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"Ultimate' Spider-Man starts over

Some key differences mark the updated version, which takes more time to develop Spider-Man's beginnings.

The "ultimate" Spider-Man is here.

Earlier this summer, Marvel announced its new Ultimate Marvel line, aimed at attracting readers by scrapping decades of often-perplexing continuity and starting at square one with its most popular heroes. Longtime readers wouldn't be left out in the cold, Marvel promised; the regular Marvel Universe titles would continue as well.

The Ultimate line launches this week with "Ultimate Spider-Man" No. 1. As with the original Spider-Man, this Spidey is Peter Parker, a trod-upon, bespectacled and brilliant teenager who is given the proportionate powers of a spider through a spider bite. And there are plenty of familiar names: Peter's Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Mary Jane Watson, Flash Thompson.

But there are some key differences, too, and they go beyond such simple updatings as Peter working for the Daily Bugle's Internet edition instead of as a photographer for the newspaper. The red-haired Mary Jane Watson is more of a kindred spirit for the bookish Peter than she was originally; she's "brainy Janey" to her friends. Uncle Ben and Aunt May are a bit younger _ the original Aunt May always looked as if a good breeze would knock her down.

Most notably, the spider bite that transforms Peter's life plugs more integrally into the plot. In the original Spider-Man's debut _ way back in "Amazing Fantasy" No. 15, August 1962 _ no one but Peter even knew he had been bitten by a radioactive spider. In this go-around, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been the subject of drug tests at Osborn Industries. And this spider is a big sucker, one that gets plenty of notice when Peter promptly passes out after being bitten during a field trip to Osborn Industries' labs. The spider meets a quick end under the boot of one of Peter's classmates _ while Peter falls under the watchful eye of ruthless businessman Norman Osborn, who knows that spider wasn't just any spider.

The story _ plotted by Brian Michael Bendis and Bill Jemas, Marvel's president of publishing and new media, and scripted by Bendis _ moves at a much more leisurely pace than that long-ago story in "Amazing Fantasy." In that one story, Peter got bitten, learned of his astounding new powers in a few quick panels, created his Spider-Man guise and learned a painful lesson that with great power comes great responsibility. In the double-sized "Ultimate Spider-Man" No. 1, Spider-Man doesn't even appear.

That pace gives readers a better chance to get to know Peter and his supporting cast; Uncle Ben, for example, is a much more fleshed-out character. And it's fun to watch Peter slowly grasp what this spider's bite has brought about. But it will try the patience of readers who want to get to the action or long to see a story start and finish in one issue.

Bendis' dialogue is natural and easy on the ears. The art is by Mark Bagley and Art Thibert, and they do a fine job. Peter is rendered as a perfectly believable, slightly geeky teen. There are plenty of instances in which Bendis is content to sit back and let the art propel the story without the need for words.

At year's end, look for "Ultimate X-Men" to join the new line. Marvel has an ambitious plan to get the Ultimate books in young readers' hands with giveaways and by exploring marketing routes other than comic-book shops. The big question is whether the new line will grab new readers _ or just those graying fanboys.