It’s time once more for another installment in my series using only Spider-Man comics to explore the variety of romantic archetypes we find in literature (illustrating the variety of romantic experiences we find in life)! The last piece in this series examined the high school crush, paying special attention to all those crushes we carry deep in our heart and never voice. This piece looks at unrequited love beyond high school pining. While it can be present in high school, particularly as we get older there can be a heavier side to the unrequited lover. Living with a love unvoiced wraps one of the most important parts of our being in a very lonely shell. Jean DeWolff, in addition to being part of one of the most famous stories in the first twenty-five years of Spider-Man’s comic history, illustrates this painful reality in a particularly poignant way.
Naturally, the unrequited lover is a popular trope. There is something comforting in those stories. We find solace in them since, as the aphorism says, misery loves company and we’ve all been there ;). I’ve always been particularly fond of Iris (Kate Winslet)’s opening narration from The Holiday (2006):
I have found almost everything ever written about love to be true. Shakespeare said, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” What an extraordinary thought. Personally, I have not experienced anything remotely close to that but I’m more than willing to believe Shakespeare had. I suppose I think about love more than anyone really should. I’m constantly amazed by its sheer power to alter and define our lives. It was Shakespeare who also said, “Love is blind.” Now, that is something I know to be true. For some, quite inexplicably, love fades. For others, love is simply lost. But then, of course, love can also be found – even if just for the night. And then there’s another kind of love. The cruelest kind. The one that almost kills its victims. It’s called unrequited love. Of that, I am an expert. Most love stories are about people who fall in love with each other. But what about the rest of us? What about our stories? Those of us who fall in love alone. We are the victims of the one-sided love affair. We are the cursed of the loved ones. We are the unloved ones. We are the walking wounded.
I love that intro and I love The Holiday. It’s such a cute movie. It’s a regular part of my Christmas viewing and I cry happy tears every time I watch it. So it resonates when Graham (Jude Law) tells Amanda (Cameron Diaz), “Well, I cry all the time. More than any woman you’ve ever met. A good book. A great film. A birthday card. I weep. I’m a major weeper.” YOU SEE ME, Graham. Iris’ opening narration resonates, too – although, thankfully, the one-sided love affair felt far more frequent and resonated with more immediacy when I was twenty-four than it does now. Regardless of how close the experience feels, unrequited love is a tricky and multi-layered thing and no series on love and relationships would be complete without wading into those complicated, emotionally turbulent waters.
With Spider-Man, we see this most starkly in his relationship with NYPD Captain Jean DeWolff. Her first appearance comes in Marvel Team-Up #48-51. Spider-Man and Iron Man are investigating the bombing of a Stark Aero Fuel facility when Jean DeWolff arrives on the scene.
Jean is presented as a tough, competent police captain – succeeding as a woman in a field meant for men. Reading it today, the feminism of her character feels a little contrived. In this first story, she’s constantly smoking and grimacing and speeding around in her ‘30s Ford Roadster and reaming out police officers for their back talk and/or not doing their job. Yet it’s clear (almost) all of her officers respect her. Basically, Jean DeWolff is the captain in every stereotypical cop movie or TV show from the ‘70s and ‘80s except she’s a woman. It seems very much like writer Bill Mantio was trying to show “everything boys can do, Jean can do, too”…but by our modern standards of fuller, more nuanced character development it feels a bit awkward and cringy at times.
Thankfully, clunkily applied feminism aside, Jean isn’t a one-note character. As their investigation unfolds, they learn the culprit is a being called the Wraith who turns out to be Jean’s brother Brian, believed dead for two years, who is being controlled by their deranged father, Philip DeWolff. So it’s safe to say the woman has some family issues. Philip can’t accept it’s his daughter who’s running his old precinct and not his son. Jean is a great cop and an accomplished, well-respected captain but Philip can’t see a woman’s place as anywhere other than the home and kitchen.
His anger is so great he takes his fatally wounded son and conducts a series of bizarre experiments to save his life and give him superpowers. Not only is Philip incensed Jean is a police captain, he needs to turn his son into a being capable of stopping more crime than anyone else. A mistake in the experiment leaves Brian comatose but with powers, his body and mind under Philip’s complete control. Ultimately, Brian is freed from Philip’s control and cured from his injuries by Dr. Strange and he, Spider-Man, and Iron Man stop Philip DeWolff. He goes to jail and Jean takes her brother home to help him readjust to normal life. Her family life left a lot of scars yet she finds the courage to see her father brought to justice and help protect her brother. So there is depth around the clichés.
