"Writer Howard Mackie ends his run on the Web-Slinger by wrapping up storylines that you've been clamoring about! Mary Jane. Ben Reilly. The baby. The "stalker". These are the topics that readers refuse to let die - but which will be answered?"
That is how Marvel had the temerity to solicit orders for its "return of Mary Jane" storyline. It's not a lie, of course, since it doesn't say the topics will be answered. It only asks which will be answered. (Answer: Only half, and that damn badly.) It is, however, a callously deceptive way to promote a story that turned out to be dull, slapdash, and anti-climactic, though it did answer the question, "if you combine Howard Mackie with Paul Jenkins, will Paul make Howard better or will Howard make Paul worse?" (Answer: worse.). It was the appropriate way, perhaps, for Howard Mackie to go out but far from the revelatory blockbuster for which fans were hoping.
In the highly-recommended "Life of Reilly" feature currently appearing at GrayHaven Magazine, former Marvel Editor Glenn Greenberg says of Mackie, "With no offense intended to Howard, my observation is that he simply isn't much of a continuity person, he doesn't like to get bogged down in it. As a Spider-Man writer, whenever Howard has had to address past continuity in one of his stories, his approach has been to simply (and grudgingly) acknowledge the past event and then sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible." This is all well and good (well, it isn't, but you know what I mean) when Mackie dismisses the fifth Green Goblin by turning him into goo, but the "stalker" storyline came from his own tenure. (Always, acknowledging, of course, that co-plotter John Byrne had a very large hand in it.) Surely, Mackie wouldn't "carpet-sweep" all the clues he himself planted, would he? Let's see.
First a quick recap of the story of the stalker. Mary Jane Watson-Parker starts to receive phone calls that threaten her and her husband. The mysterious caller is often seen in the shadows sucking on a lollipop. He impersonates a cabbie twice to pick up and harass Mary Jane. Eventually, he becomes a mad bomber, terrorizing New York for no good reason. Disguised as an older man, he sits next to MJ on a plane and offers her a lollipop. The plane explodes shortly after take-off and everyone except Peter assumes MJ is dead. Peter doesn't believe in her death until he looks inside a box delivered by the airline. We aren't allowed to see inside the box so we don't know what Peter has seen but it shatters his belief that his wife is still alive.
Here, from Amazing Spider-Man #29 is Howard Mackie's solution. It seems there's this guy whose name we never learn who has this mutant ability to read the thoughts, emotions, and secrets of everyone around him. This uncontrolled power is so debilitating that he has been reduced to being "one of those crazies that everyone avoids". He apparently has no job and no home. He just wanders around New York City in agony. (May I suggest that he get out of the city and find some place secluded to live where he won't be tormented by the thoughts of so many people?) One day, he finds himself on the street during an air-battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. He is rescued from falling debris when Spidey shoves him aside. This physical contact changes his powers so that he focuses completely in on Spider-Man. He knows Spidey's whole life, his thoughts, his emotions. He becomes Peter Parker. He decides he must have Peter's life so he begins by harassing Mary Jane with phone calls. The reason for this? "Merely... to unnerve you both." Eventually, he disguises himself and gives a drugged lollipop to Mary Jane on an airplane. "No one suspected a thing of the kindly old man who ushered his sick niece off the plane" before take off. When the plane explodes, MJ and the stalker are no longer on it. Eventually, the stalker uses his infuriatingly vague powers to kick Spidey's butt, then decides he has no right to assume Peter's life and blows himself up real good. Oh, and the box that convinced Peter that MJ was dead? It had her wedding ring in it.
Now, with Mackie's solution in mind, let's take a closer look at the specific issues that presented the subplot of the stalker. This is essentially a skim of the material and by no means comprehensive (You don't think I'm going to read all those lousy stories again, do you?) so I may have missed clues, appearances and even answers.
Peter Parker: Spider-Man #5 is, I believe, the first appearance of the stalker. Mary Jane Watson-Parker receives a phone call that seriously disturbs her. One of the things the caller says is "I know you! I know you!" Later, alone at night with the phone ringing incessantly, MJ rips the line right out of the wall rather than answer it. (Of course, she could have just unplugged the modular end or turned on the answering machine but that's a whole other rave column.) So far so good.
In Amazing Spider-Man #6, MJ receives another phone call, this time in Peter's presence, but hangs up immediately and doesn't tell her husband about the trouble. Fine.
In PP:SM #8, Peter answers the phone and gets "another hang up". He tells us that "dialing star 69 or using caller ID hasn't worked" which seems to imply some technology-savvy person is making the calls. These calls occur while MJ is out of the country for a modeling assignment, so presumably the stalker is unaware of her movements at this point in time. With Peter still holding the receiver after the last hang-up, the phone rings again. This time, the stalker tells him, "You think I don't know who you are? You think I can't get to you? Or to her? You think you can protect her? You're going to see just how wrong you can be!" Here's where things start to veer away from Mackie's solution. There is a clear impression that the stalker is some kind of high-tech whiz who can hide from phone traces and track down anyone he wants. Nothing concrete here to violate ASM #29 yet, but it starts to move in that direction.
