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Lost Gems: “Who’s That Girl?”

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Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.

This entry looks at Untold Tales of Spider-Man #16, aka “Who’s That Girl,” by Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe.

Untold Tales 16 01This installment of “Lost Gems” features a comic that is so under-the-radar, I admittedly forgot to include it on my very own Top 10 Peter/Mary Jane Stories list a few months ago (and let me assure that if I had remembered this comic when I was developing that list, it would have most certainly ranked above the No. 10 and 9 entries). 

But underrated is probably the first word that comes to my mind whenever I think of any installment of the mid-90s series, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which was being published by Marvel at a time where Spider-Man’s status quo was so dramatically altered, it served as an oasis of sorts for fans desperate to cling to the “good old days” of Spidey. Set in the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of Amazing Spider-Man, Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe captured the spirit of those Silver Age tales better than pretty much any other “untold” type series or one-shot that preceded or followed while also having enough verve and edge to feel modern and fresh.

“Who’s that Girl?” is the perfect demonstration of what made Untold Tales such a great concept. The general premise of the comic is based on the foundation of two stories from the 1980s, the “Parallel Lives” one-shot (which introduced the retcon that Mary Jane had learned that Peter Parker was Spider-Man on the night that Uncle Ben was murdered) and the Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz classic detailing MJ’s “origin story.” And yet, the actual superhero action captured within the story paints a very vintage aesthetic of Spider-Man proving how unique he was as a hero in his fight against the Silver Age heavyweight, Radioactive Man.

Untold Tales 16 02The story is told almost exclusively from MJ’s perspective, who’s contemplating whether or not to take her Aunt Anna up on her nagging about going on a blind date with May Parker’s quiet, well-mannered nephew. Because MJ is the only character who (retroactively) knows that Peter is Spider-Man at this point in time, the idea of getting to know such an enigmatic individual on even a remotely intimate level frightens her (for reasons that were also retroactively explained in the aforementioned DeFalco/Frenz story). She realizes that he’s not the quiet and shy boy her aunt believes him to be nor could he truly be the carefree, wise-cracking person he portrays himself as when he’s Spider-Man. That leads MJ to flip the title of this issue on its ear by wondering “who’s that boy.”

And really, that’s been one of the great questions regarding the Peter/Spider-Man dichotomy — at his core, who is this character? The fact that Busiek has the otherwise bubbly and superficial MJ pontificating about it all the juicier. Intentional or not, MJ almost comes across as the Amazing Spider-Man’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (originally from Hamlet, but given the meta-treatment in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Due to the retroactive nature of Untold Tales, Mary Jane is observing and attempting to understand the events of a larger drama while being unaware of her central role in the entire thing. And people will tell you that superhero comics can’t be Shakespeare …

Untold Tales 16 03What MJ comes to understand — and what Busiek and Oliffe so beautifully capture in the story and art — is that Peter’s social aloofness or Spider-Man’s overconfidence are irrelevant to how the character ultimately behaves when there’s something on the line. Radioactive Man is way above Spider-Man’s pay grade — it took the entire Avengers team to take him out in an earlier story — and he makes a number of mistakes along the way that could have potentially dire consequences for all of New York. Still, Mary Jane has a certain confidence in Peter/Spider-Man, not for any good reason but because she’s so fascinated by his dual personality that she more or less assumes he’ll figure stuff out. And figure stuff out he does when his relentless nature and intelligence help him defeat Radioactive Man essentially by accident when a coal barge floats by and he knocks him into it (thereby neutralizing his radioactive energy). When recalling the battle, MJ comments on Spider-Man’s unyielding spirit – probably my personal favorite of all of his core characteristics and how she looks forward to getting to know Peter … when she’s good and ready (i.e. more mature). 

“Who’s that Girl” is exactly how a retroactive, “flashback” comic should read — nothing is inherently changed that tarnishes the legacy of the universe and yet it fleshes things out with a bit more detail and insight so as to be a more substantial read than something like last year’s “Learning to Crawl” arc. Plus we get to see Spider-Man fight a unique villain and defeat him in a way that’s not outlandish or unbelievable.

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