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 the final entry:
“To Have and to Hold” – Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 (published 2007): script by Matt Fraction; pencils and inks by Salvador Larroca
Over the past six weeks, we’ve gone on a magical journey that has made stops at scenes starring single Peter and Mary Jane; Fairy Tale-ified Peter and MJ; married Peter and MJ; and teenaged Peter and Mary Jane. So naturally, we end this list of greatest Peter and Mary Jane stories at the most logical point in their relationship: moments before their marriage was mystically (and controversially) annulled.
I’ve long debated what I find more amazing about Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s “To Have and to Hold” — it’s marvelous mix of nostalgia and modern verve which makes it inherently readable; or the fact that one of the most passionate and sincere presentations of the couple’s marriage to ever grace a comic was published mere months before Marvel’s editorial hierarchy decided to tear down the whole thing in an attempt to get “back to basics.”
I’m still mostly agnostic when it comes to the whole Peter/MJ marriage and never see myself taking a hardline stance one way or another. But “To Have and to Hold” is such a fantastic story, filled with equal doses of humor and candor about committed, long-term relationships, I can understand why there are people still so worked up over the outcome of “One More Day.”
The reason why “To Have and to Hold” tops my list is because I believe it captures the very best elements about Peter/MJ from every other story that has made an appearance on this countdown, while also exhibiting few, if any weak spots or flaws — especially when read in isolation from the events that took place in the Spider-Man universe a few months later (which was the chief criticism of this comic at the time it was published — why did Marvel run this when it was clear from all of the rumor sites that “One More Day” was about to undo everything?).
The comic is also arguably the best example of how a creative team could utilize the post-Civil War status quo for Spider-Man where his identity is publicly known and he’s on the run from the government for defying Tony Stark/Iron Man and the Superhuman Registration Act. It doesn’t resort to any cheap parlor tricks or gimmicks, like the attempted murder of Aunt May or Peter donning the black suit again because “Spider-Man 3″ was coming out. Instead, without going to extremes, it exploits Peter’s worst nightmare about revealing his secret identity — how would his enemies use the fact that he’s Spider-Man against his friends and family?
Fraction and Larroca structure “To Have and to Hold” in the style of classic storytellers like O’Henry when they depict Mary Jane being confronted by a S.H.I.E.L.D./former fling (when she was separated from Peter and living on the West Coast) about flipping on her husband and protecting herself from prison, while Peter is concurrently holding a secret meeting with a New York City police detective in an attempt to turn himself in. Mary Jane refuses to break, instead stalling the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent by waxing poetic about her history with Peter, which allows the detective the time to talk some sense into Peter (who then shows up in the nick of time to save his wife).
The comic is extraordinarily reverential to the couple’s shared history, opening and closing at the very top of the Empire State Building, which was established as their “spot” in the infamous “The Wedding.” But where this story really gets into a groove is how it captures significant moments from the Silver/Bronze Age. There’s one sequence where Peter thinks back to Flash Thompson’s going away party (from the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr.) years with wistfulness, and then later in the comic, the creators revisit the great “first kiss” at JFK Airport in Amazing Spider-Man #143 (a Gerry Conway/Ross Andru issue). One could quibble and say the first flashback glosses over the fact that Peter was pining for Gwen Stacy at the time, but what really sells the nostalgia is how Larroca adapts his visual style. He pays homage to “Jazzy” John while Paco Roca’s color palette is warm and pastel-like, making the pages feel like the best kind of time warp.
“To Have and to Hold” is also a very smartly funny story in how it depicts relationships at every stage of their development. Fraction and Larroca perform a great narrative trick when they present the same scene from two different perspectives. First MJ revisits a time when Peter was supposed to make her a mix tape and instead recorded a science lecture. We get to see Mary Jane’s inner monologue as the conversation between she and Peter unfolds and watch as something that was meant to be sweet and kind is upended by MJ’s cutting sarcasm. We then get the flipside from Peter’s point of view, providing more context and showcasing Peter’s painful shyness and social awkwardness at full tilt.
There are other great bits and one-liners that those familiar with Fraction’s other work for Marvel and Image would recognize as prime examples of his acerbic wit. While talking with the police detective, a disheveled Peter blurts out, “Face it tiger! You just hit the jackpot,” which prompts a confused response from his compatriot. When Peter clarifies that these were actually the famous first words of Mary Jane, the detective responds pointedly, “and you didn’t run away screaming?” The scene functions as both a reverential shout out to one of the most famous scenes in comic book history and a very tongue-in-cheek takedown of Stan the Man’s notorious exuberance and over-the-top scripts.
But even with all of its humor and subtle jabs at the past, “To Have and to Hold” offers such tenderly beautiful and emotionally powerful moments that perfectly sum up the commitment and bond that is “supposed” to come with marriage. In one scene, Peter tells the detective that the death of his Uncle Ben is what gets him out of bed in the morning, while his relationship to MJ is “the only thing that lets me stop every night.”
I interpret Peter’s comment as being the distinction between your reason for being versus your reason for living. Uncle Ben’s death was a defining moment in Peter’s life as he swore from that point that “with great power must also come great responsibility.” But it’s the union he shares with MJ that prevents him from being fully absorbed into his life of superhero-dom that he essentially stops being a living person and instead devolves into a concept or a symbol. I talk many times about Peter having everyman problems, and while plenty of people have made the case that his marriage to the “supermodel” contradicts his relate-ability, in effect Fraction is saying MJ is what motivates Peter to have a “real life.”
Then there’s the final, final scene with Peter and MJ on top of the Empire State Building, where MJ — once the living embodiment of commitment-phobia — tells her husband that she’s in this relationship for the long haul. She basically states the entire thesis of this comic: “Maybe the rest of the world thinks marriage is something to do between other marriages, but it means something to me. You’re my partner and my husband and I love you.”
… Need I remind you again that this comic was published RIGHT before “One More Day.” Again, it boggles the mind.
It’s not so much that “To Have and to Hold” glorifies the Peter/MJ marriage. On the contrary, Fraction and Larroca examine the ugliness, frustration and helplessness of marriage. Sometimes being “tied-down” to another person is just as it sounds and if one of you goes under, the other is soon to follow.
But that’s what marriage is about. It should define who you are and give you a reason to “stop” being a crazed work-a-holic driven by things that don’t ultimately matter. Like Peter and MJ at the tippy-top of the Empire State Building, marriage is both terrifying and exhilarating. It’s meant to be a challenge, but there’s no probably no greater reward in life when it does work.