Why Did it Have to be You, Mary Jane?

Part 1

Get this boy a Woman!

Well, here we go again.

Mary Jane Watson-Parker has been a lightening rod for debate for more than two decades amongst Spider-Man comic fans, and between fans and Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, who after several years, finally came up with a plot device to undo what has been often referred to as the "Spider-Marriage." Three of the most inflammatory events in the history of the Spider-Man titles have revolved around Marvel's desire to get rid of Mary Jane, the marriage, or both:

  1. The Clone Saga in the mid 1990's;

  2. Her "death" in Amazing Spider-Man #454 (January 2000); and of course

  3. One More Day , in which, at least for the moment, Marvel and Quesada seem to have succeeded, with Peter and Mary Jane making a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May's life at the expense of their marriage. I have already waxed philosophical about all of the problems of One More Day, which I now consider the worst story in Spider-Man's history.

EIC Quesada has made no bones about preferring a single Spider-Man, and his current writing staff has marched in lockstep to his wishes. But while there is a tendency to blame the controversy entirely on corporate suits or creative types turned corporate suits, we need to remember that many writers have expressed their preference for a young, unmarried Spider-Man. However, in the current era, where Mary Jane was a critical component of the wildly successful Spider-Man motion pictures (and a factor in attracting a certain amount of young women with disposable income to the films - essential for those multi-hundred million dollar grosses), the subject of two popular children's books, and a monthly comic title geared to young girls (Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane - which also happens to be popular with more than a few guys as well), it would have seemed that maybe Marvel was having a change of heart about Big Red.

But no such luck. For the moment, while Mary Jane as a supporting character remains in the titles, or at least on their periphery, the marriage is not only gone, but blotted from the minds of everyone in the Marvel Universe.

Needless to say, I think it sucks, because I think Mary Jane is the woman with whom Peter Parker was destined to spend the rest of his life with.

Certainly, such a volatile topic is perfect for one of my patented long, verbose, painfully tortured analyses, especially since MJ is likely the most important character in the entire Spider-Man mythology, second only to the old Web-head himself. Hopefully during this series of articles, I will be able to provide the answers to the following questions:

If you're a long time reader of the Spider-Man titles, I hope you enjoy this detailed look into the history of one of comicdom's most enduring romantic relationships. If you're new, and wondering just who this Mary Jane chick is that everyone is making such a fuss about - I hope these articles will answer that for you. And if you're neither one, but was expecting something else from a website with the word "Butt" in the title - well - I'm afraid I can't help you there.

I will not try to delude the reader into believing that I am 100% objective. I like Mary Jane – I have always liked Mary Jane. I was never a big fan of Gwen Stacy for various reasons that I will explore - although my opinion about her has softened over time. While I liked the characters of Betty Brant, Felicia Hardy, and Deb Whitman (I was particularly partial to Deb - and was glad to see Peter David bring her back in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, if at least only for a little while), each had dramatic limitations that would have made them ineffective long-term partners from a creative perspective. I also liked the Spider-Marriage, and did even when I was single, unattached and lived in my swinging bachelor pad - that converted-attic-come-apartment in the megalopolis of Bedford, Indiana back in the 1980's. However, I am not unable to take an objective look at the entire situation of MJ and the marriage. Ultimately, what we all want - is that Spider-Man as a character remains durable and viable for the generations that succeed us - even if it means going into directions at times that may not be popular with the older fans.

So let's start at the most logical place...

In the Beginning
What none of us knew during those early days of Spider-Man, not even Stan the Man himself, was that Mary Jane had been there right from the beginning of the adventure! In Amazing Spider-Man #258 (November 1984) sometimes supervillain, sometimes spider-ally Puma (who seems like a castoff of a bad NBC television show called Manimal) tracked down Spider-Man because of his smell (must be that distinctive Spider-Deodorant) to Peter Parker’s apartment and trashed the place while Mary Jane was visiting. Peter locked her in another room until the battle was over, after which he tried to invent lame excuse #6,573 to throw her off track. However, she had endured way too much of this crap over the years, and in a simple moment of honesty and clarity that far too often escapes people in soap operas and comic books - she told him the truth – that she knew! Yet, how she deduced the secret remained a mystery for several years.

Peter and Mary Jane were wed in 1987 in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, and in 1989 Marvel released a trade paperback called Parallel Lives. Long-time spider-writer (and current Law and Order TV scribe and producer) Gerry Conway took the highly convoluted, improbable, on-again, off-again relationship between the hot redhead and the Amazing Spider-Geek, and gave it a believable cohesion from beginning to end that made it seem that these two, despite their dramatic differences, were destined to be together. His solution to how MJ first found out was at first, in my opinion, just a retcon of what had gone before. It was maddeningly simple and actually disappointing. I felt that we were owed some great flashback epic in which Mary Jane gradually pieced together the mystery of Peter’s double life - as if she were a detective stalking the solution to a baffling case. However, on a second reading, it was the one solution that made the most sense (I find out though, that this does not appear to be a majority opinion out there in spider-land). After all, how could a geek like Peter Parker attract a woman like Mary Jane, who, as she so eloquently stated in Parallel Lives had boys drooling on her shoes? In high school, Peter was clearly the bespectacled, timid nerd (not the sullen, tempermental punk he often is in Ultimate Spider-Man). In college, he often disappeared whenever something interesting was going on, giving most people the impression he was a sniveling coward. He was clearly failing at fulfilling the promising scientific career for which he was originally destined, and his inability to properly focus on his future seemed to be putting him firmly on the road to being a chronically underemployed ne'er do well. "Brilliant but lazy," (wink wink nudge nudge) sums up perfectly how the casual observer might have seen Peter Parker.

Beyond the stable of eligible men in the nightlife that MJ frequented, even those in her immediate circle of college friends would seem to have more on the ball than Peter Parker. Flash Thompson was a rugged, handsome athlete as well as a decorated war hero. Harry Osborn was no stud (the comic version looked nothing like James Franco), but he had the money, the fast car, the cool clothes, and a father (you know who!) who was a prominent business figure in New York City with numerous professional and social contacts that would have been invaluable to her in whatever career she chose. But MJ, for some inexplicable reason, seemed to be drawn to Peter Parker.

Why? Well, because she had been there on that tragic night – when Peter came home from a show business gig, only to find out that Uncle Ben had been murdered. May Parker was at Anna Watson’s home after that event, and Mary Jane, anguished by and unable to cope with May's suffering, stared out the window facing the Parker home, and observed Peter Parker bolt into the house after the police informed him of his uncle’s death. Moments later, she saw something that would change her life forever – a red and blue costumed figure emerged from Peter’s bedroom window, scaled up the side of the house, and disappeared on a web line into the night.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself – for as the early adventures of Spider-Man originally unfolded, Peter Parker had never even met Mary Jane Watson! In fact, early on, she was nothing more than the apparent blind date from hell that dear old Aunt May was perpetually trying to arrange for him. Getting back to the spider-continuity as it originally unfolded, she was first actually mentioned in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 1 #15 (August 1964) when Aunt May tells Peter that she has arranged a date with a “lovely” girl, the niece of the neighbor, Mrs. Watson. Of course, to a sixteen year old boy - when his geriatic aunt arranges a date with a "lovely" girl (who more than likely also had a "good personality") - it's time to hit the panic button. When Peter protests, May gives one of her patented parental lectures, stating that Peter needs to think about his future and that he’ll want a girl who would make him a good housewife - like Mrs. Watson’s niece!

