Marvel Comics (by way of writer Fabian Nicieza, who wins this week's coveted "Best. Pitch. Ever." Award) was kind enough to subsidize the Week of Lovin' with its "I <3 Marvel" month, a series of one-shots revolving around the romantic escapades of our favorite heroes. This week's installment, by comics' Guru of Lovin' Tom Beland, is a hoot and a half, and also nicely proves a point I've been making for years.
Beland, for those of you without indie snob friends, rose to fame via "True Story Swear To God," an autobiographical comic that chronicles the uos, downs, ins, outs, and sidewayses of his relationship with his real-life girlfriend. Like most auto-bi comics, TSSTG contains more than a few self-deprecating revelations from its author. Unlike most, however, it doesn't wallow in them, or lapse into the literary equivalent of an emo teenager cutting himself for attention. The hallmarks of Beland's series, and what sets it apart in a market saturated with tortured pity-party writing, is his willingness to embrace the simple, happy moments and feelings that are a real part of everyday relationships. It also makes Beland a perfect fit for the Peter-Mary Jane relationship, one I feel has been unfairly maligned by both fandom and certain elements in comics professional-dom. More on this later.
The story is simple: Valentine's Day is coming up, and Peter is struggling to find just the right gift for Mary Jane. Last year, she got him an iPod, and he got her a picture frame. There's making up to do. He asks everyone he knows, from Luke Cage to the Mandrill, for advice. But the answer, as it should, comes from paying careful, loving attention to Mary Jane herself. (I won't spoil the gift here, because you really should just go buy the comic and see it for yourself, but it is totally cool. If I were MJ, that gift would easily buy Peter a month plus change of blowjobs.) And, as he observes her, we see along with him the kind of woman Spider-Man would marry.
I think we've all been in that relationship where we're convinced our partner is cooler than us. This is like that, except MJ really is cooler than Peter, No doubt about it. She's the one who watches sports with the other Avengers and schools Captain America in the ins and outs of basketball. (Steve's more a baseball guy.) Meanwhile, Peter's hanging in the kitchen with aunt May and Jarvis. Here's where most writers would make this a point of contention between the couple, with Peter becoming jealous that the Avengers like her more. Instead, like a mature husband, he sees that they love the same qualities about her that he does. And, by the end, so do we.
Let's backtrack a bit. "Like a mature husband." Comics, specifically superhero comics, don't have a great history of writing mature couples. More often than not, writers will apply the same confrontational plotting that they do with the hero's villains to the significant other. (Mort Weisinger made a killing, and inspired a website, doing this with Superman and Lois Lane.) Even the best writers often fall victim to soap-opera style relationship plotting that reduces the SO to either plot device or background dressing; it's a sad statement that the most well-portrayed couple in comics, month-in and month-out, is Midnighter and Apollo from the Authority, two otherwise wholly reprehensible characters (especially Midnighter). They may rip out the villains' spines and wipe countries off the map on a bad day, but at least they're equal partners.
Which brings us to that malignment I mentioned earlier. It's been said by some that marrying MJ ruined Peter's character. That it removed all the drama from his love life, made it boring. I've always suspected that these people were asexual moon men who'd never even met a married couple before, let alone been in a committed relationship. Either that, or they were stuck viewing relationships in the juvenile Brothers Grimm fashion, where a wife is merely another treasure for a man to steal from the giant or witch,* with marriage being the endpoint, happily ever after. Regardless, these people (most of them condemned bachelors, I should note) are dumb. Marriage isn't an ending, but a beginning, and committed relationships aren't the death of superhero storytelling, they're a fountain of new stories. Stories like this one, that prove the adage about what's behind every great man. Or stories about the spouses themselves, about MJ, or Lois Lane, or Sue Dibny, or even Lincoln's mom, that reveal who they are and what they mean, and make them just as heroic and iconic as the men who love them.
If superheroes are supposed to show us how to be good people, then married superheroes should show us how to be good partners. This story does just that, and that's something you should be talking about.