A few years ago, while pondering the question of why Spider‑Man hasn’t had an All‑Star Superman, I realized that even though Spider‑Man has been married in the comics, the majority of my favorite pre-OMD Spider‑Man stories featured a single Spider‑Man. These included stories outside the regular Marvel Universe in which Peter and MJ weren’t married, Untold Tales, and the stories released during the periods in which Peter and MJ were briefly separated or MJ was believed dead. It could be an odd coincidence, or a correlation caused by a different factor. There are less opportunities to tell stories with a single Spider‑Man, so it could just be that better writers were given the chance to tell those stories.
But there are two other possibilities. If it isn’t just a coincidence, or something to do with the selection process behind assembling creative teams for Untold Tales style projects, either better writers are drawn to stories with a single Spider‑Man, or Peter Parker being single allows the writers to tell better stories. If either is true, I reasoned that erasing the marriage should increase the percentage of upcoming acclaimed Spider‑Man stories.
Examples of great recent pre-OMD stories with an unmarried Peter Parker include the best of Ultimate Spider‑Man, the first two Spider‑Man Movies, most of Spider‑Man: Blue (with the exception of the last three pages), the first four issues of Dan Slott’s Spider‑Man/ Human Torch mini series, Darwyn Cooke’s Valentines Day Tangled Web, Lee Weeks’ Death and Destiny mini series, Joe Kelly’s prom story in Webspinners, Negative Exposure, Dematteis and John Romita Sr’s “The Kiss”back-up from Webspinners #1 and even Kaare Andrew’s alternate future tale Reign, which featured a widowed Peter Parker. Going back a few years, you could add Busiek’s Amazing Fantasy mini‑series and the best of Untold Tales of Spider‑Man to the list.
A disproportionate amount of great Spider‑Man stories were published during a three year period when Mary Jane wasn’t part of the book. She was believed dead for an year and a half, and then left Peter to move to California for 20+ issues. There was some really good stuff at the time, especially when Howard Mackie wasn’t writing. During that period, you had Paul Jenkins’s first two standalone issues, The Revenge of the Green Goblin crossover (even Mackie’s issue of that was exceptional), Jenkins’s Robot Master and euthanasia two-parter, his Fusion three‑parter, Straczynski’s first nine issues of Amazing Spider‑Man (with Morlun, and Aunt May learning Spider‑Man’s identity) and “Heroes Don’t Cry.”
There were some excellent and beloved Spider‑Man stories since the 1998 relaunch featuring a Peter Parker married to Mary Jane, but not as many. The list would include Jenkins’s last issue of Spectacular Spider‑Man, his Chameleon three‑parter in Webspinners, the fifth issue of Spider‑Man/ Human Torch, the last three pages of Spider‑Man: Blue, the Sensational Spider‑Man annual, Straczynski’s “Happy Birthday” and “Book of Ezekiel” three‑parters, Mark Millar’s twelve issue stint on Marvel Knights Spider‑Man, the best of Spider‑Girl (I’d argue that the best of Ultimate Spider‑Man more than makes up for this one), the Friendly Neighborhood Spider‑Man confrontation with J Jonah Jameson, “My Science Teacher is Spider‑Man,” and Beland’s Web of Romance one‑shot. And that’s pretty much it.
While I’m sure that there are readers who believe that the stories mentioned are among the worst in comic book history, most of the comics I listed are fairly popular. Opinions could differ, but it’s difficult to deny the success and popularity of Ultimate Spider‑Man, Spider‑Man 2 or JMS’s first nine issues of Amazing Spider‑Man among general Spider‑Man readers. At the same time, I’ve yet to hear anyone make a convincing case for any recent Spider‑Man tale being as acclaimed as The Dark Knight Returns or All-Star Superman. This isn’t me just defending random Spider‑Man stories I happen to like. It’s a trend I notice with many of the most successful and acclaimed Spider‑Man stories, material which I happen to enjoy.
As Peter and Mary Jane were married in the regular comics, a majority of the stories featured that status quo. Therefore, a greater percentage of pre-OMD great Spider-Man stories should have featured a married Peter and MJ. It’s significant if there seem to be more great stories in which they are single. Spider‑Man: Blue, one story which made both lists, exemplifies the possibility that the marriage represents an ending, not a plot that can go somewhere exciting. It features Peter reminiscing about his relationship with Gwen Stacy, and ends with him happily married to Mary Jane, presumably forever. It works for a solitary TPB, but not for a never‑ending serial.
Some of the stories that I’ve mentioned don’t have romantic tension, but there are other things the marriage removed. A few came from a period when Mary Jane had essentially left Peter, bringing their relationship to an uncertain place—right after Mackie’s last arc. While Peter wasn’t really romantically interested in anyone else at the time, there was more tension in those stories because he lacked a supportive wife to go home to when a story arc was done.
There is the question of how much any change to the status quo would contribute to good stories, and the comparison has been made between Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane and his job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, with the suggestion that his Bugle job wasn’t all that important. This doesn’t work as well since the latter has been a big part of many of the best Spider‑Man stories ever, even if it was just the scrapbook of Jonah’s retractions in “The Kid Who Collects Spider‑Man.” Peter Parker working for the paper doesn’t limit the stories you can tell with him and opens up new stories, with the Bugle providing the perfect excuse to put Peter Parker in situations in which Spider‑Man is needed. His usual position as a freelance photographer also meant that he didn’t have job security, which kept the Bugle from bringing stability to his status quo. Post-OMD, he has been blacklisted from any photography positions. Presumably his marriage was more stable.
There were certainly clunkers with the single Spider‑Man and the Illusion of Change approach, but they compare rather favorably to the worst of married Spider‑Man: “Peter Parker No More!” “Live and Let Die,” the worst of the Clone Saga and post‑reboot Howard Mackie. There have been fantastic Spider‑Man writers since the marriage (JM Dematteis, Paul Jenkins, and Mark Millar immediately come to mind) so the question of why we haven’t seen Spider‑Man’s Killing Joke is not a matter of the past creative teams not being good enough. The conclusion I reached was that Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane. and the way it limited the writers, is one of the reasons the books simply weren’t as good as they could be.