Yeah, you read that right - a good housewife.

That statement is likely to piss off today's liberated woman, but we have to consider the time and context in which it was written and by whom - a man born in 1922 who compelled his own wife, who had a promising career of her own, to jettison it and stay at home (a decision which Stan Lee will willingly admit today was a dumb one). It’s inconceivable to us now that Peter's “mother” (which is essentially what May was) would want him to think about getting married before he even went to college and got a steady job! Nowadays we tell our kids to hold off on marriage rather than rush into it (and sometimes we tell them to avoid it altogether if they value their sanity!). What's also ironic is that May made that statement about Mary Jane, who with the possible exception of Felicia Hardy, was the least likely of all of Peter’s girlfriends to ever fit the “good housewife” label as it was meant back then - June Cleaver waiting in her dress, pearls and heels for Ward to get home, eat supper and play with the Beaver. And maybe even get in some time with his kids. But, in looking back at Spidey’s history, this statement by May is the first of several interesting coincidences that add depth and meaning to the relationship that eventually occurred between Peter and Mary Jane, adding to the aura of inevitability. In a current context, May’s statement would have been that Peter would need a woman like Mary Jane who would make him a good companion and soulmate. This demonstrates not only May’s prescience, but also what a good judge of character she was, both of her nephew and Mrs. Watson’s niece (but apparently not of Dr. Octopus, and I’m not sure I could satisfactorily explain that one).

It was also proof that May really wasn’t the weak, dim-witted old fool that Stan’s and his successors’ increasingly lazy writing ultimately devolved her into (a portrayal which only finally began to be relieved during the reign of J. Michael Stracyzinski, although what she'll be in the Brand New Day era is anyone's guess). If there was one person who saw right through Mary Jane’s obnoxious party girl facade in an instant, it was May Parker. With her troubled home life, Mary Jane could probably never confide in her mother. The mother-daughter relationship, as those of us who have watched that three-ring circus unfold across generations know, is notoriously volatile even in the best of times, let alone in a situation where the mother is a single parent who endured years of psychological and possibly physical abuse from her husband. It also explains why MJ was so often in the company of Anna Watson, the person she typically ran away to when things got too rough at home. Being MJ's father’s sister, Anna would have still loved her brother, but likely wouldn't have been in denial about his character flaws, thus being an adequate sounding board for a troubled young girl who was trying to sort out her relationship with him. This might also have exacerbated the strains between MJ and her own mother and sister, as she continued to have a relationship with a member of her father's family. However, it also stands to reason that when she needed a truly impartial ear belonging to someone who had no personal agenda at stake and no complicated emotional ties to the situation, MJ gravitated to Anna’s good friend, the kind and gentle May Parker, who was always good for providing a cup of hot chocolate, a plate full of cookies, and a boundless supply of sympathy and compassion.

So, given these circumstances, Aunt May probably knew exactly the type of young girl Mary Jane Watson was. It also explains why May was so determined to hook her and Peter up, although he already had a girlfriend in Betty Brant, and another potential partner in Liz Allen. It’s safe to assume that May wanted to connect Peter with Mary Jane because she knew what a serious, shy, and withdrawn young man Peter was. Even before he became Spider-Man, he carried the burdens of the world on his shoulders. He would need a girl with Mary Jane’s naturally bubbly and effusive personality (much of which was genuine - and much of which was lost in the modern era as the spider writers seemed to forget this aspect of her personality and turned her into the oh so serious Mrs. Spider-Man) to draw him out socially and complete him as a person. Betty was a sweet and likeable girl (and certainly had her mind on being a "housewife" at this time - this was decades before she became one of the top reporters at the Daily Bugle - remember that these stories were originally written in the early and mid 1960's), but in May’s opinion probably would only reinforce Peter's existing introverted personality traits and would not have supplemented him as well as Mary Jane. Prophetically, Peter’s and Betty’s romantic relationship eventually collapsed because Betty wanted Peter to be the quiet stay at home type, which he likely would have been if not for a certain radioactive spider. Because of Spider-Man, Peter’s personality was evolving beyond the type of man that Betty felt comfortable with at the time. Now, for those folks who believe that MJ is just a party skank unworthy of the hand of our favorite webspinner - do you believe for a minute that if May Parker truly believed that that's all there was to Mary Jane, she would have let the redhead get within a country mile of her beloved nephew? No way in hell. Remember, there's only a couple of times that May met one of the other great loves of Peter's life, Felicia Hardy, and it was apparent each time what May thought of Felicia. But May also sensed that a girl like Mary Jane needed a stable, responsible, dependable man who would be totally true and faithful to the woman he loved. And May knew just such a young man...well, that is, until "Brand New Day" turned May into someone who thought her nephew was a slacker and wished Ben had made him more responsible. Sigh.

In Amazing Spider-Man #16, Mrs. Watson’s niece is mentioned by name for the first time as “Mary Jane Watson.” In issue #18, when Peter tries to weasel out of an arranged date with the girl by stating he’s going to a meeting of the Spider-Man Fan Club, May responds by stating that Anna tells her that Mary Jane just loves Spider-Man (although May can’t see why). Looking back, it seems possible that even at this point in time, Mary Jane was floating trial balloons to Anna and perhaps even indirectly to Peter himself, to not only gauge their reactions to Spider-Man, but also to see if this reference would catch Mr. Parker’s attention (of course, as we all know, Peter can be pretty clueless at times). This was also a way of finding out if May knew about Peter’s double life. Judging from May’s reactions whenever Spider-Man was mentioned, Mary Jane figured out pretty quickly that May did not know, and therefore reasoned that it was a subject she could never broach with the older woman. As we’ll find out, this wasn’t the last furtive attempt that Mary Jane made to test Peter.

Of course, considering that Pete was in high school at the time, he had the understandable belief that any girl whom Aunt May was trying to set him up with, especially the niece of her closest friend, probably had to be a dog who couldn’t get a date on her own (which, as Parallel Lives so ironically pointed out - Mary Jane was saying the same things about him to her own aunt). Plus, as all good spider-fans know, Peter was already head over heels in love with Betty Brant, whom he had started to show interest in way back in issue #5, and began to see socially after the events of issue #7. And then there was Liz Allan, alternatively referred to as the “blond boy stealer,” or the “blond bandit” by the ever self-conscience and insecure Ms. Brant. Peter was attracted to Liz, who seemed interested in him, but kept giving him mixed signals. Whether Liz's behavior was out of genuine interest, or just to drive Flash Thompson crazy, neither we nor Peter really knew until issue #28, the high school graduation issue, when Liz admitted to Peter that she did indeed have a crush on him, and he had blown his chance with her. Interestingly, one of the bones of contention between Flash and Peter (which was actually addressed many years later, in Web of Spider-Man #12 (March 1986)), was that Flash, although crazy about Liz himself, did not resent Peter solely because he was a potential romantic rival for Liz’s affections, but also for the insensitive ways he seemed to blow her off when she, in his mind, “threw herself” at him. It made it easier for Flash to justify his bullying of Peter because, well, Peter did seem to act like an arrogant, elitist jerk at times.

