Friday, August 30, 2019


Oh, Peter Parker. These little deceptions used to be so easy for you to pull off, didn't they.

Well, kiss those days goodbye, sport, because that was 1965--and these days, May Parker is going to want some answers from you, young man!

While it's true that Peter has had a number of narrow escapes from situations where his secret identity was at risk, he finally had to face the music in the 1990s (and even into the 2000s) when no less than three writers in five separate spider-titles decided to play a part in at last opening the eyes of Peter's Aunt May, the one person he strove to keep in the dark above all others about his double identity.

But, wait--three writers? Five different Spider-Man books? And this wasn't a crossover story? To that, we'd have to answer both yes and no--"yes," in that one of the stories was explained in more detail in another spider-title that crossed over to yet another, but "no" in regard to Aunt May discovering Peter's secret. Which means that, as odd as it sounds, May learned the truth about Peter, from Peter, on three separate occasions. That either adds up to a lot of confessing on Peter's part, or there's more to the situation than is evident.

To clear it all up, let's take each of these stories in sequence and try to bring some context to all of it. (A tall order when dealing with the chaotic nature of Marvel comics published in the decades bookending the turn of the century.)

Fortunately (or not, depending on how fond you are of retconning), we can get the crossover out of the way first.

Amazing Spider-Man #400 - April 1995
J.M. De Matteis, Mark Bagley

Spider-Man #97 - Nov. 1998
Howard Mackie, John Romita Jr.

Spectacular Spider-Man #263 - Nov. 1998
Howard Mackie, Luke Ross

Such a milestone in the life of Peter Parker appropriately has its beginning in the 1995 ASM #400, where, at her insistence, May is granted an early release from the hospital following a stroke. But her days are sadly numbered, and she wishes to get one thing off her chest in particular.

It's a brief but touching scene by De Matteis, followed soon after by May's peaceful death at home surrounded by her loved ones. But over three years later (our time), in SM #97 where Spider-Man is frantically searching for his missing infant daughter, May, whom he believes has been kidnapped by the Green Goblin (Norman Osborn), he's shocked to discover who Osborn's true captive is.

Spider-Man, of course, convinced his aunt is dead, believes he's the victim of another of Osborn's sadistic attempts to play with his head--but the Goblin is delighted to divulge the truth of his machinations (as part of Mackie's crossover between SM and SSM):

Proving that a nut job like Osborn is the perfect vehicle for dreaming up this kind of insane scenario that brings back a character from the dead. And De Matteis perhaps responded exactly the way Spidey himself did: "Noooooooo!"

Amazing Spider-Man #38 - Feb. 2002
J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr.

Since the real May, now back in circulation, hasn't yet given any indication of being wise to Peter's secret, she's effectively a blank slate on which any writer may choose to handle this situation, if at all. Over three years later, Straczynski decides to do just that--this time, with May still blissfully unaware of her nephew's role as Spider-Man but having everything fall into place in her mind thanks to walking in on Peter while he's recovering from recent injuries suffered while battling Morlun.

It takes a few days for May to process this information--but when she's ready, she contacts Peter to talk and arrives at his apartment, where we've already been witness to her blunt greeting above. This time, there's an abrupt halt to any hasty denials on Peter's part--followed by a simple show of resignation, a nice touch from both Straczynski and Romita. The conversation (the story's title, as it happens) has been a long time coming for Peter--but for May, much too long.

Of course, for Peter there's also the added complication of explaining his part in Ben Parker's death.

With a little selective reorganization of panels, you've seen how this scene might play out under normal circumstances; yet Straczynski felt that something more was needed, in this case having May feel equally responsible for that night. To that end, he adds a segment where May describes having an argument with Ben, one which had him leaving the house afterward to walk it off (thereby leading later to his encounter with his assailant, whom we have to assume he walked in on). With that knowledge, the way is paved for both Peter and May to forgive themselves and to stop living with guilt which neither deserved.

Ultimate Spider-Man #s 99, 105, 111 - Oct. 2006-Sept. 2007
Brian Bendis, Mark Bagley

This conversation was also explored in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, where events and relationships in Spider-Man's life occurred differently but where the elements of his origin were generally intact. Here, May receives Peter's admission while already feeling stressed at seeing the return of Gwen Stacy, a girl everyone had believed to be dead (at the hands of the genetic monstrosity known as Carnage). To calm his aunt and to keep her from contacting the police, Peter realizes his back is to the wall as far as his "other life" is concerned.

