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1987 And All That: The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born.

SpiderWed1The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (Marvel) by David Michelinie, Paul Ryan, Vince Colletta, Bob Sharen, Rick Parker, Jim Salicrup, and Jim Shooter

Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker’s marriage is a weirdly divisive subject for some people, but I don’t personally have too strong an opinion on whether or not Spider-Man ought to be married. When it happened in 1987, it was pretty much a gimmick, an editorially mandated special event designed to sell comics based on the novelty, as opposed to being a story that someone felt needed to be told. As such, there’s only the faintest impression of a plot in this comicbook, despite its extra pages and the fact that then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter is credited with the plot and David Michelinie with the actual script. It’s hard to imagine Shooter’s role amounting to very much more than telling Michelinie, “Spider-Man gets married, even though he and Mary Jane both have doubts.” I’d believe he contributed less than that, because that’s about 90% of what the issue contains, and I want to give Michelinie and the artists some credit.

There is a fight with Electro to kick things off, but it’s an obligatory action scene to get the superheroics out of the way up top so all the second-guessing and dragging of feet can begin. Most of the story revolves around MJ and Peter questioning if they’re really ready to get married. She wonders if domesticity will be too limiting, slow-moving, and repetitious when compared to the glamorous parties and limos and other trappings of her current life as a supermodel. He worries about the same thing, to a degree, that he won’t be able to give her what she’s used to/what she really wants. He also mentally revisits old relationships like Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy, noting that in both cases the lives of those women were ruined (and in one case ended) because of his being Spider-Man. Naturally enough, Peter is afraid that the world of Spider-Man will similarly harm Mary Jane someday, which makes him question how fair or right it is to marry her.

In between these scenes of self-reflection and self-doubt, we see the rest of the world reacting positively to the idea of the young couple getting hitched. Aunt May and Aunt Anna, Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn, even J. Jonah Jameson are all on board, full of congratulations, advice, and what seems to be earnest belief in MJ and Peter’s love. Perhaps this is meant as a contrast to the pair’s own trepidations, but neither Peter nor Mary Jane are given much time to react to anything the rest of the cast says, always too busy sorting through their own fears. This makes it too easy for the reader to also ignore the supporting players, since nothing they bring to the table matters or even affects what comes next.

Then again, none of Mary Jane and Peter’s fretting makes a difference when the comic concludes, either. Though they both arrive late (for no clear reason) they do show up for the wedding and the ceremony goes off seamlessly. Instead of making the actual wedding a moment of conflict or action, there is a dream sequence that precedes it where Peter imagines that all the guests are either superheroes or supervillains, and the two sides inevitably come to blows. It’s a final bit of violence tossed in for good measure, and an opportunity to dress Peter in the classic red-and-blue costume, rather than the black-and-white one he was sporting at the time. Then the wedding itself is simple and straightforward, taking up only four of the issue’s 43 pages, including a full-page splash of the official pronouncement. That page—with its giant figure of Spider-Man and a huge web SpiderWed2taking up the background, the whole supporting cast awkwardly crowding around the newlyweds, and a dialogue balloon that makes it look like the officiant is screaming at the top of his lungs—is meant to be the big climax, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. But since nothing that precedes it meshes at all with the love and happiness on display, it instead comes across as a wedged-in conclusion, there because it has to be, not as the natural result of the rest of the narrative.

The jerky shifts in tone aren’t the only problems with Michelinie’s script. There’s a general clunkiness to the writing, a stiffness that mutes everything. The dialogue has no nuance and very little personality, everyone sounding something between two-dimensional and downright robotic. If anything was going on other than long-winded conversations and internal monologues about people’s feelings, maybe this lack of energy in the writing wouldn’t be quite so irritating. The opening Electro fight isn’t all bad, for example. But as it stands, Michelinie’s work pulls down an already slow and uninteresting tale.

