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Ultimate Spider-Man #54
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley

Seems Hollywood is filming a Spider-man movie. Sam Raimi is directing, Avi Arad is producing and Tobey Maguire is starring. I bet you think I'm talking about this summer's upcoming Spider-man 2. HA! Joke's on you, jerk, because I'm talking about the new Hollywood storyline, kicking off in Ultimate Spider-man #54!

Eh. Art imitates life. I get it. Very clever, Brian Michael Bendis. At best, this issue feels like a tired gimmick. At worst, it feels like a publicity stunt. It's mildly cute, but a strong title like this one should have to resort to wink-wink methods like this. The whole thing feels like a corny throwaway gag.

Dr. Octopus is on board, of course, because he's in the movie too. I've always liked Bendis' take on Otto. No longer an overstuffed egomaniac, now he's a scheming psychopath and a force to be reckoned with. I also like the treatment of his robotic tentacles as a living entity, even though it's more than a little Venom-esque. Unfortunately, his actions here are basically a carbon copy of what went down over in Ultimate Six. Yawn.

In the end, comics are comics, and movies are movies, and I feel the two should exist independently of one another. Still, if you liked the first 53 issues, you'll probably like this one too. It's got Bendis' snappy dialogue (awkward pauses and all), and for my money, Mark Bagley is THE definitive Spider-man artist these days. Harmless fluff. Let me know when we get back to the real deal.

Final Grade: B-


Ultimate Spider-man #55

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley

Though we're still stuck in the cheesy comic-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-comic Hollywood storyline, Ultimate Spider-man #55 is an improvement over the previous issue. The self-referential plot remains a one-trick pony, but this time around, the Spider-man flick takes a backseat to some actual character development. Gwen Stacy in particular is given some added depth, as Bendis tones down her spunk to reveal some painful internal conflict - blaming Spider-man for the death of her father, the wall-crawler's impending feature film has brought her to an emotional breaking point. I'm interested to see where this character goes.

Doc Ock is still a sadistic bastard with scores to settle, though I'm starting to wonder if Bendis is mishandling him a little. A character with four robotic arms has always been a cool enough concept. But now the arms exist independently, and the doctor is having conversations with them. Are the arms entirely sentient, or is this simply a symptom of Otto's fractured psyche? Either way, it's starting to feel a bit over-the-top - we already have a symbiotic tag-team villain in Venom, and apparently Carnage is right around the corner.

The momentum stalls when focus is shifted back to the "real-life" movie, but all in all, this is a decent issue. Bagley's pencils are still top-notch, and the book closes with a fantastic two-page spread, setting up the all-out brawl scheduled for next issue. A superhero smack-down is never a bad thing, especially when it brings us one step closer to the end of a sub-standard story arc.

Final Grade: B


Amazing Spider-man #505
Marvel Comics
(w) J. Michael Straczynski
(a) John Romita Jr.
FC, 32 pages w/ads, $2.25 US / $3.25 CAN

This week, J. Michael Straczynski brings us yet another Spider-man-as-inner-city-social-worker story. Would someone please put an end to this fucking after-school special?

This issue doesn't even deserve a recap, but for those with a morbid curiosity: A young black man has a gun, and Spider-man helps him make the right choice. That's it. Sound familiar? That's because this story has been recycled throughout half of the 36 issues Straczynski has written thus far. The other half has been loaded with that origin-redefining supernatural garbage. I'm not sure which is worse.

Look, JMS is a solid writer - Rising Stars and Supreme Power back that up. And I'm not saying these more down-to-earth stories are necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of writers have thrown Spider-man into a situation where, instead of fighting super-powered robots, he's helping out his fellow man. But they were smart enough to space the heartwarming stuff out a little. Since Straczynski has taken over this title, Spider-man has become an inner-city schoolteacher, solved the case of the missing gang-related kids, and taught a costume designer to listen to his heart. At this point, I'm waiting for the issue where Peter Parker organizes an urban bake sale to stop vandalism. And as long as I'm bitching, John Romita Jr. is an overrated artist who draws weird faces.

This is a standalone filler issue, but don't get too excited. The next installment brings more mystical spider-totem magic crap featuring the return of Ezekiel, the man with Spider-powers who's as mysterious as he is unnecessary. Spider-sense tingling!

Final Grade: D-


Mighty Love
DC Comics
Writer: Howard Chaykin
Artist: Howard Chaykin
HC 96 pages
$24.95 US / 37.95 CAN

Primarily known for his harsh, realistic and darkly humorous stories, Howard Chaykin is back on the scene with his first original solo work in 10 years. Written and illustrated by the comic book veteran, Mighty Love is an energetic blend of genres that stands firmly on its own as a unique and engaging read. It's a detective thriller, a romantic comedy, and a superhero story. But most of all, it's one of the best books you'll probably never read.

In a seedy and corrupt metropolis, two lives are intertwined. By day, detective Delaney Pope and defense attorney Lincoln Reinhardt are sworn enemies, trading venomous insults every time their careers cross paths. Their mutual antagonism needs no explanation - Pope's job is to put criminals in jail, while Reinhardt pays his bills by keeping them out. Think Law & Order, without Jerry Orbach.

When night falls, however, things get a bit more interesting. Unbeknownst to each other, these two adversaries take to the streets as costumed vigilantes, fighting against the very injustices they're forced to serve during the day. As the Iron Angel, Reinhardt seeks vengeance on the guilty criminals he defends. As Skylark, Pope hunts down the corrupt police officers in her own administration. It's a convincing take on your typical superhero adventure. Think Watchmen, without Dr. Manhattan.

