Tangled Webs: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Spider-Man and Mary Jane


CfXYqcwXEAAqbD_Ta-Nehisi Coates is  a reporter and commentator who complained about how Bernie Sanders wasn’t radical enough. He has written about his efforts learning French, and how France is so wonderful compared to the United States. The mainstream media loved his essay “The Case For Reparations” and his memoir BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME about the effects of racism, although it is worth noting that the one example of a white person doing something bad to him personally is a white woman who shoved his son. Last week’s first issue of his BLACK PANTHER run isn’t just his first comic book work; It was his first published work of fiction.

Let’s see if I can make George Berryman like him.

So far, putting Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze on BLACK PANTHER has been a successful move for Marvel. Reviews have been positive. The first issue had an estimated 300,000 preorders. And it stil went into a second printing. It’s not surprising that Coates mentions Spider-Man a lot in various interviews and behind the scenes material, now that he’s the writer of a major Marvel comic. But it isn’t the first time he’s discussed the wallcrawler.

In addition to writing about police brutality and his efforts learning French for THE ATLANTIC, Coates wrote about pop culture. And this had included Spider-Man. He wrote two pieces for their website shortly before RENEW YOUR VOWS was announced. At the time, he was a Spider-Man fan hoping for Peter and MJ to get reconciled. He wrote a piece about why he liked Spider-Man’s marriage, comparing it to his own family.

My family was all kinds of inappropriate—hood hippies—and yet we were correct. I say this because I knew, from a very early age, that there was love in my house, imperfect love, love that was built, decided upon, as opposed to magicked into existence.

That was how Peter loved Mary Jane. They were not destined to be. She was not his Lois Lane. His Lois Lane—Gwen Stacy—was murdered for the crime of getting too close to him, and the guilt of this always weighed on him. Whatever. While the world was fooled, Mary Jane Watson knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man. And she didn’t wait around for him to figure it all out. She was, very clearly, sexual. She dated whomever she wanted. She dated dudes who were richer than Parker. She dated dudes who were better looking than Parker. She dated Parker’s best friends. She actually spurned Parker’s first proposal—and then his second too, before reconsidering. Mary Jane Watson was the kind of girl you did not bring home to mother—unless you had a mother like mine.

I have never quite understood the dictum that “you can’t turn a hoe into a housewife.” Perhaps that is because, if pressed, I would always take the former over the latter. Perhaps it is because I don’t desire to turn anyone into anything. But more likely it’s because I wasn’t really raised that way. Nothing else explained my tangled family. Women obviously had sex. Women obviously enjoyed sex. Prince made my mother feel the exact same way that Lisa Lisa made me feel. Michael Jackson (pre-nose job) did the same for my sister.

I liked to believe that Peter Parker, ultimately, wasn’t raised that way either. He did not ultimately end up with the blonde whom he was made for. And if he ended up with a beautiful woman, he did not end up with an ornamental one. His marriage was a rejection of the macho ideal of romance—which reigns even among nerds—and it mirrored and confirmed my own budding sense of what love was at a very young age.

spider-man mj kiss

 He thought it was a positive influence on younger readers.

In a genre aimed at young males, it is very hard for me to come up with a more mature, and I would say healthy, vision of what a marriage should look like. Mary Jane Watson was not looking to be saved. If anything, she wanted Peter Parker to stop saving people. She did not need Peter Parker. She was not fashioned especially to be his wife. She was a human and seemed as though she would have been with Peter Parker, or without him.

I never read One More Day. I generally hated the notion that you couldn’t have a grown-up superhero, and I did not hate it just because I was grown-up: I would have hated it when I was 12. The fact of it was I idolized grown-ups. One More Day felt like an erasure of what had been one of its more unintentionally bold endeavors—the attempt to allow a superhero to grow up, to be more than Peter Pan, to confront the tragic world as it was, to imagine life beyond what should have been.

His other article was a response to an IO9 article on the worst Spider-Man stories ever.

The contenders are The Clone Saga, The Gathering Of Five, Sins Past and One More Day. I’m not sure if these are in order of awfulness or not, but I agree with the listing—these are all pretty bad. The contest is a little unfair: You can go back and read through earlier issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and find some forgettable stories. But when the “event” era hit Marvel—huge crossover, multi-issue epics—awfulness mixed with hype. Nothing, then, was forgettable. And then there’s the Internet generation—many of us remember The Clone Saga in a way that we don’t remember, say, the earlier escapades of the Jackal and Gwen Stacy (always a bad idea), so the awfulness of the 90s and the aughts resonates in a way that awfulness of the 60s, 70s and early 80s doesn’t.

