Doug: Comics reviews by Mike W. are starting to become the norm around here -- and I like it! The man does a bang-up job, as many of our readers have remarked. Today we get his thoughts on the 1989 graphic novel "Parallel Lives"; and when it's a story by famed Spidey scribe Gerry Conway and penciled by noted 1980s Spidey artist Alex Saviuk, it's bound to be a good day. Toss in Doc Ock as the baddie du jour, and... Well, why don't I get out of the way and let Mike take you through this thing?
The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives (May 1989)
Gerry Conway-Alex Saviuk/Andy Mushynsky
M.S. Wilson: The subject of this review may be a bit controversial; I know there are people out there who hate the idea that Mary Jane knew Peter's secret identity all along. Maybe I'm biased (since I always liked MJ), but I always liked the premise, for reasons I'll get into at the end of this review. I don't expect to change anyone's mind (we all like what we like), but I hope everyone will keep an open mind, even if you're not a fan of the work in question. This is basically one big retcon, built on the premise that Mary Jane Watson knew that Peter Parker was Spider-Man right from the beginning, even before Amazing Spider-Man #1; I think there was a line in one of Tom DeFalco's issues of Amazing (after Spidey fought Puma) where MJ said she'd known his secret "all along" or something like that. I don't know if Gerry Conway got the idea from that or not, but he seems to have done his research. I don't mind a good retcon, as long as it adds something to the characters instead of taking something away ... and I think this Graphic Novel definitely adds something to Peter, and especially to Mary Jane.
The premise for the first couple of chapters is Peter and Mary Jane narrating their pasts (to each other, I guess?). We start with a four page prologue. On the first page, we see Peter's parents leaving him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May because they have to go on a secret (and dangerous) mission for the government. I'm not sure why secret agents would choose to have a kid, unless the mission wasn't in their usual purview? Maybe it was a last minute thing. I know this was covered (to some extent) in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5, but it's been a while since I read it. Next we see MJ as a baby. Her father is a failed novelist who blames his lack of success on his family... especially his kids, Mary Jane and her older sister Gayle. MJ's dad is very abusive, constantly yelling at his wife and kids, and waving a bottle of booze around. I'm assuming he takes out his frustrations on his family physically, although that isn't shown here (though it's mentioned in the text piece at the end of the story). Gayle is thoroughly intimidated by her father, and seems to decide that keeping quiet is better than expressing ones feelings; she will pass that on to MJ, as we'll see. On the next page, we see Peter when he's older (14), raking leaves with May and Ben. This is years after his parents died, and Peter (the narrator) says he'd always assumed that their not coming back was somehow his fault. He obviously had some hangups about responsibility even before Uncle Ben was killed. I've read that kids feeling guilty when their parents die is fairly common (no matter how illogical it seems from an outside perspective), and J.M. DeMatteis used that idea later in his "Child Within" storyline in Spectacular Spider-Man; I can't help wondering if this is where he got the idea, or if he and Gerry were just reading the same Psych textbooks. We find out 14 year old Peter is very smart but not athletic (big shock). His prime motivation seems to be to make Ben and May proud of him; if he thinks his parents left (or died) because of something he did, maybe he's afraid of disappointing May and Ben because he's afraid of losing them too? On the next page, MJ tells of the same day from her perspective (she was 13 at the time). After her parents split up, they stayed at her Aunt Anna's place for a while. MJ likes Anna because she's not always serious, she knows how to laugh. I get the feeling there wasn't a lot of laughter in MJ's house growing up. MJ watches Peter raking leaves (he doesn't see her), and blows her sister off when asked to help with dinner. Gayle calls MJ "self-centered", but Anna assures Madeline (MJ's mom) that she's a "delight" because she knows how to have fun. Anna also says MJ will make some man very happy one day... I guess Anna's not that progressive. MJ says that Anna "took [them] in", but I'm not sure for how long; I assume it wasn't too long, or Peter and MJ would've met.
