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In 2004, Marvel tried a Spider-Man book that immediately differentiated itself from the rest of the Spider-Man line; centered on Spider-Man’s long-term love interest Mary Jane Watson and featuring a high school-aged cast, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (originally just Mary Jane for the first eight issues) was a teen romcom that put character drama up front and super heroics in the background.
While it wasn’t an immediate hit at Marvel, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane still has a strong enough following 15 years later that Marvel is re-issuing the series in three collected editions. The first volume, The Real Thing, is available now and the second, The Unexpected Thing, is due out in October. The book was always a favorite among critics and contributed to writer Sean McKeever winning a Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition Eisner in 2005.
Sean was kind enough to talk to us about what went on behind the scenes at Marvel that brought this amazing book to life.
James Sainte-Claire: So how did you pitch Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane to Marvel? It’s a lot different than their usual comics.
Sean Kelley McKeever: Actually, this was one of those times where Marvel pitched me! As I understand it, Avi Arad felt that the popularity of Mary Jane in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies demanded a comic book series that focused on her. That filtered down through then-consulting editor C.B. Cebulski, marketing’s David Gabriel and editor Mackenzie Cadenhead. Mac asked me if I’d like to write an all-ages Mary Jane series that focused less on the Spider-Man aspect and more on the life of MJ and her friends, perhaps centered around the Coffee Bean. She already had Takeshi Miyazawa on board and waiting. Not sure if Norman Lee and Christina Strain were tapped yet.
Being a big fan of writing teen drama and also a massive Spidey dork, this was the best thing ever. I wrote up character bios and an overall sense of what the series would be like from issue to issue, we went back and forth on it, with Mac asking me to tone down the amount of Spider-Man/superhero stuff and to make each issue more thematically based. I fixed it up based on her great feedback and we were ready to go.
JSC: That is fascinating to hear, especially editorial wanting less Spider-Man. Was it you or Mackenzie who decided on the high school setting for the book instead of a more adult Mary Jane?
SKM: That was Mac and Marvel, and I was down with it from the get-go. High school is a more potent time for romantic drama and teens are in more of a formative state. And it was a better fit for the all ages direction they wanted to go in.
JSC: It does work really well for this book in particular, teenagers are allowed to be so much more melodramatic without it coming off as unrealistic.
You mentioned Takeshi Miyazawa was already involved when you came on-board, and I’ll admit his artwork is what initially drew me to the series. What was working with him like? Did you two communicate a lot about the direction of the book?
SKM: You know, I don’t think Tak and I talked all that much. A lot of our early communication had to do with character designs, which I don’t recall having a single issue with. We just gelled from the start.
I’m kinda laid back in my scripts in that I don’t lord over the POV or distance from the subjects. I will get into what we need to see and what it looks like, whether that’s a building or machine or an emotional state, and sometimes I have specific thoughts, but I like to leave things more open. I try to straddle the line between unhelpfully vague and unhelpfully strict.
Tak took the initiative to use panels during conversational scenes to fill out the sense of space, like having a panel focused on a magazine rack in the Coffee Bean, or to create an emotional juxtaposition, like showing a character’s thumbs fiddling with a coffee cup cover. Then I would take those clever perspectives and employ them in later issues. We kind of got to the point of having a shorthand together because we just intuited each other’s approach really well.
Tak’s one of those artists whose character work is so impressive that I could often remove dialogue from panels altogether because he nailed the expression in a way that spoke volumes and that my words would only cheapen. So damn good. Working with him was a pleasure and a breeze.
As important as Tak was to making this book, Christina Strain was his equal. A lot of the fashions the characters wore were her added touches. She put so much into that series. If you ever get a chance to see Tak’s line art next to Christina’s colors, both are masters but together they were really something special. Absolutely one of the best colorists I’ve ever worked with. But I guess she got bored with being amazing in that field, because now she’s rocking it as a TV writer!
JSC: You know, I was going to ask about her, but I didn’t think you’d have had much contact with her. She really did do beautiful work, though.
SKM: I’m in closer contact with Christina than anyone else I worked with. We text from time to time.
JSC: Oh wow, that’s really cool. Back to Takeshi, I’ve always loved his work, I thought it was kind of a shame he hasn’t gotten to be as big a name as he should be yet. He left to work in Japan, right? Did things change much late in the run after he left and David Hahn took over?
SKM: He did, yeah. Tak had to kind of deconstruct his craft to be accepted by the manga publishers. I don’t know how much of that he does now since he’s been doing US comics again.
I wouldn’t say things with the series had changed all that much. Nate Cosby had become the editor on the book, and he was pretty happy with what I was turning in. David was a delight to work with. For me, at that point, I had kind of hit a wall with the series. I didn’t have story after story and theme after theme to put Mary Jane through, so I decided I’d leave at #20. I’ve ideas for where to take it since, but at that time I guess I only had 28 issues in me.
