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The mold wasn't just broken when Mary Jane Watson was created; it was obliterated.
The redheaded girl-next-door — who was teased, but not seen, throughout Spider-Man's early years — made the greatest entrance in comic book history in the last page of Amazing Spider-Man #42. The John Romita Sr.-drawn panel introduced a vivacious redhead (based on Ann Margaret, incidentally) who would eventually become not just the most important person in Peter Parker's world, but a comics superstar on her own. No other powerless Marvel character holds a candle to MJ. Not Nick Fury, not Jarvis, not Sharon Carter, not even Aunt May.
She's the straw that stirs Spidey’s drink. She makes the whole thing brighter, funnier and better. The gal who began as the carefree life of the party somehow morphed into the love of Peter Parker’s life. With all due respect to Gwen Stacy stans, trying to debate otherwise is pointless.
However, MJ wasn't supposed to turn out this way.
MJ's original purpose in late '60s heyday of Amazing Spider-Man was to help spur the out-of-costume soap opera that was becoming such a big part of the title. At that point, Gwen was Pete's girl. But Gerry Conway, a writer who was barely old enough to legally drink, would soon take over for Stan Lee as writer of Marvel's flagship book. And he had other plans for Peter Parker's love life.
“I had always felt that Mary Jane Watson was a better potential romantic foil for Peter than Gwen Stacy in my view," Conway said for SYFY WIRE's Behind The Panel video series. "A more independent and fun character. Gwen seemed to be the epitome of the good girl and Mary Jane was sort of the epitome of the not-so-good girl and I thought that was more interesting.”
Now, who actually decided it should be Gwen and not Aunt May who should be killed off to shake things up in the book remains in question. Ask Conway, as I did in our interview, and he says it was his decision to whack Gwen. Ask Romita, and he says his old creative partner has a fuzzy memory. Regardless, Ms. Stacy was killed in a classic two-part storyline in issues #121-122. The final page of "The Death of Gwen Stacy" story marked the starting point to one of the most transformational character arcs in the history of comics.
That page, pencilled by Gil Kane with inks by Romita, shows MJ waiting for Peter to return to his apartment. Grief-stricken, he lashes out at her and says some impossibly cruel things. Stunned and in tears, MJ doesn't say a word, and turns with the intent to leave.
But, instead, she stays. To comfort Peter, because she recognizes he's never needed her more. That page (you can see it here) marked a turning point for her by design, according to Conway.
"This to me was the whole point of that two part story. In a lot of ways, that story while it's crucial for Peter, it's also extremely crucial for Mary Jane because up until that moment Mary Jane is someone who has been the flip, nothing-touches-me sort of person. This is the moment of maturity for her when she has a choice to leave and chooses to stay."
Conway adds that it took a couple of tries to get the page drawn just right. "Originally, Gil had drawn it. When Gil drew it, those last two panels have Mary Jane ... It's the same action, but his staging of it was we see Mary Jane from outside the door as she's opening the door to leave and then she closes the door. The last shot is actually the door being closed on us, the reader, so that we're outside the moment."
"When I got the pages and John and I looked at it together we said, 'No. She needs to be inside the room with him. This has to be them coming together in a way and her sharing his pain in that silent moment.' Gil did a wonderful job with the passion of Peter's rejection and anger, but had not really taken the moment for Mary Jane for her response. So it was a real collaborative moment between the three of us."
Conway and the artist who followed Kane on ASM, Ross Andru, saw the potential in MJ and spent several years developing their romance. But after Conway left the book, the spark fizzled. Marv Wolfman would eventually take over the book and one of the first things he did was have Mary Jane turn down Peter's marriage proposal, leading to her eventual disappearance for several years. Wolfman is one of the all-time great comics creators, and a true gentleman. But giving MJ the bum's rush was one of his biggest blunders.
When she returned, writers Tom DeFalco and David Michelinie — along with artists like Ron Frenz and John Romita Jr. — were responsible for another key mile marker in MJ's history. In issue #257, she revealed not only that she knew Peter was Spider-Man, but that she had known for years.
Issue #259 revealed MJ's sort-of origin story, and the troubled family life that led her to New York City and to adopt her legendary "party girl" persona. The retconning of MJ in ASM #257 gave her a perspective that unlocked her potential. We saw that her happy-go-lucky demeanor was a facade.
It's no secret that Pete and MJ’s wedding in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 was essentially dictated by Stan Lee wanting consistency with the daily Spidey newspaper strip he wrote. But kudos to the 1980s Spider-office for pulling it off in a way that quickly made Peter and MJ the best couple in comics.
Creators like Michelinie, Paul Ryan and especially Todd McFarlane (he loved to draw Mary Jane) made her more than just the damsel in distress. It wasn't always well-executed, but it was established during the McSpidey era of the early 1990s that MJ was an equal partner in the marriage. There's also the fact she was the main bread winner, too.
