Comics, Barriers to Entry, and Ultimate Spider-Man

D - Omnibus (Barnes and Noble)

News of Brian Michael Bendis signing an exclusive contract with DC had me thinking about Ultimate Spider-Man, arguably the best thing he’s ever written. The voice of the series is singular and unique, and the consistency of Peter Parker’s characterization and writing makes him a lot more like Jack Knight than the original Spider-Man. As part of a separate continuity (which I would explain to a layman as ‘Like how the movies aren’t the same as the comics’) known as the Ultimate Universe, it’s also incredibly accessible to new readers. So when I was at a used book store talking to a guy who wanted to start reading comics, I recommended a copy of Volume 1 – Power and Responsibility without hesitation.

And my appreciation is precisely why it is so frustrating to deal with the way that Marvel has collected this series. Not just for me, but for the potential millions of readers for whom picking up the title is a horrific amount of work. That might seem dramatic, but one sentence alone can illustrate where prospective (and experienced) fans can and will get stuck:

There are eight Volume 1s of Ultimate Spider-Man.

  • Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1: Power and Responsibility
  • Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Volume 1 (Hardcover)
  • Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Volume 1 (Paperback)
  • Ultimate Spider-Man Collection
  • Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1: The World According to Peter Parker
  • Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Volume 1
  • Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1 – Revival
  • Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Volume 1

This is a steep barrier to entry. If I wanted to get in to Ultimate Spider-Man for the first time and had these laid out in front of me at a bookstore, I’d probably throw up my hands and walk away. Even assuming we have someone who understands the difference between a trade paperback and a single issue (“But aren’t they both number ones?” is a common refrain from people who don’t know much about comics), there are still eight choices, and only three of them are what a new reader should be directed towards. Take a look at the contents of each book and see for yourself. Also, please be aware that all eight are explicitly marked as Volume 1 on the cover and/or spine, for maximum confusion.

A: Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1 – Power and Responsibility

A - Power and Responsibility

This paperback collection contains issues #1-7 of Ultimate Spider-Man, the first story arc of the original Ultimate Spider-Man comic. The cover originally printed with each issue precedes the printing of that issue, with a number showing which issue you are on. In later volumes, there is half-page (approximately seven paragraph) recap of the previous volume.

Each trade in this format comprises (generally) a single story arc. This is one of the two trades I recommend as a starting point for a new reader of Peter Parker’s adventures.

B: Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection – Volume 1 (Hardcover)

B - Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection (Hardcover)

This hardcover is oversized, containing Issues #1-13. These are the contents of Volumes 1 and 2 of the “Power and Responsibility” style trade. Each Ultimate Collection trade works similarly – Ultimate Collection Volume 2 contains Volumes 3 and 4 of the thinner paperbacks. However, there are no covers placed between issues, nor is there a recap of the previous volume. Not including the covers disrupts the momentum of the story, and makes it difficult to understand when a natural stopping point has occurred.

The Ultimate Collections have bonus features as well, with ‘making-of’ notes, scripts, concept art and more. Some volumes have tie-ins which are not present in the thin paperbacks, such as Issue 1/2 (Volume 3, after issue 39), or Ultimatum: Spider-Man Requiem #1-2 (Volume 11).

C: Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Volume 1 (Paperback)

C - Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection (Paperback)

The Ultimate Collection hardcovers are currently being re-released as paperbacks. While they are not oversized, they have the same issues and bonus features as their hardcover counterparts. More importantly, they include the covers between issues. As it includes more material than the thinner paperbacks, as well as some tie-ins, this is the second  trade on this list that I would recommend to a new reader interested in Peter Parker’s story. It is also the one I would recommend most.

D: Ultimate Spider-Man Collection

This omnibuses, which contains Issues #1-39 and Issue 1/2, comprises the contents of the first six thinner paperbacks, plus an additional comic (Issue 1/2) that was only included in the third volume of the Ultimate Collection. There are covers between each issue, mercifully. There are two variants, one from Barnes and Noble, and one general edition. While there is a number one on the spine of the general edition, there is none on the collection from Barnes and Noble.

E: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man Volume 1: The World According to Peter Parker

E - Ultimate Comics Spider-Man Volume 1 The World According to Peter Parker

After the event comic Ultimatum, Ultimate Spider-Man was canceled and a new comic was put out to continue the story, titled Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. This continues on from the event comic Ultimatum, which is to my knowledge is discussed in the recap of the thin paperbacks (or the inside dust jacket of the Ultimate Collection, as seen here):

E1 - Ultimate Comics Spider-Man Volume 1 The World According to Peter Parker (Dustjacket)

And it is not referred to as a comic at all, making it even more difficult to follow.

