16 Highlights in the Life and Times of J. Jonah Jameson That Suggest a Softer, Nobler and Mayhap Even Heroic Side to Everyone’s Favorite Newsman/Hitler ‘Stache Sporter
1. “The Enforcers!” (Amazing Spider-Man #10, 03/64)
Debate it if you must, but you know it’s true: of all the great comic-book bosses, only one stands tall as the best of them all, and that is newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (sorry, Perry White fans… wherever you are). Debuting in Spider-Man’s second appearance (ASM #1), he displayed his cantankerous stripes early by condemning Spider-Man — who, mind you, had just saved Jameson’s astronaut son from a plummeting, fiery death — as a glory-seeking publicity hound (which, to be fair, isn’t an unreasonable reaction, considering how risky and unauthorized Spider-Man’s rescue attempt was). The fact the “Spider-Man: Hero or Menace?” controversy was great for selling papers certainly helped cement Jameson’s stance, but this brief glimpse into his inner thoughts, as rendered by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, was the first inkling Jameson had any deeper motives to disparage that “weaselly wall-crawler” in print. Turns out Jameson secretly admires our masked hero, as he represents a selfless ideal that a money-grubbing capitalist like Jameson could never live up to. “I can never respect myself while he lives!” moans Jameson. “I’d give everything I own to be the man that he is… All that remains for me is — to try and tear him down — because, heaven help me — I’m jealous of him!” One suspects a bottle of Scotch might have been involved in this slightly over-the-top soliloquy, but it does suggest a little more behind Jameson’s anti-Spidey editorials than just naked opportunism.
2. “Captured by J. Jonah Jameson!” (Amazing Spider-Man #25, 06/65)
While it’s not the first time Jameson crosses the line from blustering supporting player to outright antagonist — that would be ASM #20, in which he (rather foolishly) finances the creation of the Scorpion to take down Spider-Man — this issue does mark Jameson’s first active attempt to apprehend Spider-Man. An inventor named Smythe approaches Jameson with what he claims will guarantee Spider-Man’s defeat: a clumsy-looking, remote-controlled robot that spews out “coiled steel” netting and allows the operator’s face to appear on its own visage (if this sounds familiar to cartoon fans, it’s because this was one of the early Spidey stories adapted into a first-season episode of the 1967 Spider-Man series.) Of course, Spidey evades the robot’s clutches, but not before we catch a glimpse of Jameson’s more playful side, as he cracks jokes and sings “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” while chasing Spider-Man by remote control across rooftops. “Yeesh! I wonder if I sounded that corny when the shoe was on the other foot?” Spider-Man thinks to himself. And… yeah, Pete, you kinda did. Plus a lot of your problems are your own damn fault; witness earlier in the issue, when it was you who convinced Jameson to give the robot a try, thinking it would be an easy way to score a laugh at the old man’s expense. If this encounter with a metallic manhunter helps you realize that you can be a bit of a jerk, then maybe we should all be thankful Jameson is doing this, no?
3. “To Die a Hero!” (Amazing Spider-Man #52, 09/67)
In this issue, the climax to the storyline that introduced the Kingpin, we find Spidey and Jameson handcuffed and trapped in a room specifically designed to restrain two people as it fills up with water. Why a presumably cost-conscious mob boss would construct such an expensive single-purpose room instead of using a more efficient way to spill radioactive blood is not the topic of today’s discussion. What is, however, is Jameson’s actions at the end of the story. After spending most of the story babbling in fear or getting knocked out by low-hanging pipes, he is startled by the appearance of Foswell, a former reporter/mobster whom Jameson rehired even after he was exposed as the masked Big Man. “You’re the only one who ever helped me — who gave me a second chance,” Foswell explains, right before he takes a bullet meant for Jameson. This act of heroism stuns Jameson: “I don’t know how — or why — he got involved with the Kingpin… but there’s one thing I do know — when Fred Foswell breathed his last, he died a hero!” And sure enough, he’s promising to give Foswell “all the glory he never had while he lived” by printing a story about his heroic act. Say what you like about Jameson’s questionable people skills, but the man inspired enough loyalty to make at least one employee willing to take a bullet for him.
