This week, the final issue of Dan Slott and Adam Kubert’s five-part Secret Wars miniseries, The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, went on sale. As one of dozens of fractured spin-offs from an epic Marvel event where writers and artists are allowed to play fast and loose with whatever continuity they prefer, Renew Your Vows is a bit of a side mission from Slott’s reign as webbed overlord of The Amazing Spider-Man. However, unlike his work on the regular ongoing series, Slott is returning to a different era for the wall-crawler: a time when he was married, maturing, and even a father. A time when he was an actual character.
Indeed, Renew Your Vows depicts a tangible nostalgia for a bygone age of Marvel Comics with its vaguely 1990s setting. In addition to Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson still being husband and wife, as they were in the comics from 1987 until 2007, many of the story threads from that time are revisited: Peter Parker is again struggling to make ends meet as a freelance photographer while flinching under J. Jonah Jameson’s bark at The Daily Bugle; Spidey is a mysterious loner to the rest of the superhero and Avengers community (all gloriously attired in pre-Marvel Studios costumes); Eddie Brock is once more reunited with his better Venom half; and Peter Parker is a father to a very young daughter.
With this boldest of moves that most likely has piqued long-time Spidey fans’ interest, Slott is dealing directly with what made Spider-Man once the most unique character in Marvel’s pantheon—as well as what Marvel has been trying to resist for the better part of 20 years.
Unto themselves, the 1990s were hardly the best era for Spider-Man comics. Despite a number of classic and character-defining stories greeting the beginning of the decade by the likes of writers J.M. DeMatteis or even David Michelinie (on his better days), that era was plagued for years by Marvel resisting the simple conceit that Peter Parker was designed by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to grow and evolve. And however slowly that has continually happened for the perpetually 20-something character, it nevertheless did happen.
After creating the high school character in 1962, both Lee and Ditko were still on board when the web-slinger graduated in 1965. By 1978, he was out of college. Eventually he found several career paths, a brief and failed stint as a graduate student, and even settled down with longtime flame, Mary Jane Watson, the girl he was never supposed to marry.
This one distinct example of characters taking on a life of their own is what bedevils Marvel Comics to this day. Despite what the Sam Raimi movies have led a generation of moviegoers to believe, Mary Jane Watson was never Peter Parker’s Lois Lane, nor was she supposed to be the love of his life. She was Stan Lee and legendary artist John Romita Sr.’s bemusing attempt at capturing the burgeoning youth culture of the 1960s on the page. MJ was rock n’ roll and flower power, Ann-Margret and Beatlemania—she’s whatever those kids were listening to these days, man. The entertainment of her being around a square like Peter is that she could see Peter was the most swinging cat in their college friends group, even if he wore suits to class every day.
But she was a diversion from the character who actually was created to be Peter’s Lois Lane: kind, polite, and angelic girl next door Gwen Stacy. Lee and Romita were never ones for nuance, and they often contrasted them as Police Captain Stacy’s obedient daughter on the one hand, and a flakey bombshell redhead on the other. The funny thing is that everyone liked the flake better, including Stan Lee and John Romita. This was so true that when Lee’s The Amazing Spider-Man successor, Gerry Conway, took over the book, he intentionally broke a comic taboo and had the Green Goblin kill off Gwen Stacy—a “Day the Music Died” for comic book innocence in many respects.
But it also freed Peter Parker to grow, as most young adults do. He would not marry his first love, nor would he even run-off with MJ right away. Instead, the slightly sadder but wiser Peter rebounded with a number of romances, including Black Cat and a married Betty Brant, all of which helped give the brand the perpetually young and single hero that was originally created. Except, he hadn’t really quite been that character since high school. And soon, he’d have a confidant in Mary Jane.
Slowly developed by later writers like Marv Wolfman and especially Tom DeFalco, Mary Jane was revealed to be as complicated as Peter Parker, masking her own damaged childhood and abusive father with her outgoing persona. And in 1984, MJ revealed her own big secret: she had known for years that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, having once witnessed him sneaking about in costume. She kept it to herself for years, amused with the knowledge.
