Saturday, October 29, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Spider-Man/Mary Jane: ... You Just Hit the Jackpot!'

The Book: Spider-Man/Mary Jane... You Just Hit the Jackpot!

The Author: Stan Lee, et al.

How I Found It: As I've said in my other Spider-Man reviews, I've been a fan of Peter and Mary Jane since childhood, thanks to the movies. I found out earlier this year about this compilation of their finest moments as a couple and had to buy it so I could see their courtship and marriage as it was in the comics.

The Review: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were married in 1987, after an often turbulent courtship. Before they finally met, they'd both steadfastly avoided their aunts' attempts at setting them up. Eventually, Peter started dating Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane, the perpetual party girl, started dating Harry Osborn. Peter only started to realize Mary Jane had depth beyond her party girl personality when she stayed with him the night of Gwen Stacy's funeral, despite his efforts to make her leave. Their romance wasn't all roses--Mary Jane was commitment-shy, and Peter's duties as Spider-Man left her in constant danger. An infamous and widely hated storyline in 2007 finally erased Peter and Mary Jane's marriage in a deal with the devil to save Aunt May's life. But before then, Peter and Mary Jane were a sometimes troubled but very much in love married couple.

This book compiles some pivotal moments in Peter and Mary Jane's relationship, both before their marriage and after. (Oddly, the issue where the actual marriage takes place isn't included, but it's shown in the included full graphic novel Parallel Lives.) There are people like me that choose to believe that Peter and Mary Jane's marriage was never erased. I might not have read the comics to see that storyline for myself, but from what I've heard, I don't want to. I prefer to dwell in the continuities where Peter is a loving husband and not a basement dweller in Aunt May's house, and Mary Jane is the girl who matured and fought her way past her emotional issues to become Peter's wife. This book was great for giving me insight into the story behind Peter and Mary Jane's relationship, and I loved seeing how they worked through various conflicts on their way to a life together.

The Amazing Spider-Man #43: The issue before this ends on Peter finally meeting Mary Jane, after years of trying to avoid her (having only heard from Aunt May that she has a "great personality," and he knew what that was supposed to mean). She's a red-headed bombshell who walks into his life with the famous words "Face it, Tiger... you just hit the jackpot!" When we open, Peter is already dazzled by Mary Jane. When they see on TV that one of Spider-Man's nemeses, The Rhino, has broken out of prison and is rampaging through the City, Mary Jane suggests they go and check it out--helpfully supplying Peter with an excuse to head down there and defeat the Rhino. This was a fun story that I'd seen recounted in Spider-Man: Blue, so it was nice to see the original story of Peter and Mary Jane's first date, and to fill in what that story illuminated. You get a real glimpse of the surface aspects of Mary Jane--that party-loving personality Peter sometimes condemns her for--that later issues reveal is all just a front. The issue ends on a touching scene when Peter realizes that he's been so wrapped up in himself that Aunt May has been quietly suffering, and a bit of that age-old conflict between the duties of Spider-Man and the duties of Peter Parker emerges.

Untold Tales of Spider-Man #16: This story reveals something pivotal to Peter and MJ's relationship--that Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man even before she met him. Staying with her Aunt Anna the night Ben Parker was killed, she witnessed Peter going into the house... and Spider-Man subsequently climbing out a window. It suggests that the reason Mary Jane avoided meeting him was an inability to reconcile her love for Spider-Man's dashing antics with the reality of him being a kid with responsibilities just as huge as her own. "He's science-geek Peter Parker. He's a laughing, joking adventurer. He's the boy next door. He's a hero who saved the city. I just--I just don't know..." It was interesting to see some light shed on why MJ might have really wanted to avoid Peter, besides her insistence about not wanting a date with a geek who couldn't get one on his own (hence the aunts' set-up). There was also a look into Peter's love life before Gwen and Mary Jane--his friendship with Liz Allan complicates his budding relationship with Betty Brant. Oops.

The Amazing Spider-Man #259: Just after Mary Jane reveals that she's known Peter's secret identity all along, Peter hedges, wondering whether or not it's safe to own up to it--he only knows Mary Jane as the irresponsible party girl, after all. Since Mary Jane knows Peter's most painful secret, she decides to confess hers: her childhood growing up with constantly fighting parents, how her sister's unhappy marriage to her high school sweetheart gave her a glimpse of harsh reality, and her escape to her aunt's after her mother's death. The art in this issue really wowed me. There's a glimpse of who Peter used to be that transitions into who he is now. There are heartbreaking tableaux of Mary Jane's passionate but doomed parents. There's despair on Mary Jane's face as she sees her sister's young husband and realizes that how trapped he feels isn't how she wants to feel in a few more years. I'm sure that for readers back in the day, the revelation of Mary Jane's inner life was a shock, but it couldn't have been better done, and Peter and Mary Jane's final conclusion--that they care for each other, but aren't in love quite yet--is touching and true to form. Mary Jane still has commitment issues; Peter is still Spider-Man. Let's see how long it takes for things to change...

