Threat or Menace: Celebrating the Brilliance of J. Jonah Jameson
On this day in 1962, one of the most important characters in comics history made his debut; the greatest fictional newspaper editor and publisher in the superhero genre (sorry, Perry White): John Jonah Jameson. Making his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #1 (cover dated March 1963, but released in December 1962), J.J. is such a fascinating and complex part of the Spider-Man mythos that to refer to him as just a newspaper editor is to do the man a disservice.
Here's what else you need to know about him: Jameson was a decorated army veteran (though that aspect of his past has been ignored for some time), and an accomplished reporter, one of the few who actually worked his way up the inky ranks to be the absolute man in charge of the Daily Bugle. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that stint he served as mayor of New York, seeing the city through the Spider Island event, surviving multiple assassination attempts, and starting the Anti Spider-Man Squad. He resigned after his second wife, Marla, was killed, and his Spider Slayers went berserk.
Also, his son is an astronaut who is also the Man-Wolf, just FYI.
Jameson is not a real person of course, but since his creation by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, he's evolved and developed almost as if he were. In his original incarnation — Lee says Jameson was an exaggeration of his own gruff editorial tendencies — Jameson served almost solely as an antagonist for Spider-Man, publishing scathing editorials about how the wall-crawler’s heroism was merely a facade hiding sinister intentions.
(The classic headline “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?” really encapsulates the rhetoric, though it can’t be attributed to Lee. It first appears in relation to Spider-Man in 1981’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, by Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller. Lee usually stuck to the more simple “Spider-Man: Menace.”)
Of course, the beauty of his character was that he was also an antagonist for Spidey’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, in that he filled the role of a too-demanding boss who put his underpaid employee through the wringer.
Even so, Jameson didn’t fall into the trap of being a full-on villain. He simply harbored a massive mistrust of Spider-Man and certain other heroes (though he has expressed his admiration for some of them, most notably Captain America). He also used the power of the newspaper to fight organized crime and costumed supervillains, making him one of the most nuanced characters of the era.
Okay, yes, he did dip his toes into villainy a few times, using evil scientist Spencer Smythe’s Spider-Slayers to hunt down the object of his obsession, and playing a role in the creation of The Scorpion, though those are both acts for which Jameson expresses regret. Jameson even admitted his role in Scorpion’s creation in an editorial.
Over the years, various writers have shown Jameson’s softer side, in tandem with his dogged determination. When Norman Osborn seized control of the Daily Bugle, Jameson dusted off his reporting skills to attempt to find out who was terrorizing his family (it was Mad Jack, under the employ of Osborn). Later, though initially displeased with then-wife Marla's adoption of the orphaned Mattie Franklin, he became a surrogate father to her, and gave thanks to Jessica Jones for saving Franklin when she got caught up in the world of mutant growth hormone --- even hiring Jones to report for the short-lived Pulse section of the Daily Bugle.
Following his stint as mayor, Jameson took on a new role at the New York-based Fact Channel, proving that he could never get the news out of his system. That's a consistent trait of the character, but perhaps the most lasting and important impact of Jameson is that he was never defined by a single trait. He’s a supporting character who is neither a relative nor a love interest, and who is sometimes an ally to the hero he antagonizes, and sometimes a villain, and sometimes a man who takes down villains.
J. Jonah Jameson contains multitudes. The creators responsible for developing him over the years have succeeded in showcasing just how complex, compelling and colorful a comic book character can be, even if he doesn't wear spandex.
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