No one will argue that Peter Parker has alot of grief in his life. Balancing his normal life with his responsibility-driven career as Spider-Man is a tenuous act at best, an act that almost always comes at the cost of the people in his life: his uncle Ben, his friend Gwen's father, Harry Osborn. And, of course, the concern of his Aunt May.
Take his latest adventure, for instance. Geldoff, a latverian teenager, uses his power to blow things up to win favor and acclaim from his classmates, which prompts the closing of several nearby schools, including Peter's native Midtown High. Before the closings, Spidey webs off to deal with Geldoff, an enigmatic but troubled teen who's seeking acceptance by blowing up cars. Spider-Man goes off to try and talk Geldoff down, which results in a standoff.
After the timely intervention of the X-Men (who are no strangers to adversity themselves), Spidey discovers that Geldoff himself is a victim. It turns out that the troubled young Latverian was experimented on in utero via his placenta, making him neither completely human nor mutant. Xavier takes Geldoff in, using him to fight illegal genetic tampering on a worldwide scale. A good cause, but Peter leaves, feeling conflicted, since Geldoff IS being used.
Long story short (too late), Aunt May has been worried sick, not having seen Peter since school closed. Mary Jane's flimsy lies don't hold up, the Bugle is clueless, and even a panicked invasion of Peter's basement laboratory yields no results for May. Needless, to say, when Peter finally DOES get home, an angry Aunt May is waiting.
May sits on the psychiatrist's couch, across from her shrink, who finally breaks the silence by asking about Peter. May recalls the previous day's confrontation.
When Peter arrived home, it seems, May had a self-described "nuclear meltdown." Furiously demanding where Peter has been, May tries to grab Peter's bookbag out of his hand. Peter struggles to hold on the bag that holds his secret, but when something falls out, May's face is awash with shock.
It's not a costume, but a book. "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood" was evidently a book Peter's mom used to read to him. Peter explains that he skipped Geometry (a class that he's miles ahead in) to read the book, reconnect with his past. Peter says that if he had known school was cancelled, he would have run right home. The conversation leaves both in tears.
Back at the psychiatrist's office, May confides that Spider-Man worries her. Aside from a chance encounter with the webslinger a few weeks back (the tazer-wielding losers from Issue #22), her neighbors and friends always see Spider-Man, even suspecting it's someone from Forest Hills. Where we've seen Spider-Man saving the day, a civilian may see a madman in tights bringing chaos to an already-unstable situation. Spider-Man is a concern, May claims, especially now that Peter is at the age where he wants to be on his own. This behavior is not unlike that of Peter's father, who would leave conversations when a scientific thought came to him. Of all the things in the world that could bring harm to her nephew, May is worried about a guy in a costume.
The psychiatrist shifts gears by asking May if she feels guilty for seeking help. May answers in the affirmative. After all, when her sister died, she didn't seek help. When her husband Ben died, she didn't seek help. It took the death of Captain George Stacy, a man she hardly knew but probably felt romantic feelings for, for her to consult a psychiatrist.
May then claims that she is, in fact, USING Gwen to make herself feel better about herself, about her loss, about what has become of her once-happy life. These lingering feelings were unlocked by a videotape of an old picnic (seen in Issue #33), where her sister, her husband, Richard, Mary, and the Brocks are all still alive. May believes that every person she loves ends up dying. And so, she tries to push Peter away.
May then confesses that, ever since Peter was little, she would check up on him in the middle of the night. Recently, Peter wouldn't even be in bed. May believes it's because he's seeing Mary Jane, his girlfriend. May tolerates this specifically since she did much worse in her childhood hippie days. But also because she has an inkling of how difficult Peter's life must be, between all he has lost and all he goes through at school. But in the end, May allows Peter his girlfriend, his job, his secrets, his space because she's keeping him at arm's length so that he doesn't end up like everyone else May has ever loved.
May admits that logic disproves her belief. Still, she hypocritically (in her view, anyway) gives Peter his freedom but spazzes out if he's not around in the two seconds she bothers to look. Instead, she brandishes her love upon Gwen, who is practically a stranger.
Ever understanding, the psychiatrist (who is never named, but don't worry, she's not Miles Warren or anything) tells May that she shouldn't feel guilty for her feelings or talking about them. In fact, taking in a teenager is an eminently preferable coping mechanism to drinking or moping. And needing Gwen isn't a bad thing, since society is built on the notion that people need people.
The psychiatrist suggests that may share her feelings with Peter, who may be feeling similar guilt and feelings of loss. May shouldn't even feel guilty about having had a thing for Captain Stacy: natural, normal behavior. Spider-Man, unfortunately, is for another session, as their hour us up.
When May gets home, she asks Peter questions about his day, which are met by adolescent, monosyllabic responses. May suddenly perks up and suggests that they catch a movie and hang out for once. What movie, Peter asks. "Who cares? They're all terrible" she replies. Peter grins ear to ear as he runs upstairs to get ready. And, for the first time in this issue, May is grinning, too.
It's clockwork. After an issue that leaves me somewhat disappointed, Brian Michael Bendis floors me with May's Masterpiece. It's always a risky move when you move a supporting character into the foreground, particularly when the lead really only appears on a few pages of the book, and is only in costume for a flashback.
But May's plight comes across as very real. After a life filled with loss, emotions can often overpower logic and cause people to fall into a tailspin. Mainstream May comes off as elderly and frail, but Ultimate May is fragile in a completely different way.
Clearly, she's not schizophrenic or displaying Saturday-morning cartoon levels of dementia (read "Green Goblin"). Instead, all of her guilt has caught up with her. May's inner strength doesn't reveal itself as unfailing courage, but rather that she channeled her negative emotions into something positive, and even had the courage to seek help...something that is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Brian Michael Bendis is directly plugged into the human condition. He writes love well, he writes anger well, he's great at humor. But this issue is a watershed moment for this title in that he made us care so deeply and richly for a character that only NOW, after 40 years of panel dressing and doting, is getting her moment to shine in the mainstream. It's a great time to be an Aunt May fan, as we have 3 writers who do her great justice. Bendis writes Aunt May as a hero, even if May herself doesn't realize it.
I like this updated concern regarding "that awful Spider-Man." I mean, honestly, from a civilian's standpoint, it's very easy to see Spider-Man as bringing chaos instead of order. I mean, if you were a parent, and there was this powerful masked man appearing all over the place, wouldn't you be worried?
And as long as I'm gushing, let me commend Mark Bagley for drawing the powerful emotions coming out of May, and even the empathy/sympathy of the psychiatrist, so masterfully. And Thibert's awesome inks compliment the art so perfectly, even adding depth to this emotionally charged issue.
When your creative team can write a 5-web issue without having a new costumed villan or fight seen or even any catchy Spider-Man one liners, you KNOW that said creative team is here for the long run. For something that builds on the past, the issue is also very accessible since May's point of view is something very new to us.
Wow. Seriously, wow. THIS is the Spider-Man title you need to be buying. Or at least this particular issue (a de-facto one-shot), if you don't care for Bendis's slow boil arc pacing.
It's clockwork all right. Just when I review an issue of this book that leaves me wondering why I still read it, the next issue answers the question emphatically. Bravo, Gentlemen. Bravo!