis’s dialogue allows Peter and MJ to come across as two average teenagers – kids that we all probably came across in one form or another. There is not a single word that is dropped in this comic that lacks sincerity. Everything just rings so damn true and real, it’s absolutely uncanny.

Ultimate 13 02

I wish I could better articulate just how magical Bendis’s script is here, but it’s honestly so good, I don’t have the words for it. All I know is as someone who has been professionally writing for more than 15 years (we’re not just talking about my personal blog here), Ultimate #13 is written so well it almost makes me angry from the realization that I will never be able to write two fictitious characters with that level of warmth and authenticity.

And let’s not short-change Mark Bagley here who has the herculean task of illustrating a superhero comic with nary a moment of superheroics in it. This comic is so quiet – the noisiest part is MJ jumping on the bed in glee (which makes Aunt May thinks Peter is up to something in his bedroom). But his faces just ooze emotion and reaction. I actually feel like I’m witnessing a private conversation based on how Bagley draws Peter and MJ here. He takes nothing for granted in how he composes this comic book.

Ultimate 13 03

The net result of Bendis and Bagley’s amazing work is probably the best representation of the Peter/MJ dynamic I can find in a Spider-Man comic. I know those of you who are still angry about the events of “One More Day” will probably spit venom at me for saying so, but like some other members of Marvel’s hierarchy, I’ve always had a hard time accepting the marriage of 616 Peter/Mary Jane. Yes, there were undoubtedly some wonderful stories written about the two of them, but the occasional gem doesn’t change the fact that their whole marriage was built on a sales-driven stunt crafted by Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. When Peter and MJ dated earlier in Spider-Man history, it ended in spectacular failure, and while Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz did the best they could to demonstrate how both character’s had emotionally grown since they last were romantically involved, I don’t think enough really changed that established them as a realistic couple.

But I totally buy in to  Peter and Mary Jane at the end of Ultimate #13. Maybe it’s because they’re in high school versus college/young adulthood, but Bendis’s finds a way to capture the couple’s chemistry. MJ doesn’t even remotely come across as being out of Peter’s “league,” while Peter is awkward, but not self-absorbed enough to be a turn-off to fun-loving Mary Jane. Plus I have infinitely more respect for Peter as an individual in how he is forward and honest with Mary Jane about his secret – even acknowledging that if he’s ever disappearing or not being a good friend, it’s probably because he’s busy being Spider-Man. Peter’s decision to reveal his secret to Mary Jane would later come back to haunt in the Ultimate Universe, but I still maintain that he did it for the right reasons.

Ultimate 13 04

Such a fantastic little comic … thanks again for requesting it Elias!

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