The most notable and developed piece of her character is her relationship with Spider-Man. In those first ten-to-fifteen years of comic stories, the tension in Spidey’s relationship with the police was central. Neither as a kid nor as an adult has this ever made sense to me. Why are the cops ok with the Fantastic Four and the Avengers but think Spider-Man’s a villain and/or question his motivations? What’s the difference between him and the four zillion other superheroes in New York? I don’t know. But Jean DeWolff trusts Spider-Man and they enter into an easy alliance.
They share information. He can swing into and out of her office unmolested. They call each other when needed. They work together on many cases, including dealing with the Super Skrull, Whiplash, and busting up multiple organized crime groups. Before Jean, the only ally Spider-Man ever had on the police force was the retired Captain George Stacy, Gwen’s father. The initial trust between Jean and Spider-Man develops into a true friendship, founded on mutual respect, and it yields a partnership that makes New York City significantly safer.
Jean does all in her power to protect Spider-Man, too. After a battle leaves Spider-Man unconscious and in need of medical attention, Jean gets him the help he needs while being sure none of the doctors nor the police attempt to remove his mask. If not for Jean, Spider-Man would’ve died from his wounds. She saves his life and protects his secret identity at the same time. She always looks out for him.
In The Amazing Spider-Man #266, knowing his connection to Felicia Hardy, it’s Jean who lets Spidey know the Black Cat has broken out of the mental hospital she was committed to. When Spider-Man finds her, Felicia tells him she wants to go straight so they can be together. This is the beginning of their real romantic relationship/superhero partnership. Felicia invites him to a gathering for a bunch of underworld bosses and, together, they defeat them all and leave them webbed up for the police. Jean arrests the criminals they leave behind and, in #267, she leaks the story to The Daily Bugle so Spider-Man can have some good press for a change.
Spider-Man swings into her office, angry she left the Black Cat out of the story. Jean explains they can’t well print an escaped felon is freely bouncing around town and working with the NYPD. Spider-Man tells her the Black Cat has changed. When Spidey leaves her office, Jean knows they have the grounds to issue a warrant and call Spider-Man in for aiding and abetting a fugitive. However, instead she calls the D.A.’s office to arrange a conditional amnesty for the Black Cat! Jean looks out for Spider-Man by looking out for the Black Cat. She knows she means something to Spider-Man so, first, she keeps her name out of the press and, second, she gets the most notorious cat burglar on the East Coast amnesty. When his relationship with the Black Cat hits a rocky start, we see Jean offer nothing but empathy and understanding to the web-slinger as well.
They are real friends. But it’s not just friendship between them. There’s also that other kind of love between them, the cruelest kind. Somewhere along the line Jean began falling in love alone. In The Spectacular Spider-Man #83, after Spider-Man helps Jean bust up an organized crime hideout, he leaves to visit Felicia. They’d reconciled and she was in the hospital after being injured in their fight with Doctor Octopus. As he swings away Jean thinks to herself, “And if the Cat ever dumps you web-slinger…why not give me a call?” Then in issue #90, Jean admits she’s developed “a schoolgirl crush” on Spider-Man.
It doesn’t affect their relationship at all. And she couldn’t be more warm, welcoming, and helpful to the Black Cat as well. Despite all their time together, no one save Jean knows of her feelings. Spider-Man doesn’t sense them. Black Cat doesn’t notice them. No one else on the force seems to see anything at all. But, for Jean, their professional relationship and personal friendship had grown into something more. Thus she became a victim of the one-sided love affair. She is the cursed of the loved ones, one of the unloved ones, one of the walking wounded.
One of the reasons I love the opening narration of The Holiday is, while it has a cutely hyperbolic feel to it, it’s not really that exaggerated. As anyone who’s been a victim of the one-sided love affair knows, unrequited love can fucking hurt. So while we don’t see any more of Jean’s inner feelings than the above two moments, I can’t help but wonder what her relationship with Spider-Man became like after her feelings developed and, depending on when they developed, how it felt after he began dating and working with the Black Cat. One of the most honest lyrics ever written in the history of human existence comes with Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You Know” when he sings, “When the one you love’s in love with someone else / Don’t you know it’s torture? / I mean it’s a living hell.”
ONE MILLION TIMES YES. To see someone you’re in love with be with someone else (who, let’s be honest, is a pale substitute for you in every conceivable way) wrecks you in a way few other things can. It brings a flurry of existential questions, too. Are you wasting your time waiting for them? But you know you love them so how can you be with anyone else? But what if they never leave their (poorly chosen) partner and/or fall in love with you?? Are you wasting your life if IT’S FOR LOVE?!? What do you do? What do you do?!?
