Spider-Man #15 has proven to be a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, it takes one of the elements that really tends to work for these kinds of series–the character development and interactions–and really focuses on them for a tense, intimate conflict between family members that has nothing to do with fighting supervillains. In doing so however, it retreads beats and territory that have already been seen by readers familiar with any of Spider-Man’s history, making it feel unnecessarily dramatic and overblown in places.
I’ll start with the cover, which is noteworthy for the fact that it actually tells the reader what really happens inside the pages of this issue–there’s no bait and switch, and that is fairly refreshing. Unfortunately, that’s where it ends for me. We see Rio, who is both Miles’s mother and Jefferson’s wife, crying over a broken picture of her husband, Miles’ Spider-Man mask in the other. Looming menacingly behind her is the visage of Spider-Man, suggesting the titanic shock he’s about to have on her life. The artwork by Patrick Brown is decent, and the symbolism works, but it’s heavy-handed and clearly meant to shock the reader into buying it for the details.
Unfortunately, Rio Morales is a character about whom readers know very little, so the hook falls flat.
The story starts off pretty strong, with Miles and Jefferson grabbing food and decompressing after their dimension hopping adventure in Earth-65. Conversational snippets about fighting evil doppelgangers, finding the right girl, and whether or not guy friends can be close without necessarily being gay were great topics for father and son to cover. The subject of Rio, and their having to keep secrets from her, also makes for an excellent setup for the central conflict of the issue.
But then the boys come home, and Rio is waiting for them.
Now, I don’t have any particular issue with Rio being upset at them; that’s completely understandable. She’s waited up all night for them, hasn’t heard from them in who knows how long, and she’s probably sick with worry. Readers of superhero comics are without a doubt familiar with the trope of the “civilian” supporting character who can’t know the superhero’s secret, even though it pains the character (or in this case characters) to keep it from her. And when that character finds out said secret, it’s usually a significant trauma. Rio is no doubt justified in being upset about Miles’s secret, as well as Jefferson’s.
But this scene is fraught with a number of problems that detract from its overall effectiveness. First, readers already know it’s coming, thanks to the cover, which also advertises that she’ll be upset with it. I might be able to look past that, but then the scene plays out like something we’ve seen countless times in other Spider-titles. Ultimate Aunt May’s initial reaction to Peter’s double life springs to mind, as does Carlie Cooper to 616-Peter’s. The dramatic anger. The unwillingness to let an explanation take place. The cutting off of everyone, verbally and through angry scowls. It’s all a little too familiar, and since we know precious little about who Rio actually is, it feels really cookie cutter. Bendis could have made this scene a lot stronger if he’d simply explored Rio’s character and given readers a better idea of her as a person prior to this conflict.
This is technically the second time Rio has discovered Miles’s identity as Spider-Man. Back in the late Ultimate Universe, she saw Miles in his costume just after she had been mortally wounded, and died in Miles’s arms after praising him and warning him not to tell his father about his double life. I can only hope this iteration of her discovery isn’t another setup for some kind of family tragedy, especially if it were to involve her dying again. That would be a titanic waste of a character who desperately needs to be given more face time in her son’s life.
There are a few other things that happen in this issue, but they seem trivial and (again) familiar by comparison. We find out that this all takes place just before Miles recounts his adventure with Spider-Gwen to Ganke and Fabio. A gang leader starts thinking about targeting superheroes in general and Spider-Man in particular. And Jefferson is called by S.H.I.E.L.D. to be informed that his agreement with Maria Hill is terminated, and he’s no longer working with S.H.I.E.L.D.–they won’t protect his family. It feels like the Parker luck just loves Spider-characters, doesn’t it?
While the absence of Sara Pichelli’s artwork is starkly noticeable in this issue, Szymon Kudranski does a good job of holding his own for this installment. He effectively uses shadow and close-ups to portray the anguish Rio is feeling during her conversation with Miles and Jefferson, as well as the ease with which Miles and Jefferson relate prior to it. It’s decent artwork, and combines with Ponsor’s palette for a physically dark issue that nevertheless conveys the story nicely.
Overall, I’m both relieved and disappointed with this issue. We’re done dimension hopping, and we’re back to the relationships between the characters, and that’s great. But some characters–notably Rio–need more development, and some of the character beats feel like a broken record that needs fixing. I hope Bendis can deliver on that front soon. In the meantime, I remain more or less ambivalent towards this issue as a whole.