Although Mr. Parker is capable of some pretty callous treatment of people, particularly women (Deb Whitman comes to mind), his hands-off treatment of Liz is understandable since he never really knew where he stood with her. After all, more than one poor schmuck (not that anyone in particular comes to mind, of course) has made the dreadfully embarrassing and humiliating mistake of misinterpreting a woman’s flirty, effusive sociability for romantic interest.

But how does all this bring us back to Mary Jane? Easily! In Amazing Spider-Man #25, both Liz and Betty arrive at the Parker residence in Forrest Hills at the same time to see Peter for completely different reasons (too convoluted to discuss here) - but while Peter isn’t there with Aunt May - someone else is - and this, my friends, is the first appearance of Mary Jane Watson...sort of. Steve Ditko obscures Mary Jane’s face, although it’s apparent that both Liz and Betty are stunned by her attractiveness, which Flash also notices as MJ leaves the Parker house. Believe it or not, the mystery of just what Mary Jane looked like, heightened in this issue, lasted even longer than the mystery of the original Green Goblin’s identity! Really. The Goblin was first introduced in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 1 #14 and his identity was revealed in #39, 25 issues later. Mary Jane was first mentioned indirectly in issue #15, and revealed in issue #42, 27 months later.

By the time of MJ’s first obscured appearance, the seeds of the end of Peter’s relationship with Betty Brant had already been sown. The death of her brother in issue #11, which Betty ridiculously, but consistent with the vapid motivations people in soap operas and comic books seem to have, blamed on Spider-Man was the first straw. Her relationship with Bugle reporter Ned Leeds, which started when Betty thought Peter was seeing Liz on the sly, intensified when a lonely Ned, on assignment in Europe, began to write letters to her. This fulfilled Betty's need to be needed. Although she still loved Peter at the time, his increasingly distant, belligerent, risky and independent behavior was sending her the message that he didn’t need her. Also even though Stan and Steve were writing Betty as a ditz who cried and moaned and pondered in her bedroom about this deep secret Peter was keeping from her, the truth was, it wasn’t all her fault that their relationship fell apart (I tend to give characters a little more credit for intelligence than how they are written sometimes). Peter had dramatically changed from the time Betty first became attracted to him. In the early days of their relationship, he truly was a calm, quiet, shy person. Betty got to know him as a person of quiet strength who took J. Jonah Jameson’s verbal abuse in stride. At that time in her life, that’s the type of man she wanted. However, as Peter grew in his role as Spider-Man and became much bolder, he began to openly and deliberately antagonize the volatile Jameson. Peter’s comment in issue #22 after Jameson was seriously injured that he knew Jonah was o.k. because he was only hit in the head, and Peter’s almost cruel (in Betty’s eyes, although we know the old skinflint deserves whatever abuse Peter gives him) needling of Jameson in issue #25 that prompted the publisher to go ahead and sponsor the first of Spencer Smythe’s spider-slayers, as well as his increasingly sarcastic wit, honed to an art by his battles with super-villains, were all turning Peter into the type of man she wasn’t sure she liked.

Although I am at the disadvantage of having never talked to Stan Lee, I think it's fairly obvious to deduce the real reason Peter's relationship with Betty ended. After all, there is always a dramatic reason and a “real” reason things happen in creative endeavors. After all, with the swipe of a pen, Peter could have dated or married anyone that any of the writers or editors wanted him to or would allow (fat chance now). But Stan obviously intended to exploit the college environment that Peter was becoming a part of and build on the growing college audience that was turning Spidey into a major comic and pop culture icon. To do that, Peter needed to be involved with one, or more, college girls. Betty had been written into a corner more or less - she was almost the dowdy housewife already. She had quit high school to take a job as Jonah's secretary, she had already stated that she didn't want to marry an adventurer, blah blah blah. Liz Allan was never a serious candidate for girlfriend status. Although she was constantly around, her primary role was to provide tension between Betty and Peter. So, when Stan decided to move Peter into college, Liz and Betty were jettisoned.

And you know where this is going.

Gorgeous Gwendolyne
So now we are set up for the events of Amazing Spider-Man #31 which is one of the most important issues in the history of the Spidey titles, not just because it's the issue where Peter starts college (which he doesn't leave until Amazing Spider-Man #185, and even then he's a gym credit short), but it's the issue in which we are introduced to Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn and - believe it or not, Professor Miles Warren (who many years later, as a result of his unhealthy obsession with Ms. Stacy, later became the super villain known as the Jackal and did that cloning thing). Weird, eh?

Now, as you continue to read this column, don't think that I've forgotten who I'm supposed to be writing about. It can't be helped, because Gwen Stacy is far more important than just a speedbump on the way to Peter and Mary Jane's eventual betrothal. As Stan Lee himself has stated, it was Gwen all along whom he had intended Peter to marry - but something happened along the way. So, we need to understand that it was not only Mary Jane's success as a character that resulted in her being the one woman for Peter Parker, but also Gwen Stacy's failure to evolve as a character that not only led to her losing the horse race for Peter's hand in marriage, but in being permanently eliminated from the spider-titles.

Now a moment of digression - after these articles first debuted, some folks took offense at my comment that Gwen had "failed" as a character, pointing out that it was bad writing that doomed her, that she could have eventually walked down the aisle with Peter had she retained her original strength of character. This seemed to be reinforced by the Loeb/Sale miniseries Spider-Man: Blue (2002) which took a revisionist look at the early days of Peter and Gwen's life together, in which Gwen is more realistically aggressive in a 21st Century way in pursuing a relationship with Peter Parker than she was in the 1960's as written by a male writer who grew up during the Depression. So, yeah, that's true - none of these people are real - it's the writers and artists that give them life, or in some cases, condemn them to death. Obviously there remains a tremendous amount of affection in spider-fandom for the lovely, but doomed Ms. Stacy(some of this seems to have been re-awakened with JMS' controversial use of Gwen as accidental one night stand of Norman Osborn in the "Sins Past" storyline that ran through Amazing Spider-Man in 2004). I completely understand that. Mary Jane is not everyone's cup of tea - and Gwen's potential was flat out wasted by lazy writing. Heaven knows, I have no desire to enter into any vicious debate about the merits of Gwen vs. Mary Jane. We either agree or we don't - that's as far as I'm willing to go with it. But that's not the point - for reasons later explained, Gwen had simply ceased to continue to be an interesting character that people, Gerry Conway in particular, wanted to write about - and hence she died. It's also been suggested that Conway, who wasn't even of legal drinking age (as it is now) when he first pulled the assignment - didn't have the personal life experiences to help push Gwen's character to the next level - and thus just killed her off. Actually, that overanalyzes the situation, but I'll deal with that later.

Back to the "real" continuity, as we first walk down the hallowed halls of good ole Empire State University, Harry Osborn is introducing Flash Thompson to "the former beauty queen from Standard High," Gwen Stacy. And without a doubt, she's a looker. The Steve Ditko Gwen that we meet is very different from the John Romita, Sr. Gwen, which is ultimately the version we see in our minds when we think of Gwen Stacy or see her in flashbacks. We can see that difference in these pictures:

The Ditko Gwen was no girl next door, but mouth-wateringly sultry, reminding me of blond bad girls (like Veronica Lake) from various cheesy 1930's crime flicks (this is closer to the look at Loeb and Sale chose for her in the Blue mini). With her pointy eyebrows, she almost looks like a Vulcan, adding to her exotic appearance. It's apparent right away that Sweet Gwendolyne is assessing the field from which she has to draw at ESU. She's clearly sizing up Flash as a potential romantic partner, flattering him by saying she's followed his Midtown football career all through high school. Whether or not he believes this, Flash is perceptive enough to realize he's being flirted with and returns the favor.

