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.
8. “Spider-Island” — Amazing Spider-Man #666-673 (published September 2011-January 2012): script by Dan Slott; pencils by Stefano Caselli (ASM #666, 673) and Humberto Ramos (ASM #667-672); inks by Caselli (ASM #666, 673), Victor Olazaba (ASM #667-668, 670-672), Carlos Cuevas (ASM #669, 671) and Karl Kesel (ASM #672)
The relationship between comic book creators and fans these days tends to resemble what happens when an insufferable force meets an offend-able object. A certain segment of the fanbase will say they’ve grown cynical with publishers like Marvel due to a series of questionable editorial decisions (such as character deaths, or constantly rebooting books), while creators will counter by claiming there are far too many readers who jump to conclusions and pass judgement on comics without seeing things through, or even reading the books themselves. It’s a dynamic that can sometimes reach toxic levels, even for readers who are trying to stay out of or above the fray, since the never-ending sea of hostile-tinged snark can be found on blogs, social media or even the letters to the editor section at the back of a comic.
Because of this toxic dynamic, it is notable when a creator uses a storyline to extend an olive branch to jaded fans — as subtle as these peace offerings may appear. In 2011, Dan Slott, a writer some fans have dismissed as being part of the “braintrust” that “ruined” Spider-Man in the wake of the ultra-controversial “One More Day” (although Slott received nary a credit for any element of “OMD”), scripted “Spider-Island,” a true love letter to all things Spidey and his natural habitat, New York City. The storyline is probably the pinnacle of Slott’s pre-Superior Spider-Man run and is one of the few instances where the writer delivered on a big event beginning, middle and end. But even more noteworthy is how Slott chose to characterize Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Island’s” final three issues (Amazing Spider-Man #671-673). These comics are about as apologetic about “OMD’s” mostly-reviled status quo shift as we’ve ever seen (and have seen since).
Prior to “Spider-Island,” Slott had dipped his toe in the MJ Watson-waters via the “Peter Parker Paparazzi” arc and then in Amazing Spider-Man #600. MJ’s role in both of these arcs wasn’t particularly memorable, but it was clear that Slott — who admittedly likes to play the “long game” — had something he wanted to pay off with the character.
Slott’s MJ in “Spider-Island” actually gets off to an auspicious start in ASM #671 (an issue that also features a blatantly “cheese-cakey” cover image of Mary Jane courtesy of Humberto Ramos) as the character develops spider-powers and talks about how after playing the damsel in distress in need of saving for so long, she can finally kick butt on her own. It’s a fun and carefree visual, but not exactly the most empowering sentiment — MJ’s characterization was always at its best when she was portrayed as a strong and competent female fully capable of taking care of herself outside of some extreme situations (like getting kidnapped by the Green Goblin). Granted, MJ has never been mistaken as a superhero, but she’s also never been the perpetual victim.
Fortunately, “Spider-Island” goes on to redeem itself as it relates to Mary Jane. Through a bit of semi-strained logic that comic books are adored for, MJ finds that while she has spider-powers, she’s not susceptible to the other effects of the virus overtaking Manhattan — namely transforming her into a giant spider-monster. Plot holes aside, the narrative twist allows MJ to team-up with Peter during “Spider-Island’s” dramatic final chapter in ASM #672. And that’s when the magic (and the mea culpas) happen.
In the ultimate “stand up and cheer” Spider-Man moment, Peter and MJ take to their “spot” — the top of Empire State Building (which is also a direct acknowledgement of the “To Have and to Hold” storyline from Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1, a last hurrah of sorts for the marriage published immediately the infamous “deal with the devil” was struck in “One More Day”). Peter uses Doctor Octopus’s telekinetic helmet (which would later lead to Spidey’s defeat to Otto in ASM #698-700) to control a sea of “octo-bots” that are administering a serum to all of the spider-monsters in New York City. Mary Jane is so awestruck of Peter — watching him assertively take control of the situation and single-handedly save everyday New Yorkers everywhere (as the Avengers and Venom battle the super-powered Spider-Queen), she whispers under her breath, “I love you.”
It’s a sincere moment that feels profoundly authentic based on the emotional crescendo of Slott’s script. It’s clear from these issues that nobody understands Peter-as-Spider-Man quite like Mary Jane. And when Peter expresses a bit of self-doubt when it comes to saving New York, she convinces him that it’s not the spider-powers that makes Peter special, but the person under the mask.
It’s this theme that makes “Spider-Island” such a special story, especially for people who love Peter the character as much as they love Spider-Man the hero. In many ways, the existence of “Spider-Island” and this Peter/MJ exchange is part of the reason why fans like myself were so frustrated with Slott’s writing during “Spider-Verse” and other recent stories where Peter took a backseat to new creations like Silk and Anna Maria Marconi. It’s not that we don’t like these new creations, but it feels half-hearted that a character that was shown as being fully capable of saving an entire city suddenly needs assistance during every crisis.
MJ’s role in Peter’s assertiveness reads as a not-so-subtle mea culpa from Slott and Marvel about the post-“OMD” status quo. No, I don’t think it was ever an indication that Marvel was going to romantically reunite Peter and Mary Jane, but it was definitely an acknowledgement from the powers that be that the characters are inextricably linked. “One More Day” attempted to sweep 20 years of continuity and history under the rug because writing a married superhero had become an inconvenience. But “Spider Island” at least admits that these two characters are soul mates, even if they don’t have the piece of paper that legally states it.
Before “Spider-Island” ends, we get one more iconic visual involving Peter and MJ, with a beautiful Stefano Caselli splash page at the end of ASM #673 depicting the two friends in front of the Empire State Building (lit up in red and blue in honor of Spidey). Little did we know that this was pretty much the last great Peter/MJ moment we would receive. Since then, we had Doc Ock taking over Peter’s body and attempting to sleep with MJ (before smarter heads prevailed at Marvel and nixed that storyline in the bud) and then Mary Jane’s dismissal of the “Superior” era by breaking off her friendship with Peter.
It’s the kind of stuff that makes fans combative and creators defensive. But at least we have this one “Spider-Island” olive branch to hold on to.