[SPOILER WARNING: The following story contains spoilers for "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" #160, on sale now.]
In 2000 Marvel Comics launched their "Ultimate" line of books that restarted the adventures of several of their classic characters in a present-day environment. With "Ultimate Spider-Man" #1 writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley introduced readers to a teenage Peter Parker who was just becoming Spider-Man. In the series' introductory arc Spider-Man once again learned the hard lessons of power and responsibility by failing to save his Uncle Ben.
Like his Marvel Universe counterpart, the teenage Spider-Man spent the next 10 years trying to atone for his failure by saving innocents and foiling the schemes of super-powered criminals. His many adventures in "Ultimate Spider-Man" lead to a number of close calls, but now the unthinkable has happened. Recently Bendis, who's been writing the book since issue #1, reunited with Bagley, who left the series with issue #111. The duo came together for the series' current "Death of Spider-Man" arc, and in "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" #160, in stores now, they brought the arc to a close with the titular death. Comic Book Resources spoke with Bendis about the death, the aftershocks in the July miniseries "Ultimate Fallout" and the new volume of "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" that begins in September.
Peter Parker's death followed a lengthy battle with the Ultimate Six, a group composed of some of his deadliest enemies. Early in the fight Peter threw himself in front of a bullet meant for Captain America but was left no time to get the gunshot wound treated, which ultimately led to his death. The actual groundwork was laid several months earlier in a series of conversations between Bendis and former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada.
"The Ultimate Universe was originally supposed to be this ground-level look at Marvel characters," Bendis told CBR News. "We did that, and as the years went by, it slowly evolved into this other thing. It was still commercially successful, and there's still interest in it. We looked at the Ultimate line of books and asked ourselves, 'OK, what were the stories we were doing that we were the most proud of? And what were the top five things you think of when you think of "Ultimate Spider-Man"?' All of them were things that were not Ultimate adaptations of classic Marvel stories. We liked when Kitty Pryde was in the book, and we liked that Peter and MJ got to be open with each other early on. These were moments that were not done in 'Amazing Spider-Man.' Out of that conversation we asked ourselves, 'What are some of the other stories you can never tell in "Amazing Spider-Man"?' A lot of those involve Peter passing away and letting someone else become Spider-Man."
Bendis found the idea of telling the tale of Peter Parker's demise to be both intriguing and scary. He decided that if he was going to tell that story it would have to be a story that mattered -- and stuck.
"I'm as allergic to phony-baloney comic book deaths as anybody," the writer admitted. "I don't like them. I know I've been responsible for some, but not on purpose. So we couldn't pull any bullshit like Peter comes back with a metal arm and calls himself 'The Arachnid' or something like that. It would have to be that Peter passes and this new Spider-Man, who we'll talk more about at another time, steps forward. It also occurred to me, simple as it was, that whoever this new Spider-Man is, Peter Parker's death becomes to them what Uncle Ben's death was to Peter. Then the story continues in a grand way. I said that to everybody, and they got really excited. I know it's a simple idea, but it kind of takes you awhile to get there. We've talked before about how sometimes you can write and write, then realize that all you needed to do was have the Hulk punch the Thing. All that other stuff really didn't matter. You just needed the punch.
"The other element -- and I wasn't going to write the book until I had it -- was that Peter wasn't able to save Uncle Ben, but if he dies trying to save Aunt May then the story comes full circle," Bendis continued. "Now we've got a character that though his death is tragic, his life isn't. That's the difference. It may be deceitfully simple, but it took me a really long time to get there. Once I got there, though, I wrote it all right away. That's the piece that was missing."
Actually sitting down and typing out Peter Parker's final scenes proved to be a very emotional experience for Bendis. "Many times when I'm writing I'll get excited when I'm writing something exciting, or goofy when I'm writing something funny," he said. "Things just start flowing, and you can't fake it. There's nothing you can do to make it happen. While I was typing this issue, though, all of a sudden I couldn't see the keyboard because I was completely losing my shit. That absolutely happened the whole time. I went upstairs to my wife and she goes, 'What's wrong with you?' and I was like, 'I've been crying for like 45 minutes. So I'm exhausted.' Then she said that there were people in my life that I wouldn't cry over, and I'm losing my shit over this."
Turning such an emotional scene over to an artist can be a daunting task, especially if it's a collaborator you're not really familiar with. Bendis could rest easy knowing that his friend and long-time collaborator, veteran artist Mark Bagley, would bring to life the "Death of Spider-Man."
"Mark and I had been talking about doing our creator-owned book 'Brilliant' as soon as he became available," Bendis said. "As this got closer, though, and became more and more of a possibility [Marvel and I] started talking about who should draw it. I said, 'If the math can work it's got to be Mark.' I know Mark left Marvel because he was sick of drawing Spider-Man. So it was hard to go, 'Hey! Now that you're back, let's do Spider-Man one more time! But this time with feeling.' I told him, 'Listen, I don't know who else could possibly draw this.' And on top of that, what a great welcome home for Mark this book will be. Then after that we'll do 'Brilliant' and he can do other things. And he killed it here. It was like no time had passed. So it was a really wonderful experience. We found each other again really fast, and then we just jumped right into 'Brilliant' while all of this was going on."
