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.

(32) Comments

  1. Friendly Reminder

    Exactly, I truly beleive Bill knew exactly what he was posting, looking for a reaction, and well, he got one. Like I said, attitudes from anti-marriage fans such as him are all too typical, they can't seem to string together a coherent argument without resorting to insult and ridicule. It shows how much of a threat a grown, developed Spider-Man is to them.

  2. Erik

    I think your post was called "condescending" because of things like portraying others' views as "blah blah blah" and "desperate rationalizing," and flat out telling people "you are wrong" instead of "here's why I disagree." Just my two cents so you can maybe avoid a conflict before it begins next time. :)

  3. Bill

    Friendly reminder wrote: "Bill, I quit reading Spider-Man because the stories are garbage. If you think the “real Spider-Man” is best represented by whatever that thing in the main books are presently, or what that thing is in the current animated series, I don’t know what to do tell you, what makes “the real Spider-Man” is subjective to a lot of people." Hey "Friendly Reminder" I think you greatly misinterpreted what I was saying in my post. I friggin' HATE what they've done to Spider-Man in the last 20-30 years, from the marriage to the Clone Saga. So, I certainly don't think that the trash they are pumping out today represents what I think Spider-Man is (or should be) at all! To suggest that I approve of the horrible "Ultimate Spider-Man" toon, or the god-awful green glowing Spider-Man of the current ASM, just shows you didn't really even grasp my argument. Then you say you are a fan of growth and change in the character of Spider-Man, and then bring up the fact that he was married in the comics for 20 plus YEARS!! Yeah, that's some real room for "growth and change" there. You basically contracted your own argument. And to call someone else's differing opinion "ignorant and condescending" is pretty ignorant and condescending on your part. So, I don't think I can take anything you say seriously. Good day to you sir.

  4. xonathan

    Creating CONSTANT fictional stories of this characters for decades and counting is tricky. Obviously the characters' status quo will have to be frozen at some point. But at what point will it be frozen? To say it must be frozen at high school or college is as arbitrary as to say it must be frozen at marriage or having a family. Which status quo is better? Everyone has their preference and that's fine, but understand the choice is done arbitrarily by Marvel editors and writers. I personally prefer Stan Lee's vision and the married status quo. And I'll say it again, the only reason Marvel regrets marrying Spider-Man is because it's easier to write one person than a couple and it's easier to recycle old ideas than it is to create a believable married couple. It's corporate America cutting corners. It's a business after all...

  5. Chase The Blues Away

    #24: Loved your impersonation of the Marvel chorus of Tom Brevoort, Dan Slott and Joe Quesada. I recognized their voices right away. Can you do John Wayne next? (Although I'm pretty sure "future generations should enjoy Spider-Man as he was meant to be portrayed" is copyright Marvel 2007, so I hope you got permission to distribute the phrase further). Unfortunately, you wouldn't make a good Stan Lee impersonator, as Stan always meant for Peter to age and grow up and yes, get married. Sorry, it's not fan who said that first, but Stan himself. Better luck with that part of your impersonation routine next time!

  6. Friendly Reminder

    Bill, I quit reading Spider-Man because the stories are garbage. If you think the "real Spider-Man" is best represented by whatever that thing in the main books are presently, or what that thing is in the current animated series, I don't know what to do tell you, what makes "the real Spider-Man" is subjective to a lot of people. ...Or do I have to remind you part of the marketing for Spider-Girl, a universe which allowed Peter to grow and evolve past his stale iconic status, was billing her as "the daughter of the ONE TRUE SPIDER-MAN?" Peter was in college for 15 years? Big whoop, he was married for 20....scratch that, he's been married for 29 going on 30 years in the newspaper medium with no signs of stopping. If Marvel stick with the teenage Peter Parker for the movies, what makes you think they WON'T age him? This is reality, and Tom Holland is as much a growing boy as the rest of us. Unless they plan to kill Holland off to set up Miles Morales taking over the franchise, they're going to face an issue sooner or later in that medium. One generation will grow up with their Peter Parker and that's the way it ought to be The first Spider-Man comics I ever read were Lee/Ditko, same with Erik. The first cartoon I watched was Amazing Friends and the 60s cartoon. Was he married there? No. So don't make baseless assumptions that we're all 90s kids who are too attached to the marriage to see past anything else. The simple fact is we are all fans of growth and change, which Peter reflected naturally over a 40-plus year period. Now they have to cheat to grow him in any other way. You mention Batman and Superman, but Batman is a father presently, and DC are actually bringing back the married Superman, complete with a kid who will be a super-hero in his own right. DC are actually taking the risk telling stories about an aged iconic version of the man of steel, and tapping into a lot of what we'd like to have seen with the short-lived summer era of Renew Your Vows Sorry Bill, but I find your comments both deeply ignorant and unnecessarily condescending, you can say what you say without the snark attached, and frankly, this attitude is sadly all too commonplace with people opposed to the marriage that it becomes impossible to take at all seriously. Good day. ,

  7. Erik

    The very first Spider-Man I ever read was reprints of the Lee-Ditko era. My next intro to the character was the Fox Kids cartoon. I didn't actually read about a married Pete and MJ until my late teens. Still prefer them married.

