I recently finished reading Mary Jane by Judith O’Brien, and I have to say it was pretty good. Now, before you start wondering if I’m really a 13 year old girl who is pretending to be a grown man, allow me to argue my point. (And in my defense, it was on my bookshelf for quite awhile, after my girlfriend bought it at Midtown Comics in Manhattan two years ago.)
The novel tells the story of a young Mary Jane, and the troubles she goes through. Her father walks out on her and her mother, leaving them to fend for themselves. Because of a lack of a steady income, Mary Jane and her mother have to move from apartment to apartment, and Mary Jane from school to school. She leaves her beloved Bradford Academy and all of her friends, including a gangly, awkward kid who partnered with her on the science fair, a kid named Peter Parker. Seeing Peter’s family life, and his interaction with his parents, makes her yearn for a normal home life. That is, until the day Peter’s parents are killed in a plane crash, and his aunt and uncle move in to raise him. They cannot afford to send him to Bradford anymore, and place Peter in public school, separating him from Mary Jane.
Years go by, and due to the Watson’s transient lifestyle, Mary Jane ends up attending the same school as her childhood friend. They begin to get to know each other again, but Peter is still the weird kid, picked on by everyone else, and MJ is warned that being friends with Peter can ruin her reputation. She heeds this advice, but soon Peter starts to change, and she, and all of the girls in the school, begin to see Peter less of a nerd and more of a sexual God.
Mary Jane deals with a lot of issues that a normal teenager deals with, such as being accepted by her peers and dealing with her own self-image. But, she also is introduced to some topics that are a little more abnormal, like her friend’s father giving the entire class a sports drink laced with a highly addictive performance enhancer.
Though Mary Jane was written for younger audiences, it really captures the essence of how it is like to be a teenager. The anxiety of being a teenager is almost tangible, especially when Mary Jane starts dealing with her weight issues and takes drastic measures to improve her self. Her diary entries are realistic, as well as her inner monologue. The dialogue is a little cheesy in the way the teenagers speak to each other, but in many cases, that was intentional. In others, well, I didn’t think teenagers actually spoke like that.
I also have to commend O’Brien on the way she handled the appearance of Spider-Man, one of the driving forces in Mary Jane’s life. In every other incantation of Spider-Man, we get the story from peter Parker’s perspective. But since this is Mary Jane’s story, we get to look at it a different way. When Spider-Man hits the scene, taking on the Demon Knife Master for a prize of $1,000 a minute at the Wrestle Cage Rage match, we watch as Mary Jane recognizes a few acrobatic moves she herself taught Peter Parker, and begins to wonder if it can be possible. When Spider-Man saves her from being hit by a car, she examines the sound of his voice, wondering again, and even outright asking, if Peter Parker is Spider-Man. And the way she is kept in the dark, when she discovers that the two cannot be the same person, is believable, a simple cover but plausible nonetheless.
My one gripe, however, is the show-and-tell Peter gives Mary Jane when he discovers that he has changed. The day after getting bitten by the radioactive spider (though they don’t make it clear it the spider was in fact radioactive) Peter shows off his new abilities to the entire school, literally running circles around the previously more athletic kids. Later that day, he tells Mary Jane about how he doesn’t need his thick glasses anymore, he begins showing her his new muscles, and she starts touching her abs and biceps. Though this idea of showing off to his peers is a true teenage attribute, I was a little disappointed in it. The Spider-Man that I know knew that this new powers would make him an almost instant celebrity in his school, but he decides to keep it a secret anyway. With great power comes great responsibility, right? And flaunting that power is not responsible. So to see Peter Parker act in so flippant a manner was slightly irritating, but I managed to get over it.
One other aspect in the novel is the illustrations. No Marvel book would be complete without a few pictures. Mary Jane isn’t overdone with pictures, but what it has are amazing. Done by the great Mike Mayhew, the illustrations manage to capture the essence of the novel’s young stars, and place them in their everyday situations. Peter being ostracized by his peers, Mary Jane studying her body, and Peter and Mary Jane sharing an intimate moment are all snapshots that Mayhew gives the reader. And the emotion on their faces is so precise that you can almost understand the story completely without reading a single word.
Though it may be strange for a guy like me to read a book aimed at teenage girls, I am proud to say that I did. Being the fan of Spider-Man that I am, and with Mary Jane being such an important part of the Spider-Man myth, I felt that it was important for me to read this novel, so that I can see another author’s take on both characters. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Spider-Man like I do. It is a short novel, only about 200 pages, and a quick read. But it is worth it to the true fans for a new take on the story they know so well.
And now that I am done with the first novel, I will be moving onto the second very shortly.