In celebration of The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, over the next few weeks superiorspidertalk.com is going to acknowledge the very best Peter Parker/Mary Jane Watson stories. Criteria for this list include historical significance, artwork, creativity, and of course, my overall enjoyment of the arc.
7. Mary Jane’s First Appearance — Amazing Spider-Man #42-43 (published November-December 1966): script by Stan Lee; pencils and inks by John Romita Sr.
In comics, legends are rarely made after just one panel, but there have been few first appearances quite like Mary Jane Watson’s in Amazing Spider-Man #42-43. It’s not that these two issues combined to form some kind of super-memorable story, but the first glimpse readers get of MJ is the epitome of an iconic moment, and is arguably one of the five most famous scenes in Spider-Man comics history (I would personally rank it immediately behind Spidey recognizing the burglar in Amazing Fantasy #15, Gwen’s death in ASM #121 and Spider-Man lifting the steel in ASM #33).
It’s hard to find a comic book fan, no less a Spider-Man fan who is not familiar with the famous line: “Face it tiger … you just hit the jackpot!” The scene — which can be found on the very last two panels of ASM #42, is referenced on a regular basis, most recently in Spider-Gwen’s debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2. Even Sam Raimi paid homage to “Jackpot!” during the final moments of 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” (still the best Spider-Man movie that’s ever been made).
Without considering any context or history, the scene is just a phenomenal reveal that’s driven by John Romita Sr.’s stunning depiction of the red-headed vixen, along with Stan Lee’s clever turn of phrase. But more broadly, “Jackpot” is one of those defining moments in Spider-Man history since it marked a major turning point for the character and his universe.
I’m not about to take anything away from the Lee/Steve Ditko run on Amazing Spider-Man during the early 1960s, but the character was far more brooding and aloof, which in turn risked turning off those who read Spider-Man because they related to him on some level. This characterization became more exacerbated as Lee and Ditko’s personal relationship became more strained — leading to such head-scratching moments as Peter sneering at a group of protestors in Ditko’s final issue in ASM #38 (because Ditko was a noted disciple of Ayn Rand and his libertarian philosophies were seeping into the comics).
Romita, in addition to being one of the most talented artists to ever work for the “House of Ideas,” brought a softer touch to the world of Spider-Man visually and narratively. His style seemed to click a bit better with Lee’s melodratic schmaltz. So, while the stories weren’t as objectively “good” as they were under Lee/Ditko, they were arguably more readable for someone who just happened to be picking up the latest copy of ASM off the spinner rack that day.
After kicking off their run with a fairly heavy Green Goblin story (which, depending on the source, may or may not have been the impetus for Ditko to leave Spider-Man and Marvel for good), Romita and Lee started to focus more on Peter’s supporting cast of teenaged friends. While Peter was romantically involved with The Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant during the Ditko-years, the character’s interactions with the likes of Harry Osborn, Flash Thompson and (especially) Gwen Stacy, seemed more hormonally-driven once Romita took over on pencils. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Romita’s more realistic characters just looked better than Ditko’s cartoony-approach. But also — as many people who are smarter than me have noted — under Lee/Romita, Peter and his cast of teenaged characters started talking and sounding like they were straight out of an Archie comic, with Peter as Archie, Gwen as Betty, Flash as Reggie and Harry as Jughead. All that was missing was the Veronica. Enter Mary Jane.
Before her reveal, Mary Jane existed as some kind of running gag from Lee and Ditko that probably seemed funnier within the bullpen than it actually came across on the page of the comic. Aunt May’s friend Anna Watson kept trying to match Peter up with her niece Mary Jane, and Peter — fearing this girl would be some kind of hideous outcast — kept finding excuses to back out of their blind date. Meanwhile, MJ made a few appearances but her face was always obscured. However, it was clear judging from how other characters reacted to her that she was drop dead gorgeous. The only person who seemed oblivious to the fact that she was a total knockout was Peter.
All the same, given Ditko’s style, I don’t think he could have ever pulled off the MJ reveal as successfully as Romita. This girl needed to be the most traditionally attractive female the comic book world has ever seen for the payoff to work. Considering Ditko struggled to make Gwen look like anything other than a caricature, there’s no way he could have managed to illustrated a female who was more beautiful than Gwen.
But beyond her looks, in MJ, Lee and Romita also needed to create a character that was larger than life and unlike anything readers had ever seen before. Once Peter is able to pick his jaw up off the floor, in ASM #43 he hangs out with MJ and notices how vibrant and energetic she is. She bounces around the room, seemingly without a worry in the room When a report goes out that the Rhino has broken out of prison, she wants to ride with Peter on his motorcycle to get closer to the action. And after Peter inevitably ducks out to become Spider-Man, we learn that MJ is a fan of the masked “menace.” It’s like she was conceived by Lee and Romita to be the perfect match for Peter.
And yet, after a few issues of teasing a potential “love triangle” between Peter, Gwen and MJ, Mary Jane is more or less dropped from the equation in favor of Gwen (who reportedly resembled Lee’s wife). It’s so strange that after so much effort went into building up this character both physically and emotionally, that she be so quickly ushered into the background, only to reappear when Lee and Romita wanted to work in an extra bit of 60s-style cheesecake (the cover to ASM #59 comes to mind).
In fact, MJ was such an afterthought, that if it wasn’t for Gerry Conway killing Gwen (and crafting that wonderful moment between Peter and her on the final page of Amazing Spider-Man #122), that character might have never advanced beyond her perpetual tertiary status in the books. Instead, Mary Jane eventually became probably the most important supporting cast member in the Spider-Man universe and her first appearance became the stuff of legends. Face it tiger … you just hit … oh save it, you know how it goes.