In Weekend Coverage, we review a distinct comic book cover of the author’s choice and discuss what makes it a great or not-so-great cover.
The early 2000s were a weird time for Marvel comics readers. This was a time where the company had just finished rebuilding itself in the post-Image era, and its characters and teams all took on a neo-classical look where the best of the 90s mixed very well with aspects of what made the company work back in the 60s. We were getting stuff like Kurt Busiek/George Perez on the Avengers, and Kevin Smith/Joe Quesada on Daredevil, and hell, even Dan Jurgens’ run on Thor was pretty good. And then we entered the 2000s, and something snapped in the company. Things got weird and experimental very quickly, and the results were a mixed bag.
The “NuMarvel” period wasn’t all bad, nor was it all good. For every Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men, we also had a Marville or Trouble. There was also that period where Howard the Duck became a mouse with breasts. (This happened.) One great, long-lasting thing we did get out of the NuMarvel period was the Bendis/Bagley Ultimate Spider-Man, whose pairing went over 100 issues. Having said that…the worst thing about Ultimate Spider-Man was the covers, which suffered from that same experimental attitude that was dominating the company at the time. I could have picked almost any issue of the series to illustrate this problem, but I can confidently say that they were getting it wrong as early as issue #2, so let’s go with that one.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with the image on the cover per se. The cover is a completely competent Mark Bagley cover showing young Spidey in a very Spidey-like pose. Why he’s posing like that, who the hell knows. He could be getting ready to fight a villain, or he could be beatboxing just to psyke out some New Yorkers. We don’t know.
Take note of the heavy computer enhancements on this cover. They’re good, but they fall just this side of being excessive. Bagley’s pencils are considerably shaded with natural colors and glares on the edges of his costume. Spidey’s reflection is showing in the very polished hood of that car, adding a touch of realism. The whole thing has a very realistic appearance to it with the car and the building in the background looking almost photographic. It’s good, but if the computer specialist had gone just a little further, this could have ended up looking very fake. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this degree of computer enhancement has gone out of favor in the comics industry lately.
The bars on the side of the cover also became a recognizable format for the Ultimate line. They presumably exist to give the cover a snazzy distinct format that sets it apart from the regular Marvel books. Ultimate Spider-Man kept doing almost every issue through the book’s 131 issue run. It’s unique, I’ll give it that much.
So what’s wrong with this cover? Honestly, it’s boring. Again, I don’t say this as a knock on Bagley, who drew a perfectly respectable image here. The problem is more in the philosophy of this type of cover. Apparently in the “NuMarvel” era, there was an editorial directive that Ultimate comic covers have a “pin-up” design to them. Images that would work well on a poster or lunch box were intended to be the norm.
(By the way, this was a variant cover. The “other” edition of this issue had Spidey swinging. I could make most of the same critiques of that cover as of this one, but I like the “car” cover a little better in terms of dynamism.)
And that’s why I said that I could have picked almost any cover from the Ultimate Spider-Man run. A lot of them were exactly this type of cover: an image of Spidey doing something Spidey-like, such as climbing a wall or swinging or just standing over a cityscape. Occasionally, there’d be a cover that would give you some idea of what was happening in the book, such as showing that issue’s villain on the cover. (Issue #13 was a good one, showing Spider-Man’s mask in a hand–obviously Peter Parker’s–with Mary Jane’s shocked reflection in the lenses.) Mostly, though, they were just a nondescript Spidey action shot probably intended to work their way into merchandising.
This trend got bad enough that during this time period, I would walk into the comic shop, see Ultimate Spider-Man on the shelf, and be completely unsure whether I’d bought that issue or not. I think I ended up buying a duplicate at least once because I’d forgotten that I’d already bought that issue. There’s just nothing that stands out with these type of images.
I’m not saying that every cover needs to be a Silver Age throwback with an “In this issue, Spider-Man DIES!” caption. But a cover does need to have a hook, something to draw the reader in against the pull of every other book that it’s competing with. A cover like this tells me nothing other than “Hey, Spider-Man’s in here.” That’s great, but I can also look to the logo for that, and it doesn’t really set it apart from any other Spider-Man comic for sale.
Fortunately, Marvel and Ultimate Spider-Man both eventually outgrew this trend, and Marvel (mostly) seems to have as well. But for a not-too-brief period, Marvel really did think that a generic pin-up image was what convinced new readers to grab a comic.