A Revaluation of "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" (Review)

Title: Mary Jane/Mary Jane: Homecoming/Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Volume(s): 7
Publisher: Marvel
Genre(s): Drama/Romance
Rated: All Ages

Note: This review was originally published on The Comic Book more than ten years ago.  It is being republished here (in a slightly cleaned up and edited format) for our new site!  As a result, it may not reflect the writers currently writing style (but time was spent on it anyway,so it'd be a shame to completely get rid of it)! Unlike other such uploaded reviews though, this one is followed by a revaluation of the series, as well as some soul searching on my original opinion.  Enjoy!

Marvel is jealous of manga right now. More specifically, Marvel is jealous of shoujo. Shoujo manga has a personal monopoly of female readers, and women won't touch Marvel's stuff with a ten-foot pole. Comic book store owners are going crazy because manga is the stuff that sells the most books these days (mainly because manga tends to sell ten times better at bookstores than it does in comic book shops). Marvel has decided that it wants to change this and bring women back to American comics (right, where have I heard THAT before?). One of its plans to bring women back to American comics is to (get ready, folks) give female characters of superhero comic books their own spin-off series. They can't just find some female writers and artists and create something new from scratch, now can they? Nooooo, they have to spin-off secondary characters from comic books that women don't even have any interest in. I swear, this plan is SOOO brilliant, that the guys who came up with it should be hired to help reduce the national debt!

When it came to giving Spider-Man's girl, Mary Jane, a spin-off series, Marvel went the extra mile to make sure they succeeded in making their comic a success. They introduced the Mary Jane spin-off through a “Mary Jane” novel that was written by the talented Judith O'Brien. The book was, in short, excellent. It created a whole new childhood life for MJ, the characters had true human emotions, there was very little focus on Spider-Man himself (and that is good since Spider-Man isn't supposed to be the focus of the “Mary Jane” series), and the whole book was excellent. I figured that if the comic would be even half as good as the book was, then I would say Marvel had a hit on its hands, one that could potentially even catch women's attention through word-of-mouth. When I saw the cover for the first issue, I was getting excited. The artwork used for the cover was awesome, and it looked like a very American style of shoujo, and I found myself starting to get really excited about the series. Well folks, I've read the entire "Mary Jane" series, and quite frankly, it ain't much to write home about. In fact, there's almost nothing to write about at all. When Sean McKeever was writing this series, you can tell he was trying to mimic shoujo. There isn't much action, there's lots of dialog, and there's a bigger focus on characters than on story.

Where everything falls apart is the lack of conflict and a proper story. In fact, there isn't even a story at all, really. All that happens in "Mary Jane" is a bunch of random events and situations. One situation has Mary Jane working a bunch of crappy jobs for minimal pay, yet there's no "payoff" to this (forgive the bad pun). Mary Jane has a fantasy about going to the prom with Spider-Man, but nothing is done with this and the plot point is soon forgotten. Mary Jane also has this problem where she can't decide whether she wants to continue dating Harry Osborn or not, but the resolution comes way too quickly, before there can be any tension or reflection about the situation that has crept up on them... and even then we're not given many reasons why Mary Jane would want to break up with Harry in the first place. Before the series really picks up any steam, it ends. Oh yeah, I know that there are technically three more issues of "Mary Jane: Homecoming" that Marvel has yet to release before the series officially ends, but I honestly don't think the remaining issues will make that much of a difference with this series in the long run. There is a clear lack of focus that is hard to describe, but when you read "Mary Jane," you can definitely feel the lack of focus. Things may happen, but all they do is happen. Things happen that don't contribute to a meaningful story, the characters’ personalities are all lazy and meaningless, Spider-Man makes an appearance in almost every issue (most of the time with nothing to do), and there is no payoff for anything that happens in this series.

For what McKeever is trying to do, he fails horribly. It doesn't appear that the story and character interaction was seriously thought out, and it appears more effort was put into the marketing of "Mary Jane" than into the actual book. Marvel rarely cancels any of their titles, so the fact that "Mary Jane" got the ax so early in the game speaks volumes about people's reaction to the series. One thing you can say about "Mary Jane" is that the artwork is beautiful. The colors, the character designs, and the settings are all beautiful to look at, and I definitely got caught up in the visuals (more than I did the story). The artist is clearly very talented and gave the artwork in "Mary Jane" a unique style and vision, and I suspect that he could be one of the next big names in the American comic book industry. If only the story could have held up just as well. "Mary Jane" is an okay attempt to capture female readers, and I don't think it worked out that well. There are plenty of shoujo manga out there that tell similar stories, except that they are more interesting and complicated than "Mary Jane" ever is. If Marvel wants to attempt to revive the "Mary Jane" series, they may want to see to it that Judith O'Brien is part of the writing team. O'Brien knew how to take these existing characters and create something new with them. McKeever on the other hand just didn't seem to have a grasp of the situation. Oh well, better luck next time.

Update: 5/22/2020

I wrote that original review when I was about 20 years old (I'm now 36).  Clearly, I was a young, stupid, inexperienced kid.  I looked at this review and didn't like what read, so I decided it might be time to give "Mary Jane" a second chance to see if it really deserved the thrashing I gave it (or if I was just being a whiny brat because it wasn't Spider-Man the way I wanted it to be).  Turns out, by a sheer force of luck, I still had the "Mary Jane" books in my closet.  What's more, the remainder of the series was available digitally, so I could read Marvel's continuation of the series "Mary Jane: Homecoming" and "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane."  And after revisiting the series I have to say that I do disagree with my initial review...sort of.  What I should say is that being older and wiser, while I do believe this series has some problems (a few of which I did tackle in my initial review), I can understand more of what it was trying to do and how it ended being far more successful than I initially gave it credit for.

