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.
9. “Off the Beaten Path” — Spider-Man Fairy Tales #1 (published July 2007): script by C.B. Cebulski; pencils and inks by Ricardo Tercio
In terms of alternate universe Spider-Man stories, the four-part Spider-Man: Fairy Tales miniseries from 2007 often gets overlooked by fans and critics in favor of books like Spider-Man 2099 and Spider-Man: Noir. But this series, which could have been simply dismissed as a silly gimmick that attempted to capitalize on the young adult fiction craze launched by the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” franchises, actually featured some moments of greatness, namely this first issue which demonstrates a profound understanding of what made Mary Jane such a captivating character.
When MJ was first introduced by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. during the 1960s, the character was a fairly one-dimensional “party girl.” Gwen Stacy — who was reportedly based on Lee’s wife — was presented as the one “true” love for Peter Parker, while MJ was treated more as a frivolous distraction. Under Lee’s pen, readers rarely got a chance to root for a Peter/MJ union because she wasn’t the kind of woman that a virtuous, upstanding hero like Spidey was supposed to end up with.
Once Lee left the book, a lot of that changed. Gerry Conway has admitted that his boredom with Gwen contributed to his decision to kill her off. Meanwhile, he was always far more interested in Mary Jane (though he never had any intention of marrying her off). MJ’s back-story received a ton of fleshing out during the famed Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz run in the mid-80s, and then of course, she and Peter were married by David Michelinie and Jim Shooter and the rest is history.
The character would naturally have some ups and downs, but by the time Spider-Man: Fairy Tales had been released, MJ was in the midst of a true renaissance under the guidance of J. Michael Straczynski, though that would all be negated in just a few short months by “One More Day.” So in many ways, the C.B. Cebulski/Ricard Tercio tale stands as a final “hurrah” for all of those people who think so fondly of the Peter/MJ stories created by the likes of DeFalco, Michelinie, J.M. DeMatteis and of course, JMS.
The gimmick for this Fairy Tales mini was that each issue was based around a classic children’s story. In the case of “Off the Beaten Path,” the story is loosely inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood” with the red-headed MJ donning the scarlet cloak to deliver some goodies for Peter’s Aunt May. But what makes this tale noteworthy is that Cebulski’s script doesn’t just deliver a paint-by-numbers damsel in distress story that predictably ends with Peter/Spider-Man saving little red MJ from the “wolf.” Instead, the comic spends the bulk of its time raising some very relevant questions about how certain “traditional” views of marriage have the potential to rob the woman of her identity.
Not only is that a pretty heavy theme for a children’s story, it’s a daring choice for a superhero comic, especially a mainstream book like Spider-Man. While this comic is only eight years-old, keep in mind that it still came out at a time where there weren’t a lot of strong, independent female characters carrying the load in a superhero series. To take a woman like Mary Jane, who even at her best has long been defined by the fact that she was either a party girl or Peter’s wife, and to give her a voice that politely, but defiantly, speaks outs against these tired views was a stroke of genius from Cebulski.
Part of what validates MJ’s viewpoints in this story is that it’s very clear that she cares for and loves Peter. She explicitly states that she wants to be his wife, but she doesn’t want to do it in a way where she’s defined as an obedient servant. Instead, she strives to be a partner and “equal” to Peter. And while there are a number of people in MJ’s life who think such an opinion is crazy talk — they tell her that everyone has a “path” they must follow and being Peter’s subservient wife is hers — Cebulski’s script characterizes Mary Jane in such a way that it’s impossible not to sympathize with her.
In a clever inversion of the classic fairy tale, Mary Jane runs into trouble in the woods by doing exactly what she is told to do: staying on the path. The big bad wolf — who is also responsible for killing Gwen — sees MJ leave Peter to travel by herself to May’s house. Because he knows MJ is vulnerable, he confronts her and attempts to eat her.
It’s only by running off the path and risking her neck jumping over the side of a cliff that MJ is able to earn a temporary stay of execution. These sequences in the woods are beautifully rendered by Tercio, who provides pencils, inks and colors for the comic. The comic has a cartoony, pseudo-anime look and feel to it, but the aesthetic jives with the tone of the story which oscillates between whimsical and dark. The design for the wolf is particularly fantastic as the character lacks definition, instead resembling some kind of amorphous demon (or perhaps a goblin), which adds a layer of ambiguous menace to these scenes.
Of course, the wolf does eventually catch up to MJ at Aunt May’s house, setting up the big showdown where the expectation is for the strong “woodsman” (Peter) to burst through the door and save the day. But this story continues to challenge the status quo. Peter does indeed show up as the wolf is staring down Mary Jane, but he isn’t strong enough to wield an axe and slay the villain. In order to do that, he needs to team-up with his would-be wife. Together, Peter and Mary Jane distract the wolf (with MJ’s cloak) and then pick up the axes and strike the fatal blow.
It’s the equal partnership that MJ was daydreaming about in the very beginning of this story. Aunt May then tells the young lovers that a love like theirs wields a lot of power — but they’ve already demonstrated how to use that power responsibly. OK, maybe Cebulski reaches a bit in bringing in the greatest of Spider-Man lessons, but the idea that a husband and wife need to work together as equals to overcome great adversity is an admirable one all the same.
Obviously as someone who has been happily married myself for nearly eight years, I believe this is a moral I can relate to. When things get tough between my wife and I, we will often quietly say to each other “Team Ginocchio.” Other comic book creators have highlighted just how much Peter and MJ need each other and thrive as individuals with each other. But Cebulski’s “Little Red Riding Hood” analogue, might just be the best look at the team of them working together as equals. It’s an unashamed celebration of a dynamic that is unquestionably vital to any successful relationship/union.