Teenage Dream: How ‘Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane’ Was Ten Years Ahead Of Its Time
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is an overlooked and underrated classic that ran in multiple forms from 2004-2007, and broke the mold for what a superhero comic released by a major publisher could be.
Originally by writer Sean McKeever and artist Takeshi Miyazawa, the series followed the day-to-day high school drama of Mary Jane Watson and her friends as they dated, fell out, and made up, while Spider-Man and The Vulture occasionally crashed their homecoming game. One could call it low-stakes storytelling, but stakes are a matter of perspective. Great drama can be found anywhere.
The series began as a four issue miniseries under the Marvel Age imprint, which attempted to court a younger, more diverse audience, and was originally simply titled Mary Jane. Marvel waited to see what sales were like on the digest collection before following up with Mary Jane: Homecoming, another four-issue mini.
Over the course of eight issues, the drama centered on four friends --- MJ, Liz Allen, Harry Osborn and Flash Thompson --- and the upcoming Homecoming Dance. Liz loves Flash, Flash loves MJ, Harry loves MJ and MJ is infatuated with Spider-Man. There are stories about Mary Jane getting her first job, peer pressure, and other everyday concerns.
Spider-Man barely appears in the two miniseries, and Peter Parker shows up even less, until he and Mary Jane finally sit down and have a proper conversation at the end of Mary Jane: Homecoming #4. The potential for stories in this "low-stakes" setting was so compelling that Marvel launched the Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane ongoing out of it, which lasted another twenty issues.
Even when Peter Parker enter the scene and becomes a potential love interest for Mary Jane, there's still Gwen Stacy to complicate things, or Firestar, or even Jessica Jones who is portrayed as Mary Jane's best friend from childhood, until they drifted apart when Jessica turned into a goth. There's a lot of Marvel Universe bubbling under the surface of this book, and it revels in it.
I'm going to say something now that is often used as an insult, and that's not how I intend it, so bare with me. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane feels like fan-fiction. That shouldn't be taken to diminish McKeever or Miyazawa's unquestionable talent, because fan-fiction often surpasses a professional standard. Rather, it's a statement on how the book approaches these characters in new and interesting ways that you'd never expect. And like fan-fiction, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was written for people who feel under-served by the regular output of superhero publishers.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was a big breakthrough work for Sean McKeever who won the Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition for the first two miniseries and eventually left the series to write Teen Titans for DC Comics. Takeshi Miyazawa has become one of the go-to artists for drawing teen drama, and is perhaps better known for Runaways and Ms. Marvel --- but this series stands up as some of his best work.
If Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane came out for the first time in 2016, it would be an even bigger hit than it was ten years ago because the market for these sorts of stories is wide open, and no-one is taking advantage of it. Fans are turning to Tumblr and AO3 to read stories featuring superhero universe characters they love in the kinds of stories they don't see on the comic racks, but there's no reason why traditional publishers couldn't tap into that market.
The "Big Two" publishers are leaving money on the table by not actively courting a fanbase that is dying to give them money, while the likes of Boom Studios and Oni Press continue to put out exciting, non-traditional adventure stories. Marvel is doing slightly better than DC with the likes of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur and Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, but those are still superhero books first and foremost.
Imagine an all-ages Lois Lane comic where Superman barely shows up, and when he does he gets in the way; or an Agent Carter comic set after the war, with more of a YA bent than the recent Operation SIN miniseries. We can't even get a new Jessica Jones book, but she'll show up in Power Man & Iron Fist as a stereotypical nagging wife.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is a comic that should be held up as a shining example of not only how to tell non-traditional stories in superhero universes, but just how good they can be.