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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Today, the Loves of Peter Parker!
Earlier this week, Twitter was abuzz after photos surfaced from the set of new film “Spider-Man: Homecoming” that appeared to show the web-slinger rescuing a red-head, among others. Fans found themselves asking if one of these women could possibly be Mary Jane Watson, Spidey’s long-time central love interest. This is despite the fact that the unnamed character Zendaya Coleman is playing is suspected by many to be MJ. It’s way more likely these photos are from a scene where Spidey rescues a bunch of Homecoming guests, but the speculation only confirms that Peter Parker’s most significant love interest is a huge part of his overall mythos.
But, Spidey has had more ladies in his life than just Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy. So in this instalment of “Back Issues” we’re going to take a look at just a few of the women who have been unlucky enough to have dated Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man and legendarily terrible boyfriend.
Betty Brant was Peter Parker’s earliest serious romantic interest, debuting all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #4. She was J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary at the Daily Bugle, and she and Peter began their flirtation pretty early on in the series, with their fraught relationship forming one of the most significant ongoing subplots and complications of the Lee/Ditko era.
Though she has now been overshadowed by both Mary Jane and Gwen, Betty Brant was for a time the most well-known of Peter Parker’s romantic interests, owing largely to her role in the classic 1960s Spider-Man cartoon series. She’s been seen in various other adaptations of the comic as well, and was notably the first large role for Elizabeth Banks in Sam Rami’s trilogy of Spider-Man films in the 2000s.
Looking back, though Betty was a major part of the early Spider-Man mythos, particularly the brilliant Steve Ditko period, her storylines from the era feel more akin to the cheesy romance comic plots of the 1950s than to Marvel’s hipper style soon to come, exemplified by the thoroughly modern Gwen and MJ. First off, though it’s been retconned after the fact to make it less icky, Betty in the original comics has got to be at least somewhat older than the teenaged Peter. True in the 1960s it wasn’t unusual for high-school aged kids to drop out and get full-time jobs (my Dad entered the work force soon after the 11th grade, for instance), but there’s no denying that Betty is initially depicted as a grown woman, and her love interest is a high-schooler. Their relationship is almost like the lyrics of “My Sharona.”
Also, and this is a typical facet of Stan Lee‘s romantic obstacles, some of the trials and tribulations Peter and Betty encounter are pretty ridiculous and contrived. So many of their issues would be solved by a simple conversation, and a lot of the decisions that each of them make are kind of bonkers. There’s a lot of Peter or Betty deliberately hurting each other rather than being honest about feelings or issues. But that’s a pretty classic romance comic trope, and Lee and Ditko were just doing what they knew worked. And the fact that a super-hero comic spent so much time on the love life of the hero’s alter ego in and of itself was incredibly revolutionary for the time. This was a genre where previously a hero’s love life was limited to keeping Lois Lane from finding out Clark Kent was Superman. But in Silver Age Marvel Comics, and Spider-Man is the definitive example of this, the romance was complicated by the flaws, insecurities and neuroses of the characters. The creative team embraced the emotion of their characters, and made their internal dilemmas at least as important as whether Spidey could knock out the Sandman.
Even though Betty and Peter’s romantic relationship was definitively over by Amazing Spider-Man #30, she remained a vital and evolving supporting character over the years, and now she fills an interesting role. She doesn’t pop up terribly often, but part of what makes Betty interesting these days is her role as the first great love of Peter’s life, a particular type of friendship that continues to resonate for most people. But it’s the legacy of her early days, which proved that focusing on the personal trials and tribulations of a character’s personal life can make super-hero stories more compelling and complex, for which Betty Brant should not be forgotten. Without her, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson wouldn’t be possible.
The early Spider-Man issues are available in a number formats, including on Marvel’s Digital Unlimited service, and in various collected editions. The nicest is undoubtedly the Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Vol 1, which is worth the price for many, many reasons, as it collects the entire Lee/Ditko run, one of the best in the history of super-hero comics.
The next decade or so saw Peter involved with Gwen Stacy until her tragic death (spoilers for one of the most famous storylines in 50 years), and then following her a long-time relationship with Mary Jane Watson. But in the late 1970s, MJ and Peter split, and Marvel took the opportunity to start pairing him off with varying degrees of success.
