Infinite Spider-Man 9.9: But the Fans Loved the Marriage

Posted by Mister Mets 12 March 2012

Polls do consistently show that fans, at least those inclined to vote on polls at comic book websites, prefer the marriage to the current status quo. So some of his detractors suggest that Joe Quesada put his own opinion ahead of what was clearly in the best interests of the title. I'll look at figures cited to suggest that there was no way BND could have worked, the implication being that the book would still do better if One More Day was undone.

It's worth noting that these votes aren't perfect. As the CBR poll received 5,793 responses, I assume it includes casual browsers, and thus serves as a better indication of the habits of comics readers than most message board polls, which are skewed by representing only the minority of comic book readers who care enough about comic books to seek out places to discuss them on the internet. Those results are further restricted to the people who liked a particular board, which may not be random. The CBR survey is still skewed by representing only the people who care about comics enough to look up information on it online, which is admittedly a larger group than people who also want to talk about comics.

It's certainly wrong to assume that message boards are a perfect representation of the people who buy comic books. All you need to do realize this is to compare the success of comics blasted on message boards like Identity CrisisCivil WarHouse of MInfinite Crisis, New Avengers and anything Jeph Loeb touches to the success or lack thereof of series that come highly recommended on the internet, such as NextwaveSpider‑GirlManhunter, The Irredeemable Antman, Thor the Mighty Avenger and others. Sometimes a book that is critically praised excels on the sales charts as well (Snyder and Capullo's Batman being a recent example) but there's still no consistent correlation between praise and sales.

Initial Reaction to the Marriage

Some readers have the misconception that Amazing Spider‑Man Annual 21 was written because fans in general got bored with Peter Parker being a bachelor. The real reason for the wedding was unrelated to fan demand. Stan Lee decided to marry the characters in his comic strip, and then-Marvel Editor‑in‑Chief Jim Shooter didn't want that event to happen before the "real" Spider‑Man got married. This is why the engagement went by so quickly, and Peter and Mary Jane got married in the same issue in which they announced their impending nuptials to Aunt May and Aunt Anna.

There was a resulting publicity whirlwind with a mock wedding at Shea Stadium, and fans who liked to see monumental events occurring to their favorite characters were elated. However, a key indication of Marvel’s shortsightedness at the time was the way they bypassed all the stories you could get when Peter Parker is engaged to get to a mostly irreversible change as quickly as possible. Surely someone had to complain about the rushed handling of the marriage. One thing I’ve learned from online message boards: there will never be universal agreement on anything.

I’m certain the marriage was a relatively popular decision thanks to the publicity blitz and the way consumers generally enjoy seeing a character they identify with win. It also occurred in a one year period in which there were some truly excellent stories (Kraven's Last Hunt, the return of the Sin‑Eater, Todd Mcfarlane's arrival to the series and the first appearance of Venom.) It was just a creatively fertile time for the character. Spider‑Man VS Wolverine‑ another of the best Spider‑Man stories ever had come out a few months before the wedding annual.

Previous Attempts Failed

Some readers suggest that undoing the marriage was an objectively bad idea because previous attempts to undo it failed. So Quesada should have recognized that any attempt to retcon the marriage was a proposition doomed to failure, as bad as (or worse than) the aftermath of the clone saga, the most notorious of Marvel’s attempts to make Spider‑Man single again. The problems with the Clone Saga are too numerous to recount here but many aren’t applicable to One More Day. While fans like to blast controversial events, such as “The Other” or “Sins Past” for specific scenes, the Clone Saga often failed in terms of basic craft, although there was also a flaw at the very core. The idea that the character you’ve enjoyed in some of the best Spider‑Man stories ever wasn’t the real deal was also more extreme than a retroactive change to the marital status.

The second attempt to keep Peter and Mary Jane apart occurred when she was believed dead in a plane crash, though this too had a few unique problems. It was obvious at the time that they were going to bring her back somehow, and it was primarily written by Howard Mackie‑ a less successful, respected and frankly talented writer than JMS or Dan Slott. He just wasn't good enough to make it work and later stated, if anyone had any doubts, it was always his intention to bring back Mary Jane, meaning that Peter Parker was not meant to be a widower forever. There was no reason that all of the fans who were upset when Mary Jane “died” would have been so upset about a solution which leaves her alive and viable as a character.

