Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives is a graphic novel originally published in 1989. Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Alex Saviuk, it retells and enhances the story of Peter and Mary Jane's lives before their famous first meeting, and then shows them coming under attack from Doctor Octopus in the (then) present day.

The first two-thirds focuses upon retelling their lives, drawing on material both from the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko and Lee/John Romita tales and also from Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz's fleshing out of Mary Jane's childhood in Amazing Spider-Man #259. The two future spouses are compared and contrasted through their teen years - it's especially interesting to see that just as Peter was resisting Aunt May's attempts at matchmaking, Mary Jane was equally resisting her Aunt Anna's. However this story takes a number of liberties with previously established continuity. It's easy to overlook the retelling of Spider-Man's origin working solely from Amazing Fantasy #15 and ignoring the additions of later years. More problematic is the presentation of Peter's dating in high school - the implication is that he didn't start dating Betty until after Amazing Spider-Man #15, by which time May and Anna were trying to set him up with Mary Jane. It may avoid the original awkwardness that May was trying to find Peter a woman when he already had one, but changing the original stories is rarely a satisfactory way to solve problems. We also get a repeat of the claim first made in Conway's 1970s run that Peter dated Liz Allan in high school until they broke up at graduation, rather than her just having an unrequited crush as shown at the time. Also left out is the infamous meeting of Mary Jane, Betty and Liz, long before Peter first saw MJ.

But the biggest change is the revelation that Mary Jane knew Peter's secret from the start. Until her return in the #240s of Amazing Spider-Man there had never been any hint of her actually knowing, and indeed on a number of occasions her reaction to Peter's disappearances suggested quite the reverse. Then when she finally confronted Peter with the knowledge, it seemed more like she had deduced it rather than seen it - her reaction to the Black Cat swinging into Peter's flat was "It's true!", like someone who has deduced their spouse is having an affair but not yet actually caught them with the other person before confronting them. Yet here we are expected to believe Mary Jane had known all along. Nor can this be dismissed as an out of continuity story, as this point was subsequently absorbed into the regular titles.

Otherwise we have the contrast between Peter's happy home life, albeit with the shadow of his absent parents, but unpopular and lonely beyond there, with Mary Jane's ever popularity on the party scene but coming from a broken home and seeing a succession of failed marriages and angry exchanges. She finds herself drawn to Spider-Man for also enjoying life and wearing a mask, and then discovers he is actually Peter Parker, making her both curious and afraid. Eventually she succumbs to finding out and the famous meeting finally happens.

Interspersed throughout this are glimpses at Doctor Octopus, another shy introvert. One of Conway's most notorious storylines from the 1970s involved Aunt May nearly marrying Doctor Octopus. Here he represents the time the scientist rented a room at May's and found himself drawn to her, making the connection a little more plausible, until Peter intervened and destroyed the chances of a true bond. This anger continues to the present day when the sight of Peter and Mary Jane's wedding drives Doctor Octopus into threatening the Parker family to lure out Spider-Man, only to be defeated and seemingly destroyed in battle. This strand of the story is the least satisfactory, though it allows for a conclusion in which Peter and Mary Jane address head on the dangers they could face and that they've chosen life over fear.

Overall this tale is an interesting character study and a response to those who argued that the coupling and marriage was inconceivable. (Which makes it curious that Marvel reprinted it as a stand alone release in 2012, some years after undoing the marriage and when that year's film featured a different woman in Peter's life.) By skipping some twenty years (real time) of continuity it doesn't cover either how Mary Jane's knowledge of Peter's secret altered her perspective during their on and off years, or the speed with which they got engaged so soon after Spider-Man broke up with the Black Cat. So it doesn't answer all the questions already floating about nor the ones it raises with its own revelations.

Saviuk's art does a good job of recapturing the Silver Age but doesn't do so well in distinguishing the modern era - it takes more than altering Mary Jane's hairstyle and giving Doctor Octopus a suit of armour (one that looks like it was left over from the early years) to generate a modern feel. Conway certainly tries to bring the various strands together, but DeFalco and Frenz had already done the job of showing Mary Jane's party girl persona to be a facade and the placing of her discovering Peter's secret creates more problems than are needed. Overall this graphic novel looks good and does partially reinforce the case for the two being an item, but it isn't the most convincing case for them that has ever been made.

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