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Greatest Peter/Mary Jane Stories: #3

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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.

Here’s #3:

“Doomed Affairs” – Amazing Spider-Man #49-50 v2 (published March-April 2003): script by J. Michael Straczynski; pencils by John Romita Jr.; inks by Scott Hanna

Doomed Affairs 04Despite the fact that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson had been married for nearly 20 years (in real time of course), the characterization and portrayal of their relationship has two notable eras: the “early years” penned by David Michelinie and an assortment of artists during the late 1980s and early 90s, and the “later years,” which were stewarded by J. Michael Straczynski and lasted until the union’s controversial end in “One More Day.”

Yes, there were other creators — good ones too — that got to work with Peter/MJ over the years, but they were all, in one way or another, paying homage to Michelinie’s work before Straczynski came in and completely redefined the relationship. And while this is certainly not a swipe at Michelinie, who crafted the Peter/MJ dynamic that I grew up with and adored, but it could be argued that JMS’s more mature look at the couple likely fed into the fan outrage that followed “One More Day.” Because under Michelinie and his contemporaries, Peter and Mary Jane almost felt like a sitcom couple — “tune in to CBS Monday nights for this new series about a socially awkward guy who’s never around and his kittenish supermodel wife” — whereas JMS treated the two like real people who share a complex, but unyielding bond to each other.

“Doomed Affairs,” is actually the story that brought Peter and Mary Jane back together after a hiatus that kicked off with a rather awful arc in the late 1990s where MJ was believed to be dead in a plane crash before culminating with the redhead being very much “alive” but wanting a break from her longtime “tiger.” Despite it being just the first opportunity for JMS to write Peter and MJ together as a couple again, it is arguably the best story Straczysnki crafted about the two during his oft-celebrated run on Amazing Spider-Man.

Doomed Affairs 02As someone who has been married for nearly eight years, “Doomed Affairs” is a personal favorite for the way JMS — and John Romita Jr., whose amazing artwork cannot be understated in how in captures the emotion of this arc — gets these two beloved characters to be honest and sometimes ugly with each other before landing on something quite beautiful and sentimental. This story doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of a committed relationship. It doesn’t end with Peter promising to send MJ to the moon before telling her, “baby, you’re the greatest.” And MJ is not some stereotypical shrew that is trying to prevent Peter from fulfilling his responsibilities as Spider-Man.

But MJ does raise a very legitimate and difficult to answer question for Peter — why do you want to be with me? What can I possibly give you that makes this marriage worth it? Peter ultimately has a great response to MJ which brings the two of them back together, but MJ’s pontificating is very much designed to feel like a “what is the meaning of life” kind of query from JMS. Because in a real marriage, these are issues each person has to deal with every single day of their lives. And if they don’t, then they’re lying to and/or deluding themselves. In short, in marriage — even the very best ones — you spend every day trying to work on improving your marriage.

Straczynski and Romita are masterful in the way they bring the reader to this point. In Amazing Spider-Man #49, Peter and Mary Jane separately each get on a plane to secretly see the other. When MJ arrives in New York, she finds Peter’s awful, squalor-filled apartment, while Peter finds photos of MJ with another man in California. They each start filling in the gaps of what the other person has been doing during their separation (told with wonderfully-illustrated split panels courtesy of JRJR) before getting back on a plane and heading home.

Doomed Affairs 01Playing off the themes of mysticism and fate that were first weaved into the ASM narrative during the fantastic “Coming Home” arc, both flights are grounded in Colorado and Peter and Mary Jane serendipitously find each other in the airport (with a spider pointing the way for Peter). The two then step aside to have a private talk with each other, paving the way for a possible reconciliation … if only if it wasn’t for that whole Peter being Spider-Man thing.

ASM #50 shows Peter and MJ having a very difficult conversation. But voices are never raised and dishes are never thrown. The conversation also lacks any melodramatic waterworks (though each character does shed tears in more graceful fashion). Mary Jane brings up a very valid point to Peter: “where do I fit in?” Plenty of other creators have attempted to depict MJ almost as the wife of a police officer; sitting at home worrying about her husband and his dangerous line of work. But JMS puts a more unique spin on the dynamic. Here, MJ says she feels more like a “mistress,” someone Peter sees in-between all of his “real” work, and not necessarily someone he comes home to at the end of each night.

It’s actually a damning — and not unfair — assessment of Peter and MJ. At no point does she suggest that Peter should give up being Spider-Man. In fact, she’s emphatic that she couldn’t possibly do that. But you can’t blame Mary Jane for at least questioning where she fits in. When Peter is in costume, he barely acknowledges MJ (for fear of endangering her), but it also disconnects his wife from a critical part of who he is. MJ believes it will take more than just “love” for the two of them to overcome that.

Doomed Affairs 03That’s when Peter tells her it’s not just about love, it’s about “need” for her. And not in the possessive, overly-attached way. MJ provides Peter with a purpose. If he’s not doing what he’s doing for her, then who is he doing it for? He tells Mary Jane that with her support, he believes he can do anything, and without it, there’s a certain emptiness there. And those are the magic words that reunite Peter and MJ until that ol’ Mephisto deal went down a few years later.

If there’s one knock against “Doomed Affairs” (and the only reason this isn’t my number one story), it relates to the arc’s superheroics. As the title indicates, Doctor Doom figures into the storyline when he waltzes through the Colorado airport and a suicide bomber attempts to kill him. It sets off a chain reaction of events, including a cameo by Captain America, but all of the drama and destruction smack as being superfluous to what is really important in this story, aka the conversation between Peter and MJ. It could be argued that the Doom drama accentuated exactly the kind of disconnect between Peter and MJ that Mary Jane was talking about, but it’s not like the JMS/Romita run is without precedent of a dialogue/talk-heavy issue focused on character interactions. About a dozen issues earlier, the duo delivered the classic “The Conversation” issue where Aunt May confronts Peter about being Spider-Man. And there’s hardly any superheroics in that issue — just a talk between two characters that have decades of shared history between them. It also seems a bit silly that in a post-9/11 world, a bomb would go off in an airport and no casualties or serious injuries would be depicted by the creators. That fact alone makes the whole thing smack of being a trite plot device rather than a moment to be taken seriously.

Fortunately, while the Doom subplot is undoubtedly critical to the progression of “Doomed Affairs,” the depiction of Mary Jane and Peter is so good, it’s easy to gloss over these narrative flaws. While I’m not about to put my name on any petitions geared towards having Marvel undo “One More Day,” “Doomed Affairs” is certainly the kind of story that makes it very difficult arguing against the Peter/MJ coupling. It’s real and raw and wonderful.

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