Chapter 1: The Spider's Bite We see a lot of familiar stuff, starting with Peter being bitten by the spider at the science exhibit. He says he's fifteen at this point. Alex Saviuk does a great job ... he's obviously channeling Ditko here, and it looks great. We see a glimpse of Flash Thompson and Liz Allan, then we move on to some more classic origin scenes, like Peter jumping away from the car, climbing the wall, and crushing the steel pipe; we move on to his bout with Crusher Hogan and his first meeting with Maxie, his future agent. We then see Peter putiing together his costume and web-shooters. Meanwhile, MJ's family (without her father) has been living in Pittsburgh with her mom's cousin, Frank Brown, a widower. Frank seems like kind of a jerk; he's not abusive like Phillip was, but he basically uses MJ's mom as a drudge around the house, and yells at her all the time (even though his three kids are the ones making the mess!). MJ says they've been living with him for "a few years", but that doesn't make sense, since it was only a year ago that they left MJ's dad; I think Gerry might have meant "a few months". We learn that MJ's party-hearty outgoing attitude is a sham, to conceal her pain. Unfortunately, nobody seems to notice... they all assume her carefree attitude is genuine. MJ's much more observant however; when Gayle and her husband Timmy (whom she married right out of high school) announce that she's pregnant, MJ notices Timmy's haunted look and realizes she's seen it before... on her father's face. That scares the hell out of her, but since everyone else seems oblivious to it, she keeps her mouth shut--and keeps her distance--which elicits more disparaging comments from Gayle. MJ is hurt by her sister's words, but makes sure not to show it. She watches Spider-Man (not yet a crimefighter) on TV, and likes him because he seems fun, and because he wears a mask, just like MJ herself. She also mentions that Spidey had been on Good Morning America, Carson, and Celebrity Olympics... wow, Maxie was a better agent than I thought!
We now go back to Peter's perspective, and see the famous scene where he lets the thief run past him. Peter mentions that he used to feel worthless, but now he's better than everyone. We see Ben and May giving Peter the famous microscope and later he and Ben have a heart-to-heart talk on the porch. Ben says he's noticed Peter's been happier lately and likes that he doesn't seem to have the weight of the world on his shoulders anymore. This is another theme that's been used by different writers, where Uncle Ben always kidded Peter about being too serious. Next we see MJ and her mom visiting Anna's house for Thanksgiving. MJ is still worried about Timmy, but she covers it up again as she attends a party with the neighborhood kids. Peter's not at the party, of course, but he is riding high on his fame as Spider-Man. It all comes crashing down as he comes home to find his Uncle Ben has been shot by a burglar. MJ is at Anna's when May is brought over in hysterics (and we see a glimpse of Doctor Bromwell); MJ is freaked by Aunt May's emotions... I guess growing up hiding her own feelings has made MJ oversensitive to emotional scenes in general. She feels like running off, but doesn't; instead, she watches Peter talk to a cop next door and run into his house (I'm surprised the cop let him... it is a crime scene). MJ is startled to see Spider-Man crawl out of one of the bedroom windows and immediately realizes that Peter is Spider-Man! MJ does finally run back to the party, where she tries to deal with what she's just seen. Peter goes to the warehouse, catches the burglar, and realizes he's the same thief he'd let run past him before. Peter blames himself for Uncle Ben's death and realizes that with great power, there must also come great responsibility. MJ on the other hand, tries her best to repress what she knows about Peter, not wanting to be burdened with any more secrets.
We get a two page interlude with Dr. Octopus, basically showing his origin from Amazing Spider-Man #3. There's also some new stuff about how Ock is a loner, a scientist with no social life and so on. I guess this is to draw a parallel with Ock and Peter (and a contrast with MJ, maybe).
Chapter 2: Encounters We open with Spidey fighting Kraven (from Amazing Spider-Man #15, although the scene isn't exactly the same). Back at home, May is trying to set Peter up with MJ, but he's not really into it, saying he's having enough trouble with Betty and Liz. May persists, saying MJ will make a good housewife (!). We see Anna, who's obviously in on the set-up, talking to MJ. She describes Peter as quiet and sensitive, which sets off MJ's alarm bells, as her father was "sensitive" too. Anna says there's no comparison, because Peter is very responsible (she doesn't know the half of it!). MJ still isn't sure about dating Peter, since he hides behind a mask a lot of the time (but then so does MJ, in her own way), and that frightens her. Peter catches Kraven and has to let Betty down because of his blind date with MJ. But MJ has a headache, so he tries to patch things up with Betty ... but she's not having it. We find out MJ faked her headache to avoid the date (she ends up watching "Welcome Back Kotter" with Anna); MJ says there'll be plenty of time to reschedule the date, but we find out that she doesn't come back to Anna's place for two years.