4. “King Pinned” (Spider-Man, 1967)
The reason why Kingpin targeted Jameson in the story mentioned above is because our fearless publisher refused to spike stories about the city’s growing crime wave. It’s that same refusal to be bullied that we see in “King Pinned,” the second episode of the second season of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. During the first season of the show, Jameson was portrayed as a bullying slave-driver who was quick to blame Spider-Man for every crime wave and forever bemoaning the laziness of teenagers. Later seasons toned down Jameson’s predictable tirades in favor of more footage of hairy mole men and prehistoric plant-monsters, so… all right, kind of a six-of-one deal there. Still, credit where it’s due: in “King Pinned,” Jameson is given two moments to shine — the first, when he agrees to hire Parker sight unseen after recognizing him as the kid with the recently murdered uncle (“And that’s my good deed for the day,” he mutters to himself); the second, when he refuses to kill a story exposing the Kingpin’s phony medicine racket, even when the Kingpin threatens him and offers him a bigger scoop in the form of an unconscious Spider-Man (who was new on the superhero scene at the time). Jameson even has the cojones to call the Kingpin a “tub of lard” while standing up for freedom of the press. That’s bravery, people.
5. “When Iceman Attacks” (Amazing Spider-Man #92, 01/71)
As the years went by and Spider-Man’s supporting cast expanded, Jameson continued to be a reliable source of tsuris for everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, and there’s good reason for that (beyond the obvious “he’s such a great character to write for”). As others have pointed out, Jameson was a symbol of an older generation that, in the 1960s, had a hard time dealing with the rebellious actions and attitudes of the youth of the day, and a lot of Spider-Man stories draw heavily from that generational gap. One area in which Jameson can’t be painted as old-fashioned, though, is his attitude towards civil rights. In this story, Jameson withdraws his paper’s endorsement of Sam Bullit, a crooked lawyer running for DA on a law-and-order platform. The reason: Bullit’s support from “lunatic hate groups,” which suggests how Bullit’s brand of law and order will target the city’s minorities. The story ends with Spider-Man and guest star Iceman (and Joe Robertson, Jameson’s second-in-command) confronting Bullit at a fundraiser with damning evidence, but clearly the real heroes in this issue are Jameson and Robertson for standing up for what’s right — and for wisely choosing not to wear tights while doing it. Because seriously: brrrr.
6. “24 Hours ‘Til Doomsday!” (Amazing Spider-Man #192, 05/79)
Granted, finding moments of heroism in this story, which finds Jameson and Spidey handcuffed to a time bomb by a terminally ill (and hugely pissed off) Smythe is a tall order, given that Jameson spends most of the issue whimpering and getting dragged around town by Spider-Man. But near the end, when they return to Smythe’s lab and find only his corpse, Spider-Man finally gives in to the despair of his situation (“My life has been one long shambles! Must I die a loser as well?” he rages at the sky in prime diva style)… and it’s Jameson who tells him to “can the crybaby routine” and think. And earlier in the story, when Spider-Man is knocked unconscious, Jameson momentarily savors the fact there’s “nothing to stop me from removing his ludicrous mask”… but after checking in with a few other supporting cast members, the story then shifts to Doc Connors’ lab, where Spidey (with mask still firmly in place) awakes to learn Jameson carried him there in the pouring rain. Why the change of heart on Jameson’s part? The story never explains, but it’s clear at the end Jameson has a great deal of respect for Spider-Man’s courage in the face of certain death (even if he hates the fact that Spider-Man’s courage makes him feel like “a weak and ordinary man”), and perhaps respecting Spider-Man’s right to privacy was his way of honoring that courage. It’s a theory, anyway.
