Part-way through the summer, I let a very special man into my life. I let him grow around my head and chew up my thoughts and feelings and capture my attention until well into August. His name is Peter Parker.
I have never, and will never, pretend to be an intense comic buff, though I’ll admit this summer, I grew out of my satisfaction with the Marvel Movie Universe and decided that, this year, it was time to go back to basics. Inspect the foundation, hook a claw into it, and come along for the ride. I did my research, as I am oft to do when I begin a new sort of fanish endeavor. I read about the stories I wanted to read – how much catching up would I have to do? Where was a good place to start? Who should I read about first?
I made the decision to begin my comic reading experience with Marvel’s Ultimate universe. Marvel launched their Ultimate universe in 2000, and they began with Spider-Man. Spidey is by far one of the most iconic Marvel characters. He was the first character brought to the big screen with a huge success, and immortalized officially in film. There was a brief period in time where an attempt was made to capitalize on the superhero market, and The Fantastic Four film was released. Not a terrible movie. Not a great movie either. It lacked the oomf that Spidey had, ramped up with an intense love story, a worthwhile villain, whose lust for power and instant scientific gratification turned him into a monster. Victor Von Doom was that guy from Charmed and, from my own perspective, it was hard to take him very seriously. Props, however, to the casting of the FF movie – we see Chris Evans taking root in the superhero genre and, later, it’s not so hard to see him as Steve Rogers. The rest of the cast was perfect as well – but the movie didn’t have the same feel as Spider-Man.
It was by no means obligated to, of course. FF is a different sort of tale, detailing group dynamics and scientific advancement verses Peter Parker’s stalwart dedication to going at this alone, though his team-ups in Marvel history have been epic. Think Daredevil (another Marvel film which didn’t make as much bank as folks were hoping, I believe), Black Cat, Tony Stark, Wolverine – heck, Parker even hangs out with the Hulk a few times (the kid is an Avenger after all). But Peter is a lone vigilante, and this image is drawn upon heavily in the Ultimate comics, where Peter is often alone, save for Mary Jane. And even then, their relationship is strenuous. She bares the burden of being Peter’s secret keeper, something he takes advantage of without realizing, because Peter is fifteen and saving New York City is a job normally reserved for grown-ups, something SHIELD has no problem explaining to him.
The first three Spider-Man films did a wonderful job of expanding the story the Ultimate comics began. We know, of course, that this universe grows largely outward and away from film canon – it introduces Peter to Kitty Pryde, who he’d later date, the X-Men, the Big Three (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America), Nick Fury, etc.. Peter sides with Daredevil and fights with Daredevil. Peter takes down a mob boss, Peter takes on the Lizard.
And meanwhile, Peter deals with guilt – the death of Uncle Ben, of Gwen Stacy’s father, of Mary Jane’s almost demise, of Eddie Brock’s downfall. And Peter goes on dates, and Peter skips class and lies to his aunt and tries to hold down a job.
And Peter wants to go to college.
Peter is actually terrible at multi-tasking. He doesn’t juggle all his duties well, and only seems to when things are going right – Mary Jane is his girlfriend, his job is secure, Aunt May knows nothing. These are selective relapses into peace, which never last very long in Peter’s world. And then, suddenly, everything falls apart in his hands again. Mary Jane’s not his girlfriend anymore. He’s grounded. J. Jonah Jameson is suspicious. His journalistic idol is being turned into a vampire. It goes on and on, truthfully.
This is sort of what makes Peter so relatable. Of course no one can relate to juggling the pressures of being hunted by Norman Osborn with talking to your girlfriend about her feelings. But we can relate to, maybe, juggling a full-time job with spending time with our loved ones. We can relate to the guilt we feel about lying to those close to us, even if it might protect them. We can relate to being young and selfish and not able to understand the emotions of a fellow young and selfish loved one. Being a teenager is something a lot of folks can relate to. And this is why I couldn’t read Ultimate Spider-Man without feeling that little twinge of, Yeah I’ve been there, every so often.
Maybe I haven’t been swinging from rooftop to rooftop, but I’ve definitely been caught between two lies.