My biggest gripe, though, is that Michelinie fails completely to convince me that these two belong together. On the contrary, based on this issue I would have bet on them divorcing within five years, each of them eventually forced to realize they never wanted to get married in the first place. It’s not clear to me when either of them finally do get over themselves and decide that, yes, they should go through with it. The last time we see Mary Jane before the wedding, she’s at a party with friends who’re all trying to talk her out of it, and she doesn’t seem too bothered by what they say, even openly agreeing with some of their arguments. Peter’s last single moment is the aforementioned nightmare where the Spider-Man part of his life ruins his wedding, a very literal interpretation of what we already know is his biggest fear. How either of them go from that to total comfort with marriage isn’t shown; it happens off-panel if at all. They also spend a good deal of this story avoiding and even lying to one another. Mary Jane hangs out a lot with Bruce, a mysterious man hell-bent on stealing her away from her fiancé. Peter pretends not to be still hung up on or tortured by Gwen Stacy’s death, and even once comes close to telling Mary Jane he thinks the wedding is a bad idea before swallowing that as well. For a couple to be so unwilling or unable to honestly communicate with one another, especially on the topic of their own relationship, is troubling at best.

I feel for Paul Ryan and Vince Colletta, tasked with filling this double-sized issue with an awful lot of people standing or sitting around. I suppose, this being Marvel, that Ryan may have actually done some or most of the plotting himself, but even if that’s the case, I can understand why it’d be challenging to do 43 pages about a wedding in a superhero comic and keep it interesting, especially if bad guys aren’t going to show up and smash things. It would’ve been nice, though, if the ceremony had some fanfare around it, or even just if it were given more space. Where are the flowers, where’s the cake, why no dancing? Mary Jane’s bachelorette party is a hundred times more festive and better attended than her wedding. Even in Peter’s nightmare, the venue looks nicer and the crowd larger than they do in real life.

Ryan and Colletta do nicely capture Peter’s general sullenness and MJ’s mixed bag of forced happiness and inner turmoil. At least they look convincing, even if they sound a little stilted. And the art does a much better job of showing genuine affection between them than the script does. When they’re together, Michelinie keeps their conversations largely superficial, but if you looks at the SpiderWed3images and ignore the words, those scenes do show a couple that’s really in love. They smile, they touch one another playfully and frequently, and they actually look at each other as if they want to connect. The words show us just how little connection is truly taking place, but the visuals at least indicate that there’s a shared desire to make it happen.

Mostly, though, the art is just as boring as the narrative, if for no other reason than that nothing exciting occurs. Even battling Electro is a quick, easy win for Spider-Man, with relatively low stakes and an unimpressive performance from the villain. This is a comic consisting primarily of near-pointless chatter, and that leaves little for the art to do.

The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 doesn’t seem very into its own concept. The central characters poke holes in it all the way through, and then when the main event happens, it’s halfhearted and over too quickly. Meanwhile, everything is so mundane and inconsequential, just wheel spinning until the finish line arrives and the shortsighted goal of this whole effort can finally be reached. Wherever you stand on the idea of a married Spider-Man, or the elaborate retcon that ultimately undid the entire contents of this comic, it’s hard to defend the story of the wedding itself.

30 Comments

I suspect a big part of the problem is the last minute nature of the wedding itself. There was literally no lead up in the three Spider-Man titles to build up to this, beyond the proposal and acceptance themselves. Honestly, Peter and Mary Jane should have been engaged for years of real time (no less than six months or a year or comic time), and they should have used that time to build compelling narratives that covered the same ground as this one annual. Then, the wedding itself (in, say, ASM 365 – the 30th anniversary issue – or ASM annual 25 or so), could have focused more on the stuff that’s missing here – the details from the wedding and reception, their first dance, and, especially, Peter having a heart-to-heart while dancing with May. The lack of the May/Peter “mother/son” dance is a particularly huge loss.

And, of course, there could still have been drama in getting to the wedding, because villains don’t take the day off for Spider-Man’s wedding. They could even have done an “Absent-Minded Professor” type thing and have Pete actually miss the first wedding, though that would have gotten old if they did it more than once.