In addition to these, unrequited love poses a particularly uncomfortable (and often unaddressed) question to the unrequited lover about the beloved. How well do you know them? Are you really in love with the person or are you in love with an ideal you’ve created around them? And how can you be sure? When our feelings grow unvoiced and unreciprocated it can allow us to fall into the romantic version of totemism (the academic term for creating God in our image as opposed to meeting what God has revealed about God’s Self within any particular religious tradition). We can make the Beloved into whoever we want them to be as we have no practical lived experience to counter it.
For every Jim Halpert pining for a Pam Beesly – best friends who are perfect for each other but stupid life and wrong partners keep ruining it – there are dozens of Dante Alighieris, who married Gemma Donati yet spent their entire career writing things like Vita Nuova and the final chapter of The Divine Comedy about Beatrice…a woman he saw thrice yet spent his entire life turning into a divinely angelic ideal no human being can ever live up to.
And I know this is unromantic! And I know romcoms never touch on this! And I know we’ve all been unrequited lovers and we don’t want to think about this! But any consideration of unrequited love that doesn’t consider this is superficial at best and self-destructively self-soothing at worst. On the one hand, there’s something beautiful about the unrequited lover. We’ve all had this experience. We’ve all fallen in love alone. So there’s something beautiful and comforting about the universality of this. Good can come of it, too. It’s part of being human and part of our growing romantic understanding/experience/comfort/knowledge of ourselves. On the other hand, it can be a road to something unhealthy if we pledge ourselves to an image of someone that doesn’t really exist. So, while there’s nothing bad about unrequited love per se, we must be mindful when we find ourselves as the lonely lover.
Our romantic comedies – movies, novels, plays, TV shows, etc. – often end with a third act where our unrequited lover protagonist finds their true love (whether the object of their longing or someone else). But our real lives lack writers and we can, if we’re not cautious, find ourselves trapped living within our unrequited loves, always waiting, never acting, forever longing. In those cases, we’ve built a nigh inescapable trap for ourselves of our feelings.
Again, we don’t have any more knowledge of Jean DeWolff’s inner thoughts than what is discussed above. So we don’t know how much her unrequited love of Spider-Man raged. But I do think it’s fair to wonder whether she could’ve been in love with Spider-Man or if it could only have been an ideal she created of him. Peter never unmasked with her. Jean had no idea Spider-Man is Peter Parker. We don’t see the faintest inclination of Peter ever considering unmasking with her nor do we see any push from Jean for him to do so. So the second half of Peter’s life was always closed to Jean. Can she really love Spider-Man if she never knows the man?
We never find out. Her character development ends with the infamous 1985 storyline “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” where Jean is murdered by the Sin-Eater. When he hears the news, Peter is shaken. He reaches out to the police officer in charge of the investigation and freely admits how much Jean meant to him.
Naturally, seeking to bring Jean’s murderer to justice, Spider-Man doesn’t leave matters to the police alone. When he investigates Jean’s apartment to see if the Sin-Eater left any clues the police missed, he finds an envelope with press clippings of him.
Shocked, Peter works through the waves of feelings that begin to wash through him. “But why? Was she doing some sort of study on me? No, she would have kept that at her office. She kept these because she liked them. But…she never said anything particularly warm to me. Heck, she usually chewed me out. It can’t be. She couldn’t have cared for me. Why didn’t she ever say anything if she felt… And maybe I would have… We could have… It can’t be true. She was always so cool. So aloof! Blast it, why did she have to be that way?”
Jean dies with her feelings forever unvoiced. Even the reader doesn’t learn the full shape of her feelings. In many ways, the way this story and her character have been remembered by the majority of comic fans has given an unplanned meta-frame to the experience of the unrequited lover – those of us who fall in love alone. The victims of the one-sided love affair. The cursed of the loved ones. The unloved ones. Because, sadly, like Gwen Stacy before her, Jean DeWolff is another woman in Spider-Man’s life who has become most famous for dying. His anger at her murder prompts Spider-Man to go on an increasingly violent rampage seeking to bring her killer to justice. It is the first example of the (in my opinion, overused) Spider-trope of Spidey dancing along the line of the dark side, trying to hold on to his humanity while his fury rages. By far the most popular image I found in listicles discussing Jean’s place in the Spider-Man mythos (both as a love interest and as a character in general) was this:
That’s not even Jean! That’s Betty Brant behind Spider-Man! The picture I found most often when people were writing about Jean was a scene from after she’d died and Spider-Man was seeking vengeance! The effect of her death was so often deemed more important to depict than any of her interactions with Spider-Man. Her emotional experience – her very depth as a character – has been largely lost over time. She is cursed to be remembered for nothing more than being another female character fridged as part of Spider-Man’s journey. Can you be more unloved than that? Than being completely forgotten save how your death motivates someone else?