7. “I Cover the Waterfront” (Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #80, 07/83)
With the exception of the Silver Age Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane comics, most supporting cast members in mainstream superhero comics had to wait until the 1980s for their chance at centre-stage stardom. As far as I can tell (and I’m happy to be proven wrong), this is the earliest story that treats Jameson as the central character, instead of just another nuisance for Spider-Man to deal with; if so, it’s one hell of a star performance. Narrated in a hard-boiled style by Jameson himself, the story finds him on the trail of waterfront corruption in an effort to prove he still has his keen reporting instincts. Over the course of his day, he bargains for information with the Kingpin (while shooting an awesome game of pool, no less), outruns gunfire, gets the drop on a bunch of goons, and dives off a cargo ship to evade capture. Of course, he also had a guardian Spider-Man looking over his shoulder the whole time, but he didn’t know that when he was pushing over giant rolls of newsprint to make his getaway! All that, plus he managed to file his story and shut down a major criminal operation. Not a bad day’s work, all things considered (even if he did decide to delete any mention of Spider-Man’s help in his final draft).
8. “The Daydreamers” (Amazing Spider-Man #246, 11/83)
Ask most people to share their biggest gripe about today’s media companies and you’ll likely hear stories about blatant political bias; i.e., how the news gets distorted and slanted to suit the political views of the owners or their buddies. It’s a definite concern for many people who want hard facts about the world around them, and this story suggests it’s something that greatly concerns Jameson as well. In this offbeat tale, readers are invited to take a peek at the daydreams of Spider-Man and three supporting cast members in the Spider-Man universe; in Jameson’s dream, he’s able to beat the crap out of a powerless Spider-Man (who obligingly agrees he’s a “menace to society” as Jameson pummels him) and gets named “Publisher of the Century” on his own front page for his efforts. “A shame it can’t be that way,” he sighs inwardly, as he comes back to reality. “But the Bugle prints news… not fiction. Maybe I’ll be never able to trounce that masked menace physically, but I can always keep after him editorially.” So take note, then: Jameson has no problem pushing his opinions in front of millions of New Yorkers, but he’ll be damned if he allows those opinions to distort the news his readers rely on to make their own decisions. If only every media mogul (oh hi, Rupert!) could be so principled.
9. “The Scorpion Takes a Bride!” (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #18, 1984)
This story’s claim to fame is that it’s the first Spider-Man story penned by Stan Lee in 12 years (he gave up scripting chores in 1972, the same year he passed his editor-in-chief role on to Roy Thomas). And of course, the story retains all the charm of an early-’60s Spider-Man story, right down to the half-Peter’s-face-half-Spidey-mask special effect that signaled Parker’s spider-sense. Lee returned to an oldie-but-goodie by having the Scorpion break out of his padded cell upon hearing the news that Jameson is getting married to his lady love, Marla Madison (Jameson having lost his first wife many years before). As the police move in to protect Jameson, Spider-Man correctly deduces the Scorpion will go after Marla first, a realization that also dawns on Jameson, who fumes about hiding behind cops like “some kind of gutless wimp.” Ditching the officers assigned to his protection, Jameson hops in a cab and follows Spidey and Scorpion to their battleground, where he selflessly offers his life to the crazed criminal in place of Marla’s and his son’s. Which… isn’t all that heroic, come to think, since Scorpion could easily kill all of them and happily torch a daycare to celebrate, but it does give Jameson a chance to stall for time by revealing to the Scorpion (and us) that he’s been footing the bill for the Scorpion’s medical treatments — as well as setting up a fund to repay his victims — as a way of atoning for his role in creating a monster. Of course, Spidey shows up to save everyone, the wedding goes on as planned, and Jameson even gets to make amends with his estranged son, who squeezes a tear out of the old curmudgeon by calling him the best dad ever. Aww.
