Archive for November 9th, 2011

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Classic EBI #111: Days With Mary Jane

The world of digital comics has surprised me lately, growing and expanding in directions I didn’t expect. Today in Everything But Imaginary, I look at how the strange things going on with digital comics remind me of the distributor wars of the 90s, and (to keep you from getting nightmares) explain why I don’t think things will end up the same way.

Everything But Imaginary #423: The Shape of Digital

In today’s classic EBI, we’re going back to April 20, 2005. Spider-Man was still married to Mary Jane, although rumors were already circulating about the sad dissolution of that marriage. More importantly, though, Marvel was actually using MJ in an intelligent way… to reach out to new readers.

Classic Everything But Imaginary #111: Days With Mary Jane

Here at Everything But Imaginary Global Headquarters, part of our mission statement is to find new ways to spread comic books to unconventional audiences. The existing market, let’s face it, can’t sustain itself forever, and it is vital to the continued welfare of the entire industry that we find ways to each out to untapped audiences and draw them in. Plus, this gives us an excuse to read things that otherwise might get us laughed at by our friends and family.

This is the reason that I borrowed Judith O’Brien’s novel Mary Jane from my young cousin Carly Jo. The book came out about two years ago, but as there is a sequel newly on the shelves (bearing the ingenious title Mary Jane 2), it seemed like a good time to take a look at it.

The book, if you don’t know, is yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin, this time from the viewpoint of Mary Jane Watson. The book’s cover claims the work is inspired by the Ultimate Spider-Man series, but in truth, the novel is a continuity completely of its own, not fitting in with any version of Spider-Man ever seen on the printed page or on the screen, but remaining entertaining nonetheless.

In this version Mary Jane was a childhood classmate of Peter Parker’s who moved away shortly after the death of his parents and the disappearance of her father. She moves around for years before finally meeting up with him again at Midtown High, where he’s now the class geek and protected only by his friendship with Harry Osborn, who’s using him to do his homework. On a class trip to the Norman Osborn’s lab, the class is exposed to a new sports drink called “OZ.” Oh, and Pete gets bitten by a spider somehow.

Peter suddenly begins exhibiting incredible athletic prowess and becomes the new school heartthrob, and MJ concludes that his transformation is probably due to the OZ he’s been guzzling. As it turns out, the OZ does carry around a nasty secret, but as fans of the characters know, Peter has a different secret entirely.

What struck me as most interesting about this book, I think, is that the Spider-Man aspect is almost completely superfluous. The costumed Spider-Man only makes two brief appearances in this book while the rest focuses on MJ adjusting to a new school, new boys, domestic problems, and of course, the mystery of the OZ, which sounds more like an L. Frank Baum story than a Judith O’Brien one, but bear with me here. The point I’m making is that if you lift out the spider-bite and the costume and just attribute Peter’s new prowess to the drink, the book would be largely unchanged, which kind of raises the question of why it was written in the first place, since it bears so little resemblance to any other incarnation of the character.

Not to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it – it’s clearly aimed at pre-teen and young teenage girls, but that in mind, it’s quite an entertaining read. O’Brien does feel the need to bring in the boogeyman of anorexia, which is a major problem, but rather serves to clutter the story here and ultimately doesn’t add anything except another subplot. But it’s the sort of thing I think an average teenage girl with just a passing knowledge of the characters (maybe she saw the movie) could read and get into.

So as a teen novel, it works. Here’s the real question, though: does it work as a gateway to get readers of the book to possibly try a comic book?

That’s a tougher one.

The biggest problem, I think, is that there isn’t particularly anything present to lead a reader from the novel to a comic. Aside from the Ultimate Spider-Man logo on the cover (a tiny one at that), there’s no hint that you could follow this to a comic book. And if they did follow the novel to Ultimate Spider-Man, they would find drastically different circumstances and sets of characters. Perhaps it would be better, for any future sequels, to tie the logo in to Sean McKeever’s Mary Jane comics. I haven’t read those, but I would imagine they’re a bit more in-line with the novel than Ultimate Spider-Man is.

And what about the “mainstream” Spider-Man, the adult who is married to Mary Jane and who’s about to move into Avengers Tower? Well, if rumors of House of M are to be believed, Marvel is contemplating retroactively altering his continuity so that his marriage to MJ never took place. How will this happen? Would she still know his secret? Would she be written out of the books entirely? Is there any possible way to tell such a story without it being a slap in the face to most of the people who have supported Spider-Man comics over the past 20 years? Well, frankly, I doubt it. And in fact, if that very idea bothers you as much as it does me, do what I’m doing – write Marvel a letter (snail mail is more effective than e-mail, believe it or not) and tell them that you don’t like the idea. And in fact, include a list of all the Marvel comics you’re going to stop buying if they go through with this idea. [2011 Note: It didn’t work. Marvel went ahead and slapped us in the face anyway.]

But I digress. If the purpose of books such as this one is to cultivate new readers in unconventional audiences, it seems that taking away Mary Jane Watson-Parker just as she’s getting so much exposure from the movie and her own novels and comic books would, frankly, just be a dumb move. This book has an uphill battle to begin with when it comes to luring in new readers. Eliminating their viewpoint character would make the entire enterprise pointless.

But if it works, well… if it works, it could bring in one of the most-neglected markets in comics, at least by appearances. When I returned the book to my cousin, I had a conversation with her mother, Tammy, about this very subject, using the book as a tool to reach out to new audiences. She said that the big problem these days, for parents, is that there aren’t a lot of comics out there that kids could be allowed to read.

But the problem with that is… it’s just not true. There are dozens of great books that are perfectly acceptable for a young audience. The real problem is that nobody knows about them, outside of a few geeks like me who are ready to stand outside of comic shops with bullhorns and copies of Mike S. Miller’s The Imaginaries if that’s what it takes.

Lullaby, only one issue in, would be a great comic for young teenagers. It draws on classic characters like Pinocchio, Jim Hawkins and Alice (she of Wonderland fame) and tells an engaging fantasy tale.

How about PVP? It’s an office comedy with a big, loveable troll and lots of pop culture and video game references. And while it’s true that, on occasion, Scott Kurtz might dip into slightly bawdy material, there’s never anything in the book that would get it worse than a “PG-13” rating. Heck, it’s tamer than a lot of stuff you see on prime time television.

What about the new Nancy Drew series from Papercutz comics? Or the Hardy Boys? How about Viper’s Oddly Normal or DC’s Powerpuff Girls and Justice League Unlimited comics?

And how about the fact that almost every property I’ve mentioned there is one that’s linked to a lot of prose books, either as its source material or as a spin-off?

So if you’ve got a girl in your life that you’d like to get into comics, start her off with Mary Jane. Then get ready, because the great thing about comics is that you never know where you’ll go next.

FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: April 13, 2005

This is one of those instances where the first issue of a new comic book came totally out of the blue, grabbed me, and made me smile. Mike Miller’s new comic, The Imaginaries, turned out to be an easy win for Favorite of the Week. The comic is about Superhero G, the imaginary friend of a boy named Tanner, and what happens to him when his child grows up too much to want an imaginary friend anymore. Apparently, abandoned imaginaries are thrown to a strange city and made part of a community of cast-off characters. This book absolutely bleeds imagination, inventiveness and pure fun. If you’ve got a kid or if you used to be a kid, check this comic book out.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginnerand the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

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