When I was a kid, I paid less attention to writers than to artists – the latter are easier to notice, I guess. Also, not only did the Lee-Kirby comics look spectacularly exciting, they were great stories too, and Stan Lee didn’t seem to write such terrific tales with most other artists, Spider-Man with Ditko excepted. I didn’t realise until much later that Kirby was also doing most of the writing on the comics he drew. Anyway, my interests changed over the years. My friends have been discussing Steve Gerber a lot lately, since he died a couple of days ago. For a lot of us, he was the first person who made us follow a writer – he’s still one of my three all-time favourites. More recently we’ve had Moore, Morrison, Millar, and these are the people whose work I look for – I can’t recall the last artist (who wasn’t also a writer) that I had any interest in following.

Trouble is, comics aren’t just, or even mainly, a writer’s medium. I can deal with Sal Buscema on Gerber’s Defenders comics – Sal was solid, but he rarely drew your attention, rarely tried to be flashy, and he efficiently conveyed the story; but plenty of artists are nowhere near that good. I loved Grant Morrison’s JLA enormously – best-written mainline superhero series ever, for me – but the art was rubbish. There was hardly a good image of any character in the whole series, though he did handle the action competently, and it was a mega-scale action comic, so that didn’t do all that much harm.

That’s a long preamble to the comic review I sat down to write. Brian Michael Bendis is the one writer who I’ve added to my list of favourites in recent years. He’s sometimes dull or frustrating in individual issues, because he is the epitome of the modern ‘decompression’ approach: he tells a story that would have been one issue in a ’60s Marvel comic, probably only half an issue at DC then, in six issues, with more of an eye on a collected edition than on making satisfying individual comics. He’ll happily let a conversation take a whole issue (the last of the six collected here has exactly that), but he writes terrific conversations, so in a collection, with plenty of story-events too, that’s fine. The other interesting thing about these Ultimate titles is how they handle starting afresh with Marvel’s top characters. Millar tends to take essences and, while there are small links to the old stories, he more or less come up with new tales and backgrounds. Bendis on Spidey goes more for a modern remix: yes, sensibilities move on over the decades, and these reflect that, and obviously he spreads his stories out more, but fundamentally he is taking the original characters and settings and, to some degree, storylines, and rejigging them for a new era. He does it well: he dismisses the weak spots quickly (this starts with Spidey dealing with someone I take to be the new Shocker in two pages), and astutely spots the richest and most resonant veins. It’s almost faultlessly done, even if I’m not sure how much praise to give someone who is basically remixing existing material with modern production methods and some pumping filter-house beats. (He even samples directly – the unforgettable first line from Mary Jane’s intro is repeated here, though it completely lacks the wonderful impact of John Romita’s first drawing of her.)

But the first couple of paragraphs were because I don’t enjoy these as much as I know I could. It would be too much to hope for another genius like Ditko on art – it seems like decades since anyone that magnificent came along – or even anyone as dynamic as Gil Kane or as lovely as John Romita (senior). I’d very happily settle for as solid a craftsman as Sal Buscema. Instead we get Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert. It looks bright and glossy, but also very plastic, which is tolerable for spandex, but not so good for J. Jonah Jameson, for instance. He can’t do many expressions, so the conversations lose a lot of depth and impact, and the villains’ menacing looks carry no threat. The action is generally lame – I get the impression he forgets that there are three Enforcers (admittedly pretty lame characters, so there is some excuse) rather than two, as he seems to give one nothing to do. The fights with the Kingpin are particularly poor too – apart from one grab, he seems hopelessly out of his league against even a novice Spider-Man, which weakens a very major character. There is also the odd disastrous panel. I can just about bear his absurdly skinny Spider-Man, though you wonder why no one has referred Peter Parker to medical help, his body is so freakish; but when the first appearance of the star of the book (page 2, a splash) seems to suggest that his head is on backwards, I cringe, and the artist has lost me from the start.

I wrote yesterday about Kanigher and Kubert’s Enemy Ace. I don’t know how to compare the writers, as they are so different, but I like them both a great deal; but that old war comic had some of the best mainstream comics art ever, perhaps behind only Kirby and Ditko. That made it possible for me to argue that those comics are some kind of masterpiece; whereas what we have here is some good stories that I can barely tolerate reading. Are there any really great movies with poor direction? I think that’s a pretty fair analogy. Best examples I can think of right now might be The Hustler, maybe a couple of the Marx Brothers’ best – but it’s certainly rare. Without going as far as wishing for the greats, how much better would these Spidey stories be with an artist as good as, say, John Romita? Or Morrison’s JLA with George Perez? Obviously these are the kinds of remix that we will never see, but in the meantime, while I may not follow any particular artists around, I should probably start to realise that I at least need someone half-decent in order to really enjoy even the writers I like best.