The covers are kind of sweet, in that the point is simply how swell various guys find the featured girl — outlandishly swell. The girls transport them the way Frankenstein’s monster scares hell out of Lou Costello. But the focus is different, in that Frankenstein’s monster is there an excuse for Costello to do his doubletakes — the real point of the scene — whereas the guys are there to underline how wonderful Venus is (or Millie or Hedy or whoever).
From what I’ve seen, and I have looked thru many piles of Golden Age comics, the “ga-ga” approach to teen humor was not too widespread. Lots of comic books featured pretty girls doing silly things, but usually the gag had nothing to do with how delirious they made the average joe feel. Usually the joke came from the girl getting jealous or skimping on her homework or possibly falling on her ass while she was out for a skate. That last cover has a panties flash because it’s for a Fox title and Fox was put on earth to make Atlas look like it had class. Al Feldstein worked on the series in question, called Junior, and did a series of odd covers that combined smirkiness with very stiff drawing. It was like seeing busty cigar store Indians wearing wigs and lipstick and getting molested by gusts of wind. Those sweaters got molded very tight but around inhumanly definite body parts; just the sweater folds looked like they could hurt you.
Stan, by contrast, seemed to operate on the idea that there was no such thing as sex. He wasn’t hinting at the forbidden; he didn’t have a clue about the forbidden. Consider:
A given feminist might dislike Stan’s covers more or less or about the same as any other good-girl cover from the period. Stan’s approach wasn’t feminist, it was just Stan: candy colored, high spirited, and cut off from entire realms of pressing, everyday facts, such as the obvious followup to kissing a powerful older man who can give a gal a job. (Side note: Kind of surprising to see sandles on a 1940s Hollywood director, or any Hollywood director; didn’t realize that was ever part of the stereotype.) Stan took a boosterish approach to good-girlism. Everything was upside, no problems in sight. Betty and Veronica and Archie had problems, though trivial ones. Hedy and Millie and so on mainly provided an excuse for Stan to give a hip-hip-hoorah.
I hated the way Stan and Jack presented Sue Storm, and it’s rare that comic book sexism gets a rise out of me. But the childish way they made her act was really irritating. Millie and Venus and so on are also infantalized, but I don’t mind them. My guess at the reason: Sue was part of a working team, and her playing the fool provided an occasion for Reed to be the grave, authoritative man in charge. The scenes reminded me of the shoddy way men tried to con themselves into thinking they were manly (capable, authoritative, adult) by pretending that women were tit carriers with boop-a-doop brains. (I use the past tense, “tried,” because at that point the dodge had yet to be challenged and therefore was more widespread; I don’t mean that it has died out.) But no one is an adult in those Stan covers. It’s a baby universe, as if someone had figured out a way to get swimsuit models and necking into a P. G. Wodehouse story.
Mary Jane is the follow-up to the Stan Lee good girls of the 1940s. I think she’s great, the crown jewel of the collection. But she became progressively less great the longer she stuck around. You can pretend for a very brief while that the notion of a knockout girl who loves a good time has nothing to do with sex. But Mary Jane was around for more than a brief while, and therefore her problems began.
And now, from “Face It, Tiger”:
I remember being a kid and seeing my first Spider-Man issues, and the presence of Mary Jane and J. Jonah Jameson made substantial, roughly equal contributions to my belief that these were the right stories to be reading. I was under 10 and we’re talking, mainly, about early ’70s reprints of the Lee-Romita, Lee-Ditko stuff from the 1960s, emphasis on Romita. That’s when JJJ and Mary Jane laid down their groove. They were civilians, but they had oomph, like Spider-Man did in fight scenes. Instead of being heroic, one was funny and the other was sexy, but they were human exclamation points, the way superheroes are. Which is to say that the Romita-Lee Mary Jane stood in relation to period romance/teen-humor heroines in the same way a Marvel fight scene stood in relation to Green Lantern fiddling with yellow trees or the Flash running about in tight little circles. She was designed for just as much impact as audience age permitted. Getting fancy, I’d say she celebrated the idea of impact, the fact that nowadays our fun-time media really had the freedom to work us over.