Straczynski’s Mary Jane

After Mary Jane returned from the dead, she promptly went to Los Angeles to “find” herself, reconciling with Peter twenty‑one issues later. I don't think fanboy wrath had anything to do with Marvel's decision to bring the two back together. It just seemed uncharacteristic for Peter and Mary Jane Watson Parker to be apart for long, or to even have the marital problems, given all the things they’ve been through before (the clone saga, Jonathan Caesar, Harry Osborn’s death, their stillborn child, Mary Jane’s “death,” Peter’s “death” and Venom). JMS did get some tension out of the period, and it’s probably the strongest stretch of his run. He explained in an interview with Write Now that he had complete leeway to do whatever he wanted with the storyline, and could have kept the couple apart had he wanted to.
Nobody from Marvel had ever broached the subject to me. They’ve never said to keep ‘em apart or keep ‘em married. They kinda leave it to me to a large degree and that’s a tremendous vote of confidence on their part and an incentive for me not to screw it up or abuse that trust.
It's safe to say that he's not afraid to speak his mind, when he doesn't have complete control over a story.

Looking at CBG's sales estimates for Amazing Spider‑Man during this period, it seems that the restoration of the marriage had no impact (positive or negative) on the sales of the books. There was a nice increase for Peter and Mary Jane’s reconciliation in Amazing Spider‑Man Volume 2 #50, 114,400 copies as opposed to an estimated 97,000 copies for the preceding issue, but it didn’t last (the 52nd issue sold 800 less copies than the 49th.) Sales continued to slowly decline, a process which had begun with #46, probably since sales had been rising fairly consistently since Straczynski’s first issue and had to peak somewhere. The chief exception was the five hundredth issue, which sold 148,000 copies (as opposed to 92,800 copies for the preceding issue, 94,400 copies for the next issue and 90,500 copies, for the 502nd) though that was another highly publicized anniversary issue.

I can’t claim to know what the majority of fans want, and neither can most people on message boards. Sales are the only indicators available, and on Amazing Spider‑Man, there’s no proof that the books made any more money because JMS chose to reunite Peter and Mary Jane. You could easily make the case that the acclaim and sales were strongest when Peter and Mary Jane were apart. Of course, the sales charts that received the most scrutiny were those that came when the new direction started.


Infinite Spider-Man 9.8: Controversy

Posted by Mister Mets

One argument against One More Day was that it was a bad idea, just because it was guaranteed to be controversial. Before that point, Spider-Man's marriage had gone from a sudden change to a seemingly permanent part of the status quo, so any change was going to be rocky. There were going to be people emotionally invested in the previous developments for the characters, who were going to be upset, and were going to do what they could to let others know that.

The anti-controversy argument is counterproductive for anyone who wants the marriage to be restored because it focuses on whether a bad decision was made in the past, when the more significant question is about what would be a good decision in the future. At this point, any decision Alonso, Wacker or Slott could make in the future regarding the marriage would be debated. Although the idea that controversy is inherently bad is questionable, considering the other things that happened that could have affected reader interest prior to One More Day (a focus on new villains, new creative teams, departure of JMS and a thrice-monthly schedule.) It's possible that without the attention and new direction of OMD/ BND, sales would have been lower. 

While readers might not have had an obvious reason to drop the title without OMD, there may be a greater danger when there's no obvious reason to buy the title either. It would just be one of those books on the stand that's probably on okay read, but just doesn't interest you enough to buy. Say what you will about controversy, it brings eyeballs to titles.

During the Brand New Day era, I think the brain trust and web-heads did a good job waiting for most of the vocal critics to calm down for a bit. Readers had an year and a half to get used to the absence of the marriage before Peter Parker's one night stand with Michelle Gonzalez, and Mary Jane's return to the supporting cast. It was three years after One More Day that Peter Parker began his first serious relationship with Carlie Cooper. The writers are playing the long game, and tensions do die down with the passage of time.

