Once upon a time, three innocuous and seemingly unrelated things happened in the same week.
- I met for coffee with “Brian,” a graduate student studying theology in Seattle.
- A rumor emerged that Marisa Tomei was being considered for Aunt May in the new Spider-Man movie.
- I went to a children’s play called The Big Bad Musical.
Now I’ll be the first to grant that there doesn’t seem to be much overlap between those three things, but if you’ll bear with me, I think the individual pieces combine to make a clear picture.
Before going to graduate school, “Brian” attended the university where I teach. Despite his being close friends with several of my former students, somehow he and I had never met. But he messaged me last week to say he was going to be in town and wanted to talk about creative writing and comics. He suggested we meet at Ugly Mugs, a Memphis-based coffee shop chain whose owners have boasted in the press: “We’re proud we’re not from Seattle.” Considering that “Brian” currently lives in Seattle, Ugly Mugs seemed like a dangerous choice, but I’m happy to report that there were no violent incidents while we were there.
As I began to sip my black coffee from the proverbial ugly mug, “Brian” and I made our way to a couple of those “comfy” chairs you find only in coffee shops or by the side of the road with a handmade sign reading “FREE” taped onto the back. “Brian” had been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell lately, and he started talking about modern superheroes and their connection to classical myth. This was why, he said, the creators often keep retelling the characters’ origins over and over.
This got me thinking about ancient literature—both mythology and oral tradition. In such ancient stories, nothing about the plot or the characters is “fixed.” When we read of Agamemnon in Homer’s The Iliad, he seems quite different from the character Aeschylus presents in Agamemnon. Likewise, the heroic Jason who sailed the Argos bears little resemblance to the Jason of Euripides’s Medea. And you could spend half your life trying to win a Stan Lee “No Prize” by explaining how all the various Arthurian legends fit together.
The same thing is true of serialized comics of corporate-owned characters. Siegel and Shuster’s Superman isn’t Maggin and Swan’s, nor is it Morrison and Quitely’s. As “Brian” noted in our conversation, each decade’s depiction of Superman simply reflects the ethos of its particular era.
And yet, many of us who read comics actively fight against this reality. Take the recent movie news about Marisa Tomei and Aunt May. How does the collective comics community respond to the news that an Oscar-winning and highly respected actress might participate in the next Spider-Man movie? Why, with weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, of course.
Now to be fair, I was a bit thrown by this rumor as well. Like most comics readers, I have a pretty clear image of Aunt May in my head. She is approximately 95 years old, utterly oblivious to anything going on in the world, and is in such frail health that she’s just one good shock away from instant death. How could a studio even consider casting someone like Marisa Tomei?
All exaggerations aside, it is clear that Tomei is a far cry from Lee and Ditko’s Aunt May. Some have objected to this news on ideological grounds, charging the filmmakers with ageism and sexism. Those are always valid concerns, although like the Bechdel Test, they are more useful when applied to industry-wide trends rather singling out individual casting choices for outrage. Besides, it would seem that the real industry problem is the lack of good roles for middle-aged women. The industry seems quite comfortable with women in their 20s and in their 80s. It’s the lifetime that happens in between those extremes that seems ignored.
So the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of a younger Aunt May. It certainly seems more plausible than the original notion of the character. If Peter Parker is around 16 or 17 years old, shouldn’t his aunt be somewhere between 35 and 45? The version of the character Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley presented in Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly younger than Lee and Ditko’s.
I decided to re-read Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 to make sure there wasn’t something essential to the character that I had forgotten, but the vital quality of Aunt May that Lee and Ditko stress in those original stories is that she and Uncle Ben are the only people who genuinely love and care for Peter. That’s the essence of Aunt May. Everything else would seem fair game for re-imagining.
The older Aunt May, as seen in those early Lee and Ditko stories, is largely oblivious to the realities of Peter’s life—both in and out of the costume. While he may be loved, he is still not really understood. That helps to isolate Peter and deepen him as a character, though it also tends to marginalize Aunt May, leaving her largely as a potential victim at the hands of Peter’s enemies and an easy fool to Peter’s duplicity.
On the other hand, a younger Aunt May brings an entirely different set of complications. Her closer proximity to Peter’s age means she probably has a job, a more active social life, and she might even interact more often in Peter’s circles, leading to both a greater understanding and perhaps even greater tensions with Peter. In this way, an otherwise one-dimensional character has the potential for greater complexity.
Is one age for Aunt May better than the other? That would all depend on the individual story being told. It could work equally well either way—just differently. That’s the sort of thing we’ve understood about both myth and oral tradition for a long time now.
It’s also something we see quite often in fairy tales. Growing up, I never really read most of the classic fairy tales, and my kids today often mock me for once thinking that Rumpelstiltskin was the villain in the story of Rapunzel. But as part of an oral tradition, there is no “real” version of the classic fairy tales—no “real” Snow White, no “real” Cinderella, and no “real” Jack in the Beanstalk any more than there is a “real” Aunt May or a “real” Spider-Man in the comics tradition.
I was reminded of all this while watching a children’s production of The Big Bad Musical. The play uses as its conceit, the same concept as seen in Bill Willingham’s Fables, ABC’s Once and Again, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It takes a disparate collection of fairy tale characters and places them all in the same fictional universe. The occasion is the trial of the “Big Bad Wolf,” who is being sued by Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and the boy who cried wolf.
The play itself is not terribly complex or probing—it’s very much in the tradition of children’s theater—but its conclusion seems pertinent. After the trial is over, the judge informs the audience members that they will act as jury, and they are prompted to applaud either for the wolf’s guilt or innocence. The final scene is then determined in the moment, based on the audience’s verdict. In other words, there is no fixed ending for the play. The children rehearse both and then perform the one chosen on the spot, because both endings are perfectly valid.
And you know what? The kids seem to understand and accept such multiple realities easily enough. It’s just us adult comic book readers who seem incapable of anything other than comic book fundamentalism.
That’s why we always howl—just like a big bad wolf.