The Amazing Mary Jane #6: Thoroughly Modern Mary Jane

Mary Jane Watson struts her stuff in a black dresswith Spider-Man and several villains in the background

Remember when, all of a sudden, Mary Jane Watson was showing up on every random Marvel comic cover, without it meaning anything about the book inside? Remember how weird that was, and sort of creepy, like, “Look, a babe. For no reason!”? Well it turns out that was a marketing campaign, for Mary Jane’s solo series Amazing Mary Jane. I hope it worked for some. Amazing Mary Jane should have been coming up on issue seven but Marvel stopped their production and output, thanks to the cease-delivery of print issues by Diamond, the company which distributes all of their monthly comics (and pretty much everyone else’s, too). So Mary Jane is paused forever, as long as forever lasts, at six—let’s look at the shape of her limbo.

The Amazing Mary Jane #6

Creators: Leah Williams (writer), Carlos Gómez, Zé Carlos & Annapaola Martello (artists), Carlos Lopez (colourist), VC’s Joe Caramagna (letterer), Paolo Siqueira & Rachelle Rosenberg (cover artists), Kathleen Wisneski (editor), Nick Lowe (executive editor), CB Cebulski (Editor in Chief)
Marvel
March 18, 2020

The Amazing Mary Jane #6, March 18th, Marvel comics

My interest in appraising The Amazing Mary Jane was entirely down to its writer. Leah Williams has impressed me as a Marvel writer and as a person—I want to know how she’s doing, when she’s doing things. I want to know that the great fiasco that is “the Marvel universe (comics ver.)” is in, at least, some good hands, even if I don’t live there any more. And I’m fond of Mary Jane as a character—she’s been written and drawn strikingly enough, and well enough, and with enough congruent continuity, by others down the ages, that she feels like a person I know. You hope people who go to your old school now are coping fine, or that the person who you helped you on the bus had a nice day. And I think it is solid, overall. I think this is a book you could spend your money on.

Williams to Marvel.com, below, on the book:

“[…B]asically it’s about showcasing the best of Mary Jane. She’s feisty. She’s sassy. She’s quick-witted. She thinks fast on her feet. And she does this even under the most extraordinary of circumstances that somebody without Spider-Man’s powers would normally be equipped to deal with. But she handles it. It’s been one of the most delightful and fun experiences to work on because she’s so fun herself. She’s such a fun and lively character.”

Previous examples of Williams’ Marvel work I’ve read have been bubble-worlds—a What If?, a oneshot, an AU limited series. They’ve all been good, sometimes great, but uneven. The pacing has been just slightly off, like a favourite song played on a guitar with a string just slightly slack. Weird pace has been forgivable for obvious reasons alone—”one issue isn’t long to redux a thirty year history,” or “nobody ever gets these books, where they stall for time in an alternate universe while the real Event book is readied, quite right”—and that forgiveness is desirable thanks to the strength she has applying character history to character present, forming complex psychology out of accidents of canon and speaking and realising previously unspoken and unrealised aspects of, in particular, women characters’ plots and experiences. For example making new depth for Betsy Braddock out of her Kwannon-body years, and without ramming into the big bell marked WEIRD RACISM that this particular narrative thread comes stitched to, is the kind of monthly comics work that should win medals.

Even in this issue of Amazing Mary Jane, where the pace is breathless in a way that’s not quite thematic enough to feel purposeful, I’d like to slide my mouth over to the side and say, well, this is a tricky sort of issue—it’s setting up a second arc after the first finished in the previous month’s book. It’s scatty enough that without checking, I’d assume Amazing Mary Jane was contracted as a five issue series and sold well enough to flip to ongoing; Williams presumably had limited time to figure out how to keep a few plates brought to rest by the first arc spinning as she thought up a second, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world.

The Amazing Mary Jane was in fact announced as an ongoing series on July 19th, 2019, during SDCC, but Williams was referring to it as a mini series by an NYCC (October 3rd-6th 2019) interview with Marvel that was posted on Marvel.com and  transcribed by Jude Terror at Bleeding Cool (October 6th). Bleeding Cool also ran a December article by Rich Johnston about the observation that the first collected edition was listed on Amazon without the “volume 1” identifier expected of a series that runs longer than can be collected in one volume; the article also contained “proof” that Mary Jane wasn’t cancelled: the cover to issue #6. With the common understanding that Marvel produces about three months ahead of release date, by December a March release—which Mary Jane #6 was, with a March 18th cover date—would be locked in. Panning it all out, my initial assumption looks pretty solid: it was contracted from Williams as a mini, marketed as an ongoing, and the deal with Williams was extended when sales were better than, let’s say, insufficiently masculine books (about less iconically resonant characters) often tend to boast in monthly numbers. So, probably a tighter creative corner to manoeuvre in than it might have been. But… that’s the job, and I think the fumbles are a weakness. This issue feels like a fine orchestra with a distracted conductor. Plenty of instruments, plenty of great players, but whizzing about with no great idea of where the climax should come, or when to fade out or build.