All of which is to say, there were a lot of great stories Marvel missed because they felt they had to rush this issue to coincide with the marriage in the weekly cartoon, not that anyone ever read that…

Jeff Nettleton

July 30, 2014 at 7:06 am

Pretty much felt the same way when I eventually read this. I think the problem is that Micheline doesn’t know how to write romance and that is what is needed here. Chris Claremont or Louise Simonson would have been far better choices for this and John Romita Sr. probably would have been my first pick, at Marvel, to do the book. Shooter would be the last person I would involve, given how women generally were used and portrayed in his own writing.

The basic premise of this column makes me feel really, really old! Born in 1987? Let’s put it this way, the Bronze Age isn’t ancient history to me.

This really does feel like the most unromantic wedding issue, doesn’t it? I like Darth Weevil’s suggestion at keeping the engagement timeline longer because there were so many potential ideas to cull from.

So the wedding of Peter and Mary Jane was a gimmick, and the supernatural retconning away of their marriage was also a gimmick… no wonder most marriages in superhero comic books don’t last.

I’m so glad my introduction to the wedding was the 1994 animated series. Jameson and Wilson Fisk both offer to pay for parts of the wedding and keep one-upping each other (Peter had saved Fisk’s life recently and Fisk was unaware of Peter being Spider-Man). And Green Goblin and Smythe attack the wedding with a robot army. Fisk sends his own robots to fight the Goblin alongside Spider-Man. Black Cat ends up helping in the fight too. Jameson gives Peter an old news van as a car! It was awesome!

…despite its extra pages and the fact that then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter is credited with the plot and David Michelinie with the actual script. It’s hard to imagine Shooter’s role amounting to very much more than telling Michelinie…

This bit comes off as extremely petty. Please read up on the actual history of the Shooter editorial era as well as his writing career.

bluedevil2002

July 30, 2014 at 8:35 am

“John Romita Sr. probably would have been my first pick”

I think he was. In the Spidey/DD/Kingpin special that he drew in 1997 or so, Romita mentions how he had to pass on several “big” projects due to deadlines, and he cites the wedding issue as one.

@Darth: You’ve got some great ideas in there. Let’s build a time machine, go back, and do it right!

@Red Comet: I actually have read about Jim Shooter’s era as well as a bunch of stuff he’s written himself. I’m not a big fan of his style, but I know he was a prolific guy who did a lot for the company. I don’t mean that Shooter specifically couldn’t contribute more than that, what I mean is that if you’re only credited with the “plot” of this particular comic, it’s hard to picture that involving more than giving the creators the most perfunctory instructions, since the plot is so thin in the final product. It may still be a petty thing to say, but then sniping at 27-year-old comics is arguably petty on the face of it, no?

I think I can pinpoint this issue as the start of my relative indifference towards Spider-Man. It’s weird, because it is something you only realize years later.

No, I don’t think it was because teenagers can’t identify with married characters, per Quesada’s wisdom.

I wasn’t aware of editorial politics at the time, but it was strange, it was such a big change that came from nowhere. MJ hadn’t been a big presence in the Spider books for years and then suddenly the wedding and then lots of stories where the writers didn’t seem like they knew how to deal with a married Spider-Man.

I felt like they broke my childlike belief in Spider-Man as someone “real”. He became just a character that writers could do whatever.

Jeff Nettleton

July 30, 2014 at 8:54 am

@Ben Herman
Too true; it’s a lack of vision at the publishers. They want to keep the books going perpetually, which is why you never see any real change in them. It only comes when the audience becomes bored and they try to shake things up. They resort to stunts like death, marriage, quitting the role, etc… Then, the books become complacent again and they try the next stunt, often undoing the previous one.

