A Tangled Web: A Brutal Reality In Ultimate Spider-Man #28-32

by Tony Thornley

When Ultimate Spider-Man launched in August 2000, it arguably launched the modern age of comics. It was a modern take on the familiar story of Peter Parker, with a healthy dose of realism that didn’t veer too far into grim or gritty territory. One of the series best arcs was Public Scrutiny, a story that ran through issues #28-32 and revisited one of the most iconic Spider-Man stories ever, with a trademark twist.

At around two years into the series, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley and team had introduced modern takes on many classic villains and had adapted a few classic stories as well. Readers had seen new takes on the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Sandman and Electro. We’d even seen a very different version of the infamous Spidey/Goblin showdown on the George Washington Bridge. However with the story that would be collected as Public Scrutiny, readers got the Death of Captain Stacey, but in a very new way from Bendis, Bagley, Art Thibert, Digital Transparency, and Chris Eliopoulos.

Peter Parker has found himself in an impossible situation, a worst nightmare that he hadn’t even considered. Someone has copied his alter ego and used it to commit multiple crimes, making Spider-Man New York’s public enemy number one. However, when the masked crook escalates his actions, it not only comes back to harm Peter but also others he cares about…

Bendis builds the emotional stakes of the arc slowly. What appears to be a disconnected single issue story at the beginning of the arc establishes Gwen Stacey’s family struggles and the PTSD that Mary-Jane is struggling with after the Goblin attacked her in a previous arc. The arc continues that slow build until everything falls apart. The second half of the arc is a master class in telling a story though. It’s equal parts a thrilling crime story and character focused tragedy. 

Bendis’s take on Aunt May is perhaps the best the character has ever been written, as in the midst of everything- from Peter getting shot to Gwen’s entire world falling apart- she’s an absolute rock for these in her orbit. Peter himself has to deal with several problems that forces him to have to grow up in the course of just five issues. It’s as realistic and raw as Spider-Man can be and some of the best writing the character has ever seen.

Bagley does his best work on Spider-Man, and this arc is one of the best examples of that. He’s able to convey Peter’s emotions both in and out of costume. His depiction of Aunt May is another one of the reasons her actions here resonant so well. The only real downside is his depiction of Gwen, who just feels a little off. This arc is a great example of why Bagley is so highly regarded in the pantheon of Spider-Man artists.

This issue is readily available in digital editions, and in print from many local shops. It was also collected in Ultimate Spider-Man: Public Scrutiny in print and digital formats.

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