Those two years are a whirlwind for Peter, fighting all sorts of baddies (like Molten Man) and graduating from high school. Maybe MJ's instincts were right, because we find out that being Spider-Man (with all the responsibility it entails) has made Peter less observant of the people closest to him; he hadn't noticed how deep Liz's feelings for him were, and he completely missed Aunt May's deteriorating health. When she finally lands in the hospital, Peter is so wrapped up in feeling guilty (her radiation sickness came from a transfusion of his radioactive blood years before), that he ignores Flash Thompson when he tries to introduce Peter to a couple of new college classmates: Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. Of course, that plays into Peter's reputation for being aloof and stuck-up. Curt Connors tells Spidey there's a cure and has the serum sent to New York, but it's stolen by the Master Planner, who turns out to be Dr. Octopus. Spidey defeats Ock, but is trapped under tons of falling steel. We get Saviuk's take on the iconic scene of Spidey lifting the steel off his back; Saviuk's version is so close that I initially thought they'd reused the original, but when I compared the two, I could see the differences. It's almost exactly the same, though ... Saviuk does a great homage. Spidey defeats the Master Planner's gang and gets the serum to Aunt May in time.
For MJ, the last two years haven't been so good. Gayle and Timmy were fighting constantly, with Madeline trying to fix things. MJ finds herself envying Spider-Man (and Peter) for his uncomplicated life; I'm assuming she didn't know about May being sick... maybe Anna never told her? Or maybe MJ is somehow separating Spidey and Peter Parker in her mind, since she hadn't actually met Peter yet. Gayle gets pregnant again, and Timmy immediately takes off; MJ says he was "... like a drowning man who'd just been tossed an anchor". Madeline promises she and MJ will be there to support Gayle, but she doesn't even live long enough to see her second grandchild. After Madeline dies, MJ feels even more trapped. Gayle is making plans on how they'll live, but MJ refuses to sacrifice her dreams for someone else the way Madeline, Gayle, and Timmy did. This makes MJ look kind of bad, but from her point of view it makes sense. She's seen everyone around her put their aspirations aside and end up bitter and frustrated; she obviously doesn't want to turn out the same way, which shows a certain amount of maturity for someone so young. I'm assuming she's in her final year of high school, so she'd be 17 or 18 here. She says her dream is to be a model, but I thought originally she wanted to be an actress; I'm not sure where Conway got the "model" thing from... maybe just because that's where she ended up? She mentions she has money saved from working after school, so she's obviously not as irresponsible as her family thought. A week after her mother's funeral, MJ turns up at Aunt Anna's place. Anna knows something's wrong, but doesn't ask too many questions. She finally gets MJ to agree to meet Peter, and sets up a dinner for that Sunday. MJ says she was still scared to meet Peter, so I'm not sure why she agreed to the date; the two years distance may have mellowed her fears somewhat; or maybe she was curious to finally meet Spider-Man; or maybe with all she'd been through, she decided to take a risk with the only thing she had left ... her heart. Before Sunday, MJ gets a job and an apartment in Manhattan (I assume she's still going to school too). She ponders which side of Peter is the real one... the calm, reliable Peter Parker, or the wild, unpredictable Spider-Man. She can't figure out if Peter is lying to himself (like her father), or just putting on an act for everyone else (like MJ herself). She's drawn to him and scared of him at the same time... or maybe it's the attraction itself that scares her. Sunday finally rolls around and we get another iconic scene, of Pete and MJ's first meeting. This one is less faithful to the original, but Saviuk does a great job of channeling Jazzy Johnny Romita. You can tell Saviuk was having fun with this.
There's another Doc Ock interlude, showing him renting the room from Aunt May (which happened in Amazing #54). Apparently, Ock was thinking he might have a chance at a normal life, but Peter recognizes him and the jig is soon up. Ock blames Peter for ruining his shot at a quiet life, which is a new twist; I don't remember that in the original story.