The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #19: Through a mishap with a hat bearing a tracking device from a local supervillain (... yeah), Mary Jane ends up caught in the snare of a supervillain, Smythe and his robotic Spider-Slayer, who thinks she's Spider-Man! Fearing for her life and her aunt's, Mary Jane has to rely on her own wits to mislead Smythe, even as she quietly tries to signal the real Spider-Man for the help she so desperately needs. It was so fun to see Mary Jane take action and actually manage to hold her own against Smythe, for a time. She might not be a match for him physically, but she's quick-witted enough to hold her own in the crisis and figure things out. She finally recognizes how much Peter has to go through when he fights supervillains, but she's got a fight of her own ahead of her: not long afterwards, Peter spontaneously proposes. Uh oh.

The Amazing Spider-Man #291-2: This two-part arc was sweet and even a little heartbreaking. It was nice to include it just after the Annual, because it marks the return of Smythe, who follows Peter and Mary Jane all the way to Pittsburgh (supervillainry gets you mileage, you know that?). Mary Jane has declined Peter's proposal and taken off to visit her long-lost father and sister, only to get caught up in a criminal plot perpetuated by her father. When Peter joins her, he and Mary Jane have to figure out what the line is between having to help family and having to do what's right--and they just might have to figure out whether Mary Jane really meant it when she said she wouldn't marry him. Mary Jane gets a pretty substantial amount of growth here, and we get more insight into her family. (Peter's confrontation with Gayle, her sister, is a real plus.) Mary Jane gets to help fight Smythe, and it's the thought of MJ in danger that gives Peter the strength to keep fighting. How awesome is that? Very.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives: Oddly enough, the issue where Peter and Mary Jane got married (Annual #21) wasn't included, but Peter and Mary Jane's wedding is recounted here. Really, this was a bit of a rehash of what we'd learned in the Untold Tales issue and #259--that Peter and Mary Jane had a lot more in common than they initially thought. But seeing it laid out side-by-side was really stunning. Aunt May cradling baby Peter, just dropped off by Richard and Mary Parker before their final, fatal departure, mirrors Gayle holding Mary Jane and begging her to be quiet in the midst of their parents' fighting. Peter's aunt and uncle don't understand just how much is going on with him, just as Mary Jane's friends don't see under her carefree exterior. The section that takes place after the marriage offers a sweet glimpse into Mary Jane coming to terms with her husband's propensity for getting into dangerous situations, and how it's possible to calmly and maturely hash that out. I could've done without the recapping of all we'd already learned, but it was really interesting to see it side-by-side, so I let it go and enjoyed the different perspective.

The Amazing Spider-Man #309: This was the only story I could have done without, although I could see why it was put in: more reason for Mary Jane to be badass. In this one, she's been held captive by a deranged stalker who's obsessed with the character she plays on TV. She was undeniably clever in how she handled things and I appreciated seeing that resourcefulness, but it seemed like an excuse to have her running around doing badass things in a skimpy outfit, to cater to that male fantasy. The art style was also jarring, compared to the other issues--very faintly drawn, very muted. I got so used to the bright colors of the other issues that I almost had to squint to see this one. Bit not good.

The Amazing Spider-Man #491: I'm enough of a sap that this one had me crying! It was the perfect place to end the collection. Peter and Mary Jane are reuniting after a painful estrangement, but their reunion is marred by an attack on the life of Dr. Doom, who is acting as a foreign diplomat. Peter and Mary Jane are shown to have the same quibbles as any other couple ("You never introduce me to your friends!") , as well as more serious issues, mainly seated in Mary Jane's long-held fear of ending up like her parents or her sister. Their final reunion, in which Peter admits just how much he not only loves Mary Jane, but needs her, was beautifully done and perhaps my favorite moment for them so far.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this one to anyone who's interested in the history of what was once a great comic book marriage, or to someone who needs convincing as to how marriage can work in a comic book. Fans of the Peter/Mary Jane relationship on film are encouraged to check it out as well; I know that I've been enriched and enlightened by acquainting myself with the source material for the couple that was a substantial part of my childhood. Go get 'em, tiger!

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