  8. Spider-Dad

    @ Bill, you make major assumptions on the demographics of who are pro MJ/Peter marriage and what is the "real" Spider-Man. It is also well documented that Stan Lee (and other creators) felt comics would not survive the 1960's due to the success of TV. So in fact Spider-Man (and the Marvel Universe as originally conceived) was created to age and evolve but it was due to their success that the timeframe was slowed down. So I respectfully disagree that fans who feel that Spider-Man should age and evolve are involved in desperate rationalizing. Perhaps they are more in tune with Lee/Ditko than you give them credit.

  9. Bill

    I hated the Spider-Marriage, and was vehemently against it before it even actually happened. I knew it was a huge mistake that Marvel would eventually regret doing. (And they do). I think that most of the people who are pro-MJ/Peter marriage are people who started reading Spider-Man around the 1990's. So, that is the Spider-Man they know. That is "their" Spider-Man (but it's not the real Spider-Man). The real Spider-Man the young and single college (or high school) student, who juggles his schoolwork, job, social life, and his secret identity as a costumed superhero. And to prove I'm right about this, I almost guarantee that you will never see a married Peter/Spider-Man in the movies. And here's why. Because the movie makers generally want to use the classic and/or iconic version of a character. ie. The one that works best and best represents the core of what the character is supposed to be. That is why in every movie so far, Peter has been a young, single, everyman kind of a guy who's usually broke, and down on his luck. That is what Spider-Man was created to be, and that's the way he should have stayed. And before you say, Spider-Man should age and evolve, and blah, blah, blah, (desperate rationalizing), you are wrong. Spider-Man is a FICTIONAL character who does not need to be aged over time. Just like Superman and Batman and about 1,000 other fictional characters who would be senior citizens if they were aged in real time. I mean, he was in college for like 15 years in the comics, and it worked out just fine. Future generations should get to enjoy Spider-Man as he was meant to be portrayed. He was not created for just one generation to follow throughout their lives. If you get too old and/or bored reading about Spider-Man the way he is meant to be, then quit reading it. Don't try to change it to suit your own personal life experience.

  10. Erik

    To add to 17-20, I want to clarify that I think the issue specifically is that the way the comments are made, even though they aren't inaccurate and don't insult or attack the views being presented, are very clearly made from the perspective that they are "extreme" or "out there" views in some way which automatically expresses the author's opinion about them. That's why it comes off as editorializing. Again, valid to have your opinion, but this just isn't the place for it.

  11. Jack

    Correction: CS includes op-eds, *along* with "Spidey News", which BD works to keep very accurate. And we know George Berryman, to name one, is death on any sort of racist trash (as are all the other admins, I'm absolutely sure), and so he would have intervened if anything here was over the line. The world is full of people who don't agree with you, and you should read some of them even if they rankle you a bit. Now I've gotten interested in reading some of Coates' books, even if I'm already pretty sure I would reject his ideas.

  12. Jack

    Mets has every right to characterize Coates' views; this is an op-ed, not a news report. And CS is not a news site, so it's under no rule to be neutral. Mets didn't say anything racially or ethnically derogatory. I'd say you are complaining because you disagree with Mets' opinion, not because Mets did anything objectively wrong. Which is also your right to do, but don't claim that Mets did something wrong. If you don't like the article, you don't have to read it. Personally, I say that Coates preferring "hos" over housewives gives me a low opinion of him, and were I to write an article saying so would be is no different than the way some of us comment on Slott's vile Twitter eruptions.

  13. C-Spider31

    I have to agree with Donovan and May's Older Sister here. The first paragraph isn't necessary to this article; it gives a negative view of Coates' political beliefs, and doesn't add anything positive to the article. A better intro paragraph would be "Ta-Nehisi Coates, the current writer of Black Panther, is well-known for his many writings and commentary on social, cultural, and political issues. But what you may not know about him is the articles and references he has made in regards to Spider-Man." That is much more on topic with the article, stays focused on the Spider-Man relevance (which it should), and doesn't give a view on his political beliefs.

  14. May's Older, Overprotective Sister

    #18: The point, thomasmets, is the needless editorializing. As a visitor here I could give two figs about Coates's views on Sanders WHEN IT COMES TO SPIDER-MAN. It's superfluous. Does Coates write a good Black Panther? Does he have valid things to say about Spider-Man and are they well-reasoned? That's what I want to know. Also the people here discussed the Atlantic essay on Peter and Mary Jane's marriage when it was first published months ago. So the response above doesn't make much sense because it's the other way around here. We know his writings on Spider-Man but I doubt most here have picked up his book of essays. So again his politics matter WHY? You tried to poison the well from the start and it's not appreciated. And who are you to say that the woman who shoved his son did not feel like a racial attack to Coates? Are you him? Do you have his exact same experiences? Did you even read the essay or did you just read a conservative website with a specific axe to grind take on it? And why do we need to know if we agree with his stance on Sanders or not? It's one thing if his politics blatantly bleed into his comic book writing. But until they do, why do his politics matter, unless you are trying to invalidate Coates's opinions on the Spider-marriage and those who agree with that opinion by pointing out he is "wrong" elsewhere. I love lurking on Crawlspace because it's the best place for Spidey news and commentary. And the editorializing was off-putting, unwelcoming and unworthy of the site.