In the writing world, too many of them seem to have no ability to write complex relationships, so romances are rather shallow. How many long term, romantic relationships can you name in comics? Let’s see, Superman and Lois (well, they weren’t really romantic until the 70s, arguably), Ralph and Sue Dibny, Barry and Iris Allen, Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Reed and Sue Richards, Green Arrow and Black Canary, Scott Summers and Jean Grey, Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, umm……… Sticking with those, Superman and Lois did little more than have interrupted dates from the 70s until the post-Crisis era. Iris was killed, then turned up alive in the future, just in time for Flash to die. Peter and Mary Jane casually date for years, suddenly get married, and stay married until it is undone in a stunt. Reed and Sue have separated and reconciled multiple times, but they are ultimately a happy couple. GA and BC were pretty on and off for years, then suddenly married. Bruce and Betty had a pretty troubled relationship, to say the least. Scott and Jean ended tragically; then it didn’t. Then it did, then, …oh, forget it! Ralph and Sue were a happy couple, the Nick and Nora Charles of the comic world. Then, Sue died to launch a stunt. It was bad enough she died, but she was retroactively raped, and she dies horribly after learning she is pregnant. So, wow, one marriage that has stood the test of comics.

Stingray has been happily married for more than 30 years. I’m sure that pisses off all of his fellow Avengers. Right after they ask, “Wait, who’s Stingray again?” of course.

I can’t help but feel that “crappy gimmick wedding issue” is a cheap argument against the marriage. Despite the failure of the issue, Peter and MJ went on to have a relatively decent marriage for over two decades with plenty of realistic ups and downs (each thinking the other dead, MJ considering infidelity, and a miscarriage). Really, complaint is over the marriage itself, but I grew up with both both a single AND a married Spidey and had no problem with either.

Now, you want to talk crappy wedding issues, check out Bruce and Betty’s wedding in Incredible Hulk #318. Literally came out of nowhere–Bruce and Betty hadn’t been a couple in years or arguably over a decade. Then Byrne slapped them together. Looking back, Bruce and Betty’s relationship lasted almost as long as Peter and MJ’s, but it didn’t really start to make sense until well into PAD’s run where Betty came to terms with Bruce’s multiple personalities and Bruce merged them together. (Weirdly, Bruce and Betty also had a stealth breakup a few years ago.)

@Jeff, I did appreciate that the JSAers stayed with their wives in their old age up until the reboot. I was moderately irked that in the reboot, not only is Alan Scott not and never will be with Molly (unless they introduce a genderswapped version) , but that they reintroduced Joan Garret and her first act was to dump Jay for being a loser. Harsh.

Hey, so, as for gimmicks, 99% of everything that ever happens to a superhero is a gimmick. It’s the genre. And that’s not a put-down–I love the genre–but it’s sensationalist stunt storytelling down to its bones. So dismissing the marriages and “deaths” of superheroes as gimmicks doesn’t really mean anything.

Pete Woodhouse

July 30, 2014 at 11:57 am

As this is written by David Michelinie, I’m waiting for T’s comment! :)

Ooo, I’ll go put on my Gwen Stacy-disparagin’ pants.

This was a gimmick and it worked on me. My yourn pre-teen mind bought both issues for the variant covers. This was also the last time I ever did that.
I wasn’t reading Spider-man at the time so I was pretty much indifferent to everything in the issue. Its been decades since I read it, but I did find the wedding going off without a hitch was a nice change of pace.
The part that stands out to me is when Mary Jane asks Peter about Gwen. I think he just dismissed the conversation, but I thought it added a nice wrinkle to the relationship.
I agree with Darth Weevil that the story itself needed to be stretched out.

As for Mary Jane and Peter being married, I actually think they are a good couple.
I like the idea that Peter didn’t get to marry the love of his life (Gwen) and had to keep on living. He moved on with his life and was able to find love again. Mary Jane worrying if she is “the one” for Peter is a valid step.
I also think the whole “super model” thing was something that needed a more “real world” touch. While there are “super models,” most models don’t live as glamorously. They usually share studio apartments and run from one job to another, almost constantly looking and competing for work. When Mary Jane tries to take up acting, they could also show this in a “real world” way with her going to cattle calls, flubbing lines, being rejected because they didn’t write the part for a red head. What if her big break was a hemorroid comercial? These things happen.
How would Peter respond to a spouse who was living hand to mouth like he is? Or what if she did get success, would Peter feel inferior to her? How would the couple survive with drastically different work schedules?