Some suggested that the marriage shouldn’t have been changed, because many readers just weren't familiar with a period in which the Parkers weren't husband and wife. That wasn't a particularly persuasive argument, as in addition to untold tales, oft-reprinted classics and the various retellings of Spider-Man's story in the Ultimate Comics and in other media, there was the clone saga, the interval  in which Mary Jane was believed dead and the period in which they were legally separated in those twenty years. The latter two were the most obvious ways writers could shake up the status quo, and it can't be used again, which restricts future writers. And it doesn't work when it's been more than four years after One More Day.

The writers will have to continue ignoring some of the most vocal fans, and that's fine. Otherwise, we'd have had a story where Spider-Man found his long-lost baby, and the Aunt May who turned out to be alive was revealed as a Skrull, regardless of whether these would have been good ideas in the long term. If writers decide those are stories that they really want to tell, that would be one thing. But it shouldn't be mandated because some of the fans are calling for it. The people at Marvel shouldn't worry about appeasing the guys calling for their castrations.

Fans in general aren't concerned about the same things which writers and Marvel Editor‑in‑Chiefs worry about. How many of these readers are bothered by whether or not the book will be enjoyable decades down the line? It’s the job of the writers to know when it’s okay to defy the fans, and write stories that some of them will not enjoy no matter how well its told, such as Ultimate Marvel, the resurrection of Bucky, the return of Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern and the addition of Spider‑Man and Wolverine to the Avengers.

Hell, there was a time when Mary Jane was suddenly (and very memorably) introduced to the Spider‑Man books. If there were message boards then, I'm sure fans would have been reacting to the solicitations of Amazing Spider‑Man #43 (which would be available before Amazing Spider‑Man #42 comes out) complaining about how Peter should be with Betty Brant forever. One of the worst things the writers could do with a bachelor Spider‑Man is give him generic romantic interests, and assume that the readers will care about them because they're important to the story. Fortunately, there is the alternative of making romantic interests unique and compelling, even if anything in that department will initially be disputed and some readers will be disappointed in the outcome. There will always be someone who is upset, regardless of what decision the company makes.

The only real indication of whether something is successful is sales. If sales had plummeted (and we'll talk about sales very soon) with the new format, it would have been easy for Marvel to undo the retcon with a stetcon. They can either have a new story in which magic is used to undo the marriage. Or they could have Peter and Mary Jane start dating one another, and see if the fans are happy with that, eventually moving on to an engagement and a marriage. But it would be irresponsible for Marvel to make decisions based solely (or in a large part) on how the message boards will react.

There are ways for writers to avoid controversy. They could preserve as much of the status quo as possible, and quietly focus more on characters who readers aren't as invested in. So the likes of Carlie Cooper, Max Modell and Michelle Gonzalez can make difficult and sometimes poor decisions, while familiar figures will not be put in that position. One problem with that approach is that the new guys will be more interesting than the classics, because their stories will be more compelling. It's what happens when you take the safe approach in fiction. There's also the risk of losing customers to titles where the protagonists do stuff that's worth arguing about.

Controversy suggests that there are people who are passionate on both sides of an issue. And it often pays off. Stan Lee was right to feature drug use in Amazing Spider-Man, Gerry Conway was right to kill off Gwen Stacy and Bendis was probably right to kill off the Ultimate Peter Parker and replace him with Miles Morales, despite the inevitable resentment from some of the consumers.

Contentious outcomes are equated with gimmicks, which aren't automatically bad, but it does suggest a lack of substance and long-term thinking. You can disagree with the decisions involving One More Day, but I don't think that getting rid of the marriage was a gimmick. It's something that Quesada thought about for years, and has discussed in depth numerous times. There's a difference between saying that you didn't find the reasons given adequate and suggesting that no reason was ever given. The latter is absurd, considering how many interviews Quesada and others have made about a change to a fictional character's marital status.

Something can be controversial even if there isn't a parity between the two sides making an argument. What if Marvel chose the wrong side? What if the fans want change?



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