This one’s in here for personal reasons. In the late 1970s, Spider-Man starred in not just his own titles, but also “Marvel Team-Up” which saw the web-head partner with various Marvel heroes for adventures. At this time, the book was written by Chris Claremont, who was making big waves with his run on “Uncanny X-Men.” Claremont decided to take the opportunity to give Peter a girlfriend. It’s an odd choice given that he was writing a second-tier Spidey book, and Claremont approaches Cissy in an interesting way. In issue #80 he just kind of drops her into the story without any real kind of introduction, and then proceeds to use her a few times in the book, without ever really giving her an entrance.
The reason Cissy sticks with me is that as a kid, I got a hold of 1979’s Marvel Team-Up Annual #2, which kicked off with Peter and Cissy on a date. To a young kid who only read whatever Spidey books he could get his hands on that cost a quarter or less, I came away from this story thinking that Cissy was a significant supporting character. When I got older, I was shocked to discover she made only a handful of appearances and then was pretty much never mentioned again. But if you look at articles around the interwebs similar to the one I’m writing now, you’ll find that Cissy often gets a mention, as obviously a lot of fans back in the day fell for Claremont’s shell-game just as much as I did. It’s kind of a testament to classic Claremont’s skill at quickly making a character feel more vital and important than they have any right to be.
Felicia Hardy / The Black Cat
Peter got a ton of action in 1979. Amazing Spider-Man #194 saw the debut of a new antagonist for Spider-Man, who was simultaneously a romantic interest. While on patrol, Spidey follows a thief called the Black Cat to an abandoned warehouse (What would Marvel’s Manhattan be without the copious abandoned warehouses?) and then tries to prevent her from purchasing illegal weapons. The two fight, but their confrontation comes to an unusual conclusion when the Cat tells Spider-Man she’s a big fan, peels up his mask to reveal only his lips and plants one on the astonished Peter. She makes good her escape while Peter is probably thinking about baseball players in order to settle down.
Created by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard, the Black Cat aka Felicia Hardy, is probably the most innovative and original romantic interest created in the era. First, the idea of creating an antagonist for Spider-Man that was not entirely a villain was unusual enough. Making that antagonist a woman was even more unusual. And making that woman self-confident, capable and with tons of agency and power rooted in herself was downright progressive. The Black Cat’s attraction to Peter was not romantic per se, but it was probably the most overtly sexual love interest Peter had ever had, maybe one of the most overtly sexual one in Marvel at the time. Felicia isn’t tortured or tormented by her growing relationship with Peter. She doesn’t want anything to do with Peter or a deep relationship. She wants to bang Spider-Man on a roof, and the series doesn’t judge her for that.
For a time, their relationship was fraught with tension. Peter, who frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the end of relationship Felicia wants, struggles to deal with the Black Cat’s darker side, the bad luck her powers bestowed upon the already luck-challenged Peter, and with his own feelings of wanting something deeper from her. She and Peter have enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship over the years, but they all eventually fizzle out because Peter at his heart is basically a pretty vanilla long-term relationship kind of guy. Currently, the Black Cat is far more sinister and less morally ambivalent than ever before, on her way to becoming a genuine crime lord and true villain, partly out of what she views as a betrayal by Spider-Man.
Marcy Kane and Deb Whitman
Welcome back to 1979, the year where Peter Parker got luckier than a leprechaun wearing a necklace made of horseshoes and rabbits’ feet. I can almost believe that throughout the three main Spidey titles of the era, each writer was trying to create the next Mary Jane Watson, which explains why each of the titles had their own love interest. In “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man”, the perpetually underrated writer Bill Mantlo went one step further by creating romantic rivalry within his own title.
At this point, Peter was a student and teaching assistant at Empire State University, and his role there allowed him to gain a whole new cast of supporting characters. Taking a page straight out of Archie Andrews (who certainly didn’t originate the love triangle concept in the first place), Mantlo created two possible love interests and then allowed the story to develop over time, letting the organic flow of the story and reader reaction decide which character was going to develop into something more.
On the one hand, there was Marcy Kane. Kane was the icier and more unattainable option; an imposing and serious woman who liked Peter but was also disappointed by what she saw as his frivolous lack of focus. She and Peter would date and she would make numerous appearances throughout the early 1980s as part of the triangle, but she would eventually spurn his attempts to enter into a more serious relationship. Once she left the series, it was not the end of Marcy however. In a move so bonkers sit could only happen in comics, she would become a supporting character in the “Jack of Hearts” mini-series, where she would be revealed to have been an alien this whole time. Yup, an alien.
