The Email Exchange: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man & The New Reader w/ Matthew Spencer

The Email Exchange is exactly what it says: two writers correspond by email until enough of their rambling can be made into one coherent read. In our first edition, my brother from another (and Hip-Hop Manifesto podcast partner), Matthew “Chivalry” Spencer and I discuss the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series. Which segues into a intense discussion about new comic fans vs. old comic fans. Points were made, points were argued, but I think it came out well.

Kelen Conley: I read those issues of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man you graciously gave me when you visited in April. Read them from cover to letters page and I have to tell you man…I’m not really impressed. I’m used to reading Brian Michael Bendis’ super-slow “for the trade” style and none of it really grabbed me. Miles seems like a cool character but I don’t really buy it. He gets drafted into this special school where he’s supposed to be at during the week but he sneaks out with no problem? The invisibility helps but where are the security cameras? Why is the third roommate such a douche? I also hate how a bunch of shit happened in Ultimate Fallout and is merely referenced in the main book. While I understand the need to sell the separate mini-series following Peter’s death, I hate how his first outing as Spider-Man is barely shown in his actual book. And his uncle is the Prowler and already knows who he is? While I know this storyline is still being told (I haven’t read any issues since the ones you gave me), I think it really sucks that his murderous criminal uncle is already on his ass.

I read the original Ultimate Spider-Man issues online at when they first came out. While I enjoyed them, it wasn’t until I read the few issues approaching #50 that made me a fan. Maybe I’ll change my tune about these new UCSM issues but right now, the magic’s not happening for me.

Still appreciate the awesome gift though.

Matthew Spencer: As you know, I have no background in comics or graphic novels. I’ve been introduced to some fantastic books over the past few years and I have found that I have the propensity to be sucked into a good comic. However, there are have been some friends who have lent or recommended classic works that I failed to be find even the least bit interesting. I’ve since come to the conclusion that while I can fully appreciate this media, I just don’t fully geek out over it like I do with many other of my interests and hobbies. So, it’s a bit intimidating when I pick up the latest spin-off or universe or arc of some long running characters and there lies so much backstory, nuggets from the past, references, allusions, and flashbacks that I have no idea what is going on and seriously miss out on a bit of the story. This has even happened with the very first issues of books like X-Men, Wolverine, Batman, Daredevil, Iron Man etc. I know that the comic book industry is always trying to bring in new readers but they are forever trying to appease their most loyal fans as well. It’s a fine balance and I don’t envy that responsibility.

When Ultimate Comics Spider-Man came along, I was leary. It sounded contrived and kitschy. But in a literary and artistic universe of exaggerations, caricatures, and imagination…what isn’t? But I like Spider-Man. And I LOVE Brian Michael Bendis. So much so that I named one of the tables at my wedding after him (Honestly! Alongside other literary favorites like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Hesse, in fact.) So I gave it a try. I don’t know much about Spider-Man. I saw the first two movies. I know the basics, but that’s it. But the first issues of UCSM didn’t have any prerequisites. Pick it up and enjoy it. It also didn’t hold many punches. After reading other Bendis favorites like Powers, I expected a slower evolving story. Spider-Man moves at such a quick pace that I could forget my ritalin meds for two months and still keep track of the story. But yet, despite all of this, I still found that the characters were developed enough that I liked them. Maybe I read into them a bit, who knows. But I was worried about Miles and read on in a mad fervor.

I didn’t read about the death of Spider-Man. I didn’t even know why there was a new Spider-Man series with a different Peter so to speak. It also mentioned just enough of Ultimate Fallout that I felt I was just as informed as the average New Yorker from that universe. Yeah, there are super heroes doing their thing but I got a life to live. Oh shit, Spider-Man died…caught me blindsided.

I like the book. It has it’s weaknesses, yes. I feel like I’m reading something intended for a younger audience but yet I still feel it has plenty of adult qualities. Hell, even Harry Potter was recognized for being a great book and was read by an unbelievable amount of adults so what do I have to feel guilty about? I enjoy it for what it is.

KC: You’ll have to excuse me. I often forget that you’ve only been in the comic game for a short time. But your comments have reminded me of one of biggest complaints I get about the funny books of today:

There’s so much material. I don’t know where to start. I don’t want to figure out where the story has been so I can catch up with where it’s going.

