Spider-Man and Mary Jane's Breakup

Longtime Spider-Man fans, get ready for a shock. After 20 years with his beloved Mary Jane, there's a new girl in town—and she's putting the moves on Spidey. He's locking lips with the mysterious brunette, named Mia Flores, in the first installment of "Brand New Day," the latest twist to the Amazing Spider-Man series, which arrived in stores Wednesday.

Don't worry, Spidey's no cheat. He and MJ tearfully agreed to the split, sacrificing their love to save the life of Spidey's dying aunt. The longtime couple does that by making a deal with a devil-like villain—Mephisto—who, in exchange for Aunt May's life, wipes out all record of their lives together over the last 20 years. The result? A twentysomething New York City bachelor without the ball and chain, whose opportunity for adventure is boundless. Or, at least, that's what Spider-Man's editors over at Marvel Comics believe. "What's really at the heart of Spider-Man is that it's really about Peter Parker: his struggles to find work, romance," says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor in chief. "Putting him in a marriage really stabilized him."

But the breakup has been anything but stable for die-hard fans, livid that editors would reverse two decades of storytelling. Some are calling for a boycott of the new series—starting with "One More Day," the issue setting the stage for all of this, which came out last month. Others are duking it out over the Internet. Even one of the series' writers, J. Michael Straczynski, had asked--only to back down--that his name be removed from the new issues. ("In the current storyline, there's a lot I don't agree with," Straczynski wrote on his blog.)

The thing is, they're not so much angry about the breakup itself--most fans will admit that characters, at some point, need a fresh start. (Marvel's main rival, DC Comics, gave Superman and Wonder Woman new beginnings in the 1980s, and fans took it fine.) The problem, they say, is that the story's not realistic. Divorce, yes. (Peter and MJ had a trial separation at one point.) Death, sure. (That's how Parker's ex-girlfriend Gwen Stacy died). But would as intelligent and moral a hero as Peter Parker really be dumb enough to strike a deal with the devil? Would he really choose an aged aunt, who's led a full and satisfying life, over his true love? "This is not an idea, but an admission of a lack of ideas," says Bob Sodaro, a Connecticut writer and graphic artist who has been collecting Spider-Man comics since its inception in 1962. On his blog, he calls the move "the ultimate form of copout"--and one that "loudly proclaims that not only has Marvel run out of ideas, but that it's writers and editors really can't write themselves out of a paper bag."

Writers, editors—and even some fans—have long been conflicted over Parker's marriage to Mary Jane. Back when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the series, Spider-Man immediately connected with young readers because he was a geeky teenager who was awkward around girls and not sure how to use his powers. Getting married aged him, making it harder for younger readers to relate. It took away the tension of his single life, the trials and tribulations of being a bachelor. And it changed his image: from a dork who strives to be a hero despite seemingly endless bad luck to the man who gets the dream girl. "It is hard to feel sorry for him when he's happily married to a beautiful supermodel," says Brian Cronin, the producer of  Comics Should Be Good, an industry blog.

In the end, though, the best argument for breaking up the duo was to add new fans to the old. Spider-Man has a loyal base of longtime devotees, but he needs to attract young adults, who make up the majority of comic book readers. And it's they who are most likely to be lured away by electronic entertainment and the Internet. "This is really about the next generation of Spider-Man fans, not just the older fans," says Quesada. "We want to make sure [Spider-Man] stays healthy and active as an icon."

Of course, the breakup won't be easy for everyone to get over. A series is only as good as its characters, and it's only natural for fans to get invested in them. "My sixth- and seventh-grade students asked me, after the first [Spider-Man] movie came out, 'What happened with Peter and Mary Jane?' Like they're real people that send me postcards," says Greg Hatcher, a Seattle art teacher who teaches drawing and cartooning and writes a weekly column for Comic Book Resources, the Web site that puts out the Comics Should Be Good blog. He says his students have even come to favor Spider-Girl over the original series, a Marvel spinoff in which Spidey is married and retired, with a 15-year-old daughter who inherits his powers.

Still others, like Sodaro, admittedly cling to the fairy-tale romance; the nerd-guy-gets-hot-girl fantasy that a lot of guys growing up could relate to. "Peter Parker was the 'everyman geek' when I was growing up," says the 52-year-old, who has written about the comic book industry for nearly 30 years. "He was the guy that everybody picked on. And for anyone who did get picked on, you'd fantasize what you'd do if you were a superhero. That's what Peter Parker was for us. And his marrying of MJ--a supermodel--epitomized that fantasy." Whatever happens, Quesada is confident his fans will stay loyal. After all, it's not a good story without a little controversy.