Mary Jane talked the way Stan Lee wrote captions. She was a perfect expression of Stan-ism: pizzazz as a way of life. If you’re into hero comics, her first appearance counts as a touchstone. I mean the panel everybody has seen, the one with Peter’s jaw hanging open and Mary Jane standing in the doorway. She says, “You just hit the jackpot.” After saying, “Face it, tiger,” because it was a one-two punch. The moment was just boy-meets-girl, no special effects, no powers. As far as I know, this is the only civilian touchstone in the entire superhero mythos. The point of Clark Kent is that he gets to change into Superman. The point of Peter Parker, at the moment shown in this panel, is that he gets to look at Mary Jane. She’s the show. J. Jonah Jameson is the only other civilian to pull that off, in his different way — the man does a hell of a turn. Whereas Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane and Happy Hogan and Alfred and Pepper Potts are more like curios and familiar faces, tchotchkes bunched around the star. Maybe Superman is unimaginable without his guys, but that’s the only reason they matter. Look at Perry White. He may be indispensable, but he’s useless.
Stan Lee had been building up to Mary Jane for years, through all those teen-humor books he liked writing so much. He never did a lot of Simon-and-Kirby-style romance, the kind with moon-faced women pondering the hazards between them and married life. Stan wanted covers with a knockout girl blazing forth her power as a knockout. Men walked into each other, fish jumped into her boat, the football player wanted to tackle her. A dork bystander might be on hand as counterpoint, to radiate cluelessness. He’s looking at the screen, his buddy is looking at the girl usher. The dork: “Wotta production!” The buddy: “Ya can say that again!” The dork bystander didn’t know fun when he saw it, and that was the joke. You could just dive in and have a good time, grab a girl and do what comes naturally. But the poor fool wouldn’t; he would never catch on that life can be fun. (If you want to hear Stan speaking with disdain, catch him on DC. It’s the same principle at work.)
The big engine behind necking, and teen romance, and giddiness at the sight of a bombshell girl, is sex. Industry rules don’t allow any follow-up for that sort of thing. As a result Stan’s approach to romance works best for one-offs, like cover gags or Mary Jane’s doorway moment. Mary Jane emptied a full bolt of glory her first time out and then it was 40 years of decline. J. Jonah could stay funny because he had the full range of motion needed for his schtick; as seen recently, he can go all the way to heart attack. But if Mary Jane wasn’t going to have sex, there wasn’t much else for her to do. In the ’80s, Marvel stuck her with a TV-movie backstory that said her larking about was just a defense; she’d put it on because of her lousy father’s drinking. So everything specific to Mary Jane turned out to be an act. The reason, presumably, was that her schtick had worn a bit thin and she now needed explaining away. At this point, Mary Jane became the girlfriend, then the wife. She didn’t do badly in these roles, but no one can do especially well in them. She was on hand. She helped buck up the hero; she provided relationship tensions. But she didn’t do anything interesting. She dressed louder than the other superheroes’ wives/girlfriends. I guess she also had more spunk, for what that’s worth. Differences in spunk among this bunch get to be like IQ shadings at a high-price computer camp. All the girls have spunk, if they don’t go crazy.
The girls aren’t all that different from one another. Put them in a situation and they’ll say the same things. And of course, their job pretty much is to be put into situations, the terrible jams facing their boyfriends/husbands. In One More Day, the love interest speaks: “Peter? Is something —” Also: “Peter, what’s happening?” Resolute: “They’ll have to come through me first.” That’s Mary Jane — not much was left at the end. One More Day has a two-page spread intended as a grand summing up of her glory. (This is just as the demon Mephisto undoes her marriage to Peter in return for letting Aunt May live.) After 41 years of print existence, you’d think there’d be plenty of material, but apparently not. She and Peter ride a bike together, just like a Pepsi ad from the 1970s. MJ sits on a couch with Aunt May, and they’re watching TV. The only bit that shows character and flair is the survival from ’60s-era MJ. There she is, wearing a Romita-designed tinfoil dress and dancing on a table. Good for her! Her final words trail into the ether. You know what they are. “Face it, tiger,” they begin, and so on.
At least she’ll be around. Her costume is fancier than most girls’, and she says “Tiger” and “Pussycat.” So the markings have been preserved, even if now they’re stuck on a superbeing. But she isn’t what she was. The old Mary Jane had a power, and that was to whip men’s eyes about in a way that deeply impacted the nervous system and left the subject feeling happy and grateful. No wonder she always had to be so giddy (“With the brain of a mosquito,” in the unkind words of Not Brand Echh). It was because she made us giddy; she represented the principle of giddiness, all-out fun. She doesn’t have that role any more: She’s another cape with a slightly different line of patter. Mary Jane’s essential purpose was to be fun. Jackpot’s essential purpose is to be Mary Jane. It’s all a bit thin and derivative.