The bulk of the issue is taken up with Mary Jane’s appearance on a talk show, promoting her newest movie. During this she sees a murder by an infamous assassin and ends the issue dumped by witness protection in a small town on the edge of nowhere—before she has time to text Peter about why she missed their date (that I guess she scheduled for the same time as her talk show appearance?). As ever Williams has a great handle on how the emotional weight of her dialogue needs to hit. In her Magik What If?, that was often heavy, because the themes of child abuse and self-determinism were heavy and so that was what would be effective. Here it’s light: I saw a few panels going around Twitter with some casual criticism attached but I think that the choice to give Mary Jane the hyper-current, slightly garbled responsiveness that is common to young, pretty, funny actresses was a very good one. Exclamation points all over! Dropped words for the careful suggestion of casual intimacy! Charmingly self-protective self-minimisation! She loves coffee! She reads exactly like Emma Stone or Jennifer Lawrence—or Zendaya—on a live show that has a reputation for wackiness and pre-planned “spontaneity,” right down to the “I play a hero who is also a woman” feminique hedging.

Written by Leah Williams Artist(s) Carlos Gomez Letterer(s) Joe Caramagna Colorist(s) Carlos Lopez Editor(s) Kathleen Wisneski

This isn’t the exact Mary Jane of older runs, who had a more twentieth century poise, a centre of gravity that metaphorically sat a little further forward. But it’s a Mary Jane of the zeitgeist—which is exactly what Mary Jane is “supposed” to be. It’s true to the spirit of her creation in exactly the way that made her so popular in the first place.

Compared to Buscema/DeMatteis’ Spider-Man run, a period of time in which Mary Jane’s forceful personality and Peter’s super-anxieties were clashing on the domestic front and during which the death of Harry Osborn made its mark, the Williams/Gomez team are trailing slightly just in “whole read” terms. Despite the classic nature of the former team’s run, this isn’t an unfair comparison—Williams has the character and chronology chops to rival DeMatteis’, and Gomez an evident understanding of expressive anatomy and illustrated physics, not to mention a fair enough comprehension of the modes of the day. But when read in close sequence, the former’s management of time and imperceptible yet vital pausing between scenes leaves the latter behind shouting “Peter!!”—not to mention Gomez’ intense preoccupation with what boobs are doing at any given moment causing an uneasy (or easy, if you like, but give me the benefit of an explanation in a sec) distraction.

Not knowing the exact process of creation in use for this issue, it’s hard to know which half of the team (Williams or Gomez) to look askance at for the pacing problems. It’s not exactly the biggest sin to offer around the blame for. Why did MJ and Peter have a date set for the same time she was spending apparently all day on the set of a talk show? If she can text someone else while she’s on the show, why can’t she text Peter while she’s on the show? It doesn’t matter a lot that I had these questions after reading the issue through at a consumer’s pace. It just matters a bit. But given that Williams’ prior work also shows weaknesses in this area it’s certainly something that I hope editorial will be challenging her on in future issues. Her facility with legacy of canon has made her rise in work-for-hire comics no surprise thus far. Growth in this direction—over command of pacing and issue structure—will make her a truly formidable power in monthly publishing, and a name to be fought over. I want to see it happen.

MJ's boobs in The Amazing Mary Jane #6 Written by Leah Williams Artist(s) Carlos Gomez Letterer(s) Joe Caramagna Colorist(s) Carlos Lopez Editor(s) Kathleen Wisneski

Back to the boobs issue. Reading this twenty-page comic book, I became confident in the notion that series lead-artist Carlos Gomez is really interested in breasts. He draws them well, realistically within pretty narrow parameters of idealism, but he draws them more often and more dominantly in panels than he needs to and he seems to prefer to create outfits that allow for the greatest amount of visibility and swing. It makes me feel uneasy because it feels like placing an artist with these preoccupations on a book about a mainstay female character, written by a rising female creator, is disingenuous.

It’s very common; Louise Simonson being teamed with Brett Blevins, for example, back in the eighties, Blevins drawing their runaway teenaged characters with all the finesse of an A-grade cartoonist who’s also a big ole perv for a certain kind of girl. Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey being plagued by babe-drawers who, sure, she was perfectly happy to defend and admire the work of, but whose circular breasts and shiny thighs put off as many non-traditional comics readers as they reassured traditionalists. Williams, like Tini Howard, like Gail Simone, like plenty of women writing American superhero comic books before them, can’t be called anti-sex, anti-“sexy women,” or prudish, but that only makes their pairing with these guys happy in the house-style-includes-basic-horny-sexism trenches seem like more of a betrayal—a betrayal of them, of what they can do for the industry, because their potential readership is bigger than these men’s tit pics. Marvel simply hasn’t, as a publisher, built the good will to make this appointment, or others like it, seem anything more than smug triumph at the thought of sneaking a business-as-usual artist into the hands of girls, women and others who just want to read superhero-adjacent comics from women’s perspectives.

I’m not arguing that there are no women who like looking at breasts. I’m arguing that, at this point in Marvel’s history, if the breasts and core flexing are for gay girls, gay girls should be drawing them. Who knows, maybe they will from here on? As Gomez moves into… drawing America Chavez. Artists have choices, ya know? So do readers. One’s impacts the other’s.

So, The Amazing Mary Jane. If you’re up for it, it’s a comic to read when you’re in the mood for a bit of a rush. It’s a sunny day comic. I feel pretty good about the things I came to look for. If I read it again, I’ll probably do it with a cocktail—but it would also pair nicely with the dalgona coffee everybody’s making right now. We deserve it! We’re having a whirlwind few months. Mary Jane! She’s just like us!

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money
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