The riddle of the sphinx recognized three ages of man: youth, maturity, and old age. But Brian Michael Bendis — the comic book writer behind some of Marvel’s best contemporary stories about Spider-man, Daredevil, Iron Man, Jessica Jones, and the X-Men — seems to have four ages in mind: spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The core question of youth — and any springtime hero — is asked consistently in 350+ issues of Ultimate Spider-man. The question is: “How does the world work?” and by extension, “What is my place in it?”
Ultimate Spider-man helped establish the parameters of the “Ultimate universe,” as opposed to the “traditional” Marvel one we’re all familiar with. For the longtime comics reader, the Ultimate Universe was a dream world beyond a dream world, where readers as well as characters are shown what is possible.
The reader surrogate in these stories is first Peter Parker and then Miles Morales. Both are children, and in story after story, they encounter one world-expanding experience after another, teacher after teacher.
Because of the serial nature of superhero comics, Peter and Miles never “grow up” and wrestle with age. Bendis, however, has tackled the problems of maturity in Daredevil, when a man at the height of his powers confronts the oldest convention of super-heroes.
Without the secret identity, a superhero story is simply a folk tale or a myth. Moses had no secret identity and neither did Hans Christian Andersen’s soldier with a tinderbox. It is the secret identity, the change of clothes back and forth, that separates Moses from Superman, or Andersen’s soldier from Green Lantern.
But as Jules Feiffer pointed out, Superman would have no motivation to ritually humiliate himself as Clark Kent. Superman is not clumsy or cowardly. There is no reason Superman should want Lois to love him for being a coward and loser that is not, in truth, his authentic self. The secret identity is a convention embedded in the story for the reader, not the character. It is a young person’s fantasy — and fear — of having a secret, unrecognized self.
Maturity means a person has confronted the core question, “Who am I?” and fully accepted the answer. During their Daredevil run, when Matt Murdock is “outed” as a superhero, Bendis and Alex Maleev confront the problem of any grown-up living a lie.
In this story, Murdock can no longer experiment with identity; he must claim it. He has to be his authentic self all the time—not just some of it. It’s terrifying and thrilling. When the bestial Mr. Hyde screams at Daredevil from outside Matt Murdock’s brownstone, a crowd of reporters are standing under the streetlamps to witness the collision of his fantasy and anxiety. Spider-man drops out of the sky to put a hand on Daredevil’s shoulder, but that’s a passing moment in a story all about Murdock’s inner conflict.
It’s worth noting that of all his enemies, “Mr. Hyde” is the one who shows up at Daredevil’s doorstep. At this point, Murdock is a Jekyll in denial of his true nature, but he will eventually re-emerge as a “man without fear.”
The struggle of a man afraid to declare his desires? Afraid of society, afraid to accept the consequences for his actions? A man who then retreats into a labyrinth of extravagant lies and role-playing? That is Bendis and Maleev’s Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil. It is also Hamlet.
But for a hero who has resolved the question of identity, the central question of middle age becomes “What have I done?”
Marvel’s Tony Stark long ago discarded his secret identity and announced to the world, “I am Iron Man,” but in International Iron Man, Bendis and Maleev depict a post-Civil War Iron Man becoming increasingly delaminated. There is an autumnal tone to the story; Tony Stark doesn’t need to buy a red convertible to signal his mid-life crisis. We find him thinking at length about his dead parents . . .
…and confronting his old college girlfriend to tell her he still thinks about her.
This story, however, is simply the precursor for Infamous Iron Man, in which Doctor Doom attempts to re-create himself as a hero and takes the midlife crisis to what the Marvel Universe considers “the Omega level.” In real-world terms, the character, created in 1962, has just turned 55. There is no clear villain in this series; it is wholly about recrimination and self-examination.
Shakespeare, of course, also dealt with a middle-aged and childless man in armor who regrets the way he gained his crown. Macbeth never contacts his old college girlfriends, but he does recognize that he made mistakes (“full of scorpions is my mind”). It is too late for Macbeth, and maybe for Doom — but the struggle is a pleasure to read.
There has never to my knowledge been a better, more subtle, evocation of middle age in comics than in the 18 panels in which Bendis and Maleev show Reed Richards’ face as he attempts to invoke a shared memory of times gone by with an old friend. This could be The Tempest. It might even be interesting to think of Tony Stark (or even Doom!) as a kind of Prospero, abandoning his spellbook so a young girl — be it Miranda, Ariel, or Riri Williams — can take his place at center stage and start anew.
I still want to see Bendis write a super-hero King Lear. His interpretation of the fourth and final age of man (“What does it matter?”) will be amazing, deeper than the wishful fantasy of Daredevil: End of Days. But even as I write this, it occurs to me: the hero in winter? The confrontation with irrelevance, hearing voices, mortality, paranoia, the transience of earthly success . . . Bendis and Maleev have already written this, and it was called Moon Knight.
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