Over the years, I’ve been asked by a number of people, who do I consider the “true” love of Spider-Man/Peter Parker: Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane? It’s honestly a question I have a very difficult time answering. I think both characters have had their high points and low points and that my “final” answer can often change depending on whatever story involving one or the both of them is freshest in my mind.
Last year on Valentine’s Day, I unquestionably was in a Gwen state-of-mind after I re-read and posted about the Spider-Man: Blue mini-series. I said the Jeph Loeb/Time Sale collaboration “understands the power of love in Peter’s life better than any Spidey story out there.” Pretty definitive stuff, and not a statement I should be able to easily backtrack from.
And yet, staring me straight in the face in 2007’s “To Have and to Hold” from Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. Like Blue, “To Have and to Hold,” takes a very long and hard look at Peter’s romantic history. But whereas Loeb and Sale appear to conclude that the love that was tragically cut short from Peter’s life after the death of Gwen was his truest love, Fraction and Larroca present the title of “true love” to the woman Peter would go on to marry in MJ.
So, of course, with “To Have and to Hold” fresh in my head, I want to backtrack and spend Valentine’s Day 2014, heaping praise on Peter’s one true love, Mary Jane. I want to declare that Fraction and Larroca demonstrate an understanding of what makes Peter’s romantic relationship to MJ so richly complex and mature better than any other creative team that has tackled the couple (no, I can’t promise that I won’t be doing this again with Gwen a year from now).
Sensational Annual #1 is the most impassioned and well argued case for marriage I’ve ever read – period. It captures all of the wonderful things and all of the unintended misery that comes from pledging to spend the rest of your life with another person. And the context and timing of when this issue was published is not lost on me. “To Have and to Hold” was released shortly before the Peter/MJ union was wiped out existence by Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Joe Quesada during the “One More Day” storyline. And in the months leading up to “One More Day,” Quesada and the rest of the Marvel front office did not hide the fact that they were unhappy with the marriage being a part of the status quo. It was clear that Peter and MJ’s break-up was inevitable (though I still don’t think anyone saw Peter making a deal with Mephisto as being the way Marvel would pull the trigger).
So in effect, “To Have and to Hold” functioned as the “last hurrah” for those Spidey fans who embraced the marriage and the associated status quo. Whether Fraction and Larroca intended for it to read like a big middle finger to Quesada and all of the Peter/MJ’s detractors, is immaterial at this point. Though given just how positively the marriage is portrayed throughout this story, I still can’t believe there was a Marvel editor who signed off on it so close to “One More Day.”
The story focuses on Peter and MJ, (assumingly) miles apart physically yet reliving the same moments from their earlier days with each other. MJ has been approached by a former (almost) hook-up during her separation period from Peter, who asks to buy her a cup of coffee before revealing he’s actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent demanding to know the whereabouts of Peter (who is a wanted man in this post-Civil War universe). Peter, meanwhile, is meeting with a police detective, offering to surrender himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. in exchange for immunity for MJ and Aunt May (who is still suffering from the gunshot wound she suffered during “Back in Black”).
Similar to Blue, “To Have and to Hold” looks back at important moments in the build-up of Peter and MJ’s romance like her famous “Face it Tiger” introduction to the world of Marvel, the original Peter/Gwen and Harry Osborn/MJ pairings during the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr.-era, and Peter and Mary Jane’s first kiss in Amazing Spider-Man #143, but whereas Blue is fueled nearly exclusively on nostalgia, Fraction’s script provides even these vintage scenes a more modern aesthetic.
For example, Fraction uses a “mix tape” as a way to illustrate the personality differences between Peter and MJ during the early stages of their courtship. MJ makes Peter a standard mix of songs as a Christmas present, and Peter’s response is to record some lectures from the Nova television series about magnetic fields. The concept of using a “mix tape” to tell someone you care about them is such a late-20th/early 21st century idea (and one that has since been negated with the rise of iPhones and iPods – what can we do now? Make a custom playlist for someone?). It’s certainly something my wife and I did for each other when we were both in college, so it’s just a clever way for Fraction to make these two fictitious characters come across as more “real” and fully-formed.
The mix-tape sequence, and a few other scenes, are relived two times over as we get it from both Peter and MJ’s perspective. This is such a wonderfully effective narrative device, as it really exposes the insecurities of both these characters, as we watch the same scene play out with Peter and MJ each kicking themselves about how they acted around each other. Again, scenes like this make the two characters come across as being more “real.” Blue places Gwen on such a pedestal that it’s almost difficult for the reader to believe that such a perfect, innocent human being like she could have existed, whereas the Peter/MJ union was imperfect, and a bit of a struggle to get off the ground and running (as most romances tend to be).
The comic has its share of genuinely funny moments (like the detective telling Peter that “real people” don’t say “Face it Tiger! You just hit the jackpot”), but there are also some shockingly honest and sincere statements about marriage and relationships that really spoke to me as someone who’s been married for six (going on seven) years. First, there’s Peter telling the detective that it is the death of Uncle Ben that keeps him getting out of bed and being Spider-Man every morning, but MJ is “the only thing that lets me stop every night.”
I interpret Peter’s comment as being the distinction between your reason for being versus your reason for living. Uncle Ben’s death was a defining moment in Peter’s life as he swore from that point that “with great power must also come great responsibility.” But it’s the union he shares with MJ that prevents him from being fully absorbed into his life of superhero-dom that he essentially stops being a living person and instead devolves into a concept or a symbol. I talk many times about Peter have everyman problems, and while plenty of people have made the case that his marriage to the “supermodel” contradicts his relate-ability, in effect Fraction is saying MJ is what motivates Peter to have a “real life.”
The second statement is courtesy of MJ and pretty much sums up the entire thesis of the comic: “Maybe the rest of the world thinks marriage is something do between other marriages, but it means something to me. You’re my partner and my husband and I love you.”
I mean … yep … How did this get approved again when Quesada was so insistent on blowing this thing up?
In the same fashion that I swing back and forth between MJ and Gwen, I waffle about my stance on the Peter/Mary Jane marriage. While I still think the way Marvel went about dissolving it was absolutely abhorrent and horrendously out-of-character, I also recognize that the new status quo gave creators considerably more freedom to tell their stories. And the “Brand New Day” era of ASM certainly produced a number of fantastic issues and arcs that put the Peter/MJ marriage as far out of my mind as it can get.
And yet I can’t in good conscious read “To Have and to Hold” and then go on to argue that Peter and MJ weren’t soul mates worthy of a more well thought-out resolution to their story than what they got from “One More Day.” It’s not so much that Sensational Annual #1 glorifies the Peter/MJ marriage. On the contrary, Fraction and Larroca examine the ugliness, frustration and helplessness of marriage. Sometimes being “tied-down” to another person is just as it sounds and if one of you goes under, the other is soon to follow.
But that’s what marriage is about, and while I would never condemn two people who were married and just couldn’t find a way to make it work, for me, my marriage and the life I share with my wife defines who I am. Like Peter and MJ at the tippy-top of the Empire State Building, marriage is both terrifying and exhilarating. It’s meant to be a challenge, but there’s no probably no greater reward in life when it does work.
All images from Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1: Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca & Paco Roca