Those are the Spider-man stories I want to read!

Superman and Lois Lane got married the following decade and actually showed a married couple.
A particular moment was during OUR WORLDS AT WAR when Sam Lane, Lois’ father, apparently commits suicide trying to defeat the alien invasion. Lois reaction is very much a “Where were you!” which, good or bad, is a real couple argument.

Yeah, if it had any problem, it was that it was rushed. Why rush anything in comics when months take years to pass? Splashes may help sales, but it’s not using what’s most effective about the medium. (Movies have a hard time adapting long, in-depth stories, whether they be comics or books).

I never get the aversion to Peter being married. Most of the writers aren’t 20, and I’d like to think don’t live up to the stereotypes and have actually seen a woman naked. If anyone thinks people stop having any personal problems or strife after being married, they’ve never been married. Any drama in a marriage is at least as interesting as drama with Aunt May. (How many teenagers can relate to being taken care of by an octogenarian?) People still struggle with money issues. All you really lose is the ability to draw different women all the time for him to date. (And guess what!? That’s kinda like marriage. You don’t get to experiment with a bunch of different mates). The “young people can’t relate” thing would be good if they could come up with ANYTHING that actually draws young people into comics. But this wasn’t it either. Most of their audience is people who are of marrying age. Sure, you see a lot more dating movies than marriage movies, but again, it lends itself to the short storytelling points. There are a lot more married couples on episodic tv. And if you really want to look at the most similar storytelling style – soap operas which had marriages all the time. Followed by just as many divorces. But it wasn’t the marriage that didn’t work; it was the ongoing medium. Though I’m sure in some soap the devil has annulled a marriage.

It’s funny, but I was one of those people who was gung ho about the marriage when first announced and both both variant covers, multiple copies. I polybagged them in mylar. Then I read my reading copy and it was so bad and so unromantic that it actually DEPRESSED me. It was so cynical. It was written in such a detached, depressing way that looking back it almost feels like metacommentary about how the staff didn’t actually want to do it and was only going through the motions because they felt they were “supposed” to get them married. Later on I just realized that it was no metacommentary but just bad writing.

“Hey, so, as for gimmicks, 99% of everything that ever happens to a superhero is a gimmick. It’s the genre.”

I dunno then, well-planned gimmick vs. sudden gimmick?

Chris Claremont gets a lot of crap in the Internet, including this site, but growing up reading his classical X-Men stories made me expect writers to do their work with at least 2 years in advance when it comes to big stories. Roger Stern also set up mysteries for months and months before the big pay-off. *

That is why I have trouble swallowing Avengers Disassembled and stuff like that when a writer is barely 3 issues in a series and he is changing everything already. That is why I have trouble with this wedding issue too.

* Yes, I know that Claremont and Stern both had stories that they couldn’t tell because they waited so long and then editorial changed. But that is a whole ‘nother problem.

It is a shame that this was butchered. There are few life events that are as naturally dramatic as a wedding.

I mean, it is structured to create drama even when absolutely nothing unexpected happens. The build from the Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties to the Rehearsal Dinner to the Wedding itself to the reception to the happy couple leaving has a dramatic arc.

Jim Shooter is a great Editor and a fine Writer, but his track record as co-plotter is spotty at best. No slight on David Michelinie, Paul Ryan and Vince Colletta, but they are not the first names that spring to mind when the subject turns to great Spidey creators.

@renenarciso- Actually, MJ was a HUGE part of the books. She even knew Peter’s secret and obviously had feelings for him. What is true is that they went from not dating to engaged within 3 issues.
@Jeff- this is the same Louise Simonson who had Scott and Jean wreck the surrounding area (and nearly each other) whenever they had a fight.
@Darth- I don’t think the length is the sole problem- Clint and Bobbi and Scott and Maddie had quick courtships and both of those stories were memorable.
@Purple Hayes- most of the “supermodel” problems started with this issue. Before this issue, MJ was a “normal” model.

