(Based on material expanded in The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project)
Aunt May, as with most Ditko creations, had no history; she just came to life in 1962. (Lee and Ditko used an “Aunt May” and an “Uncle Ben” in a story, “Goodbye to Lind Brown” in Strange Tales #97.)
We don’t know anything about Uncle Ben, how old he was or what he did for a living. (However, he does look like a certain mailman for the Fantastic Four.) We just know that he made enough to rent, not own, a house in Forest Hills and support his wife and nephew. We know nothing of Peter’s parents. Peter’s last name was Parker and that meant that he and May were not blood related, he was Ben’s nephew. Aunt May was unusually older than her nephew, looking more like his grandmother, or great aunt than his mother or aunt. Perhaps that is why Lee and Ditko made her an aunt; they wanted her much older, not a woman in her 40s or 50s. She seemed well suited for the role of grandmother. Lee and Ditko never explained any of this. Nor did we ever see the scene where May find out about Ben’s death.
May was separated from Peter by two generations, perhaps amplifying how distant they could be. She wanted him to confide in her, yet, she could never relate to him on a modern personal level. May did not have a maiden name, so her ethnicity was universal, not belonging to any group, and their religion was never discussed.
Aunt May provided consistency in Peter’s life and in Ditko’s storytelling. She appears in the first page of his first Spider-Man story (Amazing Fantasy #15) and the last page of his final story, issue #38. No other supporting character was there all this time although J.J.J. comes close.
Aunt May served several roles in the Ditko saga of Peter Parker:
- Aunt May placed Peter in a real world. If we put this in the context of comics of the early 1960s, few teenagers had anything like real parents. Robin and Speedy lived as “wards” not adopted children, with adventurers who risked the young lives of their charges, encouraging them to go out and fight dangerous criminals. The members of the Legion of Super-heroes had no parents. Young Clark Kent lived with his adopted parents, but in the past. May, however, was over protective, a real parent. We were more able to relate to Peter with someone like her in his life. Unlike the Kents, May had no idea of her nephew’s secret identity.
- She was a constant reminder of the consequences of Peter’s actions. There was very little continuity in other comics, especially in the DC world. Clark Kent parents never seemed to suffer for more than a story and even serious events were forgotten, or ignored, the next issue. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced something I had never seen in comics before in comics. Continuity. Characterizations and storylines were continued from issue to issue. Living in a realistic world, Aunt May was always there, often suffering, poor and depressed. (And perhaps, ignorant. She should have applied for Social Security and Medicare!) When the Dark Knight series for Batman and Smallville for Superman rebooted the series, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent now, following Spider-Man’s lead, felt guilty for the death of their parents.
- Drama: The DC heroes were often invulnerable; they risked nothing running into a burning building. The Marvel Super-Heroes were vulnerable, with human frailties. With these vulnerabilities came risk, with risk came choice and with choice came drama. Peter often had to make the choice between “protecting” Aunt May and stopping a villain. It seems like several months pass between Amazing Fantasy #15 and Spider-Man #1. May Parker is broke and has to sell her jewelry to pay the rent. Again, we see Peter taking this very personally and deeply, and this motivates him to search for a job, first with the Fantastic Four and then, very ironically with J. Jonah Jameson. Aunt May was the “glue” that caused Peter to stay in this very untenable, and yet thoroughly ironic and interesting position…he needed the money. And taking pictures of himself did not add time to his now filled day.
- And she was great comic relief, more concerned about missing The Beverly Hillbillies than criminals running in the streets. In the first few issues, Aunt May role of a doting Aunt adds great humor to the strip. When Peter wants to go to Florida when the Lizard first appears, she refuses. When Peter says he will be going with J.J.J. she refers to him as “the nice man” and lets him go.” But doesn’t she read the papers; doesn’t she see that Peter’s by line is on pictures covering villains? Oh well. She wasn’t always the best judge of character; after all she liked Dr. Octopus. (While Aunt May is just charmed by Dr. Octopus in the first annual, others, in a decade, will have her actually date him. As for why they broke up, May said, “He’s all hands!!!” Then again, let us not get into how the character was perverted after Ditko left. That was another Aunt May. Maybe even a Skrull.)
