Friday, February 1, 2008

Marvel Loathes Mary Jane

By Chris Buchner

It began with an editorial mandate, and it ended with one. In 1977, Stan Lee began a syndicated newspaper strip starring Spider-Man. This strip existed concurrently but separately from the comic books, meaning they followed their own continuity and story lines. However, in 1987, the two met for one momentous occasion: the marriage of Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Then, in 2007, it was over. So what went wrong? Why did a character whose relationship to another have to be taken out of the equation, despite said relationship being the focus of the three movies that had just come out and in the title of Mary Jane’s own all-ages book, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane?

Mary Jane was introduced to the comics in a set of three first appearances. Three, you ask? Yep, in fact it was something of a running gag by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to have Peter dread and avoid meeting this girl Aunt May was trying to fix him up with. The first time she was mentioned was in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #15. The second time was in #25, where you could see her body on Aunt May’s couch, but her face was obscured by a well-placed foreground flower (to also hide the fact nobody knew what she was going to look like). John Romita Sr. got the privilege of presenting the fiery redhead for the first time in issue #42 where she uttered the famous line: “Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot!” However, it was not a match made in heaven. Her wild party-girl personality (brought on as a mask to compensate for a difficult childhood and family situation) contrasted with his responsibility on many occasions, making them an odd pairing. But, the truth was that the creators had always intended Peter’s next girlfriend to be his future bride: Gwen Stacy. In fact, Mary Jane’s primary role was to add tension between the two to increase the dramatic effect.

Nobody ever really warmed up to Gwen Stacy the way they did Mary Jane. Gerry Conway, Spidey writer in the 70s, once said “Gwen was a stiff, actually.” Some cite that Gwen never really developed her own personality beyond being Peter’s girlfriend, despite seeds for an interesting character and making her the perfect match for him were sown early on in the character’s life (she could be as smart as Peter and as much a party girl as Mary Jane, not to mention her former police captain father George Stacy could be beneficial to the life of a superhero). Conway wrote Amazing #121 in which Gwen was killed by falling off the Brooklyn Bridge (called the George Washington Bridge in its initial printing, but corrected in subsequent reprints) during a battle with the original Green Goblin. Peter and Mary Jane were reunited in the wake of that story and he eventually proposed, but she refused and eventually departed the Spidey books, leaving Peter to pursue other romantic interests such as the former thief the Black Cat.

In 1987, Lee decided that marriage would make his strip more realistic and adult. Then Spidey editor Jim Salicrup liked the idea and hastily arranged for it to happen by the time Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 came out. Mary Jane was returned to the books after a four-year absence in Amazing #242 with a slight personality shift and the revelation she knew Peter was Spidey since the events of Amazing Fantasy #15 (as seen in Spider-Man: Parallel Lives and revealed in Amazing #257). There was some turmoil over this revelation and the women that were still in Peter’s life, but eventually he tried to propose again only to be shot down (again) due to a family crisis of hers. But once it was over, the third proposal was given and accepted, and despite some persisting common fears most couples have about marriage and what Spider-Man would mean to their lives, the two tied the knot. “I felt we had to marry off Peter Parker someday because it would give us a whole new angle for the stories,” said Stan Lee (Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, Les Daniels). To commemorate the ceremony further, a mock event was held in Shea Stadium in front of 55,000 people where Stan Lee officiated over the union between actors dressed up as the happy couple (and a few other superhero guests).

Unfortunately, those stories were hard to come by. While the marriage was generally well-received by fans, the writers and editors often had another take on the matter. Many of them found it difficult to balance Spidey’s married life with his adventures. Also there’s the fact that comics are a male dominated field, and men have some difficulty when it comes to writing women (heck, most men don’t even understand women in life!) Some felt that it ages the character unnecessarily and that they were alienating some of their audience with the move. Also, wouldn’t Peter lose some of his everyman relatability if this nerd was suddenly married to a gorgeous supermodel/actress? When does THAT happen?

