When Marvel Comics' Ultimate Universe first appeared more than a decade ago, there were many differences between its cast of characters and their Marvel Universe counterparts, as well as many similarities. Over the years, some of those similarities have gone away as the heroes of Ultimate Universe have grown, changed, and in some cases, perished. One thing remains the same, though: the adult Spider-Man of the Marvel Universe and the teenage Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe are still the heart of their respective realities. This Spring, the heart of the Ultimate Universe might just stop beating thanks to the events of the “Death of Spider-Man” storyline that runs through the pages of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and the “Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates” miniseries. CBR News spoke with “Ultimate Spider-Man” writer Brian Michael Bendis about the crossover, which begins with a prelude in February and kicks into high gear in March.
Before “The Death of Spider-Man” begins, the titular teen character will have his hands full dealing with his new responsibilities as a super hero in training and his old ones as a guardian of the streets of New York City. That's because in “Ultimate Spider-Man” #152, on sale January 26th, Iron Man of the Ultimates is on the scene to give Spider-Man his first lesson in his government-mandated super hero training, and the thief known as the Black Cat is about to go to war with the super villain crime boss Mysterio.
“We're excited about this premise of having Peter forced to take lessons from the man. You get to that place in your life where you think you know everything as a teenager, then all of a sudden you're forced to admit, 'Oh, I don't know anything.' Then you realize that everything you've said and done for the last two or three years is unbelievably embarrassing. That's where Peter is at. He's going to have to eat some humble pie, which is very much the Spider-Man way, but at the same time it's cool because Tony Stark is going to come to his house and hang out with him. He's getting a little hero time,” Bendis told CBR News. “And yes he's going to learn some stuff. New stuff is going to happen in his life. And wait till you see Sarah Pichelli's art work! Every page is better than the next! What a find!”
In February, the prelude to the “Death of Spider-Man begins, running through “Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates” #1 by writer Mark Millar and artist Lenil Yu and “Ultimate Spider-Man” #153-154 by Bendis and artists David Lafuente and Sarah Pichelli. In March the crossover moves into high gear in “Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates” #2 and the prelude continues with "Ultimate Spider-Man" #155 by Bendis and guest artist Chris Samnee. Then in “Ultimate Spider-Man” #156, also in March, the storyline explodes as Bendis reunites with long time collaborator and “Ultimate Spider-Man” co-creator, artist Mark Bagley.
“This is the best version of a crossover; where it's a story that's completely worth it for those who buy both books and there's no punishment whatsoever for those who just want to buy one or the other. I'm a big believer in not making people buy stuff they don't want to buy. We actually think that people are going to end up buying both of these, but we're not relying on that. So there is one important story element that will happen early on in both of our books. It will happen in my book from Spider-Man's point of view and something will happen in Mark's book from the Ultimates' point of view. That's where the stories will collide and veer off until the end,” Bendis explained. “So the Spider-Man story is a complete Spider-Man story. If you've never heard of Mark Millar and his fascism [laughs] you'll get a full complete story featuring what I feel is one of the boldest Spider-Man ideas that has come down the pike. Then from Mark you're getting what I think he does better than anybody and that's a story which is as close to 'Ultimate Civil War' as we're going to get. So we found moments for us to clash but at the same time to tell a story that only relies on the story we're telling. Something happens in the first act that causes our tales to veer off into different areas.”
In the “Ultimate Spider-Man” portions of “Death of Spider-Man,” readers will get what Bendis calls the most important story of Peter Parker's life. “It's not the Ultimate version of a famous Marvel Universe story. I think the best moments of the Ultimate line over the last few years and the best moments for us as writers have been the new. So both the story Mark is telling and the story I am telling is all new stuff. It's not based on anything you've seen before. And with that comes the dangerous. With that comes ideas like Reed Richards is a villain and Kitty Pryde as Peter's girlfriend. This story is up there with those kinds of ideas. It was concocted at one of those retreats where everyone leaves the room going, 'Wow!' and then you wait for someone to say 'no' the next day. No one has said 'no,' though. Every time I tell someone what's really happening they go, 'Seriously? It's your career.' and with this kind of story that's the best reaction you can hope for.”
During “Death of Spider-Man,” readers of “Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates” will get just what the title suggests, a meeting and confrontation between the super team the Ultimates and their black ops counterparts in the Avengers. While in “Ultimate Spider-Man,” the Webslinger must deal with the reemergence of his worst nightmare. “This story is the return of the Ultimate Six, which is our version of the Sinister Six. The group first appeared in my 2003-2004 mini-series 'Ultimate Six.' It's a different line up this time, but people who know Peter's secret, who have a legitimate vendetta against him, and feel they can not go farther in this world without taking care of him are on the loose and headed right for him,” Bendis revealed. “There are some surprises in the group. So I'm going to be a little vague. I want people to open the book and see who is in the group. What I like, too, and I had a lot of fun with this with the Hood and his gang as well, is that, yeah, everyone has and is known for their selfish agenda, but what is also interesting is that they have different intelligence levels. Some of them are very intelligent and some are just pit bulls who don't know any better than to lick their own ass. I think it was Roy Thomas who said that once.”
