In celebration of The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, over the next few weeks superiorspidertalk.com is going to acknowledge the very best Peter Parker/Mary Jane Watson stories. Criteria for this list include historical significance, artwork, creativity, and of course, my overall enjoyment of the arc.
“Confessions” — Ultimate Spider-Man #13 (published November 2001): script by Brian Michael Bendis; pencils by Mark Bagley; inks by Art Thibert
The vast majority of stories featured in this list have focused on Peter and Mary Jane as young adults, enduring the trials of a mature love and marriage. However, one of the very best, and most sincere portrayals of the Peter/MJ dynamic is set when both characters were in high school, in the phenomenal Ultimate Spider-Man #13, aka “Confessions,” by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.
Of course, in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe (RIP), Mary Jane Watson is a completely different character in terms of personality, which allows Bendis and Bagley to craft a mature, yet realistic story about two teenagers that just couldn’t be tackled during the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. Silver Age-era (besides, Peter and MJ technically met for the first time in college, not high school, in the “main” 616 world). Ultimate Mary Jane isn’t exactly the free-wheeling, kittenish vixen that boastfully told a drooling Peter the first time they met, “Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot!” (though Ultimate #13 does pay homage to this historic moment). In the Ultimate world, MJ is quieter, more academically-inclined, and ever-so-slightly introverted, making her a more logical romantic match for the equally shy, bookish and introverted Peter.
But putting aside characterization, “Confessions” is such a wonderful story because it captures young, teenage love and friendship in a way that has never been duplicated in a Spider-Man comic (G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel certainly feels tapped in to that sentiment, which is part of the reason why it might be the best “Big Two” book currently being published and a must-read for any die-hard Spider-Man fans). Even within the Ultimate Universe itself, Bendis never manages to capture what he landed on in “Confessions,” despite the fact that I generally enjoyed his entire run scripting Peter and MJ together (and the periods when Peter was with Kitty Pryde and Gwen).
Part of what makes “Confessions” such a monumental achievement is the simplicity of the narrative and how it is visually presented. Bendis gets knocked on occasion for his decompressed style that artificially lengthen stories far beyond their proper scope and duration. This is not just a problem BMB has had on Ultimate Spider-Man, but on pretty much every major superhero series he has ever scripted — and this is coming from somebody who has liked most of Bendis’s BIG stuff (I could take or leave a lot of his Avengers).
So, with that in mind, the actual plot of Ultimate #13 — which consists of just the two teenagers talking to each other about the fact that Peter is secretly Spider-Man … with Aunt May showing up at the end for some comic relief about kids doing the “hanky panky” — sounds like it could be potentially problematic with Bendis at the wheel. Fortunately, BMB writes this comic with pinpoint precision and efficiency. It’s so well-paced and entertaining, despite the fact that Peter never shows up in costume, nor does the drama get any more pitched than the two teens staring at each other like a couple of dorks.
That’s because of the unparalleled authenticity of how Peter and MJ are presented. I buy every reaction, facial expression and response in this comic book because Peter and MJ come across as two likeable teenagers I knew from back in the day (or maybe I was one of them as a teenager). Peter saying he needed to tell SOMEONE his big secret so it might as well be his best friend; MJ’s incredulous followed by awestruck reaction to Peter’s admission; the way Peter stares longingly at MJ until she makes eye contact with him and he shyly turns away (and MJ knocks on his head and calls him a dork)… every moment of this comic book sings. These are the stories — and granted, I’ve already admitted they are few and far between — that make me think that Peter needs to be a high school kid in the comics forever and ever Amen, because all I want to do is read about this character and his relationships.
Bagley’s contributions to this issue can’t be understated. For one, “Confessions” marks legitimate growth in Bagley as an artist. His work on Amazing Spider-Man in the 1990s is as steady and consistent as it gets, but given how so many of those stories lacked emotional nuance and grace, Bagley’s art could sometimes appear a bit stiff or stilted. But here, his visuals exude warmth. They sell the seemingly high stakes that Bendis has established in this comic. Because what could possibly be more earth-shaking than two teenagers admitting their deepest, darkest secrets to each other (though granted, Peter admitting to MJ that he’s Spider-Man is a big deal for this character, regardless of which universe its set in).
The fact that “Confessions” ends with Peter and MJ almost consummating their puppy love (OK, all they do is try to kiss, but it still feels like such a huge release for these two adolescents with raging hormones), is just the icing on the cake for a story that makes you feel good and reminds you why you read comics in the first place. Comic book readers have been told over the years that the superheroes are not allowed to be happy — primarily because then there would be no drama and there’d be no reason for us to want to read about them. But “Confessions” gives us that happy ending — sorta. And one of the greatest Peter/MJ stories that’s ever been produced.