A little bit of history first: In 1987, in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, Peter Parker, your friendly neigborhood Spider-Man, married longtime supporting cast member and on-again/off-again girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson. This was due to editorial fiat at the time, and if you were reading Spider-Man comics at the time - hell, if you just read the story from the proposal to the wedding, which is what I did, since I got the paperback, you'll know that it really wasn't well-thought-out, or well-done, for that matter. There's a whole detailed explanation at Again With the Comics, but suffice it to say that I have this story and I thought it sucked. They're not even dating when Peter proposes; two issues later, they're married. Really? Even when I read this as a twelve-year-old, I thought it was horribly done.
The Spider-marriage was widely known as a creative mistake, and writers afterward tried to make do with what they had. Ignoring the fact that marrying a supermodel who is never short on gigs is completely antithetical to the core concept of Spider-Man as a hard-luck hero, I'm sorry to say this, but I was reading Spider-Man on and off at the time, and nothing - NOTHING - Marvel did with the marriage was gripping to me. At all. Nope, not when they started going on and on about how their prospective kid might be a mutant:
|Beast talks to Spider-Man about his baby being a mutant.|
Story and art by Erik Larsen. Spider-Man #15
Not when some dude kissed MJ and we thought maybe she'd cheat on Peter:
|Of course she hasn't.|
Certainly not when the stress of being married to Spider-Man was a little much, so God forbid, Mary Jane should take up smoking, a habit she apparently had in high school:
|From Amazing Spider-Man #378, by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley.|
Look, they do the best with what they have, but does anyone really buy the tension here?
Everything else about the Spider-Man books were fine - I particularly enjoyed David Michelinie and Mark Bagley's run on Amazing - but the one thing I could never get into was the marriage. Sorry, folks, but if the concept of Spider-Man as being a relatable everyman is supposed to be what got to me, then I have to admit that it simply never did. The marriage had all the tension of an onion. "Can their marriage last? Will they make it?!?" Of course they could, and of course they did. Even at a young age, I knew they weren't going to make Spider-Man a divorcee, much less a widower.
I think acclaimed Spider-Man writer Roger Stern put it best in this December 2008 interview:
The thing is, Spider-Man is a mystery to his general public -- he could be anyone under that mask. No one would know about his marital status -- or even give it much thought, unless they were enemies looking to strike at him through loved ones. In those pre-“Brand-New-Day” stories, it wasn't really Spider-Man who was married, it was Peter Parker.
And Peter for the most part works best as a young, single guy. I would never say he should never marry. But he certainly should not be married to Mary Jane Watson. That's just crazy.
The only way the writers were able to keep that marriage going on the printed page for as long as they did was by changing who Pete and MJ were, by turning them into different people. And a lot of talented writers worked on Spider-Man during that period, doing their best, but that marriage never quite worked for to me. It was like hearing about two old friends who'd run off and made this terrible mistake.
Even at a young age, I completely agreed with this, since I ended up reading some Spider-Man stories from before the marriage (some of them Stern's), and my God, they were so much more fun. To illustrate the contrast between the pre- and post-marriage stories, note this sequence when he was still dating the Black Cat, and he decides to let Felicia Hardy in on his secret:
|From Spectacular Spider-Man #87, by Bill Mantlo and Al Milgrom|
Now that's entertainment!
Later on, after the marriage (which Felicia didn't even know about, since it was that much of a rush), she started dating Flash Thompson to get back at Peter. YAAAAAAAY. Honestly, it's not the writers' fault. The basic concept had all the appeal of a burnt tomato.
It's not just that; there's also a marked difference between Spider-Man pre-marriage and Spider-Man post-marriage. It seemed as if the wisecracking, fun-loving Spider-Man was slowly getting replaced by someone who was just nowhere near as fun. The contrast was really evident to me when the Clone Saga happened (read my entire retrospective on it here), because not only was Ben Reilly acting more like classic Peter Parker than Peter Parker at the time, but he also had a much more interesting civilian life, and a big part of that included dating. Instead of being kept in false suspense about a wife that was never going to be put in any real danger, and wondering if their love was going to make it, which of course it was, even if you're wondering if they were really made for each other at all (they weren't), or whatever else, Ben's romances were fresh, new, untried, untested, and exciting. Why, when Dan Jurgens was writing him in Sensational Spider-Man, he gave her a very very intriguing love interest: Jessica Carradine, the daughter of the burglar who killed Uncle Ben!
|From Sensational Spider-Man #3. Art and story by Dan Jurgens.|
Jessica Carradine wasn't Ben's only love interest - and the fact that none of them
were long-established iconic characters really amped up the drama.
The Clone Saga itself was actually conceived as a way to end the Spider-marriage, presumably by having Ben Reilly take over as Spider-Man. How this was ever going to happen, I don't know, since even with Ben Reilly as Spider-Man and being single, you'd have to deal with having no Daily Bugle, and how could we ever live without J. Jonah Jameson?
