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If Her Hair Was Still Red: Amazing Spider-Man #42

Here’s a new feature of indefinite regularity where I take a look at all of Mary Jane Watson’s comic book appearances in chronological order (by date of publication). Mary Jane’s progression as a character fascinates me.

We continue with 1966’s Amazing Spider-Man #42 by Stan Lee and John Romita, featuring the full first appearance of Mary Jane Watson!

This issue always stood out to me not just because of the introduction of Mary Jane Watson, but what the introduction of Mary Jane meant for the book. In a lot of ways, Romita was still in his “Draw like Steve Ditko” mode in this issue. Romita’s Gwen Stacy was still very much Steve Ditko’s Gwen Stacy. However, Romita’s Peter Parker was slowly starting to become a bit more Romita than Ditko (while still being very much Ditko) and Mary Jane, of course, was all Romita.

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Early Gwen Stacy was a real pistol. Totally unlike how she’s been retroactively depicted.

Later, as Peter reflects on his love life, it’s interesting how he even admits to himself how it’s a bit odd how quickly Betty Brant went out of his life.

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The main plot of the issue is John Jameson going nuts due to some sort of space virus he got while in space (it also gave him super-strength). Anyhow, he succeeds in curing Jameson and he goes home to relax, but then he recalls that he has to meet Mary Jane…

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I love that great Romita panel of Peter putting his head in his hand, waiting to meet Mary Jane.

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So here it is – we know Mary Jane has to be pretty but not just pretty but really STAND OUT, so John Romita went to the then-recent film Bye Bye Birdie and star actress Ann-Margret for the inspiration for Mary Jane’s body…

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Good thinking, Romita!

Okay, so now we combine Romita’s brilliant design with Stan Lee’s striking dialogue for this classic introduction at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #42…

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Wow, that’s pretty freakin’ awesome.

If you have any thoughts on early MJ in particular, you can drop me a line at bcronin@comicbookresources.com. Maybe I’ll address you e-mail in an installment.

34 Comments

This is just great, Brian! Can’t wait for the next installment!

The tone of the Lee/Romita Spidey’s are so different from the Ditko run. But there’s little moments like Peter imagining he had his own apartment that show that Lee knew how to get kids to nod in agreement with a character.

Here’s a suggestion for a future feature Brian. Growing up I read all my old Spider-Man comics in reprint form. Since the reprints were recolored, Peter Parker’s eyes were always brown. I recently started reading classic Spider-Man again but this time scanned versions of the original comics with the original coloring, and now I notice that Peter Parker’s eyes were originally blue! At first I thought this must just be something from early years, but I reached the late 70s and his eyes are STILL blue. When did the eye color change to brown? (On a side note, I think I looked at a recent Slott issue and it seems Pete’s eyes are blue again?)

Really, it’s one of the all-time iconic moments in all of American superhero comics, especially in light of how important Mary Jane went on to become.

One of the great character intros.

I love this feature. It’s a brilliant idea to celebrate one of the all time best Marvel characters. Few things that popped into my head:

(1) If you’re really covering ALL all of her appearances, you missed her cameo in ASM #38 – she’s “on-screen” for one panel talking to Aunt May.

(2) When you say “Early Gwen Stacy was a real pistol, not like she’s been retroactively depicted,” to be fair to later writers, this is not just retroactive. A doe-eyed symbol of innocence and simplicity, existing only for her man: this is how Stan Lee depicted Gwen from about issue 55 on. Ditko’s Gwen was sassy and full of life. For all the flak he takes for his regressive views, Ditko’s gender politics have always been pretty ahead of the curve, and way ahead of Stan Lee. Ditko is creating women super heroes even now, and certainly not because of pressure from all his Twitter followers.

(3) You can really see that “Draw like Ditko” was the order of the day in that panel where Spider-Man is swinging at the reader. It’s literally a redrawn Ditko illustration (see the cover of ASM #19). I suspect somebody at the offices, probably Stan, viewed that drawing as the quintessential Spider-Man drawing, because it also appears pasted into Fantastic Four Annual #3 to replace Kirby’s drawing in a one-panel Spidey cameo.

Finally, and this is only tangentially relevant, but somewhere in this run of Gwen related issues (between 42 and 150, I can’t narrow it down further than that, sorry) is my all-time favorite letter to the Spider’s Web. It’s from a female reader who hates Gwen Stacy, thinks she’s an absolute dullard, compares her to a consumer product, which I want to say was either an empty Coke bottle or a slice of Wonder Bread, and pines for the day when Mary Jane will be Peter’s girlfriend. It might be good to post this letter in your column.

