Our book today is Judith O'Brien's 2004 'young adult' novel Mary Jane, a book which takes as its setting the Marvel Comics world of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books. The vague borders of that setting will be familiar even to non-comics fans because of the three enormously popular and lucrative Spider-Man movies: teen nerd Peter Parker, classmate to studly Flash Thompson, wealthy Harry Osborn, and artistic free-spirited Mary Jane Watson, is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires super-strength, super-agility, and the ability to cling to walls (in the movies, and so in the 'Ultimate' storyline, and so in this book, he also acquires a newly-sculpted physique, perfect eyesight, and the ability to shoot organic webbing out of his wrists).
In Stan Lee's original conception of the character, Peter Parker's gaining super-powers doesn't change his social life at all: he's still a gangly nerd, a social outcast. He hides his newfound abilities from his schoolmates, but he still wants to show off - so he dons a homemade costume and enters a stunt-wrestling match for cash and fame, then dedicates himself to a life of crime-fighting when his negligence inadvertently leads to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben.
In the Ultimate retelling - and in Mary Jane - Peter's fate isn't quite so hopeless. His sudden physicality briefly makes him the star of the basketball team and turns him from a pariah into a superstar in the school's hallways, much to the chagrin of Flash Thompson, and much to the annoyance of Mary Jane, who starts to think bitter thoughts about what the change in Peter's social status means:
The difference between popularity and dorkdom was a couple of well-developed muscles and even facial features. Looks are everything. Appearances define all else. Brains are fine, as long as they are packaged so they don't show.
The plot of Mary Jane revolves around a fairly typical YA contrivance - something's turning all her high school classmates weird, and perhaps that something might be the new soft drink everybody's swigging - a soft drink developed by Harry Osborn's malevolent industrialist father, Norman Osborn, known to all comics fans as the villainous Green Goblin, Spider-Man's arch-nemesis. In the novel, the main reason Mary Jane is facing this crisis alone is because Peter Parker is at home grief-stricken over the death of Uncle Ben, although when Mary Jane's phone calls fill him in on the situation, the mysterious masked figure, Spider-Man, starts making appearances and even saving Mary Jane's life.
Judith O'Brien displays many kinds of storytelling genius in the course of this novel (and considering the lineup of Marvel, Inc. corporate suits listed in the front of the book, perhaps the most singular act of her genius was to get the book written at all), and one of her best tricks is how she consistently keeps the super-hero stuff outside her story. She dedicates the book "for anyone who has ever gone to high school," and she stays very true to that. This is the story of sweet, smart Mary Jane and the bright, refreshingly real boy she's always kind of loved, and the deftness with which O'Brien brings them closer and closer is what will stay with you long after you've forgotten about mind-altering soft drinks.
O'Brien brings a sensitivity to her pre-ordained subject matter that's rarely done so well in the genre. When Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from being hit by a car and deposits her on the sidewalk, the moment is every bit as awkward in the book as it would be in reality:
Spider-Man cleared his throat. "Do you need help getting home?"
"No," she looked at the mask, trying to make out his features. But it was impossible to tell who he was, what he looked like. "Really, I'm okay."
That voice. She knew that voice.
"Is that you, Peter?"
He made a sound. Laughter, maybe? A strange, gruff sound. Then he shook his head. "Just call me Spider-Man."
"Yeah, sure. Then you can call me Wonder Woman."
The final scene of Mary Jane has nothing to do with superpowers or villainous plots. There are no costumes in it, no sudden revelations - except all the little revelations involved in falling in love. O'Brien has written a minor-key, surprisingly affecting book, and she ends exactly where she should - on the threshold:
Without thinking, she stepped toward him and took his hand. It was surprisingly large, his hand, and warm. Slowly he raised his head.
A riot of emotions coursed through her at that moment. Empathy. Friendship. A deep sense of belonging. A sense of wishing to share everything with the person right next to her. And there was something else, something new and confusing and wonderful.
"Mary Jane." His breath ruffled her hair.
She swallowed. "Peter."
Languidly he leaned to her, and pressed his lips to hers.
She slipped a hand up his arm, and then on the back of his neck. And the kiss deepened, sweet and inevitable as a sigh.
Then he pulled back, his face widening into a grin. "Something smells good."
Returning his smile, she stroked the collar of his shirt. "It's tuna casserole. The only thing missing was the potato chips for the top. And you brought them."
Mary Jane has a dozen or so black-and-white illustrations by Mike Mayhew, all of which are vividly down-to-earth (given the nature of the novel, it's not surprising that the actual shot of Spider-Man in action seems like a distraction from the more important views of our teenage characters going about their lives) and expertly detailed. But the real attraction here is the story, as any high school girl will spot right away. Target audiences are sharp like that.