Brian,

While I had no idea he’d been married for 30 years, I remember enough from back then to ask if Stingray married Diane Arliss, Tiger Shark’s sister?

While I had no idea he’d been married for 30 years, I remember enough from back then to ask if Stingray married Diane Arliss, Tiger Shark’s sister?

Yep, that’s her.

Jeff Nettleton

July 30, 2014 at 11:47 pm

@Michael, I don’t know about the fights (must not have read those); but, Weezie could do some decent relationship stuff. She could also do real kids, as she demonstrated on Power Pack. I think she might have had a better feel for this than Michelinie.

I would agree that, in later hands, Peter and MJ were a pretty good married couple. Ralph and Sue Dibny were awesome, especially when James Robinson put them in Starman. He understood the characters and gave them that Nick and Nora Charles banter (the Thin Man series, for the non-mystery fans). Reed and Sue have done well in certain hands, though Sue more often has played the mother role, even before Franklin came along. I forgot Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne; but, look what happened there. Yeesh!

Travis Pelkie

July 31, 2014 at 2:34 am

Wasn’t part of the rush that Stan wanted to marry them in the newspaper strip? Or have I misremembered that?

Aw, man, total Stingray burnnnnn, Brian!

Ralph and Sue were great in the Elongated Man ’92 mini by Gerard Jones and Mike Parobeck. Oh, MAN, that is such a good mini!

Michael –

Maybe I got the chronology tangled inside my head, but MJ knowing Peter’s secret and all that, I remember it was done in the months right before the wedding issue. Am I wrong?

The way I remember it, there were, like years and years of stories with the Black Cat, Debra Winger, and Captain Jean deWolff, and then, all of a sudden it’s BAM! Mary Jane is back! BAM! She knows Peter’s secret. BAM! They’re married. Like, everything happened in 3 months of stories or so.

Edit: I just checked, and there are, in fact, 3 years of stories between MJ saying she knows Pete’s secret and the marriage. I stand corrected.

@Michael, I don’t know about the fights (must not have read those); but, Weezie could do some decent relationship stuff. She could also do real kids, as she demonstrated on Power Pack. I think she might have had a better feel for this than Michelinie.

I can’t imagine any skill related to writing that Michelinie had a better grasp on than Louise Simonson. Simonson was one of the most underrated greats. She also wrote a great Spider-Man, even though not for long.

@Darth- I don’t think the length is the sole problem- Clint and Bobbi and Scott and Maddie had quick courtships and both of those stories were memorable.

Agreed. Hawkeye and Mockingbird went from MEETING to marriage in 4 issues and it felt better thought out than Michelinie’s run up to the wedding and the wedding issues. And the years he wrote it after weren’t especially compelling. He either wrote the marriage in an unconvincing saccharine, maudlin way during the good times or he would write it like he did here during the bad times. Either way, under his pen the connection always felt very superficial between them. The years Tom DeFalco and others wrote MJ and Peter’s PLATONIC relationship in the years before the engagement and marriage I felt had more genuine warmth and connection between the two than the years Michelinie wrote with them romantically involved.

There were a few things that seems wrong. The storyline wasn’t exactly a stunt. but riptide was rushed.

Stan Lee was actively writing Spider-man newspaper Strip, MJ and Peter had a long relationship there, and to my recollection, never broke up. Stan decided he was going to marry off MJ and Peter in the strip. Jim Shooter freaked out and said that Spider-Man had to be married in the Books before the Newspapers and rushed together a few issues of MJ growing up and getting back together with Peter.

Same thing happened to Superman-originally Lois and Clark was going to get married, but with the new TV series, they delayed and the Doomsday storyline. Then Thorpe TV, in desperation to getting ratings, suddenly married Lois and Clark, the Books had to stop a storyline and get them married.

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