It’s Throwback Thursday time again and this week I’m feeling extra nostalgic. You see, tomorrow is my birthday (which I LOVE; I’m not a hate-your-birthday kind of guy). I’ve actually been thinking a lot about my return to this love of comic collecting and how, as an adult, I can now experience new layers to stories I first read as a kid. My nostalgia led me to pull some old favorites out of the closet and revisit the first wedding I ever attended – the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson!
Okay, so we’re using “attended” in a broad sense here BUT I read about their wedding before I ever actually went to a real wedding so it works. The year was 1987. I had just turned five and The Amazing Spider-Man #290 was on the stands. The cover proclaimed, “Peter Parker asks the BIG Question!” At five years old I had no idea what that question would be but I was excited to find out!!! This monumental moment in the life of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood wall crawler was brought to us by David Michelinie – who I’m now starting to realize wrote many of the most memorable Spider-Man comics from my youth!
The issue begins with Peter in the throes of an existential crisis. Sitting atop a building in his black Spidey suit he wonders, “I mean, after all the years of resenting my double life, of swearing to give up my costume and be plain ol’ Peter Parker – I’ve finally accepted myself as Spider-Man. I should be content! So why do I feel like I’m being pulled in more directions than a balloon in a hurricane? I feel hollow…incomplete…and that doesn’t make sense! There’s still something missing in my life – but what?” This is a beautiful note to begin a story that will end with two people pledging themselves to one another in love. It speaks to the fact that Peter’s found a balance, he’s accepting who he really is…but he’s still lacking the most fundamental part of our lives and our nature. We need love and companionship. It makes us whole. The Hebrew Bible begins with the assertion that we are made in the image and likeness of God – something that forms the core of all Abrahamic faiths. To take this seriously is to believe that we are quite literally made in the image and likeness of love. THAT is our true nature.
Much of the issue follows Peter’s attempt to track down his old microscope that Aunt May accidentally donated to a church auction. He (happily!) ends up being the highest bidder and gets to take his microscope back home with him while also helping out the church. There’s lots of reminiscing alongside some wall crawling, web-slinging antics as he stops some thugs from trying to rob the church. But the whole issue builds to the final page where, as Mary Jane is frantically packing to leave for Pittsburgh, Peter asks her to marry him! Aaaahhhh!!!! It was SO exciting!
I still remember my little mind wondering and wondering and wondering what would happen with Peter and Mary Jane. The “to be continued…” was too much! While I was too little to really understand the magnitude of what was asked, I knew it was an important question. But then issue #291 rolls around and it begins with Mary Jane saying, “NO!” Aaaaahhhh again!!!!
Incidentally, I’ve ALWAYS loved the cover of this issue. For some reason, it always struck me as extra exciting. The rest of the issue was exciting too as Mary Jane heads to Pittsburgh to deal with her family drama (her sister Gayle is in jail for getting caught trying to help their deadbeat dad). Peter swings around NYC, trying to get his mind off of Mary Jane and the fact that she won’t let him in and tell him what’s really bothering her. As he does this, he faces off against Alistair Smythe’s Spider-Slayer. I don’t think of Smythe or the Spider-Slayers often anymore, but as a kid I loved them! Really, they were such a great comic book foe for Spidey, a sea of seemingly endless versions of robots designed to destroy him. Bonus! Since they are robots and not people he’s fighting, it could lead to visually stunning, explosive, and destructive battles. Woo hoo!!! What more could a kid want?!?
The issue ends with MJ calling to say, “Peter, I was wrong. People do need each other. And I need you now. I have to go, but please come to Pittsburgh? Please? I love you.” Peter wrestles with, “I…I’m needed here! To stop the Spider-Slayer! But Mary Jane needs me, too! This is the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make – and I’ve got to make it now!” Peter decides to go to Pittsburgh, rationalizing that New York has lots of people to protect it while Mary Jane only has him to go to for help. Smythe realizes where he’s headed (thanks to a tracking chemical he sprayed on Spidey’s suit) and in the final panel books his own flight to Pittsburgh. Things are getting crazy!!!
That brings us to issue #292…which took my YEARS to finally get. You see, when I was a kid, long before I was ever officially “collecting comics,” I’d pick them up when I was at the grocery store with Mom. I’d peruse the little spiny rack and Mom would let me choose some to take home with us. Incidentally, I credit a lot of my love of reading to these early trips. Mom was always supportive of my reading, as long as I was reading. And comic books helped me learn to love to read! Anyway, I’d always pick Spider-Man from the rack of course! Well I got 290, 291…but somehow I missed this comic on the rack and had to wait until, years later as a collector knowing about back issues, I was able to track it down. Aaaaahhhhhh x1,000!!!!!
The issue was $0.75 when it came out (I know!!!) and it cost me $4.00 when I finally found it. But it was SO worth it! I ALWAYS wanted to know what happened between MJ’s “no” and their wedding. The story was worth the wait. Being a PA guy, I love that this issue is set in Pittsburgh! I’ve been to that city often (usually for concerts!) and it’s really fun to see that skyline behind Spidey as he swings around :).
I love the first page’s Pittsburgh shout out. There’s all sorts of family drama too. Bouncing around the Steel City, Spider-Man and Mary Jane defeat Alistair Smythe and his Spider-Slayer together. Mary Jane helps her sister, turns in her deadbeat father, and realizes just how good she and Peter are together. And then, in the final few panels of the issue, at the Pittsburgh International Airport, Mary Jane says she’ll marry Peter! Yay!!!