PS: If anyone knows what issue the letter is in, please tell me! I’d like to read it again.

I always felt that the “doe-eyed symbol of innocence and simplicity” (good phrase, Cass) take on Gwen was a deliberate ploy to give readers a perfect fake girlfriend to project their own fantasies of an ideal woman onto. And it worked, because they’re still doing it today.

Incidentally, this characterization of Gwen essentially rendered her a younger version of Aunt May that Peter could have sex with (or at least think about having sex with; see the awful madonna-whore shit that came out of fandom after Sins Past happened). To my knowledge, no comics professional has ever addressed this.

If you’re really covering ALL all of her appearances, you missed her cameo in ASM #38 – she’s “on-screen” for one panel talking to Aunt May.

Good catch! I just edited the first installment to now be both of her obscured appearances. Thanks a lot.

Good point, T. What did make his blue eyes blue?

Awesome character. Painful how they’ve not done much with her for the past few years.

What about us fans on team Gwen?

I have to say, before I even clicked on the article, I guessed Ann Margaret. You can see the resemblance in the iconic drawing.

Many years ago (late 80s/early 90s) when I first started collecting, I stumbled upon a garage sale that had a bunch of 80s dreck for cheap(like Blue Beetle, Blue Devil, Marvel Team Up, Power Pack etc) but amidst all the flotsam was a not indecent copy of this issue which I threw in my purchase pile. I didn’t know much of anything about comics and didn’t realize until much later this was MJs first appearance.

Thank you for giving some much-needed love and attention to Mary Jane. It’s a shame what Marvel has done to her in the past decade. They were finally getting things right with Renew Your Vows, but they quickly messed it up too.

I assume it was that song about “don’t it make your brown eyes blue”. No, I have no idea what that means.

Rollo – those are all good comics you’ve listed. (Well… I don’t know Blue Beetle well enough to comment.)

Travis – I knew I should’ve looked up the lyrics before I posted!

I’m aware of the song but I can’t remember who did it and I’m too lazy to look it up.

Man, that had to have been THE most awkward boner ever. Not only in front of the fa-boo-lus babe that’s at the door, but in front of both her aunt AND his aunt.

“Man, did one of my web fluid containers break in my pants?”

It’s a Crystal Gale song. I always assumed that the blue refers to being sad. Peter’s blue eyes becoming brown, though… odd!

I never knew the Ann-Margret trivia. Neat!

MJ’s introductory panel has my favorite line of Stan Lee dialogue ever. (“With great power there must also come great responsibility” up there too of course, but that was narration and not dialogue. And not as good!)

Cass, yes. As someone pointed out in the comments a few years ago, early Gwen is a science major and apparently a brain, something I was surprised to discover when I went and reread the issues. The Gwen I’m more familiar with is the blander later version.

In Batman ’66, it appears that Poison Ivy is imagined as being portrayed by Ann Margaret. Too bad that never happened — though I don’t even know if the character existed when the TV show was airing.

Travis and Freedy –
I checked, and the song I was thinking of turns out to be Blue Eyes Blue by Clapton. (I don’t know the Crystal Gale song, sorry.) I agree that the second ‘blue’ in my song means ‘sad’.

Man, I miss the days when the supporting cast members in major Big 2 titles were interesting enough on their own that they didn’t have to become superheroes or supervillains (that being said, I do think it was great when Norman Osborn was revealed to be the Green Goblin (maybe contrary to the departed Ditko’s intent)).

Ditko is not departed.

Also the Osborn revelation was not contrary to Ditko’s intent. He is on record in a self-published essay that he always intended for Osborn to be the Goblin. This is also clear in Ditko’s last Spider-Man issues. In his final issue, Ditko draws Osborn (in a green business suit, no less) donning a disguise and putting a hit out on Spider-Man.

Oh I see now that you probably just meant departed from the title. Apologies for the needless correction.

Yeah, I meant departed from the title. I could never remember if that was an accurate myth or not – I’m sure it’s been covered on Comic Book Legends Revealed, but I was too lazy to look it up (obviously, Ditko had something in mind for Osborn – he was clearly shown to be a sinister dude, but I couldn’t remember if he was meant to be the Goblin).

Yeah, it’s been revealed that Ditko always meant Osborn to be the Goblin.