And in walks Peter. And out walks Peter. Our hero is currently preoccupied with dear old Aunt May's deteriorating condition, which we later learn was the result of the "radioactive particles" in the blood transfusion she received from her nephew back in issue #10. Oblivious to anything but his own concern he completely blows off Flash, Harry, and Gwen, much to their mutual chagrin, although it really seems to raise Harry's dander. Peter immediately gains a reputation of being "too good" for everyone else, ostensibly because he's a much heralded scholarship student. But, since this a comic book fantasy, his standoffishness doesn't deter the lovely Ms. Stacy from gazing at Peter with a certain longing as she sizes him up as well. "He's not as husky as Flash," she says to herself while observing Peter in class, "but he's brighter and he's very attractive." And, as Harry is about to play a trick on Peter in class and wants Gwen to distract him, she thinks "I still can't help feeling attracted to him somehow." Reading those old Amazings when Gwen was first introduced makes me wonder whether or not there was a certain amount of adolescent wish fulfillment on the part of either Stan or Steve. After all, it isn't Peter who first notices Gwen and begins pining for her - it is Gwen who notices Peter. Which is all very interesting - because in recent years Marvel has liked to run with the (misguided) conception that readers couldn't relate to Peter Parker anymore because he had such a good looking wife in Mary Jane. But, here in what is typically considered the glory days of Spider-Man, a former high school beauty queen is getting herself all moist in her panties over the former high school nerd. Sometimes you wonder if management actually read these old stories before they open their mouths.

However, from a dramatic standpoint of creating a long-term relationship that would survive many years and many creative teams, Gwen Stacy already had a strike against her from the beginning. Why? Well, because she really had no character of her own at the time - she simply had "FUTURE GIRLFRIEND" stamped on her head the moment that Stan brought her into the strip, much like Betty Brant did when Stan first introduced her. That isn't to say that Gwen couldn't have become a terrific character. For awhile, she was fascinating, as Stan did develop her - but then he dropped the ball - and Gwen was as good as dead - it just took several years for there to be a funeral. If you doubt that - think about the answer to this question - just why did Gwen fall in love with Peter? She was attracted to him because of his intelligence - but what kept her at his side when he let his grades fall, when it was obvious he lied to her and kept secrets from her, when everyone else thought he was a craven coward? MJ knew that this was just the public personna Peter used to hide his extra-cirricular activities. But what about Gwen, as she did not have that insight?

After I wrote this article, a faithful reader by the name of "Julio Barone," who also happens to be a big Gwen fan (as this series of essays proves) helped illuminate me somewhat, since he is much younger than I and obviously had much more positive experiences with the opposite sex than I did when I was an angry young man (now I'm an angrier old man). I don't want to steal his thunder or his ideas - but in a nutshell - he believed that Peter represented an irresistable challenge to Gwen. After years of having young men falling all over her, and willing to do her bidding for the mere pleasure of her company, here was one that flat out refused to play that game. Also, she may have secretly been tired of dating men that she was "supposed" to date, i.e. athletes and rich dudes - and Peter represented a change of pace and a challenge in that way as well.

O.K. I won't really argue with that - but I was smart and unapproachable at 18 years old, and there sure as hell weren't any Gwen Stacys in my life. Yeah, I know, I'm no Spider-Man either.

Ahem - anyway - now begins the tease that lasted for two years - will Peter and Gwen get together? Or will Peter choose Mary Jane? Well, when he meets her, that is.

After Gwen's initial introduction, she takes a back seat to one of Spidey's classic battles with Doc Ock (the one with the element of Spidey crawling out from under several tons of debris - yeah, the one that has been redone at least twice in the last few years - by Howard Mackie during "The Final Chapter," back in 1999, and most recently by J. Michael Stracyzinski in his own Doc Ock story), but we see her a couple of times over the next six months, most notably in issue #36 when she watches Peter apparently flee a museum invaded by the Looter, thus thinking he's a coward. Things really heat up in issue #37, after Gwen becomes vocally belligerent towards Peter in order to get his attention (that she has to try this hard stretches believability. While it's pointless to argue Stan's genius in creating Spider-Man and his marvelous cast of supporting characters, there are times when his writing would simply grate, and go overboard on the soap opera elements). Having had enough of being on the receiving end of her verbal abuse, Peter makes a smart comment, to which Gwen responds by trying to slap him. You read that right. Gwen tries to slap Peter. Not the dear sweet Gwen you remember is it?

In fact, as the issues in the 30's progress, it's clear that the whole cast could use a Prozac. By this time Gwen, and particularly Harry, are simply being very nasty people. In issue #38, one month after we meet a certain businessman by the name of Norman Osborn for the first time, Harry decides to get a dig in on Peter by saying "My old man forgot more about science than he'll ever know." This is also the issue that Ned Leeds and Peter nearly get into a fight over Betty Brant right there in the Daily Bugle offices, and Peter also gets into a shouting match with other students over his refusal to join their inane and pointless protest.

After that, a sweeping change rushes through Spideyland beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #39 in the form of one John Romita, Sr., who takes over the artistic chores with this issue, beginning a legacy and an impact that continues to this day. And it wasn't just the art that changed with the arrival of Romita - it was the entire attitude of the series and all of the characters.

A change couldn't have happened at a better time. With the talented, yet eccentric and reclusive Ayn Rand-influenced Ditko as the co-plotter on the stories as well as the artist, the world that Peter Parker was living in was getting too angry, too bitter and argumentative, as the events I mentioned above demonstrated. Romita apparently not only brought a softer, more aesthetically appealing artistic style than Ditko's sharp, "quirky" pencils, but his collaboration with Stan also brought out the more positive personality attributes of Peter and his supporting cast. For example, in issue #39, Ned and Peter apologize for their mutually bad behavior in the previous story - although it was likely that their previous antagonism was leading to the revelation that Ditko is suspected to have been leaning towards, that Ned Leeds was the Green Goblin - which Stan obviously scuttled. Not only that, but Harry and Peter's relationship begins to thaw after Peter offers to listen to Harry's problems with his father, who is becoming more and more distant to his son all of the time (wonder why?). This sheds some additional light on why Harry was originally so quick to turn on Peter in the earlier days. The distant, aloof scientific genius personna that Mr. Parker effected during that period no doubt reminded Harry of his own father (adding a little more oomph to Norman's later assertion that it was Peter who was the son he always wanted - amazing how we can connect disparate dots separated by nearly 40 years, eh?) - and since Harry couldn't take out his anger at being ignored on the psychopathic Norman Osborn - Peter became a convenient target. Gwen still fences with Peter, but it's far more subtle, and without the mean-spirited rhetoric of the earlier issues.

It's almost time for that big moment folks. A chapter in Peter's life ends in issue #41 as Betty Brant returns to New York City, and they both realize that whatever they once had together is over for good, and Peter finally begins to take notice of Gwen Stacy (duh! Took the dope long enough). Of course, the fact that she's acting more like a human being might have had something to do with it. Anyway, now that Gwen is beginning to occupy more and more of Peter's thoughts, Stan decides to spice things up a notch by Aunt May committing Peter to having dinner at Anna Watson's on Sunday, so that he - and we - can finally meet.....Mary Jane Watson.