A few months after the Clone Saga ended, as bad as it was, I stopped reading Spider-Man. Altogether. Oh sure, I'd read a few issues here and there, but there was just something missing; at the end of the day, I just couldn't connect to Spider-Man, who, at the time, I thought, was my favorite superhero. At the time, I couldn't figure it out, but in hindsight, it was probably the marriage. There simply was no tension or drama whatsoever romantically - this is something I'm fine with in, say, Superman, since Superman and Lois just beat around the bush anyway when they're not married, and when they are married and written well, they function as a team. Spider-Man didn't have that with Mary Jane - he was Spider-Man in the costume and it wasn't at all affected by his marriage to MJ, unless he was wondering if MJ was okay or if MJ was mad at him (all... the damn... time...). So let's get this straight: The Clone Saga, as horrible as it was, couldn't get me to stop reading Spider-Man comics, because as horrible as it was, I thought Ben Reilly was still a fascinating and interesting character, but a married Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker was enough. Yes. That's right. In addition, almost any Spider-fan will tell you at the time that the best Spider-Man book on the market was Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe's Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which set Spider-Man stories in between the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko issues, and also featured an unmarried Peter Parker.
So fast forward around 12 years later, and J. Michael Straczynski had been writing Spider-Man for about eight years at that point, and while I read some stories, I just couldn't get into it. Spider-Man - and Marvel, in general - was too dark, with black panel borders all around, Spider-Man constantly torturing himself, and, worst of all, this abomination:
|Image from Comics101. The Green Goblin deflowers Gwen Stacy.|
Because, you know, this was really necessary.
Spider-Man is such an important character for me that I kept looking into it over the years, trying to see if I can go back, but aside from a few stories, it just never grabbed me, ever. If there were more exceptions, that's what they were - exceptions.
|Read Spider-Man/Human Torch by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton! Now!|
So then one day, editor-in-chief Joe Quesada tells J. Michael Straczynski that he wants the marriage ended - editorial fiat to overturn editorial fiat - and to make it work so that Peter is neither a widower nor a divorcee, and we don't get that obligatory three years where Peter whines about losing his one true love (she's not), presumably. So the solution? Why, have Peter and MJ make a deal with the devil. In exchange for Aunt May's life, Peter and Mary Jane have to give their marriage to Mephisto, Marvel's resident devil. Then he'll make it so that the marriage never happened. The story was called One More Day.
Let me say this just once, in big capital letters: YES, I KNOW IT'S A STUPID IDEA. Nobody liked it, and I didn't even bother reading it, and I KNOW IT'S A HORRIBLE STORY. No one who's read it - no matter which side of the marriage fence you fall on - has liked it. IT REALLY, REALLY SUCKED.
But you know what? The stories that followed were some of the best I've ever seen Spider-Man written. He was carefree when he was Spidey, worried as Peter Parker; there were jokes and laughs; and he had some new, really offbeat villains, one of which is Screwball, the world's first streaming supervillain:
We also got covers like this!
And the creative teams! My God, with names like Dan Slott, Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, and Bob Gale on writing duties, it's no wonder that this is the best Spider-Man's been written since... well, since Roger Stern was writing him! And Roger himself is back on occasional writing chores.
And the artists!! Seriously, we get artists like Lee Weeks:
and Marcos Martin:
|Amazing Spider-Man #618, Dan Slott and Marcos Martin.|
I really, really don't think it's any coincidence that Spider-Man is so much more fun when he's single, even if a lot of the stories told in the Brand New Day era could conceivably have been told with a married Peter Parker; the fact is they haven't.
But of course, we still get a lot of people griping about how Spider-Man made a deal with the devil (which he didn't even do, really), and how they can't support the "evil creature that is masquerading around as Spider-Man" (not my words) because it's not the Spider-Man they grew up with, and of course, they'll flood the message boards - almost three years later - talking about how much an unmarried Spider-Man sucks and how much the current stories suck.
I really don't get this, folks. Spider-Man comics come out three times a month, at around three dollars per month. Do you really seriously mean to tell me that some people out there spend $144 per year on something they know they're going to bitch about? I'm sorry, but if I don't like a comic, the solution is simple: I don't buy it.
But what I really don't get is the fact that, as even most comics creators will tell you, including Gail Simone on her Twitter, Spider-Man's got some of the best creators ever right now. It seems really really petty to me to piss on a title due to editorial fiat that was used to overturn another editorial fiat, just to support the first editorial fiat, and then piss on all the creators that are actually putting so much work into the current product. You try looking at this Marcos Martin page (which was written by Stan Lee) and tell me - just tell me - that he doesn't deserve some more attention.
|Amazing Spider-Man #639. Stan Lee and Marcos Martin.|
Seriously, folks, if you quit worrying about how it all fits together (continuity is overrated), there are some really really fun stories in this Brand New Day status quo. And if you want your Spider-Man married to Mary Jane Watson, your old issues are still there for you to read. And you can support some really great creators while you're at it.
The Spider-Man comics these days aren't driven just by editorial fiat or a way to make money - it's written and drawn by people who genuinely love to write and draw Spider-Man. And if you can get past the whole "Peter and MJ were never married" thing, which isn't hard to do, because you can just ignore it, you might just enjoy yourself.
Sure beats just griping about the same thing for three years, right?