Thankfully, I found The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 on the rack as a kid. So, even if I had to wait years for the Pittsburgh throw down, I enjoyed the BIG EVENT as it happened. Now, my copy’s binding has curled and the edges of the pages are a bit frayed. This is the result not of a lack of caring for the book but rather from near constant reads as a little kid. All my Spider-Man books from that era are in similar shape. Seeing that as a collector might make me wince, but when I look at them now I don’t look at them through the eyes of a collector. I look at them through the eyes of the little kid who adored Spider-Man, reading and rereading every issue.
There was so much to love in this issue. Reading it now I can feel what I felt then, all of that overwhelming excitement. I loved the opening battle with Electro! This is the type of movement and action I think of when I think of reading Spidey as a kid. He was everywhere! I loved how you saw everyone at the Daily Bugle throw a surprise party for Peter. Robbie’s there, J.J., the whole quirky cast of characters – including Betty Brant and he reminisces on their relationship. (Granted, the romantic reminiscing wasn’t something I could understand as a kid but I appreciate it now.) And I loved the little lunch Peter and Mary Jane have with Aunt May and Aunt Anna to tell them the news. We even get a brief origin retelling as Peter thinks back to how he became Spider-Man as he waits for everyone to show up. Flash got to be his best man and he and Harry take Peter out for a nice, quiet bachelor party to quell his nerves. Still, that night he dreams of marrying MJ as Spider-Man (a great way to get the red and blue suit in the issue) with all the other heroes there. The villains attack, take everyone prisoner, and he wakes up screaming as he fights frantically to protect Mary Jane. This comic contains all the major players in Peter’s life, everything that helped shape him into who he is.
Including Gwen Stacy… Peter naturally thinks of her a lot too. As he and MJ both wrestle with their major decision, he takes her out web-slinging. MJ falls asleep relaxed once he takes her home…but he thinks of Gwen all night long, staring at her photo. On the night before the wedding Peter goes to the Brooklyn Bridge, where she died, to talk to Gwen and wrestle with loving and marrying someone else and the fear of putting her in harm’s way. Marriage is BIG decision, all the more so for a superhero who will always put the one he loves most in constant danger. This was something I “got” as a kid but can really appreciate the implications of as an adult. What do you do? Do you forever live an isolated, solitary lifestyle? Or do you pursue love…even if it risks hurting those you love? As a kid, these were some fun comic books. As an adult, I can see a weight to Peter’s struggle I couldn’t understand before.
But Peter puts his faith in Mary Jane, their relationship, and love specifically. They get married, it’s all warm and fuzzy, and J. Jonah Jameson even covers the reception (because the “new tax laws” let him write it off). With that, Spider-Man connects his story to one of humanity’s most sacred expressions of the Divine.
Marriage was never sacred by origin. Rather, it was a tool of societal organization. In his brilliant book Doors to the Sacred, sacramental theologian and historian Joseph Martos succinctly explains, “marriage was always a socially institutionalized way of defining relationships between the sexes, of establishing rights and responsibilities of parents and offspring, or providing cohesiveness and continuity in society. Such things were important in every culture whether it was nomadic or sedentary in its lifestyle, hunting or farming for its existence, tribal or urbanized in its organization.” Yet the idea of marriage transcends that in all faiths. Marriage is elevated above the idea of a cross-cultural tool for order because we’ve tied it in thought and practice to the human attempt to make manifest something beyond our ability to ever fully express or understand, the divine idea of LOVE.
During an interview, a reporter once told the spiritually aware (and all around amazing) musician George Harrison that, while he loved the new album, he found it difficult to discern if Harrison was singing about a girl or God on some of the tracks. George Harrison replied that, when it’s true love, it’s the same thing. In love, we see with the eyes of God and we see God in the other. Again, love is what we seek and in the most intimate and basic way, love is what we are made for. In his beautiful postmodern treatise On Religion, the postmodern theologian and philosopher John Caputo asks, “Since we are told that God is love…Is love a way of exemplifying God? Or is God a name we have for exemplifying love?” The answer, as I puzzle out with my students, to both questions is YES.
The narrative in these four issues of The Amazing Spider-Man obviously don’t explore all of these philosophical depths expressly. But, as an adult, I can see their faint echoes around the edges of the narrative. Whenever we seek to express or discuss love it naturally elevated our consciousness. So, Peter Parker puts his faith in all of that and it results in a beautiful ending, the type you find when you give yourself over to loving communion. The final page of the Annual sees them returning from their honeymoon. Unpacking Peter remarks, “After two weeks in that fabulous villa, what the heck are we doing in a dump like this?” Mary Jane replies, “That’s easy Tiger. We’re doing exactly what we’d be doing anyplace. Living happily ever after!” Awwwww x1,000,000!
Yes, I know there was a ridiculous “One More Day” storyline where a deal with Mephisto robs Peter and Mary Jane of their marriage and their memories of their relationship and love. As I’ve said before, I’ve no use for that. Divorce happens. It can be heartbreakingly sad even if truly necessary when loving unions must end. And a story like that I could get behind. While it would make me sad, I could appreciate that. It’s real. It’s honest. But Mephisto and Aunt May? Nah. Plus, it’s my birthday tomorrow so I’m only thinking about what I want to think about. And I’m going with happily ever after! Huzzah!