This is the third of four planned posts about Spider-Man as Stan Lee’s novel, running from the original appearance in Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 through Spider-Man #100. The previous two were Today I am a man and Bad guys and bad fathers, with auxiliary posts including Superhuman endurance and Flyin’ high. This time, as more than one reader has been anticipating, it’s about the women.
The first round is set strictly in the high-school phase, with Peter as the youngster in the workplace and Betty Brant. Think about that first – instead of the typical teen-drama in which the whole thing is about getting along or deciding not to from fully within the high-school scene, Peter’s simply outta there and in the world instead. High school dating? Forget it. There’s a bigger world, and since he’s already fightin’ crime in it, he might as well make some money and see what gurlz are in it too. Call me cynical or what you will, but the only way to read this is that Betty is explicitly … uh, experienced and that Peter’s way out of his depth with her. It’s moving to read it this way, without reference to the later franchise, as if it’s – you know – a story. I think it’s a great love-missed story, showing that Peter isn’t ready to trust anyone, also that his problem is internal and unless solved there, unsolvable.
But joe college Peter with Gwen on one arm and Mary Jane on the other is a whole different situation. Well, the story’s about young people’s problems, right? To put it crudely, how much is Peter getting, and with whom?
Apparently not with Mary Jane. She’s getting around, but despite the promise of the initial “jackpot” scene, Peter decides she’s trouble and dodges – wisely as it turns out, after Harry’s been funfucked and is smarting from it. Re-reading has really surprised me in terms of what I’d falsely remembered, obviously affected by the later-written events and characterizations. MJ is completely up-front and cheerful about her chosen life-style which includes coming-on to anyone she happens to like and doing whatever she wants with them, but completely free of any games or lies. There is no, absolutely no hint that she’s unhappy about it or would be better off with (“needs”) a standard relationship, no disclosure panel of her sobbing when alone, or looking mournfully off to the side as she says something superficial. And as far as I can tell, there is not even the hint that this life is going to come crashing down on her or result in anything tragic for her at all … this, in 1970. It might be the single most subversive depiction of a female character in the whole of comics, relative to its publishing date.
Harry sure becomes vivid too, to the point where I really feel for him. Here he is with a whole new relationship with his dad, and freed up to unwind as a college guy, friends with hip black guys, and you can see that the scene with MJ completely blows his mind. There’s a whole well-written, well-drawn sequence about his ‘stache and generally trying to fit in and enjoy life, and how it keeps wounding him. Similarly, Flash eventually takes on a tragic role too, when he returns from Vietnam with a lot on his mind – recall this is era of the Tet Offensive through My Lai. He makes the terrible mistake of trying to connect with Peter by invoking his old teasing ways as a joke. Peter of course is a real piece of work now as far as fighting is concerned, is stressed-out by his romance/identity hassles, and seems to have developed a temper, so he completely misses that Flash badly wants to be liked by him and is devastated by the rejection.
As for Gwen, I think she’s the single character who does a major switch from Ditko to Romita. As originally drawn and written, she is a very almost a nasty byotch, especially contrasted with former high-school popular gal Liz Allen, who has realized that college isn’t high school and is finding Peter much preferable to Flash. She’s even drawn with little demon-horns via her hair, I have no idea whether her short-lived sympathetic thoughts toward Peter fit with the art (she’s often glancing at him, true), because the whole Lee/Ditko debate is hard not to project into it. Granted, Ditko’s version of Peter for a few issues is hard to take too, when he has this foul little Ayn Rand smirk on. Whereas moving into the “get the groove on” used-to-one-another Lee & Romita phase, Gwen becomes a solid if standard romantic interest and leading-lady. By this point she’s really the only gal in the comic; one can cherry-pick flirty MJ panels to give the “one on each arm” impression, but Peter definitely closes the door on the latter after a single date. No one but Gwen comes within a mile of a genuine romantic interest for him.
Unfortunately she also becomes an emotional shuttlecock due to the does-he-know Spider-Man drama with her father. Then there’s the initial “likes Spider-Man but mad at Peter” transforming into the long-running “loves Peter but hates and fears Spider-Man,” which although I see how it fits into the larger problem (which I’ll be writing about next), doesn’t do much for her as a grounded emotional character. It’s saved only by what appears to be 100% understanding for Peter that he has a girlfriend and should live up to it, and most importantly, that he could. It’s painfully obvious by this point that he really should be bringing some people into his secret, especially the Stacys.
So, is she really a crying whining drag? I don’t think so. Consider what I said above about Harry and Flash, looking at dealing with Peter from their point of view (and which I think is textual), and then see what Gwen actually says and does. Get rid of Mary Sue Peter in your fan-head whom everyone is supposed to gaze at fondly and say “oh thank you thank you Mr. Spider-Man,” and anyone who doesn’t is “bad.” What I see in the #80s and #90s is a young woman who really does love this guy, has faith in him, and wants to think the best of him – but is simply lacking the crucial information she needs to get the puzzling parts to fit.
Let’s take a look at Peter. There is no nerd here, no tentative little orphan-boy, that’s all gone. He’s employed, studying at the university, good at whatever he does, attractive, and generally ready to tackle life. The only thing he doesn’t have is anyone’s recognition of what he really does. Just as there are good fathers out there, which he only barely, painfully begins to see, there are also good women, who aren’t bruised by their pasts like Betty, who don’t need rescuing or caretaking, and whom he doesn’t have to pursue or placate or please, because they like him just fine already.
Never mind 45 years as a franchise character, imagine instead that this character is being written de novo. There’s no editorial mandate of no one must ever know except in his head. In that context, Gwen is the person doing the right thing.
Next: But they’ll be valuable