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Ultimate Spider-Man #83

It's been an up and down five years or so for Ultimate Spider-Man, with many of the ups coming in the earlier half of the book's life, before it settled into a routine that was beginning to get tired and repetitive. For this reviewer, there's been something lacking in the book - call it spark, call it energy, call it whatever - since around the time of the death of Gwen Stacy, who had looked an extremely promising character but was quickly done away with in the lacklustre "Carnage" storyline. Since then, the storylines have seemed to contain a lot of lazy padding, a lot of fight scenes (either with a bad guy, or with a fellow vigilante due to some kind of "confusion" arising) and an ever-growing sense of ennui. The book's never been downright awful, and is always readable, but sometimes it takes just a few minutes to get through and seems distinctly unimaginative.

Recently, however, Brian Bendis has begun to show hints that he's remembering what made the book so good, and so vital, in the first place - and gradually, as the book approaches its hundreth issue (and, shortly after that, the issue that will see Bendis and Bagley break Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's record for most consecutive issues on a single title by one creative team), things are being done to push the series towards a new era, and out of the slump it's been in for the past couple of years.

It's begun with sections of the "Warriors" storyline, the first major storyline since the fallout of Peter and Mary Jane's breakup. At times, this storyarc has seemed reminiscent of the usual dreary stuff that's gone on in recent years - new characters (or, rather, Ultimate versions of existing characters) have been thrown into the mix with gay abandon, and it's really been quite confusing as to who's on which side and what's really going on. On the other hand, however, there have been some excellent moments of Bendisness littered throughout the arc, whether it's the interaction between the Black Cat and Peter (which admittedly now feels a little weird in the light of the USM Annual, which this storyline is meant to precede), or the great scene a couple of months back where Peter, for the first time, was confronted by the Kingpin (who's fast becoming his most important nemesis in this series) with a moral dilemma far less black and white than he's previously been used to.

The real indication that Bendis hadn't lost it entirely with these characters and setups, though, came in the form of last month's Ultimate Spider-Man Annual. As well as the storyline taking brave new steps away from regular Marvel continuity, in setting Peter up with the X-Men's Kitty Pryde, it was an extremely well-written book. It was sharp, funny, entertaining and impossible to read without a big goofy grin on your face - a Bendis classic, and possibly the best Ult Spidey issue since way back in #13, when Peter revealed his secret to Mary Jane. An intriguing new direction for the book seems to have been heralded, and while in story terms we have to wait for "Warriors" to get out of the way before it really begins, some of Bendis' newfound zest has clearly translated here. There's a great scene between Peter and Mary Jane, in which for the first time in a while we see MJ giving as good as she gets, the smart and strong character we know she is. All too often in recent issues, there have been angsty conversations between these two that have generally led to the same result - here, though, it seems a further significant step has been taken in their relationship. Felicia, meanwhile, continues to tread a fine line between cool and annoying.

It's with the final panel, though, that we once again see a really on-form Bendis. As I mentioned, much of "Warriors" has been spent introducing various new characters with complicated backstories (without referring back to previous issues, I must admit to being completely confused as to who Moon Knight and all the people around him are), but this issue closes with a wonderfully self-aware payoff to all of that - as every single vigilante, superhero and assassin that has shown up in this storyarc descends upon Hammerhead at once. It's slightly reminiscent of that scene in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels where every plot thread comes together in one place in a violent gunbattle between a few different factions. Bendis even has Peter comment on the slightly confusing nature of the past few issues, as he asks "Uh... who's the good guys and who's the bad guys?" Hammerhead's reaction, meanwhile, which I won't spoil here, is laugh-out-loud funny.

I still think we're going to have to wait for the end of this arc (which, despite looking like it should only have one issue to go, actually has two) before we really see the "new era" of Ultimate Spider-Man begin; but we've been waiting that long for it to happen (something should have been done after "Carnage", because storylines like "Hobgoblin" really were treading water) that just the hint of its approach feels like a breath of fresh air. There's also a lot more polish to Mark Bagley's art at the moment, which like Bendis' writing had seemingly been suffering as a result of being on the book so long. With the creative team revitalised like this, the Lee/Kirby record isn't only going to be passed - it's going to be smashed, and thankfully B&B at the moment seem just about capable of keeping it interesting for some time to come.

So it's an A- for this one - a couple of great scenes, some nicely-structured plotting, solid artwork and, most importantly, the promise of better to come.

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