Those who know Spider-Man only from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the movies might be surprised to learn that in the comic book, the web-spinning hero has been married for almost 21 years.
That's why the comic world is in an uproar over Marvel Comics' decision to undo the marriage of Peter Parker and red-haired bombshell Mary Jane Watson, reversing two decades of storytelling.
In Amazing Spider-Man #545 last week, Peter and Mary Jane make a tearful deal with the devil-like character Mephisto: In exchange for saving Aunt May's life, Mephisto erases all traces of the Peter-Mary Jane marriage from memory.
In the issue out this week, subtitled Brand New Day, Peter Parker returns to his roots -- young, nerdy and single. Aunt May is alive and well and Mary Jane is again just part of the cast. The marriage never happened.
"People are very upset. They erased a lot of stuff that had been set in stone," says John Newman, manager of Ultimate Comics in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Wednesday as customers came in to buy the opening chapter of Brand New Day. To help emphasize the new start, Amazing Spider-Man will go thrice-monthly.
"We knew it would be a very controversial thing to do," says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor in chief, who believed so much in the project that he drew the crucial issues himself. "Looking into the future, this is really the right thing to do for the long-term health of the character."
Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, was a hit, connecting with young readers because he was a geeky teenager, shy with girls and uncertain of how to use his powers. But in 1987, Peter and Mary Jane, by then a fashion model, got married. Marvel had instant regrets.
"I remember editors and editors in chief lamenting that a married Spider-Man was not where we want to be," Quesada says. "A married Peter Parker makes for a less interesting soap opera than a single Peter Parker going about his nerdy kind of life."
Writers tried everything: The couple separated for a while. She miscarried. And in a much-criticized story line, Marvel tried to convince readers that Peter Parker had not gotten married, but his clone. That didn't stick, either. Then Quesada took over and insisted the marriage just couldn't continue.
"Nobody wants to read about a married Spider-Man," says Craig Shutt, a columnist for Comics Buyers Guide. "But in the short run, it's a terrible idea. It disrespects the readers by saying everything they read is wrong."
At DC Comics, Superman is married to Lois Lane, disrupting that title's long-standing tensions. DC declined to comment for this story.
Quesada is steadfast that for Spider-Man, the move is the right one: "Ultimately we have to do this to keep this character fresh for this generation and generations to come."