What If... Spider-Man's Uncle Ben Had Lived?

Not all What Ifs have to end with the utter destruction of the Marvel Universe. Sometimes, the changes are significant, but don't throw Marvel's publishing schedule out the window. That's the case with #46, a classic Spider-Man story that doesn't shake the characters to its very foundations, but still engages the reader emotionally. Ron Frenz and Sam DeLaRosa do their best Steve Ditko impression too, giving the issue the feel of the original material, only slightly updated with a more modern sensibility.

What If Vol.1 #46 (August 1984)
Based on: Amazing Fantasy #15
The true history: Showboat Spider-Man doesn't stop a criminal when he has the chance and that criminal winds up breaking into his house. Uncle Ben has back pains keeping him awake and he surprises the burglar, getting shot in the process. Spider-Man brings the killer to justice and embarks on a life of crime-fighting in his uncle's honor.
Turning point: What if Uncle Ben didn't have back pains that night?
Story type: Deviated origin
Watcher's mood: Spider-sensing
Altered history: In this version of events, Uncle Ben sleeps soundly and it's Aunt May who gets woken up. She goes downstairs and surprises the burglar and get show for her troubles. Uncle Ben rushes downstairs, but it's too late. Get your hankies out.
As in our reality, Peter Parker finds out, rushes after the crook, realizes it's all his fault, and becomes a crime-fighter. The only difference is that he lives with Ben Parker who is a lot wiser than poor, clueless Aunt May. "Oh, will you change the tablecloth, Peter?"
Though Ben rumbles Peter, he agrees that Spider-Man is a good thing. He feels just as guilty for May's death, having slept through it and all, and helps Pete get through the hard days ahead. Knowing the secret, he can't help but be outraged by J.Jonah Jameson's slanderous Daily Bugle articles. He goes to the Bugle to confront our favorite blowhard and winds up doing the unthinkable.
His appeal to Jameson's morality doesn't quite work. While JJJ doesn't reveal Spidey's identity to the world, he decides to manipulate the Parkers, more or less holding the secret over their heads and using Spider-Man to boost his sales. Peter has to feed him more than photos, and JJJ even sends him on particular missions, often with Uncle Ben's approbation. Eventually, Peter gets sick of being told what to do by a couple of old men and becomes a bum for a while.
Until he's called back into service by a threat from Jameson. So Pete is less than willing to play ball when the Green Goblin kidnaps JJJ, especially since Jonah's astronaut son just got his first batch of powers and is off to save his dad in a hospital skirt. Pete doesn't know that the Goblin wants to extract Spider-Man's identity from JJJ (it's what happens when you let seedier elements deliver threatening messages), so it's all the more poignant when he realizes he's "doing it again".
You know the drill. With great power, blah blah blah. Spider-Man saves JJJ from both the Goblin and his hulking-out son, and tells him he owes him one. The next day's front page doesn't give any credit to Spider-Man for editor's rescue, which could ambiguously be seen as a release from servitude. Pete and his Uncle Ben vow to keep fighting the good fight, together.
Books canceled as a result: None. It would be interesting to see how Peter's life would have gone with a strong patriarch in the family. Might not have had to sell his soul marriage.
These things happen: Uncle Ben is one of those sacred cows who cannot be brought back from the dead. But I thought the same about Barry Allen, so... There's actually a storyline in the 1994 Spider-Man animated series featuring a timeline where Uncle Ben didn't die and Peter became a successful industrialist. Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man had a parallel Uncle Ben visit Peter. Ben is alive in the House of M reality. And in Amazing #500, Pete gets five mystical minutes with his uncle.

Next week: What if Loki Had Found the Hammer of Thor?
My guess: He could finally have built that lovely summer house in Midgard.


Zeno said...

Wow. No one commented on this story. Peter Gillis wrote a interesting story even if you don't agree that everything would happen this way. What strikes me as odd how much Ben and Peter are in conflict with each other. Uncle Ben is the man whose death Peter felt so guilty about that he chose to fight crime. The relationship they have in this story is not what one would expect. In fact that is the problem. Ben Parker comes off as controlling stubborn man. Yes Peter would feel guilty for his death but it is hard to believe that if he struggled that much with him May and Peter would make him out to be kind old man they said.

Peter David's story that you mentioned gives a similar view of the relationship. Once again it does not totally work,at least for me.

Siskoid said...

It's easy to revere someone who's dead, because they're incapable of making new mistakes or changing who they were.

If Ben HAD lived, had suffered the loss of May, and had discovered teenage Peter was Spider-Man... Well, those are all things that change a character and force him to make decisions we may not agree with. It isn't Uncle Ben on his best possible day. So for me, it plays.

Zeno said...

Yes there is the possibility that the May and Peter are making him better than he was because he passed away. People often do that. I guess the point was to feel the guilty to the degree Peter did and feel the need to never let it go he would have to been very special.

Your second comment I can totally agree with. The death of May made Ben into a more difficult and controlling man. It was a pretty good issue all things considered.

Siskoid said...

Don't forget, it wasn't just that Uncle Ben died, it was that his death was on Peter's hands for not having stopped that thief when he could have. The guilt would eat at you even if your uncle wasn't all that special.

T.O. said...

I recall my disappointment when I first read this story around 25 years ago, and I can't believe no one has mentioned the glaring, colossal problem with it: the CENTRAL MOMENT in the life of Marvel's flagship character is his failure to stop the criminal that later killed Uncle Ben. Incredibly, stupidly, the creators of this, what was probably the most anticipated What If? story of all, didn't even change that crucial element! The point of exploring an alternate reality Spider-Man's origin story is to have him make the right, responsible decision. How would that affect a character who, in the incarnation we know, is forever motivated primarily by his guilt for that one failure? How would this alternate reality Spider-Man be different? Would he feel the need to fight crime at all? We'll never know. Instead we get the universe hinging on...a bout of back pain.

Siskoid said...

Really, it should have been called What If Aunt May Had Died?

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

@T.O. There's an earlier story in the series where he does indeed stop the burglar making a revisit unnecessary. Changing who gets killed is a good alternate look.

Incidentally this version of events in the house is different from those told in other Spider-Man stories. Back in about issue #200 it was shown that May had actually witnessed Ben being shot in the living room and this flashback recurred a few more times in the 1980s & 1990s. More recent tellings instead have Ben storming out of the house after an argument with May and getting shot outside in the street.


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