Here’s a Comic Book I Read in 1996: Spectacular Spider-Man #241 In Which Spider-Man Grieves His Daughter’s Death
by Salvatore Pane
At AWP, I somehow ended up explaining Mary Jane’s (of Spider-Man fame) miscarriage to Amber Sparks, her husband and Lauren Becker. I don’t know why this one particular issue has stayed with me so much over the years (especially considering that I’ve probably read hundreds, or more likely, thousands of other issues) in the interim. But I thought I might talk about it, and that maybe this could be a regular thing. That maybe occasionally I’ll dig through the tupperware container under my bed that has all my comics from the ’90s and reread one, then post some thoughts. Because, for the most part, the ’90s was pretty fucking awful.
The Spectacular Spider-Man #241 written by J.M. DeMatteis with art from Luke Ross.
The first thing that surprised me while rereading is that DeMatteis and Ross are names I’m familiar with now. Luke Ross is a phenomenal penciler and I loved his work on Captain America with Ed Brubaker. And DeMatteis is a classic scribe who recently completed a run on Booster Gold, one of my favorite DC characters. I’m always surprised to go back to my ’90s comics and realize I was reading stuff by legends like Mark Waid or John Romita Jr., because at the time, I literally thought Stan Lee wrote all the comics and even wrote him a letter asking why the Clone Saga was so tough on old Spidey.
Ok. Some background on the issue. #241 takes place immediately after a multi-year storyline in which Peter Parker was replaced with a clone that culminated with said clone’s death and the miscarriage of Pete and MJ’s baby. There is a ton of good info on this whole debacle on the web, so I won’t go into detail, but if you’re interested, check this out.
#241 opens an undetermined amount of time after the miscarriage. At that time, editorial wanted to move as far away from the moroseness of the clone saga and the miscarriage as humanly possible, so DeMatteis had essentially one issue to sum up Pete and MJ’s feelings on a trauma far more terrifying than any of the over-the-top villains that shuffle in and out of the book on a monthly basis. So what we get here are three stories. The most typical is the Chameleon storyline. Superhero comics are eternally stuck in Act II and must always be paving the way for future stories. So a third of the page count is dedicated to setting up the return of the Chameleon which will pay off in future storylines.
But it’s the other two that are really noteworthy. This isn’t a nuanced look at loss, but it is pretty complex for a comic that at the time was aimed at 12-year-olds. I even remember my comic shop guy, at the wonderful Comics on the Green in Scranton, suggesting I buy something a little more fun. DeMatteis chooses to give us Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s separate reactions to the miscarriage before bringing them together. Spidey reacts in a way you might expect. He swings around the city trying to knock the cobwebs loose. At the time, he had only just returned from retirement in Portland where he expected to become a family man, leaving the web slinging to his now dead clone. But what’s really impressive are the Mary Jane scenes. Tucked between the Chameleon lamenting his obsession with Kraven the Hunter and bizarre Crash Bandicoot ads is a really quiet scene between MJ and her Aunt Anna. Mary Jane has just emptied her daughter’s room and delivers a kind of monologue which is pretty heartfelt and just shockingly mature.
The story weaves in and out of the Spider-Man/Chameleon scenes, but culminates with something much more emotional and earnest. Peter and MJ discuss moving away to be free of their memories before going to bed. But Pete can’t sleep, and in the middle of the night, puts his Spidey gear on and decides to swing around the city a bit to tire him out. But before he leaves, MJ wakes up and asks to go with him, a callback to simpler days in their courtship when Spider-Man would rescue MJ from more colorful foes like the Hobgoblin or Hammerhead or whoever. What follows is a really nicely rendered two-page, silent spread of the married couple swinging through Manhattan, at the end of which they embrace beneath a sunrise.
Look, I realize that the way Spectacular Spider-Man deals with a child’s death is reductive and on many levels, absolutely ludicrous. And I realize that this portion of Spider-Man lore is particularly maligned (for good reason), and that the daughter is never, ever mentioned in contemporary stories. But I have to give credit for DeMatteis and Ross for even attempting to tackle this subject in a serious manner. For starters, they were written into this hole and had to find a way to dig the character out. And so many times, comics deal with stuff like this by using clones or magic or alternate realities. But here’s a somber, serious take, or at least one as somber as you can get in a 1990’s superhero comic book. I guess I’m not saying you should track down this issue or these older storylines, but you should know they existed, that superhero comics and comics in general have the capacity of dealing with issues more important than which spandex-wearing dude can win in a fight.