From that moment onward, despite whatever soap opera obstacles thrown their way, she also became the woman Peter had the strongest connection with. She may not have been intended as a serious love interest when she was created, but sometimes like reality, the unplanned life occurs. Over several decades of organic storytelling, these two characters built a bond that Marvel still can’t shake away, despite its best efforts.
Sentimentality aside, there is something charming about how these characters were never supposed to do anything more than flirt, but with almost a will of their own, they kept growing and moving toward each other until Stan Lee finally forced Marvel’s hand and had them married in 1987. As the end result of a series of writers unknowingly building up a love interest to the point where all others seemed irrelevant to Peter’s life, Marvel trapped itself into a bridal suite corner…which is where they returned with Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.
The title of this new comic series is obviously a wink and a nudge about returning to the days that Peter Parker married the girl not meant for him. But it is also renewing for fans of the original Peter Parker. For any Millennial born during or after 1987 (including this writer), Peter Parker and Mary Jane Parker were always a couple, and even during the worst stories, that was their strength. And few stories could be worse than the time that Marvel, or more precisely then Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, finally freed themselves from the marriage in One More Day. That story has Peter Parker proverbially sell his soul to the Devil by literally having him sell his marriage to Marvel’s demonic entity, Mephisto, in order to save a dying Aunt May’s life.
If you haven’t read the actual miniseries, it’s not as bad as it sounds; it’s much worse.
Thus, Spider-Man never got married, and none of the events during his marriage ever happened…including the birth of a daughter, the other dirty secret that Marvel wanted people to forget. Ironically, Baby May “Mayday” Parker came from Marvel’s previous attempt to undo the Spider-Marriage in the 1990s when Peter Parker’s clone, single and “exciting” Ben Reilly, took up the webby-mantle. They also tried to send Peter and MJ off into the sunset with their daughter—only to be shocked that readers hated the idea that the Peter Parker they had known for 35 years would no longer be Spidey. So bye-bye Ben Reilly, and bye-bye Mayday, both of whom were explicitly or implicitly killed off by the resurrected Norman Osborn.
But much like Peter and MJ taking on a life of their own as a damnably resilient and admirable “opposites attract” couple, the idea of them having a daughter has surprisingly persisted on through the years for fans, especially in Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz, and Mark Bagley’s Spider-Girl series, which imagined an alternate universe where Mayday grew up to be a teenage superheroine and carries on the family legacy while dealing with Peter and MJ as still very married parents. It’s a title that Marvel also tried several times to cancel before finally ending it for good some time after One More Day.
With Renew Your Vows, all of the above is surprisingly laid bare and Dan Slott and Adam Kubert are allowed to continue the arc that Marvel has been fighting ever since introducing those clones: what if Peter Parker continues to grow up?
Prior to the off-page death of baby May, Peter Parker was always growing, and so was Mary Jane. Beginning as just a 16-year-old kid who got bitten by a radioactive spider, he eventually finished school, found a serious job, and matured into a more battle-hardened and smarter superhero. In the 2000s, they even briefly toyed with making Peter a teacher before that too was likely excised for aging the character with a parental role that pushed 30.
The old Marvel adage is that writing comic books is about creating “the illusion of change.” Yet, unlike almost any other superhero, Peter Parker changed rapidly throughout his comic book career from boy to man, from amateur to professional, and finally from single to husband. And as soon as Marvel introduced the idea of Peter Parker as a father, that likewise became the next step where the character was stalled at between 1996 (the birth of May) and the complete gutting of his depth in 2007 by an editorial mandate.
But for whatever Slott’s personal thoughts might be on the marriage or MJ, he cannot help but finally embrace what feels like a storyline that the comic book publisher has been avoiding for years. In Renew Your Vows, Peter Parker is drawn by Kubert as distinctly older and perhaps finally over that 30-year-old milestone that Joe Quesada so fretted about eight years ago. He also has taken on the greatest responsibility yet: being a father to daughter Annie.
Choosing to name the daughter Annie certainly presents this as a “What If” storyline. But unlike the rest of the Secret Wars spin-off titles, which are taking place on a new alternate continuity “Battleworld” created by Doctor Doom in some kind of strained, kooky comic book logic, there is no direct mention of Doom, “Battleworld,” or any of the rest of Secret Wars’ labored setting. Instead, the focus is on returning to that point where Peter Parker had a daughter with Mary Jane, and then exploring that to its fullest.