Of course, the famous panel at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #42, is a classic moment that really needs no set up from me, and it's a moment that has been redone more than once, most recently in Spider-Man: Blue, and even homaged in the first run of Spider-Girl. However, I’m kind of partial to the spin that artist Jose Pimental put on it in Marvel - Portraits of a Universe.

Peter's jaw wasn't the only one dropping. It's something of a shame that Sam Raimi couldn't have worked that exact line into one of the Spider-Man films, but he did work the "tiger" nickname in there each time.

Now, everyone remembers the very first thing Mary Jane said to Peter. It was after all, “Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot.” But, what was the second thing she said to Peter? Well, in issue #43, it was the equally immortal line “Petey-O, you’re right from Groovesville!” I said it was an immortal line - I never said anything about it being a particularly good line. Hey - lighten up though - it was the 60's! Maybe Mary Jane was originally part of the Scooby Gang and hung out with Freddy, Shaggy, and Velma, but got dumped in favor another redhead, Daphne Blake. You know, there's gonna be a fanfic there somewhere...

Naturally, Peter is taken with the bouncy, vivacious redhead right away, much to both Aunt May and Aunt Anna's delight. May in particular is quite happy to see how Mary Jane's playfulness and zest for living creates a rise in Peter's spirits (and probably something else as well, but this is family-friendly website).

And then - there’s one of those odd little moments that meant absolutely nothing at the time, but taken in context of what we know now - it seems to mean a great deal. While Peter and Mary Jane are watching TV, a news bulletin announces that the Rhino has broken out of prison and is on a rampage. As Peter wonders how he can get away to change to Spider-Man, MJ says right out of the blue “Petey - wouldn’t it be a kick to really see the Rhino in person?” She suggests hopping on Peter’s motorcycle and following the sound of the sirens. Peter then thinks to himself “Now that’s the kind of gal friend a busy Spider-Man needs!” When they arrive at the Rhino’s location, Peter ditches MJ on the pretense of taking photos for the Bugle and switches to Spider-Man. After the fight, and Peter has changed back into his civilian identity, Mary Jane comments that she didn’t see him during all of the excitement, to which Peter responds with one of his patented excuses about where he was. Obviously, at this time Stan had not contemplated MJ knowing that Peter was Spider-Man. It’s interesting - now that we know that she really did know - when she suggested that they head to the Rhino's location. Had she done this deliberately - to see if Peter would disappear and Spider-Man would appear? To prove to herself that what she saw on the night of Ben Parker’s murder hadn't been her imagination? She may very well have been testing Peter - and he didn’t disappoint.

So now, with the arrival of Mary Jane, we have all of the major players in Peter Parker's world who will be together in some form or another for the next six and a half years, until the death of Gwen in issue #122. As I read through some of these old issues, it was hard for me not to feel that this was truly a golden age for Spider-Man. As painful as Stan's attempt to make the dialogue sound like hip teen talk could be, he nonetheless conveys the fun and adventure involved in being a young person with his/her whole life ahead of them. All five of the core characters are distinct personalities, all are likable for one reason or another, and all have their irritating faults. Stan actually captured what made the "Friends" television show popular nearly 25 years later. As a reader, one genuinely enjoys being around these people. If Marvel desperately wants to recapture the youth audience for Spider-Man that it feels it has lost, it has to look no further than the gradual corrosive effect that killing off members of the supporting cast has had on the titles. While it made for dramatic storytelling to have something tragic happen to a character, the ultimate (no pun intended) effect was to slowly gut part of what made Spidey a cultural phenom back in the late 60's and early 70's. By killing off Gwen, and then Harry - for awhile (thus making Liz Allan, another supporting character, into a tortured widow and single parent), turning Flash into an unpredictable and moody alcoholic, killing off Ned Leeds and putting Betty Brant on the wacko wagon for awhile (and even killing off Aunt May temporarily) the writers cumulatively isolated Peter and Mary Jane from whatever friends or support network they once had. This may well have turned them into the self-indulgent, self-pitying, and whiny couple that some people apparently got tired of reading about in the 1990's. This situation could have been avoided if strong new characters were created to take the place of those who departed, but none with any staying power were. And speaking of "Friends," did anyone notice how that show remained phenomenally popular right to the very end, even though the characters - gulp - aged, married, and had babies?

As Gomer Pyle used to say "surprise, surprise, surprise!"

The gang's first introduction to Mary Jane is in issue #44 at a restaurant where Peter, Gwen, Harry and Flash are talking about Mr. Thompson's upcoming induction into the military. Entirely by surprise, MJ walks in and immediately makes a beeline to Peter, effortlessly blowing off Flash's overt move on her. Everyone is stunned that MJ has come to see Peter Parker, considering that she could walk anywhere on campus and have her pick of virtually any male - yet she gloms onto the one who is the lowest on the social totem pole. Flash only half-jokingly suggests she has lost a sorority initiation. Obviously when this was first written, it stretched credibility (although one could have suggested that MJ was only being friendly with Peter to get her Aunt Anna off her back) that MJ would choose Peter. Is it coincidence that she just happens to walk into the same restaurant that he's in? Probably not. I wouldn't go so far to suggest she was stalking Peter, but by referencing the much later Untold Tales of Spider-Man #15, which was a 20/20 hindsight look into the early days of Spider-Man, we do have something of a precedent that suggests that Mary Jane did occassionally follow Peter and Spider-Man out of a combination of both fascination and fear. Now that she had formally met Peter, she was doubly curious about what kind of person he really was, and who his friends were. This was also a way to find out whether or not she had any competition for his affections, which was fairly obvious when she first saw Gwen and Peter together.

Although Peter does begin to date Mary Jane and have some fun with her, in issue #45 he makes the mental observation "that chick's as pretty as a pumpkin seed, but just about as shallow." (Obviously MJ was not about to let her guard down with Peter - not just yet) It was also probably clear to Mary Jane that while Peter was attracted to her, the woman he really preferred was Gwen Stacy, and also, that Gwen preferred him over Harry Osborn. MJ makes this point during a conversation when Harry reminds her that Gwen is his date, she responds with "only because Mr. P didn't ask her first." Therefore it’s fairly easy to see why after their initial dalliance, MJ did not strongly pursue a relationship with Peter - although she did continue to flirt with him. As we now know, she had her doubts that she wanted to get involved with him even before she met him because of his dual identity. Getting involved with a man who was a superhero would have been problematic enough - so why knock yourself out when it's clear that you're not the woman he really wants?

The last apparent stumbling block to Gwen and Peter getting together was that at this time, Harry was dating Gwen (betcha didn't remember that - eh?). However, it is likely that this was not a serious relationship, particularly from Gwen's perspective. The fact that Harry introduces Gwen to Flash Thompson in issue #31 indicates that the two of them probably knew each other earlier, which was confirmed in issues #8 and #25 of Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Now this is the second time I've referenced UTOS. I do have mixed feelings about considering this series part of the Spider-Man canon, just like I do Amazing Fantasy 16-18 and the late Webspinners. Untold stories can work two ways - (1)they can be a cheap rip off just so the company can squeeze more milk out of the cash cow or (2) they can actually supplement our understanding and appreciation of the regular continuity by giving us a perspective that we didn't have when the stories during a particular timeline were first told. Although his new villains were rather lame, Kurt Busiek did an excellent job with the supporting characters surrounding Peter Parker, and also clearly respected the original continuity and tried to work within it, and not circumvent it like John Byrne did at times in Chapter One. Therefore, I tend to lean toward allowing UTOS stand as continuity. Speaking of untold stories, in a Flashback issue of Spectacular Spider-Man that took place several years prior to Amazing Fantasy #15, we find out that Norman Osborn and George Stacy knew each other quite well, and that temporarily, Gwen's uncle Arthur worked for Osborn. So, that also increases the likelihood that Gwen and Harry had already been friends for years.

