Old man, take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
The whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
And you can tell that’s true
I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who wanted me to live a better life than they themselves had. I didn’t fully appreciate that as I was growing up, but now that I’m a parent myself, I get it. I get the moments of overwhelming love and hope that are coupled with crippling fear and self-doubt. You’re doing your best, but is it good enough? What happens when it works out and your kid succeeds where you’d tried and fallen short? What does that feel like?
What the heck does any of this have to do with Spider-Man? Well, we arrive at Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man #9 which continues Jefferson’s difficult conversation with Miles. These two flashback issues are a major narrative (and visual) break in the story so far, to the point where it almost feels like a different series entirely. It’s a risky creative move, but one that pays off with phenomenal character development for the most important person in Miles’ life.
I’d raved last time about Marquez and Ponsor’s radically different artwork and coloring for the flashback sequences and their approach continues to great success here, with the design for Kingpin stealing the show. Fisk was a major character in the original Ultimate Spider-Man run, but I’d argue that he’s never looked more sinister than he’s rendered here. Barely contained in the frame, his younger baby-like face and menacing stare is terrifying. His dinner scene with Jefferson may be the most unsettling moment in the series to date.
Although it’s the bulk of the issue, the flashback story is almost secondary here. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D., Jefferson has successfully infiltrated Fisk’s organization as muscle. He joins the Enforcers (again, looking far more menacing in this visual style) to help Fisk build more and more power. Unfortunately, there’s no timeline from his handler Nick Fury and he finds himself unable to leave. There’s a surprising confrontation between Jefferson and a familiar mutant during a drug deal and suddenly Miles’ dad is given an almost convenient out from his dark undercover life, ending his tale.
The plot feels oddly mechanical and slightly rushed as a result, and reveals Jefferson as a sadly powerless character. He wants to do the right thing, but can never find a way to do it on his terms. Things happen to him and all he can do is react. He’s never quite in control, so he grabs the first opportunity for a clean break to start over.
Which brings us to the question that’s haunted us since Cataclysm and is the true heart of this story: Why did Jefferson leave when he learned his son’s secret? And as Marquez and Ponsor shift us back to the warm and familiar visual style of the main series, Bendis drops an emotional hammer as Jefferson struggles to explain in the final pages. It wasn’t the obvious. It wasn’t because he hated mutants or people with powers. It wasn’t because he blamed Spider-Man for the death of his wife. It was much more nuanced and painful than that. He saw in Miles the man he’d always wanted to be, the one worthy of being a hero. He ran away in anger – not at his son, but at himself! Jefferson has every reason to be proud of the person Miles had become, but all that did was remind him of his own personal failures. This is emphasized by Marquez and Ponsor’s dramatic cover image of Miles leading a charge in a full SHIELD uniform. As flawed as Jefferson’s thinking may seem, this is easily one of the most emotionally raw and honest moments I’ve seen in comics.
So again, what does this have to do with Spider-Man? It comes down to great power and great responsibility. We’ve seen many variations of this theme in different Spider-titles over the years, but perhaps never quite this grounded. These last two issues show us a very sympathetic character who not only struggles to make sense of his circumstances but also runs away when it becomes clear that he can’t handle it. Jefferson knows he wants to be better, yet can’t escape the regret of the choices he’d made along the way. His self-doubt is unnecessary, but it’s also normal and human.
A father confessing his emotional failings to his child is complicated, messy, and heavy. Not easy in real life and certainly not easy to convey in a Spider-Man comic book, of all places. He’s not even brave enough to ask for forgiveness. And yet Bendis somehow makes it work. With Rio and Aaron gone, it’s important for Miles’ last surviving family member to be established as a character in their own right. These issues accomplish that in a remarkable way, making Jefferson one of the most believable and human characters the Ultimate Universe has produced. With the air cleared, Miles and Jefferson rebuild their relationship and hope for a year of no drama.
Speaking of which, it’s probably time to check in on Katie…
A powerful interlude comes to a close. Astonishing imagery, satisfyingly grotesque takes on familiar faces, and a bold emotional risk pays off with fantastic character development.