In the first issue of Renew Your Vows, fans are treated to the Peter Parker and Mary Jane of the past, and not the 23-year-old Never Never Land variations of the characters Slott has been writing for the past seven years in The Amazing Spider-Man, nor the angsty criers whose shared moping was the one weak spot in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Rather, they are again husband and wife, and adults. They’re still idealized on the page as a superhero and a beautiful (if struggling) soap opera actress, but they’re also healthy, happy, and actually a commendable depiction of well-adjusted adulthood for young male readers whose other comic book diet might primarily consist of brooding fascists in caves, or bachelor fantasies in iron armor.
But it is when danger hits even during the first issue’s second half that Slott reveals how there are actually a great variety of stories to mine out of a parental Peter Parker, which Marvel has long eschewed. Admittedly, the threads are hastily hobbled together because Slott and Kubert will only have five issues with this return of married Spidey, but they’re making the most out of it.
In the back half of the first installment, Spider-Man is given an impossible choice: help the Avengers confront the latest acutely bland ‘90s-esque megalomaniac with plans of world domination, or return home because unlike the other more one-note Avengers, he has an actual home-life with MJ and Annie, and there has been a simultaneous prison break at Ryker’s. Since one of Peter’s arch-nemeses (Venom!) is in Ryker’s, it’s no choice at all.
Slott is finally allowed to present Peter with a new dynamic, ditching his more popular superhero buddies and instead runs the web-head home to find Venom…stalking his daughter. Fortunately, MJ proves to be every bit as resourceful as we’ve come to love. She knows Venom’s symbiote is afraid of fire, so instead of shouting for help, she hitches a ride on a passing fire truck and hides with her baby daughter inside a burning building where Venom is scared to venture.
It’s there that Spider-Man is faced with another tough choice on whether to allow Venom to potentially haunt his daughter, or to remove the threat for good. Slott has Peter Parker plan and orchestrate Venom’s death by fire with the expressed intent of killing the baddie. When faced with protecting his own child, he has learned of something greater than “great power,” he has discovered an even greater responsibility.
That inaugural issue ended with Peter’s choice having dire ramifications. For killing Venom, Spidey has gone underground, and the generic villain named Regent shockingly killed the Avengers, presumably because Spider-Man was not there. It is now some years later, and Peter Parker has chosen to only be a father to his young daughter. For now.
From the very beginning, the seeds were sown for the story’s inevitable undoing in September. When Doctor Doom is stopped in the main Secret Wars plotline, and continuity is righted or streamlined, obviously the Avengers will not be dead, and the underlying message will be that Peter Parker is a better superhero when he doesn’t have a family to worry about.
But that will be the wrong takeaway.
Exploring a Spider-Man willing to murder in order to protect his family proves there is an entire avenue of story possibilities Marvel has forsaken for a character they have attempted to return to his single, post-graduate days from the 1970s. One who they have also struggled greatly to make interesting again.
Ultimately, the appeal and challenge of Peter Parker is that he’s most interesting when he is moving forward and doing something different…even if that is apparently with an Octopus in his head. Other superheroes’ status quo can be the same as it was 40 years ago, but Peter Parker is not Peter Pan. Nor has Mary Jane proved to be a Wendy Darling whom writers can leave back at home when they’re done with her. Pete and MJ’s ability to both grow layers together is indeed why the brand has been so unable to shake the marriage or even parenthood off.
Marvel’s desire to return Peter and MJ to a beta stage—by way of character-assassinating Faustian deals, no less—has robbed Peter of much of his appeal; a fact that is self-evident when one considers the most popular Spider-Man comic stories of the post-One More Day era are the ones where Miles Morales became the young hip, teenage Spider-Man Marvel covets in an alternate universe.
Well, Miles is about to join the main Marvel Comics universe as the most editorially desirable teenage superhero. Maybe it’s time the publisher grew up in regards to Peter Parker; the character did so decades ago.
I try to grow up all the time on Twitter (to inconclusive results).
This article was originally published on July 6, 2015.