I think the origin of this legend is that some people tend to attribute everything cool/different/unusual in the 1960s Marvel titles to Kirby and Ditko, and attribute all the “cliched” or melodramatic things to Stan Lee. So, of course the Goblin being Harry’s father must be Stan Lee…

(This reputation also works sometimes against Kirby and Ditko. People say that Kirby is unable to write romance or everyday drama, when in fact he worked on a lot of great romance comics in the 1950s).

I think the origin of this legend is that some people tend to attribute everything cool/different/unusual in the 1960s Marvel titles to Kirby and Ditko, and attribute all the “cliched” or melodramatic things to Stan Lee. So, of course the Goblin being Harry’s father must be Stan Lee…

The origin of the legend is that John Romita said that that’s what he was told was the reason why Ditko left back when he started on Amazing. It’s been Romita’s repetition of the story that has made it become such a widespread legend.

Peter Hohman –

I was thinking about why Marvel and DC do not have a strong presence of “human” supporting characters in their books any longer.

The obvious answers seemed to be that kill-happy gritty writers have depleted the ranks of supporting characters or that new writers prefer to replace the supporting cast when they start on a title and that is why the cast never solidifies, but I think these things were already common in the 1970s and 1980s, but supporting casts still thrived. So I think the problem lies elsewhere.

My theory is that the new writing style that came to dominate Marvel and DC in the 2000s, decompressed storytelling with no thought balloons, no captions (except for first person narration), and more naturalistic dialogue has killed the supporting cast in superhero books.

Because in the old days, writers could get away with featuring a supporting character in 1 or 2 pages in that month’s issue, and pack a LOT of stuff in those few pages. You could have a page with a lot of text in it. It was not very naturalistic, but it worked. Just look at the pages featured above.

But with the new style, a simple conversation may take 6 pages and still feel incomplete, because you can’t get the thoughts of the supporting character. No thought balloons, no declamatory dialogue. And when you have only 24 pages to tell a story that also must feature action scenes… it’s no surprise that writers cant find the space to feature a lot of supporting characters in a monthly basis in modern comics.

That is why I always say that the modern style is not perfect or even inherently better. It comes with certain trade-offs. People scoff at Chris Claremont’s purple prose, but that had its advantages, since Claremont could, in the space of just 2 pages, show to us the thoughts of an entire superteam (like in a famous scene in the Phoenix’s death story). Nowadays you’d have to use an ENTIRE comic to do the same.

Yeah, I never got the logic behind getting rid of thought balloons. Unless you’re doing a voice over it’s the only visual medium where you can know what the characters think and you ditch that.

Sony shows their failure by never really using MJ’s signature line.

And what was comics obsession with blue eyed brunettes? It’s not really that common, but you can’t be a major character without being one it seems.

@M-Wolverine: Apparently they did… in a The Amazing Spider-Man 2 deleted scene! :p Confirmed by Shailene Woodley who was cast as MJ and even had her scenes filmed.

“And what was comics obsession with blue eyed brunettes? It’s not really that common, but you can’t be a major character without being one it seems.”

When you see them irl, they’re very striking.

“Early Gwen Stacy was a real pistol. Totally unlike how she’s been retroactively depicted.”

Like the nerdy Gwen from Spectacular Spider-Man.

I wonder what kinds of women Stan Lee was exposed to when he wrote these ’60s comics. I’m not a fan of his Sue Storm, Wanda and Janet van Dyne since they were portrayed too klutzy and dependent on the men in their lives and then you jump over to Spider-Man and Parker has Gwen, Liz and Betty to deal with who can handle themselves and are more independent.

Triniking1234 –

This is just conjecture and idle theorizing, but:

I think it may have something to do with Stan Lee’s collaborators? I get the impression that both Kirby and Ditko tended to be way less sexist than Stan Lee, but Kirby was not pushing for strong women at that time and let Stan Lee write the females as girly girls (quite a contrast to Kirby’s earlier romance comics or later Fourth World comics, that tended to feature strong women). While Steve Ditko in Spider-Man simply drew the women as too dynamic and domineering for Stan Lee to “girlify” them.

So V, you’re saying they actually did something right in Amazing Spider-Man 2? How tacky would it have been it have her dropping that line in the same film Gwen is dying in? I mean, can you imagine in the comic instead of the “almost leaving but close the door” scene between MJ and Peter after Goblin kills Gwen they had gone with Peter moping and MJ popping in to say “Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!” Yikes.

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