The Fifth Color | Spider-Man’s Ultimate Corpse
Sorry for the graphic title, Gentle Readers.
I’m sure you get the idea: last week, Ultimate Spider-Man #160 gave us the final chapter in the long-awaited “Death of Spider-Man” storyline. That’s long awaited because the prelude kicked us off in February and we’ve been talking about the “Death of Spider-Man” as a future storyline since before that so no one really should take this as a shock that Peter Parker perishes. It wasn’t called the “Death of Captain America” until those Captain America issues were in trade and Fantastic Four’s “Three” is still just labeled “3” on the cover so the mystery of who bites it there is still under wraps. There’s an air of ‘whodunnit’ with those issues, questions that I have personally seen lure the curious new reader to the stands. With the Ultimate “Death of Spider-Man” written on a bevy of covers for the past few months, sometimes even more prominently than the book’s actual title, I don’t see what the polybag was for.
Why note this book at all? Yeah, it’s the murder of the guy whose name’s on the cover, but a polybag? What secret within could be worth wrapping in plastic? The cover spoils the end results! There’s no secret to keep but how Spider-Man dies and, after cutting my way into another comic, that’s not even a secret worth keeping.
So why the hoopla? Why the trending and interviews and rather somber occasion for an event that everyone’s known about for months thanks to tireless campaigning and announcements? Perhaps why they’ve revealed their shocking ending now and not for so long was because the Ultimate Spider-Man title’s been dead for a lot longer than this final issue.
WARNING: Hey guys. Spider-Man dies in Ultimate Spider-Man #160. I know, I know, we’re all surprised but below I’m going to talk a little about how he died so I suppose a spoiler warning is the polite thing to do. Just in case.
Right, so when I was young and naive, I bought into the “Death of Superman” hype despite not really knowing much about Superman or DC Comics, for that matter. This was in my carefree Trekkie comics phase so the Man of Steel was absolutely beyond me aside from what I had been told by the Donner films or an episode or two of Lois and Clark. I got the most collector-y issue I could find and debated with myself on whether or not I should ever know its contents. After a long, agonizing lunch break, I carefully cut it open and removed the collector’s black armband with an archeologist’s care. When I finally got to the comic, I promised myself one read and then it would go back into the polybag and, of course, someday pay for my college education.
Superman #75 is a mess. Just a big fight-y mess and in the end, I didn’t know why Superman had died at all. All the emotion and grief from Lois Lane in that infamous splash page felt empty, and I was left more disappointed than whatever I had imagined the story would be like. Now older and a little wiser, I know it’s important to get the issues before to understand a comic like this and that, at the time, the biggest, baddest fight could trump any artful assassination shot that we might catch today. Superman fought very hard until he couldn’t anymore, and that was that. Yeah, Hulk Hogan can trounce any man in the squared circle, but every now and then he takes a shocking bump for the heel that has the announcers demanding the match be stopped and swearing his demise.
Ultimate Spider-Man #163 reminds me a lot of Superman #75: a beat-up and desperate Spider-Man is fighting a souped-up Green Goblin, and wreckage is everywhere. People are being desperately saved left and right as the Goblin ruthlessly pursues a tattered and torn Peter Parker. It’s a fight, and you’ve seen these fights before. Mary Jane totally drives a moving truck into our villain, and still he relentlessly comes at Peter. Eventually, Peter picks up said moving truck and smashes it on top of the Green Goblin, the truck explodes and Peter seems to finally rest as he dies on the lawn outside his house with Aunt May, Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy and Bobby Drake.
If I had just picked up this issue, I’d be a little disappointed. Yeah, Spider-Man had been shot in the issues leading up to that comic, but the man’s been moving with a gun shot in the side for quite some issues (yeah, he even took the bullet for Captain America; if he had gotten trapped in the Negative Zone to die fighting the Green Goblin, I think that’s a triple death score or something). Sure he had to fight all of his rogue’s gallery leading up to the final fight with the Green Goblin (Oh yeah, that is a little like Knightfall!), but to have him there, quietly on the lawn he probably mowed last week? It’s a nice, quiet end, but it doesn’t seem worth the hype.
To me the polybag isn’t about the shocking secrets inside, it’s about everything that came before this one pocket in Ultimte Spider-Man. Every single issue before, not just this storyline, has been heading toward this pristine moment, and it started about two years ago with the Clone Saga. Before then, the Ultimate Spider-Man title was the perfect place for new readers looking for easy, off-the-cuff adventures of their friendly neighborhood hero, and old readers looking to escape the convoluted history of Peter Parker and remember a simpler time, before the ’90s. It sold remarkably well at my shop, mostly from the diligence of the store manager at the time, but also through the need to have a fresh start for readers. The Clone Saga is when I remember the book starting to feel unfinished, like this might have been a storyline that we should have just left for the ages and not tried a revamp with. The book kept going, eventually becoming a Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends-style book with Kitty Pryde, Bobby Drake and Johnny Storm hanging out at his place after “Ultimatum.”
“Ultimatum” was good for the book in some ways, as Bendis did an award-winning job with an abysmal situation by filling out his cast of characters and making a more teen-styled book after the gruesome carnage in Loeb’s final chapter. It also never quite got to where it was before all of this, just our hero Spider-Man, being Spider-Man, doing Spider-Man things and rethinking through a lot of old stories that still resonated with us after all these years. The Ultimate Spider-Man book we started with has been gone for a long time.
It’s funny, when I set out to write this piece I thought it was going to be short. Just a few words about the obvious Death of Spider-Man and the odd fascination we have for the contents within a polybag, but now, there’s some sadness over the loss of a book that started out as a Gold Standard long before they added some foil to the covers. A runaway hit no one thought would be successful enough to see four issues, let alone 160, that I think started us thinking about comics in a new way. And as we look ahead to the all new, all different Ultimate Spider-Man ahead, I hope some of the magic returns for the readers and cretaors, too.
Good job, Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s time to rest.