Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Of all the superheroes, Spider-Man has the best supporting cast. The constant dangers and intrigues of costumed crime-fighting are strong lures for the reader, but the interpersonal struggles faced by Peter, his family, and his friends, give Spider-Man an unmatched quality as an everyman character. Being caught up in Peter Parker’s life draws a character into a web of melodrama matched only by the most enduring of television soap operas.
Some fictional people, it seems, were made to suffer more than others though. That is why somehow it was both surprising and yet also fairly conventional when in the recently released Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1, we learned that May Parker now has breast cancer.
Aunt May is one of the must undeniably good characters in comics. She and her husband Ben took in young Peter when he was orphaned and raised him as their own. And then when Ben tragically died after Peter initially failed to take up the great responsibilities that great power had given him, Aunt May became a single parent.
It has always been a bit unclear what karmic debt May Parker owed to be given such a difficult challenge so late in life. But whatever it was, May continued to suffer. Throughout the early years of Spider-Man’s comic, Aunt May skirted along the edges of financial ruin while suffering from a number of ailments. Her physical condition was particularly frail. It seemed as though at any given moment, but usually the worst possible moment, Aunt May would keel over and head back to the hospital.
Of course, being part of Peter Parker’s life brings a lot of unusual shocks. Whether she was suffering from the debilitating effects of radioactive particles in her bloodstream after a blood transfusion from her nephew or passing out after seeing the clone of Peter’s dead girlfriend, Aunt May suffered far more than a person with an ordinary life.
Aunt May has even died a few times. But the first death was revealed to actually be a bizarre plot involving genetically modified actresses (honestly, you do not want me to explain that more) and the second was undone when Spider-Man made a deal with the devil.
In more contemporary times though, comic books had moved away from tormenting Aunt May with physical ailments. Oh, the struggles and strife did not cease. They never do when you know Peter Parker. However, May seemed more emotionally stoic and physically hardy. Marvel in general started to dovetail with the real world in which seniors were living longer and more active lives.
Now, with Marisa Tomei playing Aunt May in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have the ultimate expression of that. Yes, the joke where every male in sight flirts with her is rapidly becoming tiresome. But we finally have the most vital Aunt May there has ever been. She seems rather cool.
The superhero genre is a circular formula. Characters are forever being innovated in new directions that somehow ultimately return them to their classic states. Everything old is new again. Perhaps it is worthwhile to have Aunt May face the challenge of breast cancer. It draws attention to a real life challenge many women face. I just hope that any return to physical illness will not rob her of her new energy.