I know that you truly don’t have time to take on the back issues of Iron Man or Wolverine. I really don’t see the intimidating point though. When I first started reading Spider-Man, he was in an epic battle with the Green Goblin in a storyline called “The Child Within”. I didn’t know this was the third Green Goblin. I didn’t know anything about another character in the arc named Vermin. And I was 8. That didn’t stop me from reading altogether just because it would be too hard to figure out who was who.

When I picked comics back up again in 2000, I had missed at least 3 years worth of continuity. Thankfully, a little thing called the internet helped me figure out what I needed to know but I didn’t give up. Maybe it’s my obsessive nature with things I get into. You said that you don’t geek out over comics like you do other things. I geek out over everything. I’ve lost sleep reading Wikipedia entries about Wife Swap because of a marathon of episodes I had been watching.

To sum up this point, I just don’t see how a character’s history could stop you from enjoying the character’s current stories. But we are two different people as well.

Back to UCSM, I don’t think it’s Bendis’ best work. As of right now, he’s writing 4 regular books and Marvel’s summer event Avengers vs. X-Men. As someone who’s always taken on a large workload, it’s not surprising that something suffers. In my experience, it’s always been his 616 Marvel work. But after reading through the issues again since our last email, I realize my main issue: I don’t think Bendis is writing slow enough.

We’ve both read a majority of his Powers series and no matter how short or long the arc, I feel like Bendis never deterred from making sure he told the story at a certain pace. It’s his trademark and when he nails it, you get great material. But when he rushes through it (like in a lot of his Avengers work), I just can’t get with it. I think this is the reason I’m not connecting to UCSM like you have.

Or maybe the fact that Powers was the last Bendis thing I read. It’s hard to go from a creator-owned masterpiece back to a Marvel property, especially an entirely fresh one when I was so committed to the previous version.

And Peter Parker will forever be dope to me as well. That’s tough for Miles to overcome in my book.

MS: I think there are many reasons why comics are so intimidating to “outsiders.” 1) The existing loyal fans. 2) The sheer volume of material. 3) The expense 4) The history across arcs.

1) The existing loyal fans are tough. I think comic book fans are the new record store employees. You get judged no matter what you buy. Your tastes are never as debonair as theirs. You don’t know jack about what you are buying. I’ve been to some great comic book stores (I think) but even the nice employees overwhelm with the nonstop nerd talk that I will never be nerd enough to understand. The people that are really into comics probably read more every Wednesday than I’m able to read in 3-6 months. It’s a barrier between those that want to relate and talk about books/arcs/characters/artists/writers but can’t find anyone else quite on their level. I’ve tried to talk comics with people…and found I could never understand all the comparisons or allusions or other books because I have never read them.

2) THERE ARE SO MANY COMICS. Where the hell do I start? I tried just buying comics online that had great reviews and nice art? What did I end up with? Garbage. Comics are hard to shop for. Everything I’d think I’d like about comics can get turned on it’s head if the book is right. For instance… Scott Pilgrim (I know not exactly a comic but bear with me) had amateur art. But the story was fun and exciting. I was even able to look past the fact that most of the characters looked the same and I couldn’t figure who was who because the characters were all so awesome anyway. If I didn’t get unbelievably lucky buying it at random online, I would have never given it a chance. It takes a lot of sampling otherwise to find a comic that is good for you. You also have to continuously revisit comics you may not have liked in the past because new writers are always coming along and taking over and you may or may not like what they are coming up with now.

3) Wow, comics are an expensive hobby. Sure you can buy the one piece meal where weekly it’s a cheaper. But you might as well buy the trades at a cheaper rate and have more extended reading time. While trades themselves are a bargain, it’s expensive to go to the comic book store and buy say 4-5 books like one might at a bookstore.

4) Where to start is intimidating enough, but knowing there are several different tellings of the same popular characters running at each time is a bit much. I love that the comic book world offers so much material to choose from but it’s like going to a restaurant where the menu has 7,000 different types of food. You’d want to read the whole menu first and really weigh what you’d enjoy most but that’s not feasible so you just look until you get tired of looking and pick whatever looks good so far. I know all media venues are like this. BUT, traditional book writers, novelist, musicians, etc. have much more limited catalogs than say Spider-Man.

Regarding Bendis: It is a change of pace from his other work (not that I’ve read a whole lot though). But I don’t mind it. UCSM is a more pop culture icon and will probably be read by a wider audience (including much more of a younger audience). I don’t think it’s quick storytelling dumbs it down (although I can agree that maybe a little more character development would be nice).

