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.
10. “Red-Headed Stranger” — Amazing Spider-Man #601-605 (published October-November 2009): script by Mark Waid (ASM #601) and Fred Van Lente (ASM #602-605); pencils by Mario Alberti (ASM #601), Barry Kitson (ASM #602, 604), Robert Atkins (ASM #603), and Javier Pulido (ASM #605); inks by Mario Alberti (ASM #601), Rick Ketcham and Barry Kitson (ASM #602, 604), Victor Olazaba (ASM #603) and Javier Pulido (ASM #605)
In the immediate aftermath of 2007’s “One More Day” storyline, Mary Jane Watson was a touchy subject for readers, so much so, the character was more or less a non-factor in the subsequent “Brand New Day” arc. And even when she did show up (like in the excellent “Peter Parker Paparazzi” storyline), there was a considerable amount of physical distance kept between she and Peter.
Marvel probably should have given its readers a bit more credit than this. The publisher was acting as if putting Peter and MJ in a room would set readers aflame over the fact that the two former life-partners would be getting back together, when in all likelihood, those who were that emotional about the marriage ending in the first place probably dropped the book after “One More Day.”
Fortunately, this exercise in passive aggressive reader distrust came to its conclusion nearly two years after “OMD” when MJ made her presence known to Peter and co. at the wedding of Aunt May and Jay Jameson at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #600. And out of the scene came “Red-Headed Stranger,” a storyline that features two writers and a score of artists (thanks to the tri-monthly “Brand New Day” publishing schedule), yet still reads cohesive enough to be a fairly memorable re-introduction of the character, as well as a well-executed demonstration of the new, post-marriage status quo for Peter and MJ.
Of course, Marvel can’t seem to help itself in teasing its readers when “Red-Headed Stranger” kicks off with Peter rolling over in bed thinking of his run-in with Mary Jane the night before only to find the woman of his nightmares — the sister of his defamed former roommate Vin Gonzales cuddled under the covers with him. It’s the kind of “Threes Company”-esque punchline that the “Brand New Day” era was well-known for, especially as it related to Peter’s swinging single lovelife, but it also made the creative “braintrust’s” intentions quite clear — these two are not getting back together and anyone holding out hope for a reunion is going to get treated to a clingy, borderline sociopathic woman like Michelle Gonzales. “Come and knock on our door,” indeed.
“Red-Headed Stranger” moves past some of the initial silliness and kicks it into another gear with the arrival of Fred Van Lente on script for the next four issues. ASM #602-604 in particular yield one of the most harrowingly suspenseful Spider-Man arcs of the modern era that would likely place at or near the top of anybody’s best Chameleon stories list (maybe we’ll do one of those around here some day). But in terms of the Peter/MJ dynamic, the story deploys a pretty unique storytelling device as a means to disseminate information to the reader about everyone’s favorite mystically annulled married couple.
The phrase “red-headed stranger” is uttered by the Chameleon after he co-opts Peter’s identity (leaving him for dead — not realizing that the guy he thinks he bumped off is actually secretly Spider-Man) and attempts to discern the identity of the attractive redhead in this “loser’s” life he stole. Chameleon’s charade leads to some legitimately funny moments of meta-commentary, like the fact that Peter has long had a penchant for surrounding himself with attractive women.
But having Chameleon steal Peter’s identity also makes for a number of inquisitive scenes between Chameleon-Peter and MJ. Whereas if this was actually Peter in most of these scenes, he wouldn’t be talking to Mary Jane in a way as to pull information from her regarding who she was and her relationship to him. So in many ways, Chameleon-Peter is acting out the natural curiosity of the reader: in this post “One More Day” world, what exactly does MJ know? And how does she feel about Peter?
The creative braintrust continues to dash any possible hopes for a romantic reunion, even with Chameleon playing the role of Peter (which at least avoids the would-be ugliness of having Chameleon manipulate MJ into doing something physical with him). Instead, Van Lente’s script spells it out for the naive or stubborn — things with Peter and MJ ended very poorly. Reconciliation is not an option. When Chameleon dumbly flashes Gwen Stacy’s photo to MJ and tells her “you weren’t her,” it’s another moment of this criminal trying to cull information from a potential source. But it also produces a moment of ugly honesty from Mary Jane when she tells Peter he spends so much time obsessing over the dead that he misses out on being around the living.