"Death of Spider-Man" may be over, but Bendis and Bagley will continue their latest Ultimate Universe collaboration with "Ultimate Fallout," a six-issue weekly miniseries that chronicles the aftermath of Spider-Man's death and features work by creators attached to the new line of Ultimate books, which launch in August and September. "People wanted more," Bendis conceded. "They wanted an epilogue, and I'm happy to say that 'Ultimate Fallout' #1, in stores July 13th, is by me, Mark Bagley and the entire creative team of 'Death of Spider-Man,' and it's exactly that. It's the entire cast of 'Ultimate Spider-Man' reacting to the nightmare that just happened, each in their own way. It also revolves around the funeral of Peter Parker. So a great deal happens. I believe there are 22 pages and at least 20 scenes. So a lot goes on."
For "Ultimate Fallout" #2 Bendis is paired with artist Gabriel Hardman ("Agents of Atlas," "Hulk"). "I was really thrilled about working with him," Bendis stated. "We do the framing piece, but then the story kind of opens up and Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer are coming in. They're doing chapters featuring their characters, which they're either coming into or have inherited from Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb. So we'll be closing some doors and opening others. There is some wonderful art in those chapters, too. Bryan Hitch did a chapter in issue #2 with Thor written by Jonathan Hickman."
In "Ultimate Fallout" #3 Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer lay more groundwork for their books: "Ultimate Comics: Ultimates," "Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye" and "Ultimate Comics: X-Men." Bendis and Bagley return, however, for issue #6. "Issue #6 will almost be entirely by me and Bagley again as we wrap up a lot of the storylines about some of the bigger characters in Spider-Man," Bendis said. "That includes Nick Fury, Mary Jane and Aunt May."
In September, Bendis and artist Sarah Pichelli launch the second volume of "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" with a new #1. The titular character's identity is still a mystery, but when their new monthly adventures begin they'll find that the very public death of Peter Parker changed what it means to be a costumed adventurer in New York City and possibly even the Ultimate Universe. "Peter died with his mask off and in front of his neighborhood," Bendis explained. "His death was filmed, too. People recorded it with their cell phones. You can watch Spider-Man die on YouTube in this world. So all of these things inform how the city will react to the death. It's pretty powerful stuff. I won't lie to you, I got misty-eyed writing that, too."
Penning New York City's reaction to Spidey's death may have made Bendis teary, but readers' reactions to the death left the writer feeling great and grateful. CBR News caught up with Bendis again on the evening of issue #160's release.
"Without sounding too cornbally this was probably one of the top three days of my career," he admitted. "As an artist trying to bring something out and then to have people respond in the way you hoped -- you want that every day. This one though was super, super important to me, obviously. You can do everything right and have it not translate to the reader. It's me filtered through Mark, who is filtered through the inker, the letterer and the colorist. You make it all shiny, put ads on it and hope it will still be emotional once it gets to the reader. So I woke up this morning, or as you call it, afternoon [Bendis lives in Portland], and my Twitter account was just bombed. I must have had 300-400 Tweets already about the book to me. Everyone was responding about how emotional they were. None of it negative, which was startling. I thought it was going to be half and half. I thought we were going to get people who just weren't in the mood to be emotional or people who just felt anger. Because people just handle things differently.
"It's funny; I guess calling it 'Death of Spider-Man' really did help it because when I had a character like Hawkeye die, no one said a word," Bendis continued. "This one, though, the response was much more amiable. It might have just been because we called it 'Death of Spider-Man' for five months. So once it happened people were ready for it. They let it happen. It was fascinating. Yesterday Peter Parker was trending on Twitter for most of the day. I didn't even notice it because I don't usually look at the trending topics. Someone pointed it out to me and I was like, 'Holy shit!' Then I thought they must have put out the trailer for the new Spider-Man movie. Then I clicked on it, and it was us! It was insanely slow news day. So we got a lot of press."
Bendis was thrilled at the amount of coverage "Death of Spider-Man" received because it allowed him to help out some friends and put a spotlight on his collaborator Mark Bagley. "A lot of my friends who own stores are hurting, and being able to help out and give them a good day made me feel good; that was really important to me," Bendis remarked. "Issue #160 wasn't available digitally, so you had to go buy it. By the time you read this it should be available digitally, but today it wasn't. So my retailing buddies were emailing me and saying there were some really quick sell-outs and some extra foot traffic in stores. That was great to hear.
"There are a number of sociopaths in any business or walk of life," Bendis went on. "So I really like to champion the wonderful people instead of focusing on the nutballs. Mark Bagley is a truly great guy who has been making very lovely comics for a long time. Another reason today was so great was that I got the chance to stand back and just allow this to happen to Mark. It's funny because he rarely even acknowledges it. It doesn't have anything to do with why he makes comics, but I get happy for him."