On the other hand was Deb Whitman. Clearly more the “Betty” to Marcy’s “Veronica”, Deb was also at ESU, and was a much more approachable and warm person. Her and Peter’s relationship grew deeper and more committed than it ever did with Marcy, and Mantlo began to push the meatier stories to Deb. The most significant storyline Deb appeared in had to do with her issues with mental health. The stories are pretty clunky and overtly histrionic for today’s standards, but Mantlo was trying to tell a sympathetic story about what dating a secretive guy like Peter could do to a person like Deb, who struggled both as a victim of past spousal abuse and a person with mental health issues. Eventually, Peter does tell her the truth about his identity in an attempt to help her, but Deb doesn’t actually believe him, and she winds up leaving New York. In the end, Deb Whitman is, like a lot of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, not exactly better off for having been involved in his world.
These issues are a bit harder to find, but many of them can be found collected in the Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man trade paperbacks.
Also in the 1970s and into the 80s, Peter had a pretty innocent flirtation with Glory Grant. I decided against including her, as they never really got much beyond some flirty banter. Which is too bad, as Glory was a cool character and would have been the first woman of color Peter dated, not to mention the fact that they would have been an interracial couple in the 1970s. But that may be why Marvel never allowed the relationship to go very far at all.
Throughout most of the 1980s and into the 21st century, Peter was back in a relationship with Mary Jane Watson, marrying her in 1986. So, naturally, there weren’t any women in his life to speak of during those times. But after the events of “One More Day” (and don’t bother bringing up the whole married Spider-Man, magical divorce thing, I’m not diving down THAT rabbit hole), we were back to a single Peter Parker again. And this meant new love interests!
First appearing in Amazing Spider-Man #545 in 2008, Carlie Cooper was an NYPD forensic scientist who quickly became Peter’s main love interest in the series. Initially, her relationship with Peter goes well. Her training as a police officer means that she’s arguably better equipped to handle being near the epicentre of insanity that is Peter Parker’s life. However, the travails of being a Parker girlfriend eventually catch up to her, and she gets involved with Spidey-intrigue, exposes police corruption and fights off various super-villains.
She does eventually figure out that Peter is Spider-Man, and though the couple break up soon after the events of “Spider-Island”, she remained a close ally for some time. But that ended when Peter’s body was taken over by Otto Octavius during the “Superior Spider-Man” era. Carlie’s suspicions about the way “Peter” was acting would lead her to investigate and eventually begin to uncover what Octavius had done.
But, as can only happen in a super-hero comic, Carlie was then kidnapped by the Green Goblin, injected with Goblin Serum and transformed into a super-powered member of the Goblin Army. Though Carlie was eventually cured, and Peter eventually returned to control of his body, the world of craziness surrounding Spider-Man leads Carlie to decide to leave New York (as so many Parker paramours have done in the past) for a simpler life.
Michele Gonzales was the sister of Peter’s roommate, NYPD officer Vin Gonzales. Vin wound up going to prison, and while Peter was away on a mission with the Fantastic Four, Michele moved into their apartment to look after it while Vin was incarcerated.
Initially, Michele and Peter have an extremely antagonistic relationship, bickering almost constantly. But, then they have a drunken one-night stand and are forced to live with the excruciating awkwardness of that. Michele never really stopped pushing Peter’s buttons, and she moved back to Chicago after Vin was released, admitting that he wasn’t really such a bad guy. While the creative team could be lauded for creating a type of relationship that undoubedtly rings true for a number of people (that one person that you’re physically attracted to but who actually kind of rubs you the wrong way constantly), it’s too bad that yet another non-white romantic interest was given short enough shrift as to barely qualify as a romance.
Both Carlie and Michele’s stories are available digitally and in trades wherever comics are sold.
So that’s the Tragical History Tour of Peter Parker’s love life. If there’s one thing a reader can pull from all this it’s that arguably, love affairs with Peter Parker end worse for the women than for him. Basically MJ’s the only one who hasn’t either been broken-hearted, killed, transformed into a hybrid Goblin-creature, imprisoned or forced to leave town/the planet Earth. That Parker luck is one powerful force.
Until next week, enjoy digging through the quarter bins!!