Upon entering college, Gwen probably dated Harry because he was "safe." As confident as Gwen appeared in those early issues, it's possible that she was simply another insecure teenage girl who was overwhelmed upon entering college. She knew and trusted Harry, and being with him was better than being alone on a Friday night. However, as stated earlier, she was clearly sizing up the landscape for other potential suitors. You would have thought Harry might have been a more serious candidate in Gwen's eyes, considering the Osborn fortune behind him. As much as I thought about weaving a theory that among other things, Gwen was more than a little fearful of Harry's dad (which would be a cool foreshadowing of later events), it's simply more probable that like many girls entering college, Gwen wanted to date men other than ones she knew in high school. Plus, as we learned later, Harry was a spoiled, troubled young man with a personality geared toward addictions who did not carry himself with the confidence that Peter Parker did (Gwen is impressed that Peter doesn't appear intimidated in the slightest by the larger, more physical Flash Thompson - o.k. - maybe Mr. Barone was onto something). As far as why Gwen didn't prefer Flash over Peter - it's possible that since at that time Gwen was portrayed as a smart young woman (and a science major) she might simply have felt she had more in common with Peter than Flash - although frankly, reality always seems to be skewed in favor of the rich and the athletic. After all, being a scholar didn't help me one damn bit with the smart ladies...but, uh, that's another story. There is some indication that Harry was more serious about Gwen than vice versa due to his references more than once to "my Gwen," and "Gwen is my date." This resulted in a few cold shoulders given to Peter as he began going out with Gwen, but Harry more than got over that as he fell hard and quick for Ms. Mary Jane Watson. And besides, as I ultimately decided during the writing of my Goblin Prince series, while Harry probably couldn't help but be a little attracted to Gwen, she more than likely served in the "big sister" role.

Finally, in issue #53, Stan ends the tease and Gwen and Peter go on their first date. Oddly enough, it is loaded with irony considering later events as well. Professor Warren asks Peter if he would like to attend a scientific demonstration and tells him that he can bring a friend. Peter finally gets up the nerve to ask Gwen to go with him - to which she delightfully accepts. When he questions whether or not she would like it, she reminds him that "your little blond buddy is a sci-major, too." I really liked that "little blond buddy" comment, because it implied something critical to a long lasting relationship - that the partners be friends as well. At that time, as science majors, Peter and Gwen did have something in common that could bind them together - and Gwen proved herself no slouch in the brains department either, as she correctly deduced what a "nullifier" did (also in Spider-Man: Blue, she inadvertently provides Peter with a scientific solution to defeating the Rhino). And when Professor Warren saw that Peter was bringing Gwen, he commended him on his good choice. Interesting, no? As interesting as Warren's comments after the demonstration (in which Spidey showed up and fought Doc Ock) about how curious he was about Spider-Man's psyche.

So, up to this point, Gwen was a strong, smart, spicy woman who could keep our hero on his toes. Even though she had been toned down somewhat in the Ditko/Romita transition, she was still an interesting character. As the events of issue #47 demonstrate, Gwen was more than capable of keeping up with Mary Jane in the "hip, swinging chick" department.

If these things had continued to be developed the way they were heading, then it is very easy to envision that Gwen could have been Peter Parker's permanent partner (oooohhh, alliteration). A smart girl like Gwen could have been the equal of Peter on the civilian front, and provided him not only emotional but scientific support for his other identity once he allowed her to find out (although why she never figured it out on her own is a testimony to how dumb she was written). And that fact that we later learned that Gwen's father was a retired police officer, her coupling with Peter would have made even more sense. Many girls do marry men like their fathers - and although Peter would not have been a police officer in the sense that Captain Stacy was (at least until the events of Universe X oddly enough), the objectives of their respective careers would have been the same. Lots of drama could have been spun from the fact that Gwen would worry about Peter much the same as she had worried about her father when she was a child - and it would also have been interesting to pursue stories in which Captain Stacy, with Spider-Man as his son-in-law, provided our hero with invaluable advice and insight on police procedures, as well as the occassional cover story with the authorities and media. Good material for "what if" stories. Of course, that line of storytelling is anathema to the line of thought that Spider-Man must always be a "loser."

And Mary Jane could have stayed in the role that she was originally designed for, that of the seductive tart who spices things up and provides some competition for the main girl - but who then ultimately finds her way back to being either a minor supporting character or written out of the storyline. Stan has said that he always had in mind that Peter would eventually marry Gwen. This also provides an answer to the question of whether or not Peter was marriagable material. Of course he was - his creator made him that way.

But then something bad happened to Gwen. No, I don't mean her physical death in issue #122 at the hands of the Green Goblin, but the death of her character's strength and growth, at the hands of Stan Lee himself. It could be that once Stan had finally resolved the tease of whether Peter would choose Gwen or Mary Jane, he lost interest in the character. Perhaps the demands of writing Spider-Man, in addition to all of the other characters he was writing (which he eventually dropped one by one, with Spidey being the last) as well as managing the burgeoning comics empire that Marvel was becoming, was testing his creative limits and he began to get lazy and repetitive. I also tend to suspect that this was part of the overall "creative holding pattern" that Spider-Man suddenly found himself in that lasted from issue #50 when Peter gave up being Spider-Man in a classic, and unfortunately, now overdone, story (which, interestingly enough, was also the basis upon which Spider-Man 2 was built!), until the very end of Stan's run. In high school, Spider-Man was a daring and spectacular new character that people were beginning to notice. However, after he entered college he leaped into full blown cultural icon status. Knowing he had a juggernaut of a hit on his hands, Stan slowed Peter's aging (remember, he had gone from a sophomore to a senior in high school in only 28 issues) and development so that he could stay college-aged for a much longer period of time (and he did, until issue #185). It has also been speculated that John Romita Sr., even though his artwork helped catapult Spidey to new heights of popularity by bringing a softer, more romantic, soap opera style to the series, was not as strong an overall creative partner from a plotting standpoint as Steve Ditko was.

So, I've always found it interesting to hear Stan Lee comment that the reason Gwen was ultimately dumped in favor of Mary Jane was that Mary Jane was a far more interesting character. But, since Lee was the only writer of Amazing Spider-Man for the first 100 issues, he was the one that turned Gwen into the dullard she eventually became.