JSC: You know, I was going to ask if you had any unused plans but it looks like you answered that one for me.
SKM: Actually, I do have something on that. When I returned to Marvel from my DC exclusive, one of the first things I was asked is if I wanted to go back to SMLMJ. I still hadn’t had an idea at the time. I had Tak and Christina Strain on board for a Firestar mini-series that took place in the SMLMJ-verse, going from her beginnings to the Hellions to hanging with Spidey to the New Warriors to the Avengers, but I couldn’t drum up any interest at Marvel.
Well, a couple years pass and then I did have an idea for how I’d continue, at least to start: As alluded to in SMLMJ #20, it’s winter, and MJ is dating Peter. Spidey’s still a friend, but kind of distant regarding certain subjects, especially her dating life. Obviously, she would think Spidey’s jealous, but knowing what we know, it’s that Peter knows it’s wrong to play both sides like that.
The other element to the arc was going to be new student Johnny Blaze, who has a thing for MJ. So naturally there’d be some Ghost Rider action, too. I really wanted to have some cool Spidey-and-Ghostie-in-the-snow imagery.
JSC: Oh, now I wish I could have read that. How does writing an all-ages comic like this differ from doing mainline comics? I never thought of, say, Uncanny X-Men or Amazing Spider-Man as particularly unsuitable for children, but what sorts of things do you need to add or delete from an all-ages book that you might otherwise not?
SKM: It meant staying away from drugs, sex, and graphic violence and language. That’s really all there is to it. There’s still plenty to mine in terms of character and relationships that doesn’t require those elements. I still wrote it as a comics I would want to read, which is what I always strive for.
JSC: It worked, I didn’t even realize it was an all-ages comic at first. You drew from a lot of Spider-Man’s history in a relatively short span, which gave the book a kind of “classic Web-Head” feel. Were you influenced by any particular stories or era of the book? Any favorite Spider-Man runs besides your own?
SKM: Ha! I don’t rate my own Spidey work against others. I don’t have that kind of perception of them, and wouldn’t dare to try.
My absolute favorite Spidey story remains Kraven’s Last Hunt which I always find strange because it’s so far away from a typical Spidey story. However, it really showcases Peter’s strengths as a person. Another atypical Spidey story I adore for the same reason is Spider-Man Versus Wolverine with it’s noir-ish vibe and deep dive into the difference between someone like Logan and someone like Peter. Also true for The Death of Jean DeWolff by Peter David and Rich Buckler.
After those, the Roger Stern Amazing Spider-Man run, particularly with John Romita, Jr., is gold. The Hobgoblin issues and Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut are highlights. I like the Gerry Conway/Ross Andru stuff I started on in the 150-plus range. There are a couple great runs in Marvel Team-Up, one a time travel arc, and another featuring Yellowjacket and the Wasp. Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham had a wonderful, very human run on Peter Parker: Spider-Man.
Probably my biggest influences in terms of SMLMJ are Untold Tales by Kurt Busiek and Pat Olliffe, and the big one: Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr’s run. That was a wonderful soap opera with Gwen, MJ, Flash, Harry and the Coffee Bean, and really what Marvel wanted me to be inspired by.
JSC: A little while back you asked on Twitter what other comic characters people would like to see a SMLMJ take on, but if you could do a similar series for any comic couple, which one would you choose?
SKM: Hmm, you know, I’ve never really thought of it. I think Miss Martian would be a great candidate. In fact, now that I think of it, I mentioned such a series idea over dinner with a DC editor and it was quickly dismissed.
You know, I wouldn’t do SMLMJ for another comic couple. That was right for MJ and Peter. But I would love to do an original series with my own characters that’s in the vein of SMLMJ, though more of a young adult or teens-and-up sort of story, still very clean but a touch more mature. I even have a pitch for it on my computer. Maybe someday.
JSC: Sean, I hope that gets made because I want to read it. You’re doing Outpost Zero at Image now, would you like to say a few words about what kind of book that is and what it’s about?
SKM: Outpost Zero is a sci-fi series about a group of people marooned on an inhospitable ice planet after their generation ship crash landed. They’ve been able to eke out a living for generations inside their tenuously safe biome, but they’ve befallen many tragedies, they don’t know how the technology works, and some of them are wondering if it’s enough just to survive.
The main cast are 14-year-olds who are joining the labor force and having to grow up in a hurry. In some respects, it’s a bittersweet teen ensemble like my first series, The Waiting Place, but it’s also a sci-fi mystery with a touch of survival horror.
JSC: Sean, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and I wanted to say I loved this book even though I’m a Gwen Stacy guy, so that’s how well done I thought it was.
And thank you, True Believer, for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!
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