I’m not going to call it the greatest comic ever. I can’t even reliably say it’s the best Spider-Man (as I haven’t ever read a Spider-Man comic). But I like the possibilities that the story has now that it has dropped the chains of the past. It also has my favorite writer and a damn good artist (Sara Pichelli). I’m willing to wait and see where it goes.

My guess: Peter Parker and Miles Morales will always be apples and oranges.

KC: I think our main disagreement on UCSM is that we’re both different readers.You like the fresh and new approach. While I like that too, as a writer, I’ve become such a storyline guy that when I feel like the storyline isn’t being fully told it pisses me off. You mentioned the lack of character development and that also plays a big part of my problems. I don’t care about Miles Morales right now and that’s Bendis’ fault. I even took a glance through issue 8 recently and still feel the same way. There’s a little bit of character development with Miles’ roommate but besides that, I still can’t get into it.

I felt the same way about Ultimate Spider-Man when it started. I read the first 20 or so issues on just because they were free. I had no exposure to Bendis back then and he still didn’t grab me. It wasn’t until USM #47 that I actually started paying attention (so much so that I bought every USM issue up until the Chameleon arc of the first volume of UCSM).

You mentioned this to me on the phone when you first started reading as well: the issues seem ridiculously short. Maybe comics in general have gotten shorter (and more expensive) in the 2 years it’s been since I stopped getting books pulled. But every time I start to get into a UCSM issue, it ends, and that’s frustrating.

I guess UCSM isn’t for me right now. I think I’ll check in every so often though. Maybe Bendis will hit a good arc that gets me into it full time. We’ll see.

To answer your concerns in reverse order:

4) Comic books easily have the most overexposed characters ever. Considering I’m not currently collecting, I’m not sure of how many books everyone has now, but at a given point in the 90′s, Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman all had 4 books each. All with different storylines and sometimes not related to each other at all. This is the biggest gripe of most comic enthusiasts because how does it make sense for Wolverine to be in Genosha with the X-Men, New York with the Avengers, Los Angeles with the New Avengers, and Madripoor in his own book all in the same month? It doesn’t but this is where the fault lies. Fans like myself in the past and many people I know now will throw down money for each of those books. Overexposure is an unfortunate way that Marvel and DC keep their mediums afloat as they enter into the digital age. Smaller companies like Dark Horse and Image are able to keep their characters in one book and it works. But their bottom lines will never be that of Marvel and DC, so they have that advantage.

There’s always going to be 7,000 books for one character and it sucks. But if it keeps the comic book medium alive, I’m willing to deal.

3) The price of comics is the reason I had to stop collecting. From 2003-2008, I always had the money to throw down $15 to $50 bucks a week on new issues. By 2008, my buying was more spaced out, so much so that my girlfriend would often buy me several months’ worth of comics for gifts because I was so behind. And you don’t even want to get into the amounts of money she would drop.

The prices have gone up as the cost to print the comics have risen along with the constant shrinkage of the fanbase. I used to be thrilled in 1995 when Marvel would plaster on a cover, “Only $1.50!”. Anything that helped me avoid a 1.99 cover price made it easier for my parents to buy for me. By the time I moved to Morgantown and got into collecting heavy, the average cover price was 2.25. Now it’s 2.99.

It’s an expensive medium to keep up with weekly. Even trades run anywhere between 11.99 to 29.99 for a regular collection of stories. Omnibus’ start around 100.00. While you’re getting what you’re paying for, I still can’t bring myself to drop that much for a single book. I’d love to get my hands of that Absolute Dark Knight book though. And yet, it still retails for 99.99 and it’s 6 years old!

With the fanbase growing older (You hardly ever see a kid in the comic store. Why read a book when they can watch the movies or play the video games?), the prices are going to get higher. A lot of fans refuse to buy into the digital comic. Obviously, Marvel and DC would make more money if they dropped the print format altogether, but how do you sell your better priced digital comics when stubborn fanboys won’t buy them? It’s a vicious cycle that will have to make a decision soon. Until then, us readers get shafted there.

2) This goes back to our discussion of your fourth point. It is intimidating to figure out where to start, especially when you’re new to the medium. I’ve been into comics since I was 8, so I got used to all the different options and tellings and alternate universes. You took an interest about 4 or so years ago? It’s almost as if your age is hurting you in this aspect. My first argument was that it shouldn’t matter what’s gone on before. While I still believe that, it would be like you starting The Wire from season 5. Everything that’s gone on before is important to know in order to fully appreciate the season. Without it, you don’t get some of the characters’ motivations at all. And you probably wouldn’t watch.

It’s not as simple as “read the origin story” either. Just because you know Superman was born on Krypton doesn’t explain why he’s fighting robots in Metropolis this week. I think it all depends on the character and how complex their history is. I think a Batman or Spider-Man story is pretty easy to get into at any point. But it’s hard for me to get into any Iron Man storyline because there is such a deep history of the armors, there’s Stark Industries, Stark Enterprises, Stark Solutions, etc. It makes my brain hurt. So I see your point there.

That’s why you’ve been able to take a liking more of the newer series like Powers and Invincible and UCSM because they’ve only been around a few years. That’s easy to catch up on through trades. Why Doctor Octopus is attacking the planet in Amazing Spider-Man is not. The newer content doesn’t intimidate you or other new readers as much. And for someone who barely has free time like yourself, it would make sense you would gravitate towards that.

Someone your same age who has the time might not mind the extensive character histories. It’s different with everyone. You just have to pick what works for you.

And for the record, Scott Pilgrim is the best find you’ve ever made my friend. And I thank you for it.

1) As for the loyal fans? We can be dicks, nothing more to it. There’s 2 guys in my comic shop I can talk all kinds of comic book with: the owner and one of his employees who has been there for years. They’ll talk to anyone on any level without making them feel stupid. I could walk in tomorrow and talk to the employee for 2 hours and be caught up on a year’s worth of DC books. And he wouldn’t mind one bit.

Would I talk comic book with any of the other employees there or the store in the Morgantown Mall? No. They don’t know me and just from what I’ve heard them say as I look around and eavesdrop, they have no time for a silly question like, “What exactly did happen in “Flashpoint”?” Those are the fans who will make you feel uneducated.

There’s definitely some nice employees or fans who have the best intentions when they’re talking to you. But a conversation about a specific event in one panel of an issue you’ve read can spawn into a debate about Superman Red and Blue before you know it. They don’t mean to do it, but once you get some of them started, they’ll lose you quick. My suggestion is to try to reel them in and let them know you haven’t read the stories. Some will tone down their nerd rambling and some will scoff at you interrupting them. You never know what kind of fan you’re going to get.

But just remember: fanboys (and girls) are dicks. The Simpsons got it right with Comic Book Guy.

So somehow, this exchange has went from a discussion of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man volume 2 to a discussion about comic books as a whole. I think I did ask you if you were sure you wanted to start reading comics when you first brought it up to me. I always just kept my comic fandom away from you because I was trying to protect you. You were the one who opened up the can of worms my friend. I just hope I’m somehow helping you instead of discouraging you.

MS: I think it’s also worthwhile to point out that great moments in comics are sort of ethereal and temporary. One of the first comics I read as an adult was Runaways after my close friend Kristina Lopez recommended it and lent me a copy. Brian K. Vaughn and Joss Whedon’s arcs were incredibly entertaining but then it quickly sizzled out. Runaways was first imagined to only last about six months but kept going because of its abrupt popularity. Somehow, its entertainment value and quality disappeared over time and I quickly lost interest.

Writers, artists, and even characters themselves come and go, bouncing from title to title, galaxy to galaxy, arc to arc. Spider-Man has certainly seen his share of this. His popularity has probably helped him weather a few dry spells but it always finds a way to make itself completely relevant time and time again (even now with a movie series reboot for a story most of us already know and even saw in the theaters just a few years ago.) But comics like the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man really tug at our DNA or something. We keep going back. Even when it’s bad, or the story is familiar, characters undeveloped, etc. There is something about Spider-Man that people love. Even people new to Spider-Man like myself.

Perhaps I make excuses for the flaws in Brian Bendis’ telling of this reboot because Spider-Man is so mythical to me already that things like plot holes or weak characters don’t disturb me. Maybe you, as a veteran supporter of Spidey, has an untouchable archetype of what Spider-Man is (even in a reboot) and what every comic of his should always have and that ruins this new line for you.

No matter how polarizing it is, Spider-Man somehow finds his way back into conversation for nerds and the newly initiated, for silver screens and paperbacks. But then again, so does everything else great.

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