It’s definitely something the “party girl” Mary Jane would say to “Tiger” during the late 70s and early 80s, but it also cuts to the heart as to why it’s very difficult for a man like Peter to have a serous romantic commitment: because of his unwavering desire to make right for the one big “wrong” in his life by honoring “with great power, must also come, great responsibility,” it does appear that Peter’s focus is more on his relationships with those who are no longer living (Uncle Ben, Gwen, Captain Stacy) than those who are there in the room next to him.
Still, as insightful as the Chameleon-Peter/MJ diner scene is, Van Lente and the rest of the creative team deliver a bit of a cop-out ending to the actual Chameleon arc within “Red-Headed Stranger.” After Peter miraculously escapes an acid bath and knocks the Chameleon off his path of destruction, he is left dealing with all of the carnage this villain left behind in his personal life. But similar to what we would later get years later in Superior Spider-Man — where there was very little fallout or consequence to the year and change Otto Octavius spent manipulating Peter’s life while in control of his mind and body — the only legit “damage” done to Peter’s life involves him sleeping with Michelle again. In an even more curious move, we get a moment of reconciliation between Peter and MJ because Chameleon-Peter inadvertently helps out Harry Osborn (still back from the dead in the post-“One More Day” era).
Not that an ongoing arc of Peter and MJ bickering with each other over sins past (not THAT story, silly) was ever going to light anyone’s world on fire, nor was Marvel going to bring MJ back only to maintain the icy status quo between she and Peter. But to have things be resolved so cleanly and coincidentally is a bit cheap and unearned. There was still a fair bit of rawness to Peter/MJ and it felt like Marvel barely scratched the surface of that dynamic within these issues.
That’s where ASM #605 comes in, which is probably the most clear-cut “MJ story” of the arc. Van Lente apparently wrote this as a standalone before it was treated like a bookend to the whole “Red-Headed Stranger” arc. And it’s a caustic yet ultimately optimistic view on where things stand between Peter and MJ in this post-marriage world.
The issue is framed as a flashback around when Mary Jane got an invitation to May and Jay’s wedding. This elicits memories of her and Peter. Van Lente and artist Javier Pulido (trying his best to be Marcos Martin — who didn’t try and be Martin during this era?) bring us back to the presumed final days of Peter/MJ, which prompted Mary Jane to leave New York City for the greener pastures of California. But before she does that, her parting wisdom to Peter is not to let “one moment” define his life — as if it’s truly possible to have a Spider-Man comic book universe with the titular character being defined by one signature moment. Needless to say, if some random comic book critic told Peter that he needs to get over his role in his uncle’s death and not let one moment define him, many of us would deride said critic as someone who doesn’t “get” Spider-Man.
But that’s exactly the point. In this new status quo, the reader is being made to understand that Peter and MJ weren’t right for each other. Remember, everything that happened before, whether we like it or not, has been negated. You can argue all you want about MJ feeling out of character, but the hard facts remain that post-“OMD,” this is who the character is supposed to be. And Van Lente does a wonderful job of not only owning this character, but also having her take her own advice in a way that believably brings her back to New York and to May and Jay’s wedding. While Peter was going to continue to let one moment define him, MJ decided she was done running away from her past and her failed attempt to marry and instead decided to face her friends and family … and really, her whole life, head on.
The Mary Jane Watson who avoided her loved ones and dated drug-addled Hollywood stars like Bobby Carr is nothing but a red-headed stranger. But through this arc, the creative braintrust starts to fill in the blanks about who this character actually is within this new world order. The results may be a little unsettling and upsetting, especially for those readers who want to remember MJ for the David Michelinie or even the J. Michael Strazcynski days. But the page has been turned there and “Red-Headed Stranger” is evidence of that.