Jean has become an ancillary plot point pushing Spider-Man into the darkness for the first time. This creates our meta-frame for the unrequited lover. In a cruel, cursed, lonely, unloved sort of way, the full shape of Jean DeWolff’s character is often overlooked. She fell in love alone and, just as Spider-Man didn’t know of her feelings until it was too late, so too is she left unseen by most comic fans.
In Jean DeWolff, we can hear the heartbreaking, lonely echo of unrequited love. She was an exceptional cop, an admirable leader, a compassionate friend, and a woman who had the courage to trust her heart and her intuition to guide her to the right path – whether with her brother or Spider-Man – no matter how many people may have thought she was wrong. Her faith was rewarded, both in giving her brother a shot at a normal life once more and in protecting New York more effectively than any other police captain Spidey’s come across. Yet this longing of her heart was forever closed off from the world and, tragically, she died before she could express the fullness of her personhood in her romantic love.
The experience of unrequited love and the life of the unrequited lover don’t always end as sadly as it did for Jean DeWolff. In fact, I’d argue it rarely becomes so dark. In this, we are lucky. However, it can. Unrequited love can be a doorway to creating a fantasy lover from a real person or putting our life on hold for something that doesn’t exist or justifying living in fear of advocating for our needs. But it can also be beautiful and affirming and something that helps us learn a lot about ourselves, what we want, and how we live and move and be in relationships in the future. All the layers to the relationship between Spider-Man and Captain Jean DeWolff remind us of the heaviness we can find in unrequited longing and reminds us to always be mindful and always be gentle with our own hearts and the hearts of others.
Want more of my li’l series exploring romantic archetypes using Spider-Man comics? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat: Flirting with Perfection to see how the Black Cat represents those people we know may be wrong for us and/or we know it won’t work out with in the long run…but we’re drawn to them all the same and we seemingly can’t stop flirting with or the pursuing them no matter how hard we try :).
Spider-Man and Mary Jane: Soul Mates? (Y/N/Maybe) for an examination of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, with a focus on the question of Soul Mates as well as the classic romantic tropes of the will-they-won’t-they and best-friends-first relationships.
Spider-Man and the Spider Family: A Look At What Might Have Been… to contemplate the “What if…?” people we think of when we consider our romantic “what might have been”s care of the alternate reality series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.
Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy: All the Beautiful Angst of First Love to consider how Gwen Stacy has far more significance than just “the girl who died” and how her relationship with Peter perfectly presents all the awkward, cringy, and still oh-so-magical moments of the first time we fall in love.
Spider-Man and Silk: You Gotta Love A Physical Attraction to look at Peter and Cindy Moon’s relationship as an example of those people who inexplicably turn us on. The attraction, the draw to these people, is like a force of nature, completely beyond our control. It’s fun buuuut complicated without romantic feelings, too.
Spider-Man and Captain Marvel: The Super Friend Zone which uses the one date Peter and Carol Danvers went on as the frame to examine the friends we’re attracted to, the nature of “the Friend Zone,” and what we do when we start to feel a li’l romantic and/or sexual chemistry percolating in a platonic pairing.
Spider-Man and Betty Brant: Complicated Affairs of the Heart uses one of the oldest characters in Spider-Man’s character history to explore everything from first crushes and first dates to the confusing pull of falling in love with someone who’s married.
Spider-Man and Michele Gonzales: Hook-Ups, Hang Ups, and Bad Habits and explore how all the personal problems and issues and baggage we have that we refuse to acknowledge/own/see can hurt our ability to make it work with a really fantastic partner, as well as what happens when we meet someone who calls us on all our shit.
Spider-Man and Mockingbird: The Allure of the Workplace Romance looks at Peter’s relationship with Bobbi Morse during his time as CEO of Parker Industries to consider why we are so drawn to the workplace romance…and what awkwardness may be waiting for us if it doesn’t work out.
Spider-Man and Jessica Jones: Harkening Back to the High School Crush opens the door to reminisce about allllllllllll those awkward, anxiety-filled high school crushes we had and could never find the courage to act on while also considering the influence we may have on all the people we hardly know who come in and out of our lives.
Spider-Man and Debra Whitman: Substitute People and Surrogate Relationships explores the toxic relationships we find ourselves in when we don’t articulate our boundaries and advocate for our own needs within our relationships, why we may struggle to do so, and briefly considers the nature of abusive relationships as well.
Spider-Man and Danielle: Wait…Is This A Date? dives into those oh-so-awkward questions that haunt the beginning of any would be romantic relationship were you try to figure out if you’re on a date with someone or just hanging out and all the discomfort and relief trying to figure that out can bring.