As time went on, Mary Jane’s personality slowly began to change. While she was toned down a bit in her ways in the time before the wedding, after the marriage her personality shifted to more closely align to Peter’s as well as became inconsistent between stories. This could be attributed to the fact that with several ongoing titles running at the same time, each one headed up by a different writer with different views on both the characters and the marriage that often the visions would conflict. The tension between their differing personalities was replaced by other devices, like when she took up smoking for a brief time. Another problem was Peter’s immediate family was slowly pushed center stage thanks to an ever-shrinking supporting cast, reducing the interesting conflicts and interactions in their lives. Between deaths, characters being written out and just plain underutilization, Peter, Mary Jane and Aunt May become the entire cast of the books.

Many attempts had been made to restore Peter to his “glory days” when he was a swinging single bachelor, and consequently to help wavering sales on the books. The first was in the Clone Saga. It was a sequel to Amazing #149 where a biologist, Professor Miles Warren, was infatuated with Gwen Stacy and became the Jackal upon her death, creating a clone of Spidey to destroy him for it. The clone was “killed” an explosion, but revealed to have been merely knocked out and went into self-imposed exile for the next 5 years (in comic time, in real time it was about two decades) taking up the name Ben Reilly (after Aunt May and Uncle Ben respectively). It was intended that Ben would return to the books at a time when Peter was progressively sinking lower with tragedy after tragedy and ultimately replace him. This would allow Peter to retire from heroing and allow him Mary Jane to start a new life with their expected baby, while Ben would be the much-missed swinging single Spidey. However, Marvel marketing forced the story to go on longer than it was intended, and made the mistake of declaring that Ben was the TRUE Spidey after all this time. Due to fan uproar and immediately sinking sales, this decision was hastily reversed, Ben killed off at the hands of the resurrected Original Green Goblin, and the Parker baby removed from the picture so as not to permanently age Peter and Mary Jane further as he returned to being Spidey.

In an attempt to lure in new readers, Marvel cut the number of Spider-titles and re-launched them from new #1s in 1999. Mary Jane had become more successful and the Parkers actually had money and a nice place to live for once. Unfortunately, there was tension in the marriage as Peter was being Spidey behind Mary Jane’s back, despite a promise he made her. This also resulted in Peter losing his new lab assistant job, adding even MORE tension. Mary Jane’s success came at a price as a stalker had kidnapped Mary Jane and blew up the plane she was supposed to be on in order to make the world believe she was dead in Amazing vol. 2 #13. Peter was in mourning while at the same time not accepting that she was gone. His friends all tried to get him to move on by introducing him to new women, while other women tried to introduce themselves to him (Mattie Franklin, the third Spider-Woman, tried to give him a tonsil exam when she found out in Amazing vol. 2 #14).

But this move was so unpopular with fans (as was most of the relaunch) that Mary Jane was revealed to be held captive by the stalker in Amazing vol. 2 #28-29 (no body means no death, after all, according to COMIC BOOK DEATH ). However, even with her back Marvel wasn’t about to let them be with each other as they had the stress of the ordeal be so great that she needed time away from her previous life. They separated and she moved to Los Angeles to resume her acting career. In time, though, the pair eventually reconciled in Amazing vol. 2 #50.

So what happened to the swinging single Spidey?

Enter Joe Quesada. One of the first things he did upon becoming Editor-in-Chief was create the Ultimate Marvel line in 2001 as an attempt to not only bring in new readers without the daunting weight of decades of continuity to wade through by updating the classic stories for a new generation, but to give fans an alternative to a married Spidey with one who was back in his high school days. He, like many others, felt that being married had aged Spidey and made him less relatable to younger readers, thus putting them off of picking up his book. Several years later, a new attempt arose in the Marvel Age (later renamed Marvel Adventures when they went from updated retellings of classic comics to original stories) line of books which featured kid-friendly stories aimed at younger readers. That line also features a single and teenaged Spider-Man in his own title. And, of course, there’s the other all-ages title targeted for young girls, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (currently on temporary hiatus), which also takes place in their high school days but with a focus on Mary Jane rather than Spidey himself.