It isn't very hard to point to the moment of Gwen's disintegration. From a visual standpoint, it began when Romita started making her look more like the wholesome girl next door, probably to make sure that she physically contrasted more with the flamboyant Mary Jane, which isn't unreasonable since it would have been redundant for the two primary female characters to look and sound the same. For there to be conflict and tension, you have to have both a Betty and a Veronica, not two of the same. But Gwen's character really began to tank when her father, Captain George Stacy was introduced in Amazing Spider-Man #56. Prior to that issue, Gwen was typically only seen within the environs of the college crowd, where she was sharp and seductive and was always trading quips with Mary Jane and the others. However, once Captain Stacy became a regular member of the cast, Gwen turned into a "daddy's girl," and every scene between the two of them tended to have Gwen crying on his shoulder because Peter was behaving this way or that way, or wasn't around. She also became a first class worry wart about Peter's frequent disappearances. She started turning on the tears in Amazing #57 when an amnesiac Spider-Man is suspected of causing Peter Parker's disappearance, then again in Amazing #60 when she believed that Peter had struck her father (who was actually under the control of the Brainwasher, and had attacked Peter, who only swatted him out of instinct), then she cried in Amazing #61 when she thought her father was committing crimes. This issue also had her playing the mandatory hostage (by the way - when the Brainwasher has both Gwen and her father at gunpoint - guess who tackles him to help save the day? None other than - Norman Osborn). In #63 she's bawling because Peter won't talk to her about why he struck her father, and then in #64 she cries because her father remembers that Peter didn't really attack him! In #65 she cries because she can't find Peter (again) in the aftermath of a superhero/villain battle. In #66 she cries when she's finally reunited with Peter. See the pattern? While Gwen did have a couple of good moments after this, particularly in issue #69 when she slapped a student who called Peter a coward, for the most part, she became the clingy, crying girl friend who could never understand why Peter disappeared, or kept things from her, yada yada yada. That got old very quickly, as did Peter's own whining about not being able to tell her the truth about himself. I tend to think that in the real world, either Gwen would have figured things out for herself, or Peter would have told her about his dual identity, but such is the nature of Lois Lane Syndrome, or of the soap opera genre, of which Spidey often heavily borrows from.

Anyway, at this time, while Gwen has taken up with Peter, Mary Jane is seeing Harry Osborn, although that's not really apparent until issue #71, when Harry returns to his and Peter's apartment commenting on his night out with Mary Jane. For Mary Jane haters, her relationship with Harry provides them with the ammunition they use to argue against her as Peter's permanent companion, since that's where MJ comes off looking her worst. While it is possible that at one time she really did care about Harry (perhaps demonstrated by her running away in tears when Harry puts the permanent end to their relationship in Amazing #124), there is a lot of evidence to indicate that it may have largely been a relationship of convenience and opportunity for her.

For example, we never do really find out why MJ decides to go steady with Harry Osborn, or what she sees in him. Harry is obviously smitten with the gorgeous redhead, but she never really seems to reciprocate his affection at the level she receives it. Obviously, with Peter more infatuated with Gwen, Harry makes a reasonable substitute. Flash was probably never an option for a couple of reasons (1) he was about to ship out to Vietnam, so there really wasn't much of a relationship option there (2) she probably realized right away that Flash was full of bluster and bravado - just like her - and that was not what she was looking for in a man.

And really, with what we now know about Mary Jane’s background, it isn’t that surprising that she would try to sink her hooks into a rich guy. After all, at this time, she was what - 18 or 19 years old - and the product of a broken home. Having had her family abandoned by her father, and then watching the same thing happen with her sister's husband, with severe economic hardships all around as a result, it isn’t a real stretch of the imagination to figure that MJ would think to herself “Well, if I’m gonna get screwed by a man, literally and/or metaphorically, at least I’m going to get something out of it.” So, ultimately, I think that while she liked Harry, she probably never really loved him, but this turned out to be as much his fault as hers, as his behavior in later issues demonstrates just why he would not have made an appropriate partner for her.

In issue #87, we get to see a little bit of Mary Jane's ugly side. As fun loving as she would often pretend to be, we all know the anger and depression that it often masked, and sometimes, the mask fell. In the set-up, Peter is supposed to attend Gwen's birthday party, but in addition to doing the Spider-Man gig, he has also come down with a severe flu bug that negated his spider powers and a fever that impaired his judgment. He didn't know it was the flu at the time, and grew afraid that his radioactive blood was killing him. A combination of that fear, and the cloudy judgement brought out by his sickness, caused him to stumble to the Stacy house (where the party was over, with only Gwen, her father, Harry and MJ there) and reveal his dual identity.

However, the revelation makes Gwen downright hysterical and snaps Peter back to reality and he flees the scene (it's all rectified with the help of Hobie Brown at the end, but that's not the point here). Anyway, as Gwen is falling to pieces, tearfully telling her father that it can't be true, MJ decides to twist the knife just a little harder by telling Gwen "You can really pick 'em. He's either a masked menace or a psycho case."

If we now accept that Mary Jane knew that Peter was Spider-Man all along - or even not - if she was simply his friend - how do we explain this vicious statement? We don't. She was being a nasty little bitch, nothing more, nothing less. But, it's not much of a stretch to understand the anger that would prompt her to make this kind of statement. It would be easy to say that it was just the competition with Gwen for Peter's affections, but that's too easy - and MJ always seemed to enjoy a good catty competition anyway. No, although she and Gwen and Peter are all friends at this time, her resentment and anger runs deeper. I don't think she's jealous of Gwen and Peter - she's jealous of the relationship between Gwen and her father. No matter what happens, Gwen always has Daddy to run to and cry on, which she does with a vengeance in this issue, whereas MJ has no supportive parents. Her father has long since abandoned the family, and as we learned later, for the time that MJ's mother was still alive, she spent the bulk of her time supporting and counseling older sister Gail. Again, this explains the point I made in the last column about why MJ always seemed to be hanging around her Aunt Anna - because it kept her away from home. I also think MJ was chafing from the fact that up to this point in time, she had already known that Peter really was Spider-Man, and she had borne the pain and discomfort of keeping that knowledge to herself, of never being able to tell anyone. Seeing Gwen completely fall apart upon learning what she had known all along, MJ might simply have given into the darker side of human nature, deriving some sadistic pleasure at learning that Gwen was too weak to handle this big secret. It's hard to imagine the Gwen we were first introduced to behaving like this, but this was the effect of the cumulative erosion on her strength of character. In hindsight, which admittedly is almost always 20/20 - it's obvious what was happening to Gwen - why didn't either Stan, or Romita, or letter writers, or anyone notice this while it was happening? You know, something like "geez Stan, you're ruining this poor girl's character - turn it around before she wears out her welcome!" I guess that's what happens when the writer is also the boss - no one's willing to tell the emperor that he's naked.

The death of Captain Stacy during a battle with Doctor Octopus in issue #90 impacts Gwen's and Peter's relationship as she insists on holding Spider-Man responsible for her father's demise, an unfounded suspicion inflamed by J. Jonah Jameson's yellow journalism. Peter withdraws from Gwen during this time, and she reacts to this by temporarily moving to London to stay with her Uncle Arthur (yep - father to Jill and Paul, who showed up right after the Clone Saga and provided some interesting moments, but has long since been abandoned by the writers).

The next major flashpoint in the Peter/MJ relationship is during the famous “drug storyline” of Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. You know, that’s the one where the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) came to Stan Lee and asked him to incorporate a story about drug abuse into a comic - and then the Comics Code refused to sanction the story - even though an agency of the U.S. Government asked him to do it. Gotta love pinheads. In this story, the whole gang is going to see Mary Jane in a play - but she mysteriously begins to court Peter, who now appears available due to Gwen's departure - in front of Harry! Why in the world would she do this? Particularly, as we see later, it’s MJ’s flirting with Peter that drives Harry to sink deeper into drug abuse. Why would MJ appear to make a play for the boyfriend of her best friend and the best friend of her current boyfriend? Ay-yi-yi!