One of my favorite things about Peter is that he is almost constantly surrounded by a support system of amazing, sharp, quick women. Spider-Man is definitely a comic book about a boy, and later, in other series, a man, but in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter’s story is not just his own, but caught up in the story of the women who love him.
Who is Peter without the guidance of Aunt May? May Parker is different from previous incarnations in the Ultimate volumes. She’s younger, works full time, and gives Peter hell for what he puts her through. The kid gives her an actual heart attack, later on in the series. But May Parker never strays from Peter’s side, and doesn’t let Peter get away with teenage irresponsibility. She tries desperately to understand him, but knows when he needs to be disciplined and cared for. Peter suffers from the chronic orphan-ness (if we can call it that) that many superheroes and heroines do, but he does not lack a maternal figure. May considers Peter her son – she raised him, grounded him, fed him, and clothed him. Indeed, part of what Peter does as Spider-Man is a reflection of the lessons taught to him by Aunt May and Uncle Ben. She even acknowledges that Uncle Ben would have loved what Peter did as Spider-Man, if he were alive.
Early in the comics, Peter and Aunt May, essentially, adopt Gwen Stacy. She is a girl of many sufferings, and the sad story of her life is drawn through the death of her father, and her own demise. Gwen represents almost a spirit reborn. She is killed by Carnage partway through the series, but returns and is, eventually, completely her own person. She is a small love interest for Peter, one that even she labels as faulty and groundless. She and Peter have an obvious and intense connection, one that is more properly expressed in what Gwen calls a brother-sister relationship, though it definitely runs very deep between them.
And of course there’s Mary Jane. We know that in the oldest Spider-Man comics, Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first true love. But we have seen the rise of the red-headed, sharp-tongued beauty who captures Peter’s heart. The Ultimate Mary Jane is book smart and daring. She finds Peter’s double life cool and intriguing, like any teenage girl would. She desperately wants to dote on Peter and make his life easier as the hero of her own tale, but quickly realizes that Peter isn’t always the hero she wants him to be. Peter is young and Mary Jane is young, and together they get in the way of a lot of life threatening trouble. The cause of their multiple separations is consistently Peter’s double life, which he insists several times she isn’t cut out for, mostly because she tends, at first, not to listen to Peter. Whether Peter is right is declaring Mary Jane “unfit” for the hard knock life of a superhero’s girlfriend is left to the reader to judge. In the end, Peter dies in Mary Jane’s arms, and Mary Jane sets out to tell the world just how responsible they as a whole are for Peter’s death.
Peter’s death itself is something I was not totally prepared for, even though I knew it was coming. Time has allowed me to see why it’s okay, in the end, for Peter to die. It’s not, of course, okay in any emotional capacity. But Peter’s death as a symbol and as a belief did not actually occur. Peter died, but Peter was a person. People die, expire – people don’t live forever. But Spider-Man can. Because Spider-Man is not just a person. Spider-Man is an idea and a mantra: With great power comes great responsibility. Peter dies, but he leaves behind the saying that he became. Peter lived, Peter was, the mantra left to him by his uncle. And that proof is there in Miles Morales, the inheritor of Ultimate Spider-Man’s legacy.
When I decided that I wanted to start reading comics, I began with Spider-Man because it was a story that I knew already. But I wasn’t prepared for what it taught me. I think the lessons translate across generations – Peter’s story is easy to tell, even forty-some years later, because Peter is someone we can all relate to, in some small way. I believe Marvel started the launch of its Ultimates series with Spider-Man for a reason. Because Peter, in the end, taught everyone a less. He humbled Steve Rogers and Tony Stark and Thor. He changed the lives of the other lost young people around him, and left behind a grand and beautiful legacy. I think Peter changed me a little, too. Peter Parker makes me want to be a better person, makes me want to over come my faults. I can’t be a big-time superhero like him, not with webslingers and spider-sense and some really intense fighting skills. But I can do my best, and I can understand that with the amount of power and privilege I have, there also comes a certain about of duty. Duty to myself, duty to future generations, and duty to others. I think we all have that, in the end. And I think that’s what Peter was trying to teach us, whether he knew that or not.