Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.
This entry looks at Ultimate Spider-Man #45, aka “Guilt,” by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.
OK, so perhaps the dialogue-heavy, character-centric one-and-done story is a tired act by Mr. Bendis. Or even if you’re fan, you’ve probably heard enough superlatives about these stories over the years — likely on this very web site — that you think it’s a stretch for me to deem any of them underrated or “lost gems.”
Well, I think I found one in 2003’s “Guilt,” published during the heyday of Bendis and Mark Bagley’s groundbreaking run on Ultimate Spider-Man. At this point in time, Ultimate Spider-Man was the place to be for a character-focused decompressed narrative that was far more than just an “origin retelling” for Peter Parker, aka the amazing Spider-Man. Ultimate Spider-Man is far from a perfect comic book series, and it’s very difficult for any creative team to ever top the world-building wonder that is the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko years on Amazing Spider-Man. But in taking such a grounded, slow-burning approach to their narrative, Bendis and Bagley managed to create a more fully realized cast of characters. In other words, while the Lee/Ditko stories are subjectively “better” and more groundbreaking for their time, I find myself relating to the characters and events of the Ultimate universe far more easily, for whatever that’s worth.
Still, Ultimate Spider-Man #45 stands out from the pack — and perhaps doesn’t get the attention it deserves as a result — because the story focuses almost exclusively on Peter’s Aunt May. Of all of the Ultimate analogues, Aunt May may be the most dramatically different when compared to her 616 counterpart. From the very beginning, Bendis and Bagley chose to cast their May as an older (but not elderly and certainly not frail and on the verge of death every time she sneezed) matriarch with strong opinions and an even stronger resolve to move past the tragic death of her husband and be responsible for her teenaged nephew.
As a result, May is a far more well-rounded character lacking the albatross characteristics that made her a punchline in the 616 universe and somebody you actually wanted to read about. There were certainly a couple of good May stories in the 616 — most notably “The Conversation,” which is a favorite here at SuperiorSpiderTalk.com. But the main reason so many people love stories like “The Conversation,” is because they involve May acting like a fully dimensional human being rather than a caricature. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis never needs to make that distinction because he realized casting the primary adult figure as an old “fuddy duddy” in a teenage superhero drama was probably not the best course of action in creating a realistic narrative.
In “Guilt,” Bendis and Bagley hit the pause button on the Spider-Man action and give us a comic book story featuring May in a therapy session. That’s right, this is a superhero comic starring two middle-aged female characters who do not possess super powers. And yet it still miraculously finds a way to fail the Bechdel test in that all May can talk about is her nephew and that mysterious masked menace Spider-Man.
All snark aside, part of what makes Ultimate Spider-Man #45 such a memorable story is how Bendis and Bagley put on a twist on that old Lee/Ditko trope of May thinking about “that awful Spider-Man.” In the 616, Lee and Ditko introduced this idea of May hating Spider-Man primarily out of convenience – the more the world worked against the best interests of Peter Parker, the more compelling the drama behind his transformation to Spider-Man would be. This character beat for May works for her primarily because of this absurdly cynical world Lee and Ditko had built for Peter. The newspaper editor is calling him a menace. The public thinks he’s a crook. He’s got supervillains gunning for him and even his own elderly Aunt who doesn’t seem to have a bad thought about anyone (she would later be seen canoodling with Doctor Octopus while unwittingly being held captive by him) doesn’t like him.
In Ultimate, we get a deeper, more cerebral approach to exploring May’s opinions about Spider-Man. During her therapy session she admits that she’s “worried” about Spider-Man. Essentially Spider-Man represents all of the unknown and unpredictable chaos that has doomed May’s life – the death of her sister and brother-in-law (aka, Peter’s parents), her husband and her basic sense of security and stability. Because the neighbors talk about seeing Spider-Man all the time, May believes he’s probably someone from the neighborhood. Meanwhile she recognizes that Peter is so much like his father — apt to get lost in thought mid-conversation. She knows he’s sneaking out in the middle of the night (she assumes to see his girlfriend, Mary Jane), and that he has secrets. And someone, Spider-Man is ever-present to remind her that her relationship to Peter could be severed in an instant as well, whether it be from being caught in the crossfire of a superhero vs. supervillain battle (or as we would later witness ourselves, because Peter is Spider-Man and is killed in the line of duty).
It’s such a complex view of an otherwise simple concept — May doesn’t like Spider-Man because he scares her. “Oh, THAT Spider-Man,” she would say in another universe. But Bendis’s notoriously decompressed approach allows him to add so many more layers of depth and nuance to Lee and Ditko’s merelly modest idea. And depending on your tastes in comic books, that’s either Bendis being Bendis, or a higher form of writing.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence when it comes to Bendis, but in this instance, I firmly believe it’s the latter because it builds upon a greater characterization foundation that was established by BMB in the early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. “Guilt” may be the best May story in the Ultimate universe, but it comes on the heel of some other wonderful moments that don’t involve her being sick in a bed in need of some macguffin that only Spider-Man (or one of his villains) can get his hands on. “Guilt” often gets overlooked in favor of “The Conversation,” in large part because Bendis and Bagley did such a great job with the character from the get-go. What a strangely terrible reason for a story to be glossed over for. Not anymore, hence it’s placement on this list.