However, it’s more than likely - it’s a certainty - that Harry was involved with drugs well before this story took place. For one, it’s clear that he wasn’t just in the experimental stage, he was already hooked, and hooked badly. What’s interesting is that even a more recent story arc, the excellent Death and Destiny mini-series, which takes place immediately after the events of Amazing Spider-Man #90, implies that Harry was doing some serious snorting. When Peter confronts Harry in the hall outside of class, the younger Osborn is sniffling like he’s got a cold. Except, we know that it’s not a cold.

As the person closest to Harry at that time, Mary Jane more than likely would have known that Harry was on drugs. In fact, it was also likely that he would have offered some to her. Remember, when these stories were written, this was American Campus USA in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Drugs were a fact of life. As a result of his frequent absences playing Spider-Man, and probably a certain amount of naivete, Peter never suspected that his best friend was a drug addict.

This brings to mind an interesting question? Would Mary Jane have taken drugs? After all, she was a party girl was she not? And isn't that one of the things that party girls did (in addition to sleeping around), particularly back in the late 60's and early 70's? It isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that Mary Jane would have experimented with drugs (after all, her very name is a synonym for marijuana - a fact that Stan Lee claimed to be ignorant of when he came up with her name). She wasn’t the square that Peter was, after all. BUT, we have to remember, much of MJ’s party girl personality was a façade, and an important part of maintaining that façade and keeping people ignorant of the pain that ate at her, was for her to remain in control of her faculties. Too much booze or too many drugs, and the party girl would have crumbled and shown her vulnerability, which would have been the last thing she would have wanted to happen. So, while it isn't beyond reason that MJ would have experimented with them (even inhaling a time or two, unlike a certain former President), I simply don’t believe she would have routinely taken drugs. She's the type of person who would have made the statement that she was "already high on life," and therefore didn't need the drugs that others were peddling. Also, as attractive as she was, she simply didn't have to indulge in drug or alcohol abuse to get herself noticed by young men. There's a poster on the Spider-Man Hype bulletin boards that vociferously disagreed with this assessment, probably moreso than any of the other points I made in these articles. Yes, it is true, with Mary Jane's troubled background, she had many of the red flags that do lead many young people into substance abuse - but isn't it possible that she had the strength of will to simply say no? That she saw enough of her father's ugly side (often no doubt brought on by too much alcohol) to realize that she did not want to be that way herself? I was raised by a woman who said no to mood-altering substances even though her background gave her every reason to do so as an excuse! And she deliberately married a man who was the exact opposite of the one she grew up with! So I just don't buy that every troubled kid going to school in the 1960's and 1970's was a druggie.

However, was MJ justified in screwing around with Harry, particularly when he was in such a fragile state of mind? Not at all - this was an error in judgment on her part - and as a human being, she’s probably allowed some of those. It was clear, though, that something was happening to Harry that was frightening her - and to whom could she really turn? Not Aunt Anna - a teenager simply did NOT tell an older person about drugs, not in those days, maybe not even now. Could she go to Harry’s father - Norman Osborn? Now THAT would have been a scene. Norman would have thrown her out of the room for daring to suggest that his son, an Osborn, was such a weakling, or more likely, he would have blamed her for Harry's addiction (in Peter Parker #75, the Green Goblin attacks Liz Osborn, charging her with keeping his son from becoming a man). After all, Norman Osborn could never admit that his own failings as a father were part of what caused his son to self-destruct. As MJ herself noted in Spectacular Spider-Man #250 “Even before I learned that he had been the Green Goblin, I knew that he was a man who lived with demons.” Gwen and Flash were overseas. So, in her uncertainty, she began to cling to the one person she knew was rock solid when everything else seemed to be crumbling. She knew that Peter Parker, Mr. Responsibility, the Amazing Spider-Man himself, had shoulders big enough to cry on should she need to. And she almost tells him the story when he confronts her. She responds "it's a long story - want to hear it?"

But why didn't she just corner him in a private place or call him on the phone? Well, she probably couldn't call the apartment for fear of reaching Harry, and as far as being able to catch Peter at school - considering his extracurricular activities, there's no telling when he'd show up. So, when she finally sees Peter again, it's in the company of others, and she decides to grab his attention by making the boldest gesture possible - she appears to come on to him.

Apparently, though, MJ never tells Peter exactly what is going on, or Peter would likely have confronted Harry about it. We don't know for sure what happened next because the scene switches to Harry storming away only to be met by his dealer. My guess is that Peter, still upset over Gwen's departure, and furious that someone he thought was a friend was not only taking advantage of her absence, but stabbing his best friend in the back, probably continued to lecture MJ to the point that she told him to piss off, turned around and walked away.

But that wasn't the end of it. As we can see below, Harry comes rebounding back, telling MJ that he has decided to "forgive her." This gets the conversation off on the wrong foot immediately, and ends with this little prouncement from Ms. Watson.

Initially, this looks rather cold and heartless of MJ, and admittedly, she fails to handle it with any amount of tact or graciousness. But judging by Harry's comment about "feeling zingy," she probably knows exactly what he has done to feel "zingy," and that the only thing to do is break off the relationship in an overcompensating manner, putting him down hard in order to hide whatever pain or guilt she might feel about the situation. Of course, we all know what happens next - Harry o.d.'s and is taken to the hospital, leaving his relationship with Mary Jane in limbo for the moment.

However, Peter receives some good news at the end of issue #98, as Gwen comes home and greets him, ready to pick up their relationship again. Now, you would have thought that after nearly losing the woman he loves because of his own duplicity, Peter would decide to be honest with her. I suppose he's so happy to have her back, and is so afraid of losing her again that he doesn't. However, as we now know, the tragedy of Peter's relationship with Gwen is not so much that she died young, but that he was never honest with her. He never gave her the credit or the chance to accept him for what he was. The relationship would very likely have been much stronger and more fulfilling had he done so - but in this case, sadly, Peter Parker really was a coward. It's interesting that in one of the most requested "What If's" of all (volume 1 #21) - written by Tony Isabella - Peter saves Gwen from dying at the hands of the Goblin and inadvertently reveals his identity. But, after hearing his story when she accuses him of killing her father - she forgives him and accepts his revelation - which she would have done if she loved him, but apparently Peter is the only one this never occurred to. So, in the continuity that we know, while Peter wants to marry Gwen, he is still unwilling to be honest with her, and he therefore goes to the extreme of making the foolish attempt to rid himself of his spider powers. The result is one of the most idiotic turn of events in Spidey history - in which our hero has six arms.

That moment takes us through Amazing Spider-Man #100. In the next part, Peter and MJ's relationship is forever altered by the death of Gwen Stacy and the aftermath. Harry Osborn finally goes off his rocker in the first of a long series of events which eventually leads to his own death. The first wedding proposal is made, and after the answer to that proposal is given, a devastated Peter Parker suddenly finds himself confronted by an in your face romantic partner that literally sweeps him off his feet. Can you saw "meow"? All this and more in Part 2 of "Why Did it Have to be You, Mary Jane?"

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Copyright © 1998-2008 J.R. Fettinger. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment.