Down Came the Rain: Cover of Ultimate Spider-Man #160, in which one version of Ol' Web-Head gets dead.
With issue #160, in stores today, the more than 10-year run of Ultimate Spider-Man (later Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, and then Ultimate Spider-Man again) comes to a close, and with it, the life of its protagonist, Peter Parker, the Amazing/ Spectacular/ Friendly-Neighborhood Spider-Man.
No, smart guy, he didn't fall from the proscenium arch at the Foxwoods Theater on West 42nd. He died a hero's death, thank you very much, at the hands of his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.
If the news isn't kicking up the kind of dust that Captain America's death kicked up, a few years back, there's a good reason for that.
The Spidey who's getting squashed today isn't technically the one with whom you're likely familiar. He's the Ultimate version. Yeah, that's gonna require a bit of unpacking.
In 2000, Marvel Comics launched the first of a new line of superhero comics, Ultimate Spider-Man, with the goal of updating their characters "for the 21st century."
That impulse, at least, was nothing new. Periodically, the creators of a long-running comics character will revisit his or her origin (which, in comics' time, always seem to have taken place 3 to 7 years before today, no matter when "today" is).
Each time this is done, the cultural and technological details surrounding the origin get updated. It's a process of increments — the hairstyle of Batman's poor, doomed mother changes slightly with each iteration; on the streets of Metropolis, phone booths became phone kiosks, then cellphones the size of a toddler's arm, then flip phones, then Bluetooth.
This wasn't that. This was a wholesale restart: Once again, Peter was a young nerd in high school, headed off on a fateful field trip that would gift him with spider-powers.
But — and this was a crucial difference — old-school Spidey was still around, web-swinging and wall-crawling his way across the regular Marvel universe, being both amazing and spectacular, as was his wont. Nothing about him had changed — he still fretted over money, relationships, Aunt May's medicine and survivor guilt, he still played the reluctant hero, giving up the Spider-Man identity ("Spider-Man ... NO MORE!") whenever things got too much for him. (For this, also, was and is his way.)
But this new, younger Ultimate Spider-Man wasn't a part of that established Marvel continuity — he was off in a brave new world of his own. Not for long, though; he was soon joined by Ultimate versions of other classic Marvel heroes and villains. As the Ultimate Universe grew, so did its singular appeal: Here, old, familiar characters played out old, familiar storylines, but the creators delighted in toying with readers' expectations.
And so, in the Ultimate Universe, amid all the familiar elements, the character arcs and team-ups and cross-overs and Clone Sagas (don't ask), things turned out differently than they had in the mainstream Marvel U. Characters exhibited different motivations and personalities. The stories we'd grown up on ended in shocking new ways. High-profile characters died — and, more often than not, stayed that way.
It was a conceit for the age of the ever-fractious internet: So you don't like what we're doing with Spidey, bunky? Have you tried the Ultimate version? It might be more to your taste.
What's that? You hate the fact that we brought back Gwen Stacy as a clone? Well, you can always hie your butt back to the mainstream Marvel Universe, where she remains not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.
Has there ever been anything like it? Serious question, here: Have two separate, ongoing narratives featuring different versions of the same characters existed side-by-side for years at a time? In or out of comics?
(My fellow comics nerds will point to several decades' worth of separate Earth-1 and Earth-2 continuities in DC Comics, but there readers only got the occasional glimpse of Earth-2, not sustained, regular installments.)
It should have been confusing — and frankly, to a non-fan who might casually wander into a comics shop on a whim, it likely was. But retailers and regular readers could easily distinguish between the two Universes, and knew what to expect from each.
What comes next? Well, despite the "He's dead, Jim" finality of the announcements coming out of Marvel HQ, few people think the figurehead of Marvel Comics — even his Ultimate version — can possibly stay down long.
For as we've said here many times: In comics, death is not "that undiscover'd country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." It's Tijuana, and there's an shuttle.
Here's what we know for certain: In August, Marvel launches Ultimate Universe: Reborn.
Perdone, Señor Hombre Araña Final (Ultimate). El transbordador sale en una hora.