“Avenging Spider-Man” #11 by Zeb Wells and Steve Dillon forms part of Spider-Man’s 50th Anniversary celebration, presenting a special issue of the team-up title in which the guest star is none other than Aunt May.
Before you get too excited, let’s make it clear that this isn’t a “Marvel Team-Up” #137 situation, where Aunt May is magically gifted super-powers and hilarity ensues. Rather, it’s a more sober and reflective chat at the graveside of Uncle Ben, re-examining the relationship Peter has with his surrogate parents and dealing with some of the moments of grief we’ve never seen on the page before.
It’s an interesting concept and appropriate material for an anniversary special. The roots of the character are frequently revisited, but rarely in such an emotionally direct way. In particular, Wells takes an interesting tack with the characterisation of Aunt May, depicting the character as a little more canny and wry than normal (although she’s not quite the formidable battle-ax of Brian Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man”) and giving her personality a little more depth than usual. It’s hard to say for certain, but this may well be the first time we’ve ever seen Aunt May laugh.
Similarly interesting are the things we hear about Uncle Ben. It’s rare to get a perspective on the character that isn’t Peter’s, and as with Wells’ take on Aunt May, it comes across as surprising without being jarring. Whether there’s value in rounding out Uncle Ben as a character so long after his death is debatable, but there’s universality in discovering things about your parents that don’t quite line up with your experience of them.
Although Wells’ writing is strong, the choice of Steve Dillon as artist is a little strange. On the surface, Dillon’s strengths appear to line up with the issue’s subject matter. He has an excellent understanding of facial expressions and body language, and the storytelling skills to make an extended conversation interesting. But there’s a harshness to his work that doesn’t quite fit the tone Wells appears to aim for, and the cover by Chris Samnee suggests something a little more emotionally tender than we get. It’s not a matter of ability, but of suitability.
Of course, that’s not to say the issue isn’t good, because it is. Wells and Dillon are both consummate craftsmen who know how to deploy their skills to create a story that works — but somehow, placed together, they haven’t quite created the spark that helps turn a good comic into a great one.