I’m a dad to two little boys, ages 7 and 3 as of this writing. We have a good time; they look at me and my interests (things like playing music, running, reading comic books), and want to follow along simply because I’m their dad. As far as they’re concerned, I’m the coolest guy that they know and can do no wrong in their eyes. I’m so humbled and grateful to be loved on that level, but as a parent, I have a strange insecurity and guilt that goes with that. Because I’m not perfect. Far from it. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes before my kids entered the picture. Yes, I’d learned hard lessons that helped shape me into the man they love today, but still…it was a version of me that I worked hard to get away from. It’s a version that upsets me to revisit, and one that I’m not necessarily eager for my kids to know. But I already see aspects of my personality in them that I know I’ll need to guide (especially as they get older), and that’ll mean revisiting those unpleasant memories. I know that those conversations are important and that they won’t mean the end of the world. That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to having them.
I say all this because Miles’ dad, Jefferson Davis, was introduced as a character that I could empathize with. He was easygoing guy that loved his family, but it was clear that he’d worked hard to reinvent himself and didn’t want his son to know about the person he used to be. Although my own past mistakes are ridiculously trivial in comparison, I still felt like I got him right away.
Issue #2 of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011) features a poignant scene where Jefferson struggles to explain why he didn’t want Miles hanging around with his Uncle Aaron. We’d learned that Aaron is a thief, Jefferson had once been a part of that world and had done jail time for theft, and that Aaron had once saved his life. It’s a quiet beautiful moment that resonated deeply with me – a father expressing regret over certain life choices and trying to guide his son toward a better path. As a dad, I try to protect my kids from the big bad world out there. They’re growing up and will eventually have to figure out stuff on their own. Like Jefferson, I’d want my sons to understand that life can be tough and that the last thing we want to do is end up as our own worst enemy.
Jefferson has finally returned, ready to open up about his past to his son. And as we discover here in issue #8, the web of Miles Morales’ life connects in surprising ways. This is Jefferson’s story. Or rather (this being a Bendis title) the first part of it.
We flash back twenty-five years to ago to a club in Newark, where Jefferson is being reluctantly drawn into Aaron’s shady business deal. Things quickly go wrong and Jefferson finds himself ambushed. He takes a vicious beating yet somehow overcomes his attackers and emerges unscathed. This attracts the attention of a familiar looking man in an eyepatch, who offers him an opportunity to save the country. Bendis conveys a very real sense of fear as Jefferson’s situation continues to escalate beyond his control. He’s torn between loyalty to his brother, disappointing their mother, and getting roped into risking his life out of obligation to a greater responsibility.
That last part sound familiar?
Although the cover said that this issue was by the same creative team of Bendis, Marquez, and Ponsor, the opening pages had me triple-checking to make sure that it wasn’t a misprint. The art and colors were so dramatically different that I wasn’t quite sure this was the same book. Heavier lines and shadowing and dark (!) colors set a very uncomfortable and rough tone that matched Jefferson’s unease. It’s a major stylistic departure that strongly complements the story. It reminded me of Michael Gaydos’ tense art in Alias (another Bendis Marvel title). I don’t know if that series was a deliberate reference point for Marquez and Ponsor, but the end result creates an uncomfortable mood (as if you’re constantly on the edge of some very bad stuff happening) and perhaps even the haziness of recalling tough memories from twenty-five years ago. Besides the amusement of seeing certain hairstyles, what I found most striking were the closeups of young Jefferson, looking like the spitting image of Miles.
The dark and shadowy look had an inadvertently humorous effect on the page where Jefferson reveals his real target: A key character in the Ultimate Spider-Man story (going all the way back to the original 2001 series) dressed much differently than we’re used to seeing. It took me a second to realize that what seemed to be a beard was in fact a turtleneck sweater – at first glance, the face seemed like a menacing take on the current writer of Amazing Spider-Man! That very minor criticism aside, Marquez’s and Ponsor’s work in this issue showcase an impressive range, which is highlighted on the final page where we snap back to a familiar park bench in the present day.
This series has taken so many risks in its short run, and the farther we go, the more they seem to be paying off. At first it seemed strange to have the book called Miles Morales seem to focus more on peripheral characters. This issue suggests that Bendis is carefully establishing how those characters (imperfect as they are) are crucial to shaping our hero into the man he’s becoming. It’s offering a very different take on the “Web of Life” concept, and being one that we can all relate to, it truly embodies the spirit of the Ultimate Universe.
Another bold risk in a series that has already successfully taken many of them, issue #8 is a departure from the norm in every way possible. It may seem strange to base an entire issue on Miles' father, but in doing so, we get our first true glimpse into the man that's helped make our hero into who he is today.