Iron Man Osborn

He thought the Clone saga was the worst Spider-Man storyline, mainly because of how it ended, and how he felt it contradicted a key part of what it means to be Spider-Man.

I’m going to go with The Clone Saga for the great sin of resurrecting Norman Osborne. Since that resurrection, and since his departure from the Spider-books, he’s proved to be an interesting villain. (See Matt Fraction’s take on him in The Invincible Ironman.) But he’s been made interesting by basically being made into a new character. Osborne has been resurrected in name only, and what’s been lost is the force of presence he exerted off-panel for nearly 25 years:

And then the final out was resurrecting Norman Osborn, the single worst move ever made by Spider-Man writers. He had attained a reputation and fearsome aura in death far greater than in life, haunting Peter so much. To explain he’d spent 24 years of stories “recovering in Europe” was ridiculous, as was making him the true mastermind of all this then turning him into a poor man’s Lex Luthor. 20 years later and it’s still the storyline that all Spider-Man fans grit their teeth at.

I don’t think all resurrections are bad. But in a genre where death is malleable, I think it’s easy to miss how well certain characters work while dead, how they exert a gravity on the main story. Perhaps more than any major superhero, save arguably Superman, Spider-Man is a character largely defined by death—the death of his parents, of Gwen Stacy, of his Uncle Ben. During the formative years of his life, it seemed like everything he touched turned to ash. This included the father of his best friend. It was powerful stuff while it lasted. I just wish it lasted a little longer.



When I think about part of what I want to accomplish with BLACK PANTHER, I think about Matt Fraction’s run on INVINCIBLE IRON MAN and Joss Whedon’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN. I want to leave a similar mark. Listen, when I was a kid Spider-Man was the North Star for me, and I would like for some young person to feel that one day about my efforts on Black Panther.

He’d like his books to be as meanginful as the Spider-Man and X-Men comics he read when he was younger.

The Black Panther I offer pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society—from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring, and the rise of isis.

And this, too, is the fulfillment of the 9-year-old in me. Reading THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN comic books as a kid, I didn’t just take in the hero’s latest amazing feat; I wrestled seriously with his celebrated tagline—“With great power comes great responsibility.” Chris Claremont’s THE UNCANNY X-MEN wasn’t just about an ultracool band of rebels. That series sought to grapple with the role of minorities in society—both the inner power and the outward persecution that come with that status. And so it is (I hope) with BLACK PANTHER. The questions are what motivate the action. The questions, ultimately, are more necessary than the answers.


He likes it when comic books have backstory and continuity.

I think it’s really really important for new readers to just sorta surrender when it comes to continuity.

Like be cool understanding you won’t get everything. That’s the experience for everyone.

Coolest thing about being 10 was seeing a note in Amazing Spiderman like “*see Ish 258 –Ows”

And you spend months like “Yo what happened in Amazing Spiderman #258???” You couldn’t google. You prolly ain’t have chips to cop back issue

You just had to, like, not know. And that was kinda OK. You’d start making up things that happened in #258.

In this sense, learning comics is like learning language. Gotta make piece with not knowing. Just dive in. Don’t let fools intimidate.

I mean for years I ain’t know who “Ows” was…Took years to figure out it was the editor. And that (later) that was Christopher Priest.

On a related noted, he seems to discuss James Owsley/ Christopher Priest’s Spider-Man work more than the guy’s work on Black Panther. 

Wrote that also underrated Spiderman vs. Wolverine comic. Almost got into fist-fights arguing over that one.

It’s certainly possible to disagree with Coates on comic books and Spider-Man. I personally think getting rid of the marriage was ultimately a good idea. I’m sure there are some fans of the marriage happy to have Coates on their side, who still disagree with some of his rationales, as well as his love of some recent comics like SECRET WARS. But it is refreshing when one of the premiere cultural critics of the day cares so deeply and specifically about Marvel comics and Spider-Man.


Thomas Mets is an Education Masters student in New York City. He is also one of the moderators of the Spider-Man forum at Comic Book Resources. He has been a fan of Spider-Man since coming across the character in the comic strip when he was about seven years old.

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