Spider-Man loves Mary Jane - issues 1-4
The first thing that struck me about "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" was that the title of the book instantly echoes the old "Superman's Girlfriend: Lois Lane" style comics that existed back in the silver-age. That alone makes me feel as though this is a slightly more innocent take on the Spider-Man property. But what's it actually about, and who's it supposed to be for? Based on my impressions of the first 4 issues, let's see if I can't shed a little light on things.
Before we go any further, it's worth noting that this is just a retitling of the recently killed Mary Jane solo series by the same creative team of Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa, which lasted for two 4-issue minis. It's set, out-of-continuity (for those that might care), when Peter and MJ were still in school, and has MJ as the protaganist. As a typical male comics geek I was never remotely associated with the more popular girls at school, so reading a comic about one is a departure for sure. Luckily my perspective is adequately catered for because Peter Parker shows up in full-nerd mode competing for the attention of one Miss Mary-Jane Watson with, as you may have guessed, none other than Spider-Man.
The relationship between the characters in the title seems to draw heavily on the films. The original comics never played Spider-Man, MJ and Peter off in a love-triangle as the films have done, and while on the surface it seems like an obviously classic theme, I can't for the life of me figure out where else it's been done except for that one horrible Batman film ("It's the car, right? Chicks dig the car?" - Kill me.) I say that, but of course, this sort of thing has been a staple of the Spider-Man mythos, the differing perceptions of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, as interpreted by such characters as Flash Thompson (The school bully who beats up Peter while Spidey is his hero) or Aunt May (Who loves Peter like a son but can't stand "that awful Spider-Man") so it's only natural that this theme should be used for the central hook for the series.
Based on the content of the current storyline, however, the comic might well be more accurately titled "Mary Jane loves Spider-Man" because that's really the direction of this relationship. Sure, Peter uses his identity as Spider-Man to attempt to win her over, but the closer she gets to Spider-Man the further she gets from him, as he attempts to turn their friendship into something more. It's especially affecting because he's actively pushing her away but because he doesn't really distinguish between his two identities like she does, he's not really seeing that. I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a good romance comic because it's the only genre where I feel like the romance is actually coming from my peers, rather than from some dodgily-constructed social ideal. Sure, SMLMJ (how's that for an acronym? Pronounced "smulemjay") isn't on the same level as the indie creators as far as that goes, but if this has to be more conventional, at least it's putting across the ideas in a way I can appreciate - using Spider-Man.
Which brings me to the second part of my ponderance - just who is this book for? It's clearly aimed at younger teenagers - the stories aren't overly violent or outrageous, the humour is gentle and the art is beautifully manga-influenced which would give it a sense of familiarity to that age group. It's also way too easy to sit there and say that because it's about a girl, it's a girl's comic - while that's undeniably going to be the way people see it, McKeever's writing has adequately catered for the overwhelmingly large audience (make your own 'fat' pun) of male comic readers, who are bound to have experience both of failing to get girls to notice their interest, and of feeling almost unworthy of attention against the local alpha males. Or was that just me? But still, the only real obstacle to getting a male reader onto this would be their reluctance to buy a comic with the word "loves" in the title - were they to read it, they'd undoubtedly find the material both personally relevant and somewhat sympathetic -the only problem being that the majority of comics fans are likely to have outgrown this type of story (either by getting a girlfriend, or giving up on the idea completely).
Since the material does appear to be based around the timeless high-school crush, there is the obvious danger of retreading. Saying something is timeless is often another way of saying it's been done so often it's lost all poigniancy and relevance. While we may be able to identify with the characters, what's to say we feel like sticking around to see how it works out? One worry is that the plot can't actually go very far, since despite being out of continuity, it may want to avoid causing any obvious disparity with the films and mainstream comics in the way it would if Peter and MJ did actually start dating - part of the problem with basing a series on a love triangle is finding a way to get some plot movement and resolution without negating the premise.
The main interest, for me, is the new interpretations of the characters. As a high school student, Peter was often seen only as a bullied wimp who, due to the attitudes and writing conventions that prevailed when the high-school issues of Spider-Man were originally published, would usually lie back and take his punishment. SMLMJ gives a slightly more self-assured version of Peter, coupled with a more insecure version of MJ than we're used to seeing, which gives them both a depth that could so easily have been lacking. It's always good to see MJ being treated as an actual character rather than just a foil for Peter - sure, Peter and Spider-Man are a constant background presence, but the supporting characters of Liz, Harry and Lindsay also play off MJ to show us what she's like when she's with her peers - something desperately lacking in the mainstream Spider-Man titles. The supporting cast is one of the strengths of this book, with complex (in an adolescent "she dumped him, he dumped me" way) relationships effectively done. Spider-Girl readers often say how the supporting cast is the book's strength and having read both, I can say that SMLMJ is at least as good.
The question of whether it's worth buying is a tricky one. It's certainly going to find its audience in the manga/digest market, there's no dispute about that, and the stories are bound to work best in volumes of that length. If ever a comic could handle going straight-to-digest, SMLMJ would be the best one to try. The problem is that in a market where the best writers are self-styled psychonauts, futurists and magicians, and where the focus is on high-concept, comics about teenage romance aren't likely to draw much interest from the direct market. I have to admit, while I think it's a wonderfully done comic, but for what it is I can't stretch my budget to include it every week, I'm well above the target age-range and I'm not convinced I'll get much out of it in the long run. I would, however, recommend this to any number of people. It's the perfect "gateway" comic for young teens who've seen the Spider-Man films and are interested in the comics, and for fans of manga to cross over into the US market.
Let's face it, those are two pretty big sections of the market, and that's why Marvel should keep publishing SMLMJ - it doesn't matter if twentysomething comics fans aren't picking it up, as long as they and the store owners know that when a kid comes in wanting to read a comic, they can point them in the direction of SMLMJ instead of Watchmen. There's a certain type of reader and for them that are interested, it's got everything you'd want out of a comic - great art, complex writing, and it's just unfortunate for me (and probably you) that the subject matter isn't being pitched at the traditional reader, because I've got a feeling we could be missing out on some great stories.
+ Great manga-style artwork
+ Engaging plots - complex without being complicated
+ Familiar characters, written recognisably
+ Aimed at non-traditional audience
- High-School Romance subject matter a little too familiar
- Appeal likely to be restricted to younger readers
In what amounts to an almost startling amount of coincidence, there's an article about SMLMJ posted on CBR today where McKeever talks about his plans for the book in the future. It's showing that he's obviously thought a lot about how to keep it interesting and what other directions he could go with the story. With the knowledge I've gained from reading this article, I've decided to give it another few issues to see where it goes - some of the ideas he's got look great, and even if the subject matter isn't especially resonating with me, I can't deny my appreciation of the craft involved in the comic. Another arc or two, then maybe I'll revisit it and see how convinced I am.