The two masked crime fighters are brought face to face for the first time when a charity function is robbed. As they join forces to solve the case, their collaboration blossoms into romance, a stark contrast to the hostility between their secret identities. Enemies by day, flirtatious potential lovers by night. Think You've Got Mail, without that adorable Meg Ryan.

With its parallel storylines, borrowed influences and complex plot, there are a lot of places where Mighty Love could have gone wrong. Instead, it's a success on every level. The two main characters are extremely well developed, and their dynamic is engaging on both sides of the coin. These are people you care about, flawed and conflicted souls struggling to make sense of their lives. There's a pervading sense of realism to the entire story, with Chaykin's trademark propensity toward sex and violence used not as a shock tactic, but to enhance the believability of the story. The raunchy dialogue and mature situations never feel overdone, because this is how people act in real life, regardless of what censors would like you to believe. And the story is top-notch, though readers might want to take a second trip through just to absorb the finer details of the plot.

Chaykin's pencils complete the package. His style is hyper-realistic, reminiscent of the "grown-up" imaginings from Calvin and Hobbes. This is a dirty city, reflected in both its buildings and residents. We see every ugly detail as the gritty drama unfolds, right down to the shadows left by rain-swept windshields. Inks are as heavy and dark as the subject matter, and the two parallel stories are merged flawlessly with creative layouts. Pages and panels mirror each other to compare and contrast Reinhardt and Pope's intersecting lives. The whole thing just flows - I tore through it in one sitting.

This brings me to my only complaint about Mighty Love, and unfortunately, it's one that will probably prevent most readers from picking it up. This is a hardcover graphic novel with a cover price of 25 bucks. For your average comic book reader, that's a little steep. I don't have a problem with hardcover treatment and a hefty price tag for longer books, or collected volumes with exclusive bonus content. But at 96 pages, Mighty Love is just over three issues of bare-bones material. It's entertaining, but it would have worked better as a paperback, or better yet, a miniseries. And considering his 10-year hiatus, Chaykin's name isn't going to justify the cost for recent or casual readers. That's a shame, because this is a solid read.

When all is said and done, Mighty Love is a smart, edgy and refreshing story from one of the industry's most innovative writers. It's also short and expensive, like a classy midget hooker. My recommendation depends entirely on your financial situation. If you've got bills to pay, there are plenty of other affordable quality books out there. But if price is not a concern, by all means, pick it up. You won't be disappointed.

Final Grade: B+


Spectacular Spider-Man #11
Writer: Paul Jenkins
Artist: Damian Scott

After two mediocre storylines featuring Venom and Doctor Octopus, Spectacular Spider-Man's classic villain showcase continues this week with "The Lizard's Tale". Dr. Curt Connors returns, and he's got some major issues to work out. His wife recently lost her battle with cancer, and now he must deal with his son's growing resentment. And let us not forget that he turns into a rampaging iguana whenever he loses control of his emotions.

All is not lost, however. A new research grant could fund Dr. Connors' revolutionary cancer studies, and importantly, it would redeem him in the eyes of his son. Of course, if everything went as planned, we'd have a pretty boring story. So enter Dr. Cliché, the Evil Corporate Scientist who is competing for the same grant. Inevitably, things turn ugly, and when Dr. Connors' scaly alter ego makes an appearance it's up to everyone's favorite wall-crawler to save the day. But is the Lizard a villain, or is he a victim? And will Dr. Connors ever realize his dream of playing drums for Def Leppard? Only time, and the next issue, will tell.

Writer Paul Jenkins does an admirable job here of presenting the man behind the reptile. His stories may have their problems, but the man can write good villains. We remain sympathetic to Dr. Connors, a man dealing with the death of his wife, his son's anger and his inability to get a fresh start in the scientific community. My only complaint is that this is extremely familiar territory: When a scientist gets angry, his uncontrollable dark side takes over and he becomes a rampaging green monster. Doesn't exactly scream originality. Still, for a poor man's Hulk, it's enjoyable enough.

Artist Damian Scott takes over the drawing table with this issue, and while he's a step back from Humberto Ramos, he's certainly got style. He draws a fast, fluid Spider-Man, and a nice Lizard, to boot. The images hinting at the reptilian savagery behind the doctor's timid exterior are particularly nice.

This title has been a mixed bag since its launch close to a year ago. On the positive side, it's nice to see a simpler Spider-Man title, with villains and action and self-contained story arcs - J. Michael Straczynski's mystical magic show over in Amazing has worn out its welcome, as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, the book tends to feel like a re-imagining of Spider-Man outside of continuity, not unlike Ultimate Spider-Man or the abysmal Human Torch re-launch. Peter Parker looks and acts more like an adolescent, and Jenkins' motley crew of wacky neighbors is straight out of a bad sitcom.

Spider-man's personal life is what has always made him such an interesting character. He has responsibilities not just as a super-hero, but also as a husband, a nephew and an adult. Outside of that, there are enough interesting characters in the Spider-man universe to create a decent supporting cast. But now, we've got roof parties, softball and videogames. Peter Parker's building has basically been turned into a freshman dorm (minus the RAs and bong hits), and this aspect of the title reads like a cartoon. The last thing any core Spider-book needs is a big fat loudmouthed New Zealander dropping by for corny slapstick. Here's hoping that "The Kiwi Kid" is the next Gwen Stacy. Not that I want him to become Spider-man's romantic interest. I just want him to fall off a building and die.

Final Grade: B

--Dave Brennan
[email protected]


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[email protected] | April 2004 | Issue 49
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