Chapter 3: Tentacles We jump ahead a few years to Peter and MJ's wedding. We see that they're both having doubts: MJ because of her family history, and Peter because he's afraid of hurting her like he's (in his mind, at least) hurt everyone close to him. A few months later (Marvel Chronology Project says this takes place between Web of Spider-Man #58, with the return of the Grizzly, and Amazing Spider-Man #326, with Graviton and the beginning of the "Acts of Vengeance"), Peter and MJ are at May's for dinner when a tentacled robot attacks. May is (conveniently) knocked out, so she doesn't see Peter fighting the robot. Of course, it was later revealed that May had known Peter's secret for a long time too, but that's another story... MJ realizes that Peter is scared -- not for himself, but for her and May--and she seees a "look" on Peter's face. We're never told exactly what "look" it is, but I assume it's akin to the "looks" her father and brother-in-law had. There's a note from Doc Ock inside the robot and Peter swings off to fight him (at the Master Planner's old base). Spidey learns that Ock blames him and Peter Parker for not being able to lead a normal life, so he plans to kill Spidey now, and then detonate a small nuke in Manhattan. I'm not sure why Ock is extending his hatred of Spidey (and Peter) to society in general, but Spidey does mention that Ock has gone crazy, so maybe it doesn't have to make sense. Anyway, they fight, the river floods the complex (again), they surface, and Spidey's about to get pulped when the nuke goes off (still underwater), blowing Ock away from Spidey. Conveniently (I guess?) the water absorbs most of the shock and all the radiation, but Peter's overdeveloped sense of responsibility kicks in; he not only blames himself for Ock's (supposed) death, but he starts thinking maybe Ock was right about Peter wrecking his life... maybe Peter wrecks everbody's life.
Back at home, Peter seems to be about to break up with MJ, since he blames himself for putting her (and Aunt May) in danger, but MJ stops him before he can say anything. She explains that being responsible is necessary for people to grow, but that doesn't mean everything always works out for the best. Everything in life is a gamble and, just as MJ took a risk and put her heart on the line when she agreed to meet him all those years ago, now it's his turn to take a risk, the risk of loving someone while knowing you may lose them someday. Peter realizes that she's right ... putting your heart on the line for love is worth the risk.
As I mentioned before, I love this Graphic Novel. I generally like Gerry Conway's take on Spidey (the Gwen clone notwithstanding) and Alex Saviuk does a great job channeling Ditko and Romita, and in the last chapter gives us a look at his own style (which is closer to Romita than Ditko). This story wasn't perfect... the fight with Ock felt unnecessary, like it was shoehorned in. I guess it was there to set up MJ's little speech at the end, but it was basically just a plot device, which is why the fight felt so perfunctory. I think Conway was also drawing a parallel between Peter and Doc Ock, showing that they were the same kind of people on the surface, but much different deep down. Some people may complain that Gwen was hardly in this story, but I think that makes sense; this is about Pete and MJ ... there are already countless stories about Pete and Gwen. There were a few scenes from earlier comics that I wish had been included; I would've loved to see Conway and Saviuk's take on that scene in Amazing #25, where Liz and Betty drop by Aunt May's house and are blown away when they meet MJ, thinking she looks like a movie star. But I guess they only had so much room, so certain things just couldn't fit.
I mentioned before that some people don't like the thing about MJ knowing Peter's secret all along, but I love it. I think it gives MJ much more depth. Peter has always had a thing about responsibility, but after reading this, I think MJ comes off as much more responsible than she's usually portrayed. Think about it ... not only does she keep her own secrets (about how screwed up her family is), but she kept Peter's secret for all those years too ... even from him. That is not something a shallow person could do. I know a lot of people thought Gwen and Peter made a better couple, but I think that relationship was always doomed. There's no way Gwen--as she was written at the time--could've married Peter; she hated Spider-Man too much and she never could've handled Peter going out and risking his life every night. And remember, it wasn't later writers that turned Gwen all mousy ... that happened before Amazing #100, while Stan was still writing the comic. MJ on the other hand, has an inner strength that Gwen seemed to lack. She and Peter perfectly complement each other's strenghs and weaknesses: she keeps him from feeling responsible for the woes of the world and he keeps her from internalizing everything and shutting herself off behind her party girl facade.