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Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 obituary: Peter Parker. Sort of

Uncle Ben and Peter Parker step into the light
Look, I know that Peter Parker, aka the Amazing Spider-Man, is not real. And I know that he continues to sling webs in more Marvel comic books than ever, particularly since he's a member of the Fantastic Four and the New Avengers. But the superpowered high school student came to a tragic, highly emotional end in the Ultimate Spider-Man in a storyline that packed a real wallop.

Ultimate Spider-Man, like the rest of the Ultimate line of Marvel comics, was launched about a decade ago to offer a more accessible, streamlined approach to the company's roster of superheroes. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and Marietta-based artist Mark Bagley turned Ultimate Spider-Man into the best-selling Spider-Man title of the decade, emphasizing Peter Parker's vulnerability as a high school teenager thrust into a dark, dangerous world of criminals, domestic spies and super-powered freaks.

Bagley drew 111 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man before moving onto different projects, but happily accepted Marvel's invitation to illustrate the Death of Spider-Man arc. "That was a nice compliment," he told me in a recent interview. "I loved doing it, because it was the culmination of what the poor kid’s been going through for years. A 16-year-old kid getting out there, being not always so smart with his secret identity — it had to happen. Brian wrote a great story."

The plot of Death of Spider-Man parallels a few other Ultimate Spidey storylines, with Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin violently freeing himself from custody, enlisting the help of other super-powered bad guys from the book's rogue's gallery and seeing Peter Parker through the people he loves. The book builds to almost a High Noon-style sequence when Peter, injured by an unexpected gunshot, takes on the villains on the street outside his Aunt May's house. What separates Peter from Gary Cooper in High Noon, however, is the way his friends and loved ones step up to come to his rescue. Few comic book action scenes genuinely earn such high drama.

Bagley admits that he teared up when he read a scene from Bendis’ script. Outside Spider-Man’s funeral, Peter Parker's grieving Aunt May meets a little girl the hero rescued from a fire, and Bagley drew the girl and her mother to resemble his own daughter and granddaughter.

Part of the justification for killing off Peter Parker was to pass along the Spider-mantle to a new teenage hero, Miles Morales, who's half-Latino, half African-American and thus speaks to some of the most unsung but loyal supporters of superhero comics. Of course, heroes get resurrected in comic books all the time, and the Ultimate Spider-Man continuity has even included clone versions of Peter Parker. But, as Bagley says, "Brian would sincerely like him to stay dead. He's as dead as a superhero can be."

R.I.P., your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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