As the title suggests, the danger in the “Death of Spider-Man” is very real and very dire. “The Ultimate Six are a big threat. and this absolutely answers the questions brought up by Spider-Man needing training. He's gotten to a level where you're either going to train and get better, you're going to die, or you're going to get somebody killed. And that's what this story is about. The person training Peter when this story starts isn't Iron Man. It's Captain America. People who read 'Ultimate Spider-Man' #150 saw that Captain America is the one who voted Spider-Man off the island, so to speak. He's the one who thinks he's too young, he's too brash, he's too wild, and he shouldn't be doing this,” Bendis said. “So that was a lot of fun to write and I'm happy to say Mark Bagley, who's a drawing machine, has already drawn it. To see Mark back on the book with these pages with Peter, MJ, and Captain America literally feels like no time has past at all. It's amazing. No beat has been missed or skipped.”
The “Death of Spider-Man” storyline has been bandied about for about a year and a half, but the time never felt right to Bendis. Recent events in “Ultimate Spider-Man,” though, have laid the groundwork for it and when Mark Bagley's exclusive contract with DC began to wind down late last year, the artist began to talk with Bendis about projects they could collaborate with when his DC contract was up. Suddenly the time felt very right for the tale.
“When I started hearing from Mark I wondered if this was going to line up and would he want to do it? When you add his run on 'Amazing Spider-Man' to his 111 consecutive issues of 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' Mark did the longest run ever on Spider-Man. So would he want to do it again?” Bendis recalled wondering.. “And in my heart, and this is in no way a dis on anybody, certain people belong in certain places. I know why he went to DC and he did beautiful work over there, particularly on 'Batman,' but we at Marvel couldn't wait to have him back — he's something special. I missed him, too. I got why he wanted to draw those things. I have it in me as well. I understand it and him coming back here is a big deal.
“It's a homecoming and there are a lot of guys in comics who get rewarded for just unprofessional behavior and here is the King Kong of professionalism in comics. Here is the guy who always gets it done, gets it done well, and gets it done with no cheating and no assistance,” Bendis continued. “It's him drawing his ass off. And that's honest and pure. I had brought up to Marvel and brought up to Mark that I wanted to use this opportunity to welcome Mark back. I think this is a book that will make people say, 'Great! He's really back!' I think it makes the story more special and it certainly allows Marvel to relate to Mark on the level I know they feel about him. Everyone at Marvel was thrilled that he was coming back and wanted to relay that publicly. So what better gig than this?
“So I told Mark what the whole thing was, why we were doing it, and what the third act shocks were. I then said, 'You might be sick of drawing Spider-Man, but I think you should do this. I think you should do it because it feels right. And I think you should do it because it's what people want to see. Then after that, whatever you choose to do next will be equally as special. So I was thrilled that he agreed. I know he wanted to work with me and we had talked about it the whole time, but I wasn't sure he wanted to come back,” Bendis said. “Because you don't want to be like 'St. Elmo's Fire' where it's 'Dude. It's done. It's over. Let's move on.' That's not what this is though. This story is so different than what's come before. So I was thrilled Bagley came back and we're off and running! We're back to that great feeling of he draws faster than I write. I got him and John Romita Jr on 'Avengers' and they both draw at the same speed and it's startling sometimes. So you hand in this script and three days later they go, 'Next!' So I keep writing.”
Bendis is overjoyed to be working with Bagley again, but he's not forgotten about his other artistic collaborators on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” David Lafuente and Sarah Pichelli. “They are doing wonderful work. I've told them both privately and publicly that I think they're brilliant and my excitement for Mark to come back and do this story is in no way a derogatory comment on their abilities as artists,” the writer said. “They are amazing and I've already made commitments to them on other projects. So if anything, 'Ultimate Spider-Man' found itself with an embarrassment of artistic riches.”
The “Death of Spider-Man” comes hot on the heels of the last big Ultimate Universe event, "Ultimatum," which drastically altered the Ultimate Universe by killing many of its heroes. When “Death of Spider-Man” comes to a conclusion in July, the Ultimate Universe will once again be altered, but this time the changes will come not in the form of an immense number of casualties. Instead the order and shape of the Ultimate U will be redefined.
“At the end of stories like 'House of M' and 'Secret Invasion' a promise was made that things would be different and we stuck to our guns. Even the most callous reader has to give us that. We said, 'No more mutants!' It held for years, and in a way is still holding. 'Dark Reign' held. And the current 'Heroic Age' held,” Bendis said. “So what's coming next is in its own way bolder than that because the Ultimate Universe allows itself to explode larger and do something bigger. So there's that and I can almost guarantee you that it's going to hold the way those other examples have held.”
“Death of Spider-Man” is a story that can be enjoyed by both longtime fans of Marvel's Ultimate line and new readers. “There's lot's of stuff in here for those who have been following everything, but ultimately what I think the Ultimate line has brought to mainstream comics is the idea of being new reader friendly from the get go. The recap pages that you see in every Marvel book started in the Ultimate books. All you need to know about the 'Death of Spider-Man,' you find out on the first page. Peter got bit by a spider. Here's who his girlfriend is. Here's what's going on – and then you're ready to go. Everybody else you meet. It's a small cast.”
The concept of death in super hero comics has been explored many times and not always with the most satisfying results. So Bendis is aware that the title “Death of Spider-Man” may have some readers a little skeptical about the events and consequences of the storyline. “It's one of those things where you see the D word and you think you've seen it all. I'm online. I hear it and I get it. I know it. So I can say, 'Sit back and enjoy this one because you have not seen this story before.' I know that because I work with a lot of people who have been in comics much longer than I have and most of them can't believe we're doing this. The story will continue, too. There will be some major announcements in the summer directly related to what happens in this story.”