While I do maintain that Marvel (and DC while we're talking) should start creating new characters and writing new stories for a new generation, it really was a bold idea to take one of the minor characters in Spider-Man, spin her off into her own series, and then make that series stylistically different from anything they had done.  Previously Marvel and DC would try to court a female audience by taking a popular male character and creating a female counterpoint to that character (Example: Spider-Man/Spider-Woman, Incredible Hulk/She-Hulk), so the fact that they would take a character like Mary Jane and give her s series of her own was a big deal in it's own right.  What's more, I really needed to give Marvel more credit for resisting the urge to make Mary Jane a superhero (like they would do with Gwen Stacey), or get involved in a major villainous scheme, or trying to become Spider-Man's partner in crime.  She's a typical teenage girl who wants to get through school, make some money at a part-time job, and have a nice boyfriend.

No more, no less.  In hindsight, even if they were mooching off their valuable Spider-Man IP, it was a very different kind of comic than what Marvel was used to making.  To understand exactly why, let's start by looked at how Marvel marketed your typical Spider-Man comic:

As you can see, Spider-Man covers scream "boys club" at the top of their lungs.  They emphasize strength, action, and danger.  Spider-Man is usually fighting monstrous looking villains and creatures, ones that would fit right at home in a horror movie.  I'm not saying girls can't enjoy a Spider-Man comic (or find this sort of artwork unappealing), I'm just saying it's obvious when looking at these covers who Marvel was marketing their books to (and who they assumed were reading them).  Now, compare them to the Mary Jane comics:

You can tell by these covers that Marvel was going for a completely different audience.  These covers emphasize loneliness, young love, strained relationships, and fun days in the park.  There is no action to be found.  No villain to fight.  Just an ordinary girl dealing with everyday problems.  On the rare occasion Spider-Man DID show up on the cover... was still sell a series that was clearly built on character development as opposed to action.  Also, yes, Marvel was obviously mimicking the shoujo art style with some of the artwork (I got that much right in my original review).  However I now find that to be a good thing, as the edgy and masculine artwork found in your typical Spider-Man comic would not have been appropriate for what this series was trying to accomplish.  While there were a few instances of villains who would attack Mary Jane and had to be fought...

...most of the series focused on relationships and high school troubles.  Issues like being there for a friend during a difficult time...

...or having a falling out with someone you care about...

...or dealing with rejection from someone you have feelings for...

...are all things that might not always excite a young boy, but were certainly situations that young girls could easily get into.  I was also struck with how quiet the series was compared to other American comics, and it's one of those series that is significantly improved when you have a lot of it to read at once, and you can see the progression of the characters unfold in proper context.  This means that my initial assessment of the series not having a story may have been true, but it didn't mean nothing was happening.  Truthfully, the series has a lot in common with "Kare Kano" (a series I gave an 'A' grade to back in the day), and I'm mad at myself for not having seen it all those years ago.  In some ways, the Mary Jane series was ahead of its time for American comics.  What's more sad is that this truly must not have been a big hit for Marvel, because despite repeated attempts to make it one (including throwing Spider-Man's name in the title even though he has little to do with the material itself), the series ended with less than ten volumes being completed overall.

To my knowledge, no real attempt at catering to a purely female audience was ever attempted again.  Even when Marvel made a female-centered comic book like "Emma Frost"... would be bogged down by artwork that was rough around the edges, with a visual flare that was more likely to attract young boys than women.

What's more, when you visit Marvel's main homepage these days it's clear that they have reverted back to their "boys club" mentality.  There is no title that appears to target girls (young, teenage, adult...none of them).  All the artwork is of masculine men fighting monstrous creatures once more.  Heck, there doesn't appear to be any variety at all (I certainly don't see any comedy comics up there).  The movies are equally on autopilot, with all of them being action movies (and none of them starring women except "Captain Marvel" and "Black Widow").  On the TV side the last series that was catered specifically to women was "Jessica Jones," and that got cancelled when Netflix got into a pissing match with Disney.  It's sort of...sad, to be honest.  While I don't think the Mary Jane comics were groundbreaking they were, upon further reflection, very good for what they were trying to do.  More than ten years later I'm regretting not giving them a fair shake, because it appears the industry needs a series like this.

It needs a series that says American comics aren't just about action and men in tights.  It needs to show characters in real situations, dealing with real problems.  Sure you could argue that Marvel comics have been doing this for years, but they've done it under the comfort of fantasy and using superheros and super villains as metaphors.  What drew me to manga so much when I was younger is because they did make series like "Maison Ikkoku" and "Kare Kano," and they are still making those human stories with "My Love Story" and "Cross Game."  In a way, I look back to the problems I had with American comics way back then and I have many of the same problems now.  What frustrates me is that "Mary Jane" (then "Mary Jane: Homecoming" and "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane") was addressing many of the concerns I had with the industry at the time, and for some reason I got a stick up my butt and stuck my nose in the air.

This was actually a very good series.  It was doing something Marvel has been resistant to do for decades.  It wasn't perfect (few things are), but it was special in its own right.  In my original review (shown in all its ugly glory above) I concluded by giving the series a D+.  I must have been in a VERY bad mood that day, because even with the problems I had with everything it warranted no less than a C!  Now I'm going to give the overall series my new grade and confidently recommend it to those who want to introduce a good, smart slice-of-life series to young girls (and boys who have the patience for such things).  It's much harder to find in print, but thankfully it's available digitally in most stores, so finding it shouldn't be too difficult.

Grade: B+

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

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