  15. thomasmets

    I brought up Coates' views because he's primarily known for his writings and commentary on social, cultural and political issues. My guess is that the majority of the people ecstatic aout the existence of "Between the World and Me" are unaware of his writing on Spider-Man. Last week's Black Panther comic is his first published work of fiction. I do believe that I characterized his views accurately. The question isn't whether he thinks Sanders should be more radical, but whether an individual agrees with him on this.

  16. Donovan

    What the hell was that opening paragraph about? If the article is meant to contrast Coates' current work and interests in the Black Panther with his previously expressed opinions about Spider-Man, that's all well and good. Starting off with "He likes THE FRENCH" and hurling shade at his book about racism written for his son with a (crappily written) conservative finger-wag...it's just not a good look. What an awful way to represent the website. Cut that first useless intro paragraph out and it's fine.

  17. Friendly Reminder

    He has a great idea of what life ought to be for Spider-Man...mature, adult, difficult, and having to face real issues likes a man, either to repair it or accept the inevitable. JMS was the last writer to grasp that.

  18. Erik

    For what it's worth I agree with 12. I always flinch a bit when political opinions come up from the site/podcast. Everybody's entitled to their opinion but I don't think the crawlspace is the place to be expressing it.

  19. Thrawn

    I agree with him that Norman never should have been resurrected and worked better dead, and I also agree with him that Peter and MJ should be married.

  20. Frontier

    I think I was first introduced to Coates via his articles on Spider-Man and the marriage, which I enjoyed reading quite a bit. It was really cool seeing someone so well-known in the literary world and known for his intellect and opinions talking about how important comics, Spider-Man, and the marriage were to him. It would be nice if his his current working relationship with Marvel gives him the opportunity to do something with Spider-Man. I think he might do some great work with the franchise and be truer to the character then Slott or Marvel have been in years.

  21. May's Older, Overprotective Sister

    Very much like what Coates has to say about comics and storytelling in general and Spider-Man in particular. Could have done without the political digs and editorializing. I'm here to read about Spider-Man. If I want to know more about Coates's politics I can use Google.

  22. Spider-Dad

    I am very surprised at Ta-Nehisi Coates perception of their marriage. Since he is a consistent liberal voice that pushes the boundaries of conventional norms, having him on the side of marriage was surprising. On the flip side I am not surprised. He is also someone that likes to go against establishment doctrines and Marvel's error with One More Day was having it be a "magical" undoing, instead of dealing with it in a straightforward manner. One More Day (and Marvel) deserves all the criticism it receives. Either way, great find and thank you for sharing his insightful comments.

  23. xonathan

    Agree 100% on his marriage stance and why it worked. I understand that for writers is harder to write Peter Parker AND Mary Jane and been wanting to get rid of their marriage for so long but OMD and EVERYTHING that's come after that has just been awful. Even "good" stories are still tainted by that editorial mandate.

  24. Thomas Mets

    @#5- I'm politically conservative, and I know that George is to my right, so I figured he's not going to be a fan of a Bernie Sanders supporter under most circumstances. I don't know offhand George's opinions on France. @#7- It's possible. My guess is that he's a busy man. I wouldn't expect him to be more prolific in comics than Kevin Smith or Joss Whedon.

  25. Jack Brooks

    Wonder if he's flying a flag of "I'm definitely interested" in ASM if/when Slott leaves the book, assuming BP succeeds.

  26. George Berryman

    @5 - <i>"Not sure how that crack at George Barryman was supposed to be taken…</i>" Mets didn't mean anything by that. I'm familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates and about the only thing we'd probably ever agree on is that Peter & Mary Jane should be married. It would probably start and end there. Mets knows that, thus the playful wink there at the start. ;)

  27. wolfcypher

    I've never heard of this guy before now, but he's now on my radar (in a good way) Not sure how that crack at George Barryman was supposed to be taken...

  28. Vegan

    @#2 I agree. Would love to see him take over Spider-man. He's clearly very passionate about the character, and, though I may not agree 100% with everything he says, at least he has some decent reasoning behind it.

  29. BD

    Great piece. I haven't read his Black Oanther but I've ordered it. I like where his mind is. The problem with taking away the marriage is that they've taken away Mary Jane. She hasn't done anything in nearly 10 years. She's was in nearly every Spider - comic from 1987 to 2008.

  30. Al

    The more I hear from Coates the more I love him and wish he was writing Spider-Man. Although he is inaccurate on the Clone Saga and Norman.

  31. Erik

    This mirrors a lot of my own feelings on the marriage. I liked it as a kid and I also think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was raised in a way that allowed me to appreciate the kind of partnership that Pete and MJ had in theirs (when they were written well, at least.) Can this guy write ASM now please?

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