Ultimatum: Spider-Man Requiem is a two-issue followup to Ultimatum, but is only included in the Ultimate Collection Volume 11 and not the thinner paperback trades. The Ultimate Collection containing The World According to Peter Parker, if you are curious, is “Volume 12”, as they did not renumber the Ultimate Collections with the relaunch of Ultimate Spider-Man to Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man.

F: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Volume 1

F - Ultimate Comics Spider-Man Volume 1

This collects the start of Miles Morales’ tenure as Spider-Man, and is where we run in to another barrier to entry: the word “volume.” After the end of Peter Parker’s tenure as Spider-Man, the title was relaunched under the same name with a new Issue #1, a practice which is typically delineated by comics fans by calling it Volume 2, written out in this instance as Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (Volume 2). Issues 1-6 of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (Volume 2) are collected here in something titled Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Volume 1. This collection does have covers before each issue, at least.

G: Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1 – Revival

G - Miles Morales The Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1 - Revival

After Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Volume 2 ended with issue 33, the title was relaunched again under the name Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man. It contains Ultimate Spider-Man #200 and Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man #1-5. There appear to be no covers between issues, but I was not able to find a copy to examine as thoroughly as I would like.

H: Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Book 1

H - Miles Morales The Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Book 1

This paperback volume includes Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (Volume 2) #1-12, the first two trades of Miles Morales’ tenure as Spider-Man. It also contains the first appearance of Miles with an excerpt from the miniseries Ultimate Fallout and a five issue crossover called Spider-Men. Spider-Men has the Peter Parker published in comics since 1963 appear in the Ultimate Universe, teaming up with Miles. This is the best way to read the Miles Morales’ run on Spider-Man, with covers between issues, and it even includes bonus features in the back of the book like the other hardcover and paperback Ultimate Collections.

That said, the comic actually called “Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man” is not collected until Volume 3, and the cover and spine denote the book in two different ways. The cover refers to this collection as “Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man”, while the spine refers to it by the title used above, “Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Book 1.”

This is absolutely absurd. Yes, some of the titles have different names. But I’m an experienced collector with a lot of knowledge under my belt, and the amount of work that went in to this, an article where I thought I would have to explain at most four versions (and let’s ignore when comics re-title themselves partway through their run) made this a research project. And this is just for one comic! Try figuring out how to read a collected version of Roy Thomas’s take on Conan the Barbarian sometime, or the concurrent publications of Detective Comics and Batman, which star the same character.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A more drastic name change like they did for “Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man” can help make it distinctive for the reader, but even that small bridge is all too rare.

There are other basic things people can do to prevent this confusion from happening within a trade. I’m going to offer just a handful here.

  • Every trade should include a number on the spine.
  • Every trade should prominently display on the back cover what issues are included in that volume.
  • Recaps of previous events should be clearly written for people who have never picked up the title before.
  • A table of contents should always be included, ideally with page numbers (though some comics are not drawn with gutter space to allow page numbers in the corners, it is preferable to make those allowances.)
  • Denoting which volume precedes the current one is immensely helpful in allowing people to check out earlier material if they like what they’ve read, or to start from a better spot as a new reader.
  • Keeping the covers between issues gives people a breakpoint in the story, which otherwise can seem like breakneck pacing, or outright disjointed. It’s also important to include the issue number (and ideally, the title graphic and front cover copy) on these covers.
  • Including relevant tie-ins is incredibly helpful and often necessary, since otherwise readers will be forced to cross-reference other books to understand major plot points (and generally, comics no longer have annotations in-panel to indicate that a pertinent event occurred in “Issue #X of Title X”, or “Volume X of Title X”.)
  • Reading a comic should not require someone to go to wikipedia at any point.

These are just a few suggestions, as they don’t address problems related to relaunches/continuations/miniseries, the publications of Volume 0, or limited editions which only serve to punish new fans by denying them content (bonus short stories, text pieces, etc.)

The guy I talked to at the used book store was a nice dude. He was excited, eager, and had never read much of anything in the way of comics before. But he liked Marvel movies and wanted to check out the source material, even though he admitted that he was confused. After I asked him what he was interested in and went through the shelves with him, he ended up buying six trade paperbacks (including an Iron Man Epic Collection I would have bought myself), and even wrote down some information I gave him on what trades to take a look at next.

These are the kinds of people who could be there every week at your local comic book store, at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon, buying new titles and discovering old ones. And they’re the same people who will never come back because of things like Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1. In short…

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