In ASM #9, the stalker finally tracks MJ down. (How? We never find out. He's just this high-tech sharpie, you know. Oh no, wait a minute, I guess he's not.) He calls her and tells her "you can never hide from me", "don't think that little wimp of a husband is going to be able to protect you", and "hope you look good in black! 'Cause you're about to become a widow!" So, now, wait a minute... The solution now is that MJ can never hide from him, not because he is a whiz with access to everything but because he has all the memories of Peter??? Well, MJ can hide from Peter, can't she?
In ASM #10, the stalker, seen sucking on a lollipop, digs up MJ's flight information for her trip back to New York by using his laptop. Later we see him intercepting her phone call to Peter in a room with pictures of MJ all over the wall. On the last page, the lollipop lover hails a taxi, induces the driver out of his cab and murders him by hitting him from behind with a baseball bat. He has a big trunk with him in which he puts the driver's body (then presumably puts the trunk in the taxi's trunk). Impersonating the cabbie, he goes to the airport to meet MJ. This is the first time for the lollipop, which looms so large and yet ends up meaning nothing except that, well, I guess the guy likes lollipops. It is the first time the stalker actually murders someone. His murdering ways never really make sense in the scheme of things and, in this case, why bother to whack a guy over the head if you have "brain blast" powers that could kill him? It'd be a whole lot less messy. Finally, there is more evidence that this guy knows his way around computers, phone systems, etc. Need I remind you that this guy was a jobless "crazie" living on the street who was too debilitated by his powers to function normally? So, did he absorb Peter's technical wizardry when they met? If he did, Mackie doesn't mention it. Does Peter have technical wizardry? None of this is ever explained.
In PP: SM #10, the stalker manages to be the next cab available to pick MJ up at the airport. (A neat trick in itself.) He calls her by name and calls her "the most beautiful woman in the world". (MJ assumes that he is just a fan of her modeling.) There is an implication that he is bothering with this impersonation so he can find out where MJ lives. There is, apparently, something wrong with his voice because Mary Jane asks if he has a cold and he replies, "Just a little throat thing. Doc says it'll clear up and I'll be singing again real soon." Surprisingly, he takes her home without incident but calls her soon after, saying, "Welcome home, Mary Jane. You can't get away from me. I'll be coming for you soon! But your husband, he's going to go first!" These are extremely important clues, right? Something is wrong with his voice. "I'll be singing again real soon." Wrong! They are never mentioned again. The stalker drops MJ at home without incident. If he already has Peter's memories, then he already knows where Peter and MJ live so he certainly doesn't have to disguise himself as a cabbie to find out. So, then, why does he go through all the trouble to pick MJ up at the airport, Howard?
In ASM #11, MJ now has an armed guard, at the request of her manager and is holed up... where? We're never told. Some Midtown hotel perhaps. There is a scene in which she admits to Jill Stacy that she is getting stalker phone calls and Jill reacts with surprise (which is odd because Jill knew about the calls a long time ago). She and Jill go out for a walk and when they come back there is a message scrawled in red on MJ's mirror at her vanity table. Clearly the stalker has been inside (which amazes Jill since they were only gone for a very short time). Later MJ and Jill are ushered through the lobby of the building. Now, instead of one guard, it looks like half a dozen members of the NYPD are participating. Peter tries to get through the crowd in the lobby but the cops stop him. An armored truck smashes through the front window and the Blob emerges, in an attack that is apparently completely unrelated. MJ and Jill are whisked off in a limo. Suddenly a manhole explodes in front of their car. (Actually a whole lot of things explode but this scene is very unclear.) A message appears on a sheet, which reads, "You belong to me!" Spider-Man arrives and whisks MJ away. This is the first hint that the stalker has some sort of teleportation ability. The two women are shocked that someone could have gotten in and out so fast, especially with all the cops guarding the place. How did he do it? Howard doesn't include this in his explanation. The stalker is also very adept at timing. How does he get his bomb to go off on a busy New York street just at the point that MJ's limo arrives? Is he watching? Also never explained.
In PP: SM #12, we seem to be getting down to it. The stalker turns into a mad bomber, setting off blasts in the basement of the Parker apartment building, the 23rd Street subway station, and other places. Remember that simple little room he had with a couple of computers and the photos of MJ on the walls? Well, now he's got a war room. Banks of video monitors scanning all parts of the city, servers (or something) all over his walls. He calls the Daily Bugle from his multi-million dollar stronghold to tell them that MJ is the reason he is doing all the bombing. The FBI gets involved and hides MJ away but, to the amazement of the feds, the stalker finds them anyway. He sets off a bomb that triggers a sign that says, "She's mine!" In the confusion, MJ flees and grabs a taxi. Guess who is driving it? He offers MJ a lollipop. She does not recognize him from last time. He drives her to the Daily Bugle building. He then reveals a bomb planted in the car. MJ discovers that she is locked in. The driver tells her this will "prove my love to you and to the world" then again offers her a lollipop. Frantically, MJ blasts the stalker with the can of mace she is carrying around her neck, uses both feet to kick the window out of the car door and makes her escape. The stalker doesn't stir from his spot and the cab explodes. By all appearances, the stalker has blown up with his auto. So, where did this War Room come from? By the time of ASM #29, it's back to the laptop and MJ photos again. How does the stalker find MJ with the feds? We never find out. Why does he risk exposure by offering MJ a lollipop when there is no other significance to the things except that he likes them? And why doesn't he blow up in his cab? What we are clearly dealing with here is a high-tech genius who has amazing tracking abilities, a dependence on lollipops and can teleport away from danger. Or, in Howard's version... well, Howard has no version for this.
