If you’re a Spider-Man fan, you should be at your local comic book store. Ultimate Spider-Man, by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Marco Checchetto, is a must-read series for any fan of the Web-Head or superheroes in general. It’s the flagship title for Marvel’s revival of its Ultimate line, the suite of 2000’s era reboots that went on to be the bedrock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. While only at its first issue, Ultimate Spider-Man (2024) has proven to be a balm for the troubled state of Spider-Man comics for the past few years and has successfully drummed up hype for the Ultimate revival. You’ve heard the story of Peter Parker, but never like this.
Of course, it’s highly encouraged that you go out and read this issue. Rowan students have a comic book store just past the Boulevard that’s practically on campus. This issue is beautiful to have in hand. Many comics fans have blindspots regarding the more obscure aspects of the medium, specifically the importance of lettering, inking, and coloring. Marco Checchetto’s art in this book, which is amazing, cannot be discussed without the contributions of colorist Matthew Wilson, who truly brings each panel to life with his brilliant palette. I was delighted in pouring over each panel, looking for easter eggs and main-universe parallels, and getting to drink up the delectable shades that allow each scene and character to be that much more real.
I first encountered Checchetto’s art when he worked on Daredevil (2019) with writer Chip Zdarsky, defining that book’s gritty look and tone. His pencils perfectly capture the human form while adding a stoic beauty that resembles a Greek sculpture. As it happens, Matthew Wilson worked on colors for that run as well. Much of the Daredevil creative team ended up forming the DNA of Ultimate Spider-Man, and it shows. The moody, life-like pencils and atmospheric colors are a perfect fit for the grounded, emotional story that Hickman is trying to tell with this new Ultimate Peter Parker.
Hickman takes big swings in the story department. Most notably, Peter Parker begins his Spider-Man career as a 35-year-old man with his wife Mary Jane, and their two children beside him. Already, this book is in direct contrast with the main-universe Amazing Spider-Man title, which has been catching criticism for years for not allowing Peter to grow up. While I find it bothersome that most online chatter about Ultimate is in comparison to Amazing, the main-universe’s most recent run by writer Zeb Wells has been controversial, to say the least. USM represents a return to normalcy, or sanity, as more militant detractors might say. Some fans are hoping to speak loud enough with the dollar and prove to Marvel Comics that Ultimate is selling what they really want to buy.
In addition to Peter’s wife and children, Hickman has his own spin on the most important character in the Spidey mythos: Uncle Ben. He’s alive. He manages the Daily Bugle alongside J. Jonah Jameson, and when they make too many waves in their reporting it’s Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who all but ousts them from their own paper. This remixing of classic Spider-Man building blocks makes USM so engaging to read because if Uncle Ben is alive, then it feels like anything could happen which is a rarity in modern comics.
From these building blocks, the reader can trace a possible path for these characters and the universe going forward. This issue is tightly paced and economical with its exposition, character beats, and set-ups for future story elements. Hitting the ground running, Hickman establishes the emotional core of the book: Peter is incomplete without Spider-Man. The villains of this world have used time travel to erase superheroes, separating Peter and the radioactive spider is only one example. In this beautiful panel, Peter explains that he has everything a man could want, but something’s missing. While his life is an amazing fantasy, it’s all great responsibility with none of the great power.
This panel has really stuck with me. The anguish on Peter’s face, the hand pointing to an aching heart. Some readers see this element as allegorical to the transgender experience, or point out that Pete would be an older millennial dealing with the broken world he inherited from his Boomer predecessors. The powers-that-be have stolen Peter’s destiny, a feeling that many readers can relate to. In this scene, Peter even expresses jealousy at Uncle Ben’s courage to act on impulse. This is a character learning to take chances, to express himself in ways that he has been denied. He’s an entirely different beast than the Spidey we’re used to, but has retained the relatable nature that makes the character so special.
The generational turmoil between Pete and Ben has been a knot I’ve been trying to untie since putting this issue down. Ben, while being a positive influence on Peter, stands in contrast and opposition to him. Despite being a good person, he can be a typical man of his generation: emotionally closed off, bullheaded, and doling out “be a man” style advice. Ben and Jonah, despite not being actual supervillains, represent the institutions of old, the exact powers-that-be aligned in Hickman’s crosshairs. How he’ll square this circle will be fascinating indeed. Will Ben be the father figure to Peter we know him to be, or will they grow apart now that Peter is coming into his own?
The issue ends with Peter and MJ sitting down to have a conversation. Peter wants to fill the hole in his heart and MJ encourages him to do so. Here comes the whopper: it’s revealed that Pete received a message from Tony Stark, the Ultimate Iron Lad, that told him about his stolen destiny as Spider-Man. He left a package containing a silver orb, which itself contains the radioactive spider that will give Peter his power. He goes onto the roof and, remembering the advice both Ben and MJ gave him, he lets the spider bite him, and thus begins his journey as the Ultimate Spider-Man.
Previews for issue #2 promise a deeper look at Peter’s all-black Spider suit and his first fight against a villain, the Shocker. The future leaves us much to look forward to, including the premier of Bryan Edward Hill and Stefano Casseli’s Ultimate Black Panther coming in February, along with Peach Momoko’s Ultimate X-Men arriving in March. No doubt Hickman envisions an “Ultimate Avengers” style team led by Iron Lad.
While this was an amazing issue, there’s still something bothering me, so I’ll just say it: I told you so. When I last wrote about the new Ultimate Universe, I knew then that Hickman and company had the juice. Suddenly, when a shiny new Spidey book comes along, everyone pretends like they were backing the Hickman horse the whole time. I’ve seen fancams of daddy Peter. We’ve reached a new level of comic book fandom here. The online community has even made a new, half-decent meme from this issue. If Iron Lad gave Peter the radioactive spider to make him Spider-Man, it only makes sense that he’s forcibly injected the X-gene into Wolverine and broken Dr. Strange’s hands in order to restore their superhero origins.
What little criticism of USM I’ve seen comes from the fact that new readers are confused without the context provided by Hickman’s previous Ultimate material. While I understand that concern, that information is provided by a recap on the very first page, and, like, the internet. Another I’ve observed is the fear that the Spidey title will be derailed or interrupted by the greater happenings of the new Ultimate-U, which, as comic fans, we should know comes with the territory. Iron Lad teases that in “six months”, he plans for superheroes to return to this world, but some readers want Spidey as far away from that as possible. I, for one, would love to see this universe’s geo-political drama through Peter’s eyes.
Ultimately, Hickman, Checchetto, and the entire creative team are magicians. They’ve worked magic on the page with their Ultimate Spider-Man, and for many, have validated the entire line’s revival. Yes, I’m a little bitter that people only now see Hickman’s vision as I did when Ultimate Invasion dropped, but I’m more gladdened by the fact that more positivity and genuine hope surrounds the new Ultimate line. This little universe has waited in the shadows and finally found its moment in the sun, becoming the must-read book on the shelves, and hopefully, in your pull list.
You can read Ultimate Spider-Man at your local comic book store.