Reading Experience: The Independent (and Amorous) Aunt May

Analyzing a scene from a comparatively current issue of Amazing Spider-Man (ASM #592) was not initially on my to-do list, but due to a little back and forth between former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and superstar comic book writer Mark Waid over on Shooter’s web site, I decided to talk a little bit about the recent transformation of arguably the most important supporting character in the Spider-Man universe – Aunt May.

But first a little context. Shooter first mentioned this panel – which shows Peter unexpectedly walking in on Aunt May in bed with John Jonah Jameson, father of long-time Spidey adversary J. Jonah Jameson – in a rather funny write-up about sex and comic books. Shooter concludes, aptly I may add, “I find those sorts of things asexual.  It’s so blatantly a gimmick or so out of character that it falls flat for me.  My reaction is less ‘wow’ or ‘ooh-la-la’ or ‘glorioski!’ and more a disappointed ‘good grief….’”

But Shooter offers a mea culpa shortly after the initial post:

Mark Waid wrote this scene, which I showed as an example of an out-of-character use of Aunt May for the purpose of a shocker.

I had no idea that Mark had written that scene, not that it would have mattered. I’m an equal opportunity complainer. Anyone may find him or herself honked at here.

Here’s where I went wrong: I judged the scene against Aunt May’s character as it was when I was at Marvel. The Aunt May I knew of was a very old-fashioned woman, the epitome of propriety, who no more would have had sex out of wedlock than my Victorian-era Grandma, who was born in 1888. But, I’ve been told that Aunt May became a little more of a modern Golden Girl subsequently, and that the scene is not out of character for her. Okay.

Sorry, Mark.

In case I haven’t made it clear enough previously, I regard Mark Waid as one of the best and brightest writers I know or have heard tell of.  Have you read Irredeemable?

Waid then responds to Shooter’s apology in the comments section:

Thanks, but no apology necessary. And I grant your point; the May I knew when I was a kid wouldn’t have done that, but it just seemed like too good a moment to pass up, particularly (as I said) that it actually took us someplace interesting. I say this not for your benefit (you already know this) but to add to the general conversation about writing: sometimes some of the best stories emerge from characters seeming to act OUT of character–so long as it’s eventually shown why that would happen, in a convincing manner.

OK, so now that I officially caught everyone up on a very non-dramatic conversation between two of the industry’s best creative minds from the past 30 years, let me offer some thoughts on Aunt May.

When you read the first 38 issues of ASM (marking the entirety of the Lee/Ditko run), May comes across as so weak, so feeble, she truly is an albatross for Peter Parker. Granted, that’s part of what built the character up. What makes her so weak and feeble is the fact that her husband , Ben, is dead, and the reason Ben is dead, is because Peter willfully failed to stop a burglar who then went on to kill his uncle. So as Spider-Man, Peter now felt responsible for trying to pay back that debt to his Aunt – unsuccessfully of course. When it’s revealed that Aunt May has no use for Spider-Man, Peter then has to struggle with being the superhero he believes he has a responsibility to be, and keeping his identity a secret from May out of guilt and shame – and fear that the reveal would kill her.

May has her share of great moments in the early issues of ASM (one is detailed here). But what starts to wear on me as a reader is how she becomes an easy go-to “problem” for the writers. Granted, one of the greatest moments in the history of the series centered around Peter needing to do everything he could to get his hands on a serum that would cure the dying May, but the “May is sick and dying” was a well that Marvel kept going back to again, and again, and again. When Aunt May finally “died” in ASM #400, the whole thing seemed inevitable – hasn’t this woman been on death’s doorstep for the past 30+ years? Granted they resurrected her in a status quo change that confuses me to this day (the fact that it occurred during a period where I wasn’t reading Spidey only adds to my confusion), but that scene I #400, while emotional, also feels like one big giant release. Finally, we were going to have a Peter Parker who could go about his life without feeling like he had to be there to rescue his elderly Aunt at the drop of hat.

The fact that the Marvel braintrust used Peter’s emotional attachment to his Aunt, to essentially save her life and annul his marriage to Mary Jane in One More Day/Brand New Day, only adds to my on-again, off-again frustration with the character.

But over the past few years, I’ve gradually come to realize something – I’m no longer frustrated by Aunt May. And it’s scenes like the above, and the way Mark Waid, and subsequent/concurrent writers like Dan Slott, evolved her, that are responsible for this change of heart.

While the moment Shooter highlights is in fact a bit of a “shock” (and let’s not forget a bit gross, unless you’re into the idea of geriatrics doing the nasty), it encapsulates a stronger, fiercer, more independent May.  Jameson gives May a confidence readers hadn’t seen in earlier incarnations. With the couple now relocating to Boston (and thank goodness for that. Could you imagine Peter having to deal with a mutated Aunt May during Spider Island?), the ties that bind her to Peter’s daily struggle are growing weaker. And while it’s also seemingly marking the gradual disappearance of a vital character in the ASM universe, this is also a character that has more than run her course. I know these stories do not operate in real-time, but I can’t think of any other fictional elderly character that has cheated death as often as May has. So with that in mind, Waid is exactly right in that a sexually active May has evolved her in a significant way. She’s no longer an obstacle for Peter to overcome.

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