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.
6. The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives (published May 1989): script by Gerry Conway; pencils by Alex Saviuk; inks by Andy Mushynsky
In the world of television, clip shows — aka episodes that consist almost entirely of existing content that’s been pieced together — have been traditionally frowned upon, and with good reason. In most instances, these episodes tend to come across as a cynical cash grab; a half-hearted attempt to stretch a season out by repurposing old material and presenting it as something new.
These stories rarely fare much better in comics. Companies like Marvel are tasked with producing an ongoing series of comics that publishes a new issue every month (give or take). When a publisher fails to deliver on that unofficial contract with readers — even if it’s because a creator missed a deadline and the company had no other choice — it tends to reflect poorly on everyone involved. A few years ago in a post for Chasing Amazing, I joked about a rehashed Spider-Man origin story that appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #181, calling it the “bottle episode” of Spidey comics. And my long-term aversion to investing in the ASM Annuals is driven, in-part, by the fact that many of the earlier installments featured repurposed, or in some cases, completely reprinted content.
The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives, which was first published as part of Marvel’s “Original Graphic Novel” series in 1989, is the exception to this rule. Released about two years after Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were controversially married off by Jim Shooter and David Michelinie, Parallel Lives builds on some of the greatest Peter/MJ moments of all time and uses them to demonstrate how these two characters that might otherwise appear to be polar opposites, actually share a lot in common.
One doesn’t have to be super Spidey historian to recognize most of the stories that Conway and artist Alex Saviuk mine in constructing Parallel Lives. We get a recap of Peter’s origins from Amazing Fantasy #15, followed up with material from the more recent Mary Jane origin story (originally crafted by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz in Amazing Spider-Man #259). Then we flash forward to Peter and Mary Jane’s “first date” (aka, “Jackpot”) and then finish up with the Peter/MJ wedding from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21.
If this sounds like a greatest hits of Peter/MJ stories (*spoiler alert* — most of these books are going to show up on this list if they haven’t already), then you’d be right. But what saves this graphic novel from being total fluff and filler is how Conway structures his script. Instead, it serves as a worthwhile character study for Peter/MJ. Even with its reliance on recycled content, it still manages to unveil a few surprising tidbits.
The comic splits its time pretty evenly between Peter and MJ, shifting the point-of-view of the narrative in rapid succession in order to accentuate the parallels (and the differences). We see Peter living a happy, if not socially lonely, existence with his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben, while Mary Jane’s broken family life led her to manufacture an outgoing “party-girl” persona that might have been a hit with the boys, but also earned her outcast status from other girls.
Conway and Saviuk eventually lead us to a point of unexpected convergence between the two characters: that fateful night where Uncle Ben was murdered and Spider-Man was officially born. Peter’s perspective is pretty much shot-for-shot from Amazing Fantasy #15, but then Conway and Saviuk introduce a real surprise (and a retcon). We learn that when Peter dons his costume to confront the burglar in the abandoned warehouse, Mary Jane (who was visiting her Aunt Anna’ house) witnesses the shy boy next door becoming a superhero, meaning that MJ technically learns Peter’s secret identity during the character’s first appearance. This came as a bit of a shock to Spidey readers since DeFalco and Frenz had MJ confront Peter about being Spider-Man only a few years before Parallel Lives was written and when he pressed her about how she knew, her response was something along the lines of “I just knew.”
Granted, having Mary Jane know this secret about Peter the WHOLE TIME does read as a ham-fisted way to retroactively make the two “soul mates,” but Conway also uses the retconned moment effectively to build MJ’s character. While Uncle Ben’s murder defines the responsible hero that Peter became, Mary Jane recedes further in her shallow existence of parties and theater. Peter plays the part of Spider-Man because he is obligated to. Mary Jane plays the part in a bunch of plays because she’s trying to escape her real-life responsibilities.
Parallel Lives surprisingly glosses over a fair bit of history between Peter and MJ once we get the recreation of the famous “Jackpot!” sequence (because as noted last week, it’s one of the most famous moments in comics). We skip out on MJ consoling Peter moments after Gwen Stacy (and the Green Goblin) died, as well as their first kiss at JFK Airport (what makes this more puzzling is how both of these older stories were scripted by Conway). But the comic does rehash the wedding, and once again, provides a little more context in terms of characterization, as means to further flesh out why everything happened the way it did in these earlier stories.
It’s worth noting that in the background of this entire graphic novel, there’s a third character whose life also runs parallel to Peter’s — Doctor Octopus. Considering this is a Peter/Mary Jane-centered list, it’s not worth dwelling too much on Doc Ock (save that for a list about him at some point). However, Conway and Saviuk do a great job in demonstrating all of the characteristics that have long linked Peter and Otto together (many of which were discussed by Dan and I at length during our podcasts about Superior Spider-Man in 2013-14).
Interestingly, Otto attempts to strike at Spider-Man by attacking Peter and Aunt May. Doc Ock makes the connection about Peter being Spidey’s “personal” photographer and then connects the dots as to where to find him by recollecting his short-lived boarding with Aunt Mary (during a series of Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. Silver Age issues). Doc Ock’s attack naturally leads Peter to bemoan the mortal danger his loved ones are constantly in because of his decision to be Spider-Man. We get a fairly predictable exchange between Peter and Mary Jane where Peter thinks she and May are better off without him, but MJ follows it up with an unexpected twist that ties all of the comic’s themes together. She tells Peter to look forward and to not dwell on the past, and that we “take responsibility for our lives because it’s right, not because we can predict the outcome. We take risks because that’s how we grow.”
MJ’s words acknowledge that fact that Peter is not the only one in the Spider-Man universe who has responsibilities and obligations. And now that he’s married, he has a whole new set of responsibilities that he can’t walk away from because he’s still beating himself up over his failings as a teenager that led to his uncle’s death. Ultimately, the comic’s moral is not so much about Peter and MJ living parallel lives, but rather the full circle the two have travelled to be man and wife. The path to each other started that night Peter learned his greatest lesson about power and responsibility. But without a series of risks being taken, the two characters would have never emotionally grown to the point where they’d be together.