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The Amazing Spider-Man: Growing Pains

on Fri, 01/11/2013 - 00:00

The Amazing Spider-Man Growing Pains
Although Spider-Man was co-created in the early 1960s by Johnstown native Steve Ditko, it wasn’t until decades later that the amazing webslinger paid a visit to the Pittsburgh region. The event occurred during the reign of Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, a Pittsburgher by birth, and coincided with the Steel City being named “The Best Place to Live in America” by Rand McNally’s Places Rated Almanac in the mid-1980s.

The reasons for Spider-Man’s journey to Pittsburgh had nothing to do with alter-ego Peter Parker, but involved love interest Mary Jane Watson instead. It was a bit ironic because Mary Jane Watson was never fully seen during the Steve Ditko era but merely alluded to as the niece of next-door neighbor Anna Watson, a teenage girl that Peter Parker’s own Aunt May had repeatedly attempted to introduce to her nephew. It was ultimately a moot point at the time, as Parker already had a love interest in Gwen Stacy, but the wannabe actress who was employed waiting tables and dancing on stage held an attraction nonetheless.

Those mutual feelings only reached fruition after the tragic death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, and climaxed in 1987 with Peter Parker asking Mary Jane Watson to marry him. Before Mary Jane could answer, however, she left New York City for Pittsburgh in issue 292 of The Amazing Spider-Man in order to confront the demons that she had been running away from her entire life.

The often shallow, self-proclaimed “party girl” had embraced her wild side at an early age as a way to offset the reality of her childhood. Her father Phillip was a college literature professor who could not find success as serious novelist. This led him to take his frustrations out on wife Madeline and, eventually, Mary Jane’s older sister Gayle. That final infraction forced Madeline to divorce Phillip and relocate to Pittsburgh.

Madeline died a few years later, while Gayle married her high school sweetheart and soon became pregnant with a second child. Convinced that Gayle was making the same mistakes as their mother, Mary Jane abandoned her sister in Pittsburgh, fleeing to New York City and her inevitable first encounter with Peter Parker.

In 1987, however—with the marriage proposal by Parker hanging in the air unanswered—Mary Jane Watson is drawn back into both Gayle’s life as well as that of her father. Apparently Phillip Watson’s inability to be anything more than a failed writer has led him to steal numerous historical manuscripts and sell them for profit.

It also turns out that his criminal activities have ensnared daughter Gayle into his web of duplicity when he convinces her to help with the theft of a rare Benjamin Franklin monograph on loan to Duquesne University, where Gayle is employed as a career counselor. Gayle is subsequently arrested for the crime and in a moment of despair and desperation, Mary Jane turns to the man she has momentarily left behind for assistance.

Although it is events in his personal life that bring Peter Parker to Pittsburgh, alter ego Spider-Man plays a significant role during the narrative as well. A few years earlier, robotics engineer Spencer Smythe designed a device known as a Spider-Slayer at the behest of J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle editor-in-chief who has believed that Spider-Man was a menace to society since the moment that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider.

Smythe quickly became obsessed with ending both Spider-Man’s life and career but inevitably died himself from radiation poisoning. His son, Alistair Smythe, now seeks revenge and follows Peter Parker to the Steel City with his own Spider-Slayer in tow.

Numerous local landscapes appear within the pages that detail Spider-Man’s brief visit to Pittsburgh. The ever financially-prudent Peter Parker, for instance, swings into the region as Spider-Man rather than pay cab fare from the airport, dangling overhead of Mellon Square and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in the process.

Mary Jane Watson, meanwhile, accompanies Parker to the Point for a brief stroll around the riverbeds as she explains the events that brought her back to the city, and the confrontation between Spider-Man and Alistair Smythe’s Spider-Slayer initially erupts at Duquesne University, traverses over the Liberty Bridge and up the Duquesne Incline. “I have to take advantage of the distraction,” Spider-Man tells himself as he climbs the hillside. “Head up to the top of that incline and hope I can find some wilderness, or maybe a park, or... a residential section?!”

The residents of Mount Washington are just as surprised by the appearance of Spider-Man as Spider-Man is to find a thriving community on the mountaintop. “Is he allowed in Mount Washington?” one of them asks.

In the end, Spider-Man—with the assistance of Mary Jane Watson—is able to defeat the Spider-Slayer, while Mary Jane herself finds a way to both bring her criminal father to justice and get a lighter sentence for her imprisoned sister as well. Of course, neither of those resolutions answers the question posed by Peter Parker regarding marriage.

“I’ve grown up a lot these last few days,” Mary Jane tells him afterwards. “I know why I’ve been running away from responsibilities. I was scared of losing my dreams, but most of them have already come true. So maybe it’s time to stop running. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with making someone else happy, as long as that person makes you happy.” Then, without missing a beat, she adds, “Yes, I’ll marry you.”

As for the location of Mary Jane’s acceptance of Peter Parker’s proposal? None other than Pittsburgh International Airport.

Anthony Letizia

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