The intense situation is interrupted (and isn't helped) by the unexpected arrival of Peter's father, geneticist Richard Parker, also thought long dead. Add to all of this the arrival in force of Nick Fury and SHIELD who surround the house and demand everyone's surrender--which triggers Gwen to suddenly transform to Carnage and leap outside to attack them--and it's no wonder that May is seized by a heart attack, though she makes it to the hospital thanks to the intervention of the Fantastic Four.  (This little neighborhood is going to have something to talk about for years.)

Which is where the conversation between Peter and his aunt picks up once more, though six issues later and under far less stressful circumstances.

When SHIELD has made amends to the Parkers, they finally (after another six issues) return home, where the two at last come to terms with Peter's life as Spider-Man.

Both Bendis and Straczynski go far deeper than De Matteis in this revelation of revelations, while essentially taking the same step-by-step approach to covering the bases--particularly in regard to the two main topics of Peter's secret and what part Spider-Man played in Ben's death. Again, May has blamed herself for the latter to an extent, while Peter refuses to absolve himself completely--though May addresses the matter more directly for him, whereas in the earlier story she nudges it aside for both their sakes. Both approaches work, given the style of each writer.

Bagley, however, has given this conversation much more attention--and Bendis, not exactly a writer lacking in rambling verbosity, is able to expand on Straczynski's more dramatic take by providing some interesting perspective between May and Peter regarding the events in Spider-Man's life as seen in hindsight by both of them. But since Peter intends to continue being Spider-Man, there is also the future to consider, which seems an appropriate place to end our look at this development in their story--a long time coming, indeed.


Anonymous said...

I never much liked Aunt May, she was always a heart attack waiting to happen.
But Marissa Tomei's portrayal of May in the movies has made me like the character a lot better...for some reason...


Tiboldt said...

I've read about 'frail' Aunt May since I was 7. It's strange to think that she'll outlast me.

Plus, JR jr., what's with the size of her head?

Comicsfan said...

Tiboldt, in a way I can understand why May has remained a staple of the Spider-Man franchise in all its incarnations, including the film versions, since she's an important part of Peter's past and the means by which the character is kept humble--or, better put, relatable to readers and audiences. It's a formula that's obviously withstood the test of time, in spite of efforts to de-wrinkle and contemporize her--now to the point of Tony Stark thinking how hot she is. Ye gods.

Big Murr said...

Having Aunt May a spry and vigorous senior citizen instead of frail is quite acceptable. This idea of making her a babelicious hotty is radically insane move indeed.

And in the brandest newest Spider-Man title, May is fighting cancer.

But, way, way back, didn't Peter have to give May a blood transfusion. Lots of tension and nail-biting what his "spider-blood" might do? If my memory isn't completely off the rails, wasn't a dose of that blood the rationalization of how old Aunt May could fight the infirmities of old age so well?

Tiboldt said...

I've managed to compartmentalise the idea of comicbook Aunt May and Marisa To-May. PP has different Aunt Mays, as comicbook AM never helped her boyfriend on a murder case in rural Alabama.

Blood transfusions with super-powered people - that has so many side-effects I'm surprised no villain tries it. After all, it's how we got She-Hulk... and Spitfire.

Comicsfan said...

I don't know, Murray--hopefully comic book writers realize we have spry and vigorous seniors in real life (even those with heart conditions) who get around just fine without a single drop of irradiated blood coursing through their veins. May herself has often refused to let her health stand in the way of something important. (Even going out to protest at City Hall--atta girl!)

Tiboldt, have I got the post for you, pal.

Big Murr said...

Generally, in the 1960's-70's, the age of seventy was "The Wall" when most old folks better have their affairs in order. A little superhero rationalization with the blood was likely seen as a necessary loophole. In modern times, The Wall is easily 80 years old, with many seniors much more robust than a generation ago.

For the first decade or so, the adjective most associated with Aunt May was "frail". And obviously she is Peter's Great Aunt. Peter's parents would call her "Aunt".

Rosemary Harris played the classic Great Aunt May to Tobey McGuire. A white-haired old grandmotherly lady. Sally Fields played a modern, vigorous senior citizen to Andrew Garfield. With Tom Holland, Aunt May has been demoted(?) to regular Aunt. The same age as Peter's parents and thus Marissa Tomei can do the role.

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