Parallel Lives and Retcons

One of the biggest differences between what I guessed would happen in One More Day and what actually happened was that Joe Quesada kept the events of the Spider-Man graphic novel “Parallel Lives” largely intact. This included a major revelation in that story which fundamentally altered the relationship between two of the characters.

In Amazing Spider-Man #258, Tom Defalco had Mary Jane reveal that she had knew that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. But it wasn’t established how long she had known. So it didn’t necessarily contradict the majority of the older comics, especially as Mary Jane had been absent from the title for a few years. In Parallel Lives, Gerry Conway revealed that she had always known that Peter Parker was a celebrity she was interested in. This became canon.

In a post at the Comic Book Resources Spider-Man forum, which I moderate, Dan Slott mentioned why he thought Parallel Lives contradicted Defalco’s earlier cliffhanger.

In ASM #258, Page 3, Panel 2, when the Black Cat jumps in through the window, MJ whispers in shock, “It’s true. It’s all true.” She clearly had suspicions that Peter was Spider-Man, but she didn’t know for sure.

That story came out in 1984, five years before PARALLEL LIVES. In the context of dialogue MJ says in #258, it’s clear that her previous exit from the book (many issues earlier) was because she had BEEN figuring out that Pete was Spider-Man and she couldn’t take it anymore. THAT FLIES IN THE FACE of the retro-active revelation in PARALLEL LIVES that MJ knew Pete was Spider-Man since AMAZING FANTASY #15, before THEY’D EVEN MET!

Parallel Lives changed the context of the protagonist’s relationship with a major supporting cast member, with whom he was romantically involved for some time. It affected the questions of why MJ chose to be Peter’s friend and why she later chose to be his lover. Any story dealing with Peter and MJ’s past following the publication of Parallel Lives had to be informed by her complicated feelings before they actually met.

In a Wizard interview, John Byrne said he liked the retcon because it explained why a knockout like MJ would be interested in a geek like Peter. It’s a bit more nuanced than that, although MJ became a lot less interested in Spidey, when she learned that he was really dorky Peter Parker. The slightly self-serving explanation for why MJ was upset to learn that Peter Parker was more like the average comic book reader than Flash Thompson was that he reminded her too much of her father.

Mary Jane’s motivations are very different in this scene, one of the most famous of the silver-age, if she’s introducing herself to her aunt’s friend’s nephew or if she’s introducing herself to Spider-Man, a guy who had just been accused of robbing a bank.

In another CBR post, Dan Slott noted what the Parallel Lives retcon failed to explain.

Parallel Lives takes existing continuity and puts the lie to it without providing an explanation. That “something going on behind the scenes that we weren’t aware of” that you’re talking about– runs countermand to what happened in the book from AMAZING FANTASY #15 to up around the time of PARALLEL LIVES– without providing an out.
Whether you like it, don’t like it, find it “invasive”, or don’t find it “invasive”… OMD does NOT do that. Through story driven elements, it brings about a change and acknowledges it.
That’s the difference.

He expanded on what he meant about “putting the lie to continuity.”

PARALLEL LIVES put the LIE to not just THOSE issues, it put the LIE to the context of Peter and Mary Jane’s ENTIRE relationship from DAY ONE.

Mary Jane did NOT know that Peter Parker was Spider-Man until WELL into the 200’s. There is CLEAR evidence in NUMEROUS issues that she was in the dark to Peter’s secret ID.

PARALLEL LIVES added an incongruous sequence/revelation that said that MJ knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man from the FIRST night he went out on a mission (to catch Uncle Ben’s killer).

That meant that BEFORE she ever was on the other side of that door in her first big appearance (and before she even showed up blocked by a vase in an early Ditko issue) she knew she was meeting up with Spidey.

That is paramount to Lois meeting Clark and KNOWING that he’s Superman from Day One! That is the MOST damaging thing that could EVER be done to these two characters BECAUSE it INVALIDATES EVERYTHING from BEFORE they even MEET!

It changes the ENTIRE CONTEXT of their relationship. It changes the possible WHY of how they relate to each other, as opposed to the HOW a specific event in their lives played out 20 years later.

He doesn’t think it makes sense with the context of previous issues.

The further back you go the LESS it makes sense. There are CLEARLY issues in the 100s where there’s NO WAY she knew he was Spider-Man.

And it DOESN’T stop the BIGGEST problem– the one that I was talking about– the one that is NOT up for interpretation– and that you’re side-stepping:
That PL had MJ knowing BEFORE she met Peter, which means that POST PL, she NEVER would have known him as Plain Peter Parker!
That changes the CONTEXT of their relationship from its INCEPTION!
That’s HUGE!

He compares it unfavorably to a retcon in Brubaker’s Captain America, which I used an example in the previous entry.

I’m not talking about WHERE Mary Jane was standing when she saw Peter swing out of the house. I’m not talking about how that event was staged or appeared in a graphic novel.
I’m talking about the mechanics of HOW it works– and how it DOESN’T EXPLAIN away any of the errata from the times where she CLEARLY didn’t know he was Spider-Man in HUNDREDS of issues of ASM, PPSM, MTU, etc.