But Quesada had his eyes on the prize. Continuing on with the belief that Spidey can only be relatable and appealing when he’s a total loser and single, Quesada had stated that they couldn’t be divorced or Mary Jane killed off as either would age Peter further, rather than de-age him as intended. Therefore, he orchestrated the story “One More Day” to finally rectify the problem of the marriage…with magic! With the reveal of Spidey’s identity to the world in Civil War #2, things got worse for the Parkers as they needed the protection of the Avengers from all of Spidey’s foes looking for revenge. Upon Spidey’s taking a stand against Iron Man’s superhuman registration act, he lost that protection and that left him and his family open for attack.

Aunt May was shot by a sniper gunning for Spidey, and was on the verge of death. When Spidey hit his ultimate low, Mephisto, Marvel’s version of the devil, revealed himself and offered him a chance to save her life…at the cost of his marriage. Wanting to spare her husband the guilt of a decision, she makes it herself with a counter offer to Mephisto. The deed is done, and the world has been reset in a Brand New Day where the two never married, among other changes to the continuity of the character (for more on the changes of One More Day/Brand New Day, check out the article ONE MORE DAY, ONE WORLD CHANGED).

Not since the Clone Saga had a story raised as much controversy. By making a deal with the devil, the character and world of Spidey has forever been tarnished; his message of great responsibility lost in one bad decision. Quesada had been an adamant and vocal detractor of the marriage for a while, and this story has been viewed as nothing more than an excuse to appease his tastes. Writer J. Michael Straczynski had originally intended a more scientific explanation for the changes and separation in his scripts, which would have fit in with the nature of Spidey’s character, but was overridden by Quesada to the point the writer needed to be talked into keeping his name on the last two issues. Many fans criticize the fact that if they HAD to use a magic fix to keep Peter from being aged further, then they missed an opportunity to use a seed Straczynski had planted with the Norse god Loki during his run on Amazing. Also the use of the retcon is lambasted as creatively inept, asking for far too much of a suspension of disbelief when a simpler, more realistic answer could have been used. Creatively, many lambaste the use of the cop-out retcon and that Quesada has taken the things that made Spidey so appealing to past audiences and ran with them to extreme lengths.

When Stan Lee created the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, he had always intended for his characters to age and grow. Granted, the rate at which they age varied from writer to writer and have been progressively slowed down so as to increase their longevity, but age they did. It’s natural progression for a character to evolve and move forward with their life, which is exactly what Spidey did when he married Mary Jane. But, apparently, kids can’t find a married superhero cool and that turns them off from the books. At least that’s one of Quesada’s reasonings behind the separation.

What purpose does Ultimate Spider-Man serve now, once heralded as an alternative to a married Spidey, when the real one is single? What about the fans who most likely came into the comics with the romance between Peter and Mary Jane in the movies and the confusion they’ll find coming into the books? Especially considering they still will need to read up on past continuity to understand where Mary Jane is in this new “no past continuity needed” reality? Or what about the fact that the 1990s animated series, something made for kids, not only acknowledged the relationship of the characters, but even had their own wedding episode and was a highly rated show? Then there’s the problem of if so many things have changed, what worth does that put on the stories people have been reading for years? Are they all completely worthless or will they just be mucked up with upcoming explanations? Will fans welcome this new shift as a return to a better Spidey of yesteryear, or is this just another attempt at dissolving a marriage that just won’t quit?

Many questions, and answers that won’t come very quickly. In the end, it all depends on the fans and how adamant they are about this decision and their love of the characters. If they like the new direction, then it’s available to them three times a month in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. If they don’t, then they still have the thousands of backissue, the upcoming Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane return with fan favorite writer Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) at the helm, and a very married Spidey over in the pages of Amazing Spider-Girl.

Face it, tiger, you just got three lemons.

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