Sunday, January 4, 2009
A lot has already been written about this story. It's one of those comic book arcs that "breaks the Internet in two," as even the editors have started to say. But this one had good reason: it featured the manufactured end of Peter Parker's (Spider-Man) marriage to Mary Jane, his crush and love since high school (with a few interruptions).
Theirs was a star-crossed love, and it was for that reason that Mephisto, stand-in Devil of the Marvel Universe, chose to erase their marriage from existence save for a small bit from their souls to savor the anguish, the loss, the sorrow - all in exchange for the life of Aunt May.
But I don't buy it.
The Peter Parker that sell his marriage to the Devil isn't the same one who hefted a building on his back or has struggled for years to atone for one small moment of selfishness, who has given his all time and again for a city that he loves. What he does is not the reaction of an adult who's gone through life and seen how it works. Maybe the circles he runs in make him feel immune to death, as it pertains to him and those around him (in "The Other," he does die and come back and no one's all that surprised). But Aunt May is old, and if this was her time, if her getting shot was part of the plan (as was Uncle Ben's death), why can't Peter realize the lesson he's been taught time and again, that sometimes people die, and we cannot change that?
It's a bad story; there's no redeeming quality. I don't know if this is J. Michael Straczynski's fault as writer or Joe Quesada's (as editor-in-chief of Marvel, though as an artist he does a piss-poor job of helping). Editorial mandate was rumored to be the reason for how the story turned out. I'm betting that JMS wrote it 70% how it was published, and the tweaking was small. Mephisto was am editor-added part, but the dissolution of the marriage to save Aunt May was not.
And that's what gets me. It doesn't make sense for Spider-Man/Peter Parker to choose an old lady over a young, fresh marriage and a whole future. In fact, it insults Aunt May, who would've gladly sacrificed herself, but now can at some point be burdened with the knowledge that to keep her alive, two lives were broken.
My problems with the story cover all aspects of each issue.
The art was rarely good, at times giving the characters goofy, odd-shaped facial features. It's not that Quesada is a bad artist, but he was very inconsistent throughout. The "Brand New Day"/post-unmarriaging scene was good, as was the depiction of Mephisto. But Iron Man and Dr. Strange are obvious weak points for Quesada. He looks to be aping Mike Deodato's excellent, almost Vertigo-esque worked turned in a few years' back on the title, or at worst, the Spawn/Greg Capullo house style. Not suited for the story.
Good writing can overcome bad or mediocre art. I cannot honestly recommend this story, and it's because of JMS' writing. Nothing is rational, nothing is in-character, little is adult. Iron Man/Tony Stark is a heartless, fascist bastard; Dr. Strange is a parody of a sorcerer; Mary Jane is too verklempt to be the strong woman she's always written as being. Peter Parker is childish, wanting the bad things to go away; unheroic, throwing fists and irrational actions before sane reasoning; and selfish to a "t," in that he even considers ruining MJ's life or breaking her heart. I don't see how any of those could pass muster.
When asked about JMS' orignal ending at Newsarama, Joe Quesada said, "This was the story he wanted to tell. In his story, Mephisto was going to change continuity from as far back as issues #96-98 from 1971. In Joe's story, Peter drops the dime on Harry, and that helps get him into rehab right away. Consequently, MJ stays with Harry, and Gwen never dies and never has her affair with Norman, etc., etc. And in the end, Peter and MJ are never married." JMS agreed with this interpretation. He found the Mephisto/magic way a cop-out, though he was still going to make the demon an integral part of the story, just not his published actions.
Regardless, it doesn't gel either way. It's still a narrative cop-out, a deus ex machina, authorial interference. We deal with a powered rule that frequently bends and breaks natural laws, but the stories themselves are written in the real world. We can afford to suspend disbelief for the internal logic of powers and magic, but to have that fly in the face of story structure and characterization - in essence to shoehorn in established characters to fit a narrative mandate - breaks the rules. Might as well have 88 pages of Quesada and JMS explaining what happens, just pictures of them at their desks with world balloons, maybe holding up sketches of the characters for reference. "This is the story we want to tell featuring characters that look like this but behave how we need them to in a story crafted to dumb down the mythos and insult the audience."
The follow-up story/event is "Brand New Day," showing us what happens when Peter and MJ haven't been married for the last X years. People who were dead...aren't, new villains pop up, the old single dynamic abounds and there's an underlying sense of something amiss. In capable (non-JMS) hands, I hear we've been given many good to great issues that are far better than what came before. Out of the ashes of bad stories, great ideas can grown.
So check out those new issues, and if you're curious, once they undo Mephisto's bargain and reunite Peter and MJ, how this all started, check out "One More Day" from the library. Read, as I did, to satisfy an itch. But don't buy it. Don't show economic support for trash editorial moves like this. In the annals of Spider-Man history, this arc will be a blemish, not-soon-forgotten, but easy to mask. I only hope the resolution is as much reward to the fans as it is apology for what they went through to get there.