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Greatest Peter/Mary Jane Stories #4

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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 #4:

“All My Pasts Remembered” — Amazing Spider-Man #259 (published December 1984): script by Tom DeFalco; pencils by Ron Frenz; inks by Josef Rubinstein 

ASM 259 01Origin stories have long been the bread and butter of superhero comics. Traditionally, a character’s origins are explained in the issue where he makes his first appearance (Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s in Amazing Fantasy #15, Doctor Octopus in Amazing Spider-Man #3, Sandman in ASM #4). Certain “special” characters make their first appearances shrouded in mystery, with an origin story revealed at later date (Green Goblin first appears in ASM #14, origin told in ASM #40).

But Mary Jane Watson is not a superhero, and while her first appearance was teased in a number of Stan Lee/Steve Ditko issues leading up to her famous “Face it Tiger” moment in ASM #42, once she arrived, she wasn’t exactly shrouded in mystery. And yet it took 18 years and more than 200 issues of Amazing Spider-Man comics for somebody (Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz) to finally attempt to explain why this bouncy, flighty, sometimes-swinger was the way she was.

The gap between ASM #42 and ASM #259 is so wide in terms of real-time and comic book continuity time, it almost feels like DeFalco scripted a retcon (we’d have to wait a few more years for Gerry Conway and Alex Saviuk to do that with Peter and MJ!). But ASM #259 is not the comic book equivalent of an airbrushing. The logic behind unveiling MJ’s origins is sound: shortly after she rejected Peter’s (first) marriage proposal in ASM #182, Mary Jane disappeared from New York City and the comic book world, giving Peter the freedom to operate romantically unencumbered (as well as date Black Cat/Felicia Hardy). She returned in the mid-1980s as a much more serious character and rekindled her friendship with Peter. However, after Peter once again disappeared to play the role of Spider-Man, she called him out on his secret.

When ASM #259 opens, Peter is still desperate to find a way to make MJ “un-remember” her revelation of his secret identity, but to no avail. Instead, MJ reveals a story to Peter about her background and upbringing that she considers on par in terms of secrecy and shame with his shadow life as a costumed vigilante. When you consider how difficult and tragedy-filled Mary Jane’s childhood and teen years were, and contrast that to her other carefree “face it tiger” exterior, a case could be made that her secret is just as damning. 

ASM 259 02Sure, there are some clichéd elements to Mary Jane’s origins — why does every interesting comic book character have to come from a broken family of some sort? Is it a universally accepted fact that a character with depth and nuance has to have his lens of the world colored by divorce, abuse or alcoholism? But at the same time, what DeFalco and Frenz put forward in ASM #259 explains SO much about Mary Jane, that it’s hard for me to pick nits with it years later.

What I find most interesting about this story is how the creators deploy a two-pronged approach in explaining MJ’s commitment phobia. First there’s her father, who aspires to be a writer, but instead becomes an abusive jerk who resents his wife for tying him down with children. And then there’s MJ’s sister, an aspiring dancer who marries her high school sweetheart right after graduation, pops out a kid, and then finds herself jilted and alone when her husband walks out on her after learning they’re expecting a second child.

Adding another layer to MJ’s characterization is the fact that she also abandons her sister after her mother dies and she faces the prospects of having to stay back and help her raise two children. That’s actually a shocking admission from Mary Jane and of all the secrets she reveals her desertion of her surviving family is far more deplorable than the fact that her father was cold and cruel to her.

ASM 259 04What makes MJ’s origin so fascinating is how it mirrors elements of Peter’s origin (and hence, another Parallel Lives reference). After her mother left her father, Mary Jane explains that she buried her emotions by being a class clown, often performing in plays (including a great scene where she drops “Tiger” in a production of Romeo and Juliet) to try and draw positive attention to herself. The entire concept of free-swinging, fun-loving Mary Jane is actually a mask she wears as a coping mechanism for the guilt she feels about her broken family and the ways she created many of these irreparable fractures. Just as Peter took on the masked identity of Spider-Man to try and make up for the sins he committed that led to the murder of his Uncle Ben in Amazing Fantasy #15.

Even the visual presentation of MJ’s origin story mirrors Peter’s in Amazing Fantasy #15. Frenz is an admitted Steve Ditko-maniac to the point that when he started his run with DeFalco a few months earlier, even plotted his pages in similar fashion to the Spider-Man originator (namely, nine panel pages). While some of Frenz’s work might come across a bit old-fashioned by mid-1980s standards, it’s an aesthetic that meshes perfectly with the Silver Age vibe of MJ’s origin. 

While books like Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, make it sound like Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage was an inevitability — see Monday’s Peter/MJ list submission for details — DeFalco’s origin story goes a long way in establishing that perhaps Mary Jane really was Peter’s soul mate all along, all Jim Shooter mandates aside.

ASM 259 03For years, the accepted truth in the comic book world was that Peter and Gwen were star-crossed lovers. And while stories like the wonderful Spider-Man: Blue showcase just how beautiful the Peter/Gwen dynamic was in its hey-day, I’ve also been on record in saying a lot of the magic between those two disappeared after the death of  Gwen’s father in ASM #90. Many of the Peter/Gwen stories leading up to Gwen’s death were downright terrible and came dangerously close to tarnishing the character’s reputation. Gwen’s death, in many ways, saved her from becoming just another nagging, weeping superhero girlfriend. The Bronze Age MJ wasn’t that much better in terms of characterization — she was basically a savvier, more sarcastic-version of Gwen — but ASM #259 marks the start of something special, even if the whole thing was planned for cynical, cash-grabbing reasons.

I’ve long maintained that Gerry Conway’s epilogue in ASM #122 was a true turning point for MJ the character, and that the compassion she showed Peter in the wake of Gwen’s death went a long way in planting the seeds for an eventual “real” romance between the two. But as MJ herself says in ASM #259, the two still don’t really know each other. DeFalco’s origin story goes a long way in fixing that, and makes all of the stories about the pairing that followed ring truer than any other of Peter’s prior romantic relationships. In retrospect, it might seem absurd that it took so long for Marvel to finally give MJ a story, but in the case of ASM #259, it was well worth the wait.

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