WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS!
Spider-man is 50 this year. It’s weird knowing he is just a few years older than me. He’s had such a huge impact on my life. He’s an American comic book institution right alongside Superman. But unlike Superman, when Spidey (as Peter Parker) pulled off his horn-rimmed glasses and donned his crime fighting costume, he didn’t get the same adoration and respect. Instead, he was reviled in his universe’s newspaper.
And that’s what really appealed to me about him. It didn’t matter what he did, he’d never fit in. As Peter Parker, he was bullied at school by Flash Thompson and the other high school jocks and as Spider-man, J. Jonah Jameson dedicated the resources of the Daily Bugle to perpetuate aspersions about him. Peter Parker didn’t enjoy the acceptance Clark Kent did. But like Andrew Garfield said when he pulled his stunt at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, Spider-man never got corrupted by his new found freedoms.
You could have filled several banana boxes with all the Spider-man comics I owned. After a while though, we started to grow our separate ways. His stories just didn’t seem relevant to me anymore. He didn’t seem to be that “skinny boy” (as Garfield put it) anymore.
It was Brian Michael Bendis‘ Ultimate Spiderman that brought me back. Bendis reminds me of Joss Whedon, who before the Avengers movie, wrote Buffy. Both writers, Bendis and Whedon, have a knack of tangling and untangling relationships without getting too syrupy. They both write snappy dialogue that provides just the right amount of depth so the words become more than just witty banter.
In Ultimate Spider-man, Mary Jane knows early on that Peter is Spider-man — She even mends his costume! They date but Peter breaks up with her, believing he is protecting her by doing so. Mary Jane is hurt and angry and the situation gets worse when he immediately starts dating Kitty Pryde of the X-Men. He naively believes their similar lives as superheroes makes them more compatible. He is told to get out of the superhero game by Daredevil, who thinks he is too young.
And if you ask me, Peter Parker died in Ultimatum, when Magneto flooded Manhattan in retaliation for the murder of his son. It seemed like a poignant ending for him — dying while saving regular people from what seemed like a natural disaster (a tsunami). Dying at the hands of a super villain is too cliched an end. It’s been done. There’s much more symbolism — much more drama — from his dying not fighting a single powerful entity but from saving (or trying to save) an entire city of ordinary people, one person at a time.
I tried to read the issues that followed but just couldn’t get into them. I was too invested in the Spider-death alluded to in Ultimatum. I picked up the first issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-man because I was agitated by the ignorant comments many of the “experts” were making about the creation of a black Hispanic Spider-man.
I have bought each subsequent issue because Miles Morales’ story outside of his Spidey-powers is readily familiar and moving. He is a middle school student who has just won a school admissions lottery to attend an exclusive Manhattan boarding school. His father has a checkered past and warns him to stay away from his uncle (who he used to run with). But Miles likes his uncle, so is torn between his love for his father and the temptations of fun times with his uncle.
Inside his Spidey-life, he struggles to bear the weight of Peter Parker’s legacy. As the first (and only) Spider-man, Peter Parker had the freedom to explore his newly gotten powers and establish his Spider-identity. Miles Morales does not. He is forever being judged against the original. In the fourth issue of Fallout, onlookers tell him he is being tasteless and disrespectful when he appears in a Spider-man costume to rescue them.
Whereas at the end of Peter Parker’s life he had gained acceptance, Miles’ introduction revisits that familiar “skinny boy” territory that the original Spider-man stories told so well. Better than being given a teen sidekick, for his 50th birthday, Spider-man got relevant again thanks to a middle school student named, Miles Morales.