May it Be -


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May it Be

After 40 years, has Spider-Man's Aunt May finally outlived her welcome?

By Arnold T. Blumberg     January 16, 2002

Aunt May uncovers a secret in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #37, scripted by J. Michael Straczynski.
© 2002 Marvel Characters Inc.
You can't be a Spider-Man fan without having griped about Aunt May at some time or another. Let's face it, as elements of the Spider-mythos go, May is one of the most annoying, exasperating facets of Peter Parker's life that we've ever encountered. With her near-constant state of illness - the woman has been at death's door so often, it's a wonder she doesn't get mail at the Grim Reaper's house - and her incessant whining about that "awful Spider-Man," not to mention her blissful ignorance concerning her nephew's true vocation and her desire to feed him until he pops, Aunt May is one of the most insufferable characters ever inflicted upon the great comic reading public. So the big question is: do we still need her around anymore?

Is this the death of Aunt May? Gullible, ain't ya? Cover to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400.

This is the question Spider-philes ask every few years or so, but never has it been more appropriate to look at the legacy of Aunt May given that she will soon make the leap, along with her nephew, to another medium with the debut of the Spider-Man feature film. Why do we need the old bag, anyway? Well, for one thing, she was a convenient and tension-building device in the early years of Spider-Man's career, a writing trick employed by co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to ratchet up the suspense every time Pete had to head home. Would Aunt May catch him climbing in the window? How could Peter explain why he's wearing the costume of that horrid scofflaw that nice Mr. Jameson thinks is so dangerous? And my heavens, doesn't Peter look like he's running a fever? After all, he's such a shy, retiring young lad. He can't spend too much time outside, poor thing. See, now you know why we grew to hate her.

But Peter loves her. She was in fact more than an aunt to him in his youth. Orphaned at a very early age (his parents were S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but let's ignore that weird blip in Spider-continuity), Peter was raised by Aunt May and Uncle Ben as their own son, so the apron strings are forged of solid steel in this case. Given her poor health and weak heart, it was no surprise that Peter felt he couldn't confide in her about his arachnid-like condition, and so a powerful inspiration for the secret identity dilemma was born. And yet the woman refused to die. As the decades wore on, May teetered on the brink countless times, but it was Peter's true love Gwen - a young girl with an entire life ahead of her - who plunged to her doom. "Why do the young people die...while we old women go on and on?" May once asked her friend, Anna Watson. Readers could only nod in silent agreement.

Peter grieves at an empty gravesite (unfortunately) in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #196.

When Peter moved in with Harry Osborn and later on his own, there was no longer the danger of Aunt May finding out about his nocturnal activities, but the possibility of May buying the farm always influenced Peter's behavior. For some strange reason, there was a peculiar tangent for several years in which Dr. Otto Octavius (Dr. Octopus to you) decided he was enamored of the old biddy. Of course it was all a ploy, but it only served to reinforce just how blind the woman could be. The odd little man with metallic arms is OK, but the hero in red and blue spandex is a monster? Uh-huh.

How many times can the same tired plotline play itself out? Arguably one of Spider-Man's finest moments came during the legendary "Master Planner" saga, in which Spidey overcame incredible hardship because he knew he had to get back to May's side when she was facing certain death...again. It was a defining moment for the character, the title, and indeed an entire era of superhero storytelling. But years later, when May had fallen ill at least a thousand more times, and Peter had agonized over the hospital bills, her temperature, that costume hanging over the shower - what if she should see it? - and everything else, it was clear that May was a one-note character with no growth potential.

Does this make any sense at all. Doc Ock marries Aunt May in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #131.

In the later issues, as Spider-Man's career grew beyond AMAZING SPIDER-MAN into a number of other titles, Aunt May's importance in the mythos diminished, but she was always somewhere on the fringes, ready to emerge with a plate of cookies or a chest palpitation whenever the moon called for it. And then it happened. In issue #400, Aunt May's long role as supporting cast member seemingly came to an end with her death (yes, we know - no such thing in comics). Following the apparent return of Peter's parents - no, of course it wasn't them - May slipped into a coma. Before dying, she revealed to Peter that in fact she had known for years about his dual identity. The shock was palpable for Peter and the fans, but not nearly as powerful as the moment when May finally left this mortal plane.

Peter had dealt with her death a few times before, memorably in #195, leading up to a plot by Mysterio to defeat the wall-crawler, but this time it seemed real...permanent. Again, no such thing, and the entire incident was reversed when Norman Osborn returned to save the series from the Clone Saga. Unfortunately, a byproduct of this desperate editorial "fix" was the restoration of Aunt May (hello, did any of us really ask for that?). Osborn, as it turns out, had replaced May with a genetically altered woman who was told about Peter's identity - shades of the awful Gwen Stacy clone episode. So we got May back, with a cooler hairdo and the same old ailments and Spider-phobia. The ULTIMATE line came along to offer a more modern-thinking May, but ultimately (heh heh), she's the same aggravating aunt in any reality.

Aunt May returns (uh-oh) following the events of the Clone Saga and Norman Osborn's return.

Will J. Michael Straczynski's recent revelations in AMAZING #37 present a brand-new way of dealing with Aunt May? Or will this be another hallucination/genetic clone/illusion/take your pick? One can only hope that finally Aunt May has met her match with a writer willing to shake up the status quo and give her something more to do than moan weakly and grumble about Spider-Man.

"My goodness, dear, shouldn't you be wearing a sweater? And listening to that awful news show! You're too sensitive to hear such terrible things!"

Then again, maybe not.


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