There’ll be some changes made: Up until issue #9, May who has always taken care of Peter, now winds up in the hospital, with their roles reversed. The child is now becoming the parent. With Ben gone, scared of being alone, she grabs Peter’s hand and says, “You won’t leave me, dear.” Betty then visits in the hospital, giving Betty a seal of approval. Her illness does linger over to the next issue, which in those days was a rarity. Again, Peter has an incredible choice, May needs a transfusion, and his blood although the right type, is, well, different? Under peer pressure, he makes the only choice he felt he could. (As if the hospital didn’t have other blood.)
Parker is routinely intimated by his schoolmates, with major consequences, yet never by the villains. But Spider-man, who does not fear the Sandman or the Goblin, stops fighting because he is scared what would happen if he didn’t call Aunt May and tell her he’d be late! He is the only one who she has left. Apparently, there are no other family members.
Aunt May though, does know Peter, and throughout the Ditko run she senses his depressions, loneliness and sadness. She hopes he will confide in her. It is not just his secret identity that keeps them separate; it is also the difference in their ages. Of course, by being over protective and judgmental against Spider-Man it is both ironic and funny.
While there were some serious moments, as her illness in issue #9, until issue #17 Aunt May was most often the comic relief, trying to set Peter up with Mary Jane. (Who knew? She was right!). Soon things change. Spider-Man runs away from a fight with the Green Goblin and to her side when she reenters the hospital. He sees his responsibility to his family; his aunt is greater than his responsibility to the general public. He is torn with grief and guilt, thinking of giving up his role as a super-hero. It is Aunt May and her inner strength that restores his gumption.
May Parker played several roles, untypical for comic book supporting characters. However, aren’t the people we know in real life, funny, dramatic and don’t they play various roles. That is what makes Aunt May seem real. Her three dimensional portrayal help center the main character,, advanced the plot, and, in her own way, was often Peter’s motivation Peter to do what is right, even at great personal expense. These unique stories would have been less special without her. I am also grateful that Lee and Kirby did not make her an “Alfred,” the comic elder statesman who enabled Bruce Wayne’s crime fighting after discovering his secret identity.
Nick Caputo wrote (in Ditkomania #76) that Spider-man’s lifting of the huge machinery was finally lifting the pressure of his past off his shoulders:
Ditko’s analogy was clear: Peter Parker was finally able to lift the “weight” of guilt that had haunted him since his Uncle’s murder. The teenager had come full circle, from confused youth to responsible adult, atoning for the mistakes of the past.
(I always thought that since Ditko identified with his characters, this was when he decided to leave, this was the lifting the weight of Marvel off HIS shoulders).
If Nick is accurate, then the tale of Aunt May should have been played out also.
And it was. The final Aunt May arc (five issues) begins in issue #30, when we learn that the aforementioned transfusion Peter gave her is killing her. Again, she is a reminder of the consequences of Peter’s actions. He gave her the transfusion because his “peers” Flash and Liz were pressuring him, although he knew there might be consequences later. Now, to save his Aunt, Parker uses all of his strength, intelligence and perseverance to obtain the one chemical that might save her. Trapped beneath a great mass of metal, he struggles and fails to free himself, until he is emboldened by his thoughts of Aunt May’s inner strength in one of the most powerful scenes ever drawn, in one of the greatest comic stories ever produced. Stan Lee recalled,
The Spider-Man that was one of my all time favorite stories that was illustrated by Steve Ditko was the Spider-Man story called “The Final Chapter.” Peter was Spider-Man, found himself trapped in a subway tunnel with some huge something, a big piece of iron that was holding him down … I never realized that Steve would draw it so magnificently. Instead of doing it in a couple of scenes, a couple of panels like perhaps most artists would have done, Steve stretched that out for a number of pages where you keep seeing Spider-Man straining and forcing himself and trying to lift that huge iron object but he just couldn’t do it but he didn’t give up and panel after panel, page after page he’s trying to free himself and finally he does and when he does after the reader had seen all those other panels and pages it was such a thrill, even to me and I was the writer of the story. When I saw that I almost shouted in triumph. Steve did a wonderful job.
In issue #34, Peter visits her in the hospital, where she is said to be “as good as new” and a smiling May Parker is not really a major influnce ever again. It’s funny, Ditko knew he was leaving, and on his last Spider-Man page, Ditko’s coda, of all things, he has the feisty Aunt May still trying to make Peter’s life better by introducing him to Mary Jane. But in Ditko’s world, her voyages, and his, will end at the same moment.