J.M DeMatteis captured the dynamic between Peter and Mary Jane as well as any writer ever has. He said in an interview about his run on Spectacular Spider-Man that aspects of the characters' relationship mirrored DeMatteis' relationship with his own wife. He recognized that a married couple could be interesting and fun and full of drama, if enough attention is paid to each partner. Under his watch, MJ went through her own drama — work stress, the loneliness of a superhero's wife, the smoking! — that continued to deepen her character. In DeMatteis' view, Mary Jane was a person who knew Peter better than he knew himself.
Years later, J. Michael Straczynski would bring even more dimension to her during his run. He wisely made her more independent, and he eschewed the low-hanging fruit too many writers reached for when writing Spidey. We get it, it sucks to be married to a guy who fights supervillains every day and may not come home. MJ gets it, too. JMS didn't make that her raison d'etre, however. His MJ wanted a purpose for their love, beyond basic affection.
In Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) issue #50, the high watermark of JMS's stupendous Spidey tenure, MJ and Peter are trying to reconcile after a long separation. But things go boom, Doctor Doom and Captain America show up, because... comics. In between the fisticuffs and explosions, our fractured couple has perhaps the most authentic conversation that a comics couple has ever had. Peter pours his heart out, and explains to her that "all these things" he can do are because of the faith she has in him.
"Everything's easier when you're there and harder when you're not. Without you, nothing works the way it should."
In that exquisitely written and drawn (by the legendary John Romita Jr.) panel page, MJ and all of us, understand what she means to Peter.
Without her, he is adrift. He's aimless. Mary Jane is Peter's anchor, his North Star. He's a better hero, a better man, with her holding his hand. Without a single superpower other than the ability to inspire, Mary Jane lifts up one of the Marvel Universe's greatest heroes.
"Writing [romance] frankly is never easy," Straczynski admitted during a recent interview with SYFY WIRE. "It's more about just listening to the characters and what would they naturally say and taking the time to just ask the next logical question. I just loved coming back to rebuild that relationship after they were separated for so long. When Mary Jane is sitting with Peter they're sitting down and they both exhausted from the conversation from the emotions and she tells him, 'you never introduce me to your friends.' How many couples have that conversation? Every couple, every couple has had that conversation. It's just natural."
We can't really write an "MJ is Amazing/Spectacular" column without mentioning One More Day, the story that wiped out Peter and Mary Jane's marriage through Mephistophelean manipulations, can we?
I'm not a Brand New Day hater. In fact, the post OMD era, spearheaded by Dan Slott, is loaded with Spidey goodness that made for years of entertaining comics. But none of the women who entered Pete’s life during that time could hold a candle to MJ, the one who got away.
The problem with One More Day is that they came up with a solution to the wrong problem. The marriage was not the problem. It was the way the creative team portrayed the Peter-MJ coupling that was the issue.
The worst times in the character’s history have come when creative teams lose sight of the importance of MJ’s role in Peter’s world. As an avid reader of Spider-Man for the better part of 40+ years, the problem was not that MJ wasn't interesting, but how she was utilized.
She’s not there just to be moral support. She’s his partner. She is the one person who he could talk to about being Spidey, a lifeline Peter never knew he needed, until MJ. In many ways, it made him a better hero. MJ does not have his spider-powers, but she does have the resolve and belief in Peter that sometimes he doesn’t have for himself. MJ is responsible for reminding Peter that he can’t be the Spider without first being the Man.
Removing that from the canvas was a colossal mistake by Marvel. Slott's own 2015 series, Renew Your Vows, depicting a married with Spider-child Peter & Mary Jane, was immensely entertaining. But there is no better clapback on OMD than 2007's Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca.
In the aftermath of Civil War, Peter is public enemy #1 and he and Mary Jane (and Aunt May) are in hiding. An old acquaintance of MJ's gives her an out: Sell out your husband, get your life back, and stop living like a fugitive. While her response to that offer will surprise absolutely no one, that's not the point of the story. It's about the power of love, and commitment. There's a great line in the issue, where MJ explains to Peter why she won't abandon him even when they've hit rock bottom.
"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. This is our life."
That is Mary Jane Watson in a nutshell. It's also, IMHO, a humongous middle finger to the people who thought a married superhero couldn’t work. Reading that comic, you realize how shortsighted that sounds.
Over the years, she’s gone from supermodel to soap opera actress to running nightclubs, even being Tony Stark’s new Pepper Potts. She’s been the hostage too many times, she's been killed in brutal fashion in alternate reality stories, she’s been reduced to playing the worried wife at home too many times. She’s even been dismissed and written out of the main stories because some creators couldn’t figure out how to use her.
Despite all that, Mary Jane Watson remains incredibly popular, enough so that she was given her own title, The Amazing Mary Jane. Unfortunately, despite a strong start, it was cancelled. A shame, too, because a key element in her solo book’s story was MJ finally getting her big Hollywood break (with Mysterio as the director). It mirrored how the comics series was the long overdue breakout moment for the character.
We can only hope MJ gets another crack in the spotlight. Because face it, Tiger. She was born to be a star.