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Losing your identity is terrifying. Hearing the story about the Wired writer who lost his digital life through an Apple and Amazon security flaw had me changing my passwords instantly, and I don’t even have an AppleID. It’s weird how much of ourselves we offer to people, and yet that sense of self is probably one of the most precious things we have. When confused or uncertain, not having a clear idea of who we are can make simple decisions, such as what you wear, or more complicated ones, like whether to take a better job, crippling. Gaining a sense of identity is a crucial step in being a teenager and that uncertain feeling can last all the way until adulthood. Maybe that’s the reason we take solace in superhero stories; the reassurance of an alter ego, the mystery of deceiving appearances, the sense of satisfaction in doing the right thing and the defeat in wondering if it really was right to begin with.
Spider-Men watches Peter Parker struggle through identity issues in a much more literal sense. Sent to the alternate “Ultimate” universe, he’s instantly confronted with who he was (a teenage superhero rather than the man he is now), who he is (a grateful New Yorker knows the man behind the Spider-Man mask right off the bat), and who he could be (a dead man). It’s rough, but we take it in the gut alongside Peter Parker, thanks to the skillful writing of Brian Michael Bendis and the incredible art stylings of Sara Pichelli, both of whom really bring the story into your brain and let it soak in all the emotional juices. But what will happen next? Issue 4 came out this week, and we only have one issue left before Peter Parker is sent back to his own universe, hopefully a little wiser and better off for his stay, but what will he leave in his wake? I’m going to talk about that and some bullet points about Spider-Men #4.
WARNING: Yep, I’m going to talk about Spider-Men #4 below, so grab your copy and read along!
Did you read it? Spider-Men #4 was heartbreaking, as we find Peter Parker standing out in front of alter-self’s house to the shock and anger of Aunt May and Gwen Stacy. If you have ever What If?’d your own life, if you’ve ever had a loved one pass away and wanted just a little more time to say goodbye, or if you’ve acted on a selfish emotional impulse and then felt terribly guilty about your impact on other people, well, have we got a story for you! I actually cringed through some pages as Aunt May was confronted with a nephew she never watched grow up, that died just a few feet away from her home, that death barely even a year old. I’m just saying that “slapping the taste out of Peter’s mouth and then fainting” could have easily been “has a heart attack and dies” with all due reason. In a way, it’s a little heartless of Peter Parker to do this and, later on, he does say that if he’d even thought about it for two seconds, he might not have just shown up like that. In a way, it reminded me of the TV show Dead Like Me, where Georgia Lass sort of stalks her family after she’s died and watches them slowly fall apart.
From the outside, it might look like a heartless thing to do because of how much other people are hurt in the act, but really it’s a very emotional thing to do. After all, losing your identity is terrifying. When your resolve in who you are is shaken, people might lean on the familiar or take solace in the differences between yourself and everyone else. It’s that compare and contrast that makes us feel more real, that we are unique and our own person. Peter Parker got to literally see what could have been and, in the end, it was inspirational for everyone he loved. Aunt May had some peace in knowing she made the right choices, Gwen Stacy wanted to write a book about her experiences and Peter knew that no matter how dire this universe might seem, his family was safe and they loved him.
This is truly a Peter Parker story, which is why I worry for Miles Morales. You’ll notice I haven’t talked about him much and that’s because, despite being “co-billed” on the cover, there’s not a lot going on with him. Not only is the narrative focus on Peter Parker, but everyone in the story’s focus is as well; all the other characters in the book are going through this great catharsis in dealing with Ultimate Peter’s death and getting some personal time to clear away guilt and regrets while Miles simply tags along for the ride.
If anyone could actually benefit from a sense of who he is, it’s Miles Morales. While still young, he’s carrying the identity of someone much more popular and who died a hero’s death that the world took time to grieve for. The constant comparisons are going to dog his every step and, now faced with the most successful Spider-Man of all time, I’m not sure hanging out in his shadow is going to do the character or his book any good. Miles is not even free of the Great Peter Effect apparent in Spider-Men as he’s mostly there for wonder’s sake, a kid getting to meet a childhood hero and live the dream of working with the guy who inspired you. It’s a difficult balance, and I see why Bendis chose to follow Peter’s story rather than Miles’s, but I can’t help but wonder how many who pick up this mini-series are here for the new story of a new Spider-Man or simply enjoying the time Peter’s here and will also return home once the story is over. Spider-Men comes from the perspective of the guy we already know, not the new kid who we should really take the time to get to know.
A crossover between the Ultimate and 616 universe has be bandied about since the Ultimate comics really took off. The idea back then was for an older Peter to meet his younger self, still at the cusp of being a bona fide superhero. Readers were eager to see an older Peter to revisit the good old days of his youth while his younger self could marvel at the man he might become. It would be the sort of ‘What If?’ moment every one lingers on for a moment or two, looking back or forward at what could have been. In the wake of Ultimate Peter Parker’s death, we’re getting our wish to take a peek into the Ultimate universe and can watch as Peter Parker learns about himself and indulges in a little bit of emotional curiosity at what might have been. We just rarely think about what it does to other people or what will happen once we’re gone. A little heartless? Sure, but it’s an emotional judgment that we can’t help but make while Miles Morales gets left behind for now.