If you look at the recent reboot of Bucky in the pages of CAP, they’ve retconned away the story from CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 where Bucky, adorable camp mascot, entered Steve Roger’s tent while he was changing into Captain America– so Cap made him his sidekick. ALL that is gone. Bucky is “now” an OSS trained agent, able to to slit throats and kick ass– and closer to Steve’s age back then.
If left unexplained, that would have put the lie to most of the Simon/Kirby run of CAP– along with practically all of Roy Thomas’ INVADERS run.
Instead, there’s a sequence in CAP that explains that THOSE stories were part of Allied propaganda and newsreels.
Like the changes from OMD/OMIT, whether you like it or not– there IS an explanation.

There is NO explanation FOR the changes in PL.

The Parallel Lives retcon does add a few things to the Spider-Man comics. It ties Mary Jane to events prior to her memorable introduction, suddenly making her relevant to the Lee/ Ditko era. It reinforces the idea that Mary Jane is Peter’s soulmate, useful when trying to explain why these two characters got married.

Amazing Spider-Man 17 Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man

With superhero comics, the metaphor of the secret identity is really appealing to a certain class of younger readers. This is especially true of Spider-Man comics. It’s the idea that people around Spider-Man are unable to realize just how impressive he really is, as if his potential is a great secret he’s holding from the rest of the world. There’s something cool about the idea of a girl who instantly recognizes Peter for who he really is. It gives MJ an edge over other supporting characters. It would be interesting if they translated this into the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man sequels, with Shailene Woodley knowing that it will eventually be revealed that her character knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

The disadvantage of the approach is that some of MJ’s actions retroactively become rather inexplicable. And cementing MJ as Peter’s soulmate isn’t a good thing when the marriage is erased, and the writers have decided to explore the possibility that someone else may be a better fit for Peter.

You could argue that some of the stories in the past work more smoothly if MJ is aware that Peter is Spider-Man, even though the writers were operating under a different assumption. But it’s difficult to say that every story works more smoothly, or as smoothly, under those circumstances.

Slott handled a similar retcon with the revelation that Norman Osborn had always known that Harry was alive in Amazing Spider-Man #581-582. However, Slott still provided an explanation for any scenes in which Norman acts as if his son is dead: Norman was putting on a show for anyone who might be watching, to ensure that they would never learn the secret.

There wasn’t any such explanation with MJ. Here’s an example of a scene that reads a little bit differently if Mary Jane has known for years that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

Mary Jane’s actions are also different in the original clone saga, if she knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and that Gwen Stacy died in a fight between Peter Parker and one of his enemies.

Technically everything could have happened the way it was portrayed as happening. However, the Mary Jane who acts this way knowing that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, is a different character than one who is unaware of that.

It might be possible to do a retcon of Parallel Lives, but it would get complicatedFor a while, it would have been possible to just ignore the story, and claim that it was out of continuity. But then Kurt Busiek referenced it for Untold Tales of Spider-Man. To solve the problem now, you’d have to reveal that MJ somehow forgot that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and then relearned the truth. That gets convoluted.

There is the question of how relevant this would be, since most readers either don’t know that MJ always knew or don’t care about the implications to decades-old material. Some have argued that it changes the subtext, although that requires misunderstanding the differences between subtext and context.

Whether Mary Jane knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man or not when they meet is context, as an explicit answer is provided in Parallel Lives. Whether Mary Jane is secretly frightened about about being coerced into meeting Spider-Man’s alter-ego by an unknowing aunt or whether she wants to jump Spidey’s bones is subtext. There are many scenes in which the context changes based on whether or not Mary Jane knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, including the ending of the best Spider-Man story ever.

The context is changed if she knows that Gwen Stacy was killed by one of Peter Parker’s enemies. As is the subtext. In one scenario, she wants to stay  with Peter Parker because his girlfriend–one of her best friends– was the innocent bystander in a fight between a supervillain and a guy implicated in her father’s death.

In another scenario, she wants to stay with Peter because his girlfriend –one of her best friends–was murdered by one of his enemies. She has a better appreciation for what he’s going through. And it raises the question: When Peter Parker was grieving for his murdered girlfriend, why didn’t she say that she knew he was Spider-Man and that it wasn’t his fault?

There’s no possible argument that the subtext hasn’t changed. With Parallel Lives, the reader isn’t free to imagine anything different. There’s absolute confirmation about what MJ knows and when she knows it.

This is MJ flirting with her friend Peter Parker…

And this is MJ lying to friends…

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind retcons. But I don’t like this one, as it changes the behavior of the characters without sufficient explanation. Slott sums up why it’s so weird, and different from OMD.

Whether you like it or not– OMD/OMIT explains what happens and why things are different. PL does NOT. PL just runs countermand to what happened in the book from its inception onward.

By ACKNOWLEDGING events from the wedding on in ASM– and THEN changing them– and showing you HOW the change occurred in OMD/OMIT– whether you liked it or not– the story EXPLAINED it. PL DOES NOT.

Some have expressed a preference for a retcon which establishes that every event occurred the way it was shown as happening, even if the context and subtext were significantly altered. The problem with Parallel Lives is that it retconned a major element of Spider-Man’s past, so every appearance of a significant character up until Amazing Spider-Man #257 now has a different interpretation. The retcon sometimes doesn’t gel with the character’s actions, but it’s difficult to read a story otherwise if the official explanation is that Mary Jane knew that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, before she had any interaction with Peter Parker.

With One More Day, Joe Quesada and JMS had the opportunity to put this genie back in the bottle. They chose to go in a different direction. And there was a much more controversial retcon they chose to keep in place.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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