ASM #13 is the big one. MJ is flying out to another photo shoot and Peter screws up again and doesn't accompany her. As she boards the plane, an attendant calls her by name, implying that she is recognized. She takes her seat in the plane next to an older man with gray hair and a big gray mustache. The older man offers her a lollipop, telling her "the flavor simply explodes in your mouth". Soon after takeoff, the plane calls out a Mayday. Outside the plane near the clouds is an object. It looks a bit like a dollar bill (or a lollipop packet?) but it is impossible to say what it is. It is certainly an intentional part of the panel, not some blip in the printing process. In other words, it's a clue. On the following page, the plane explodes. So, we're supposed to believe that MJ takes and eats a lollipop given to her by a stranger, even though she was twice offered a lollipop by the homicidal stalker only a short time before? And how does the stalker drug his lollipop anyway? Does he make his own? Does he drench it with his drug? Does it make the lollipop taste funny? Why use a lollipop as his prop when it is almost certain to blow his disguise unless MJ is as dumb as a bag of wet hammers? Then, this man escorts his "sick niece" off the plane without any reaction from the flight crew, even though one attendant clearly recognizes MJ and is probably aware that she is traveling solo. Clearly the only real way off the plane is to teleport. We know this guy can do it because he did it before, didn't he? And how did the stalker arrange to get the seat next to MJ? Another high-tech hint ignored later. And what about that disguise? It's so good, he must be a master. But, no, he's not the Chameleon. He's some guy who wandered the streets with voices in his head. Finally, what was that packet on the outside of the plane? Only John Byrne knows for sure.
In PP: SM #14, Peter Parker gets a mysterious phone call in which he is told that "she's alive". What is the point of this? I know, I know. It's there to set up the next storyline in Latveria but if we assume this is the stalker calling, why does he do it? If it's a tactic he's using to torment Peter, then why does he only do it once?
In ASM #16, Aunt May tells Peter that "the bank claims that the mortgage on the apartment was several months in arrears... same with the electric company, insurance, credit cards, everything". When Peter, as Spider-Man, checks the office of MJ's manager (the man who was handling all their money) he finds the place deserted and the bank accounts cleaned out. The manager has apparently left and taken all their money with him. Aha! The manager is involved in this! The manager must be the stalker or he was paid off by the stalker or... well, no. Forget the dang manager. Howard Mackie sure did.
In PP: SM #18, representatives from Pan Global airlines bring a fairly small package to May Parker's home. The package is so small that one man easily holds it in his hands.
And in PP: SM #19, the box has morphed into a large trunk. There's a billboard in town with a picture of Mary Jane, which reads, "MJ Watson says lips that touch cigarettes will never touch mine." which has nothing to do with anything but amuses me since MJ herself smoked for a while in one storyline. When Pete finally opens the trunk, it is clearly filled with books and papers of some sort but there is also something else inside, not shown to us, that makes Peter finally believe that Mary Jane is dead and gone. Mackie, almost as an afterthought, reveals that it was MJ's ring in the box but that doesn't fit in with anything we've learned before. (So, what else is new?) First, there is no indication in the explosion issue that the stalker removed MJ's ring from her finger and left it behind so it shouldn't have been on the plane to begin with. And if it's still on MJ's finger, how did the airline get it? (And see Jon Couper's explanation in PPP (2001) #3 about the inability to leave an international flight without revealing your identity and having your luggage removed.) Second, where did they find this ring? The plane blew up, remember? It couldn't have been removed from a body because MJ wasn't dead. (And, you'd think they'd tell Peter that the ring was NOT REMOVED FROM A BODY!) Was it sitting on the bottom of the ocean? How did they find it? How did they know it belonged to MJ? And what the heck was all the other stuff that was in that huge box? There are no answers to any of this. In essence, Mackie once again doesn't have a clue what he is doing and comes up with the easiest answer even though it doesn't make any sense. So, if he doesn't bother, why should I bother?
Actually, that's what several of my friends asked me when I told them I was doing a blow-by-blow of the subplot of the stalker. Yes, the story was awful but after all, MJ was back and Howard was gone, so what's the problem? Well, I don't like getting jerked around for nearly two years without a decent explanation, is the problem. Anyone who read a mystery novel that dropped all these clues, and then ignored all of them in its solution would be incensed. All of the Spidey readers who have waited two years should be angry, too. It's not just Howard Mackie either. It is an example of a sloppiness, a lack of respect for the reader, and a lack of caring on the part of the creators that's been an unfortunate part of Spider-Man for far too long. Let's hope that the new tenures of JMS and Paul Jenkins leave this sort of storytelling behind.