10. “When the Bugle Blows” (The Spectacular Spider-Man #147, 02/89)
One of those interminable mutant-centred, multi-title storylines that Marvel specialized in throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, “Inferno” saw New York City suffer a demon infestation as various baddies set in motion their plans to create a literal hell on Earth. While the centre-stage action took place in the mutant titles, other Marvel titles depicted New Yorkers running in terror from carnivorous mailboxes, stone gargoyles brought to life, and other supernatural menaces to life and limb. Most New Yorkers, that is, except J. Jonah Jameson — while Spider-Man swings towards the Daily Bugle building to figure out what the heck is going on in his city, Jameson, with two-by-four firmly in hand, orders his people to clear the wreckage left by a demon assault and prepare barricades against the next one. “New York may be falling apart, but Jameson is as rock steady as ever,” reporter Ben Urich thinks to himself. “For all his bluster, the man is a born leader.” Amen, brother. A-freakin’-men.
11. “Chains” (Web of Spider-Man #52, 07/89)
For most of its 100-plus issue run, Web of Spider-Man combined soap opera theatrics (Mary Jane’s niece has an eating disorder!) wrestling with ripped-from-the-headlines plots (Betty Brant joins a cult!) for the reader’s attention. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, just… there. There were a few standout issues, though, including this one that opens with Jameson handcuffed in his own bed (don’t go there, people). It seems the identity-stealing Chameleon is keeping Jameson captive while he impersonates our fearless leader for his own nefarious purposes; the rest of the issue alternates between Jameson’s struggle to free himself and a flashback to a young Daily Bugle reporter’s first big story on police corruption — the first time, he thinks to himself, he felt scared for his life. In both past and present, Jameson is portrayed as a resourceful thinker and as someone who doesn’t back down in the face of intimidating odds, and certainly not someone who lets a little pain stand in his way. Call me crazy, but those are the kinds of qualities that matter.
12. “The Story of the Year!” (Uncanny X-Men #346, 08/97)
Jameson didn’t get to the top of the journalistic heap by playing nice, but he also didn’t get there by compromising his principles, either. “Operation: Zero Tolerance” was another multi-issue storyline that saw the U.S. government attack mutants (and the X-Men in particular) after an anti-mutant presidential candidate is seemingly assassinated by a mutant terrorist. Shortly after OZT is enacted, Jameson is recounting recent events, reminding his staff the first rule of journalism is you don’t believe everything you see or hear… least of all from the television news. By God, he didn’t become publisher of one of the nation’s largest-selling newspapers by reporting what he saw on TV, and he’ll be damned if he’ll let “some idiot with make-up and blow-dried hair” tell him what the real story is. Of course, he’s not saying this just to muster his troops; to him, what really stinks about the whole thing is how this government operation is nothing more than a gross violation of human rights in the name of national security, a stance that earns Jameson the continued respect of his second-in-command (see above). Later, the shadowy figure behind the operation shows up in Jameson’s office with a tempting prize: a disk containing Pulitzer Prize-worthy information about Earth’s mutants and their superhero associates. But Jameson destroys it, saying the Bugle’s soul isn’t for sale. In other words, Mac: get the hell out. Now.
13. “Behind the Mustache” (Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #20, 01/2003)
Stick around in this business long enough, and someone is going to tack an origin story to you. Early Spidey readers rarely got glimpses into Jameson’s pre-Daily Bugle life, though a 1970s issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos did feature him as a young wartime reporter. This story aimed to correct this oversight, zeroing in on the events that would shape a young Jameson and turn him into the cigar-chomping blowhard we all know and love. Ordered to see a psychiatrist over his anger-management issues, Jameson reluctantly reveals that his father, David, was a war hero who drank heavily and physically abused his wife and son. This convinced the younger Jameson that “no one’s a hero every day of the week” and “even the real heroes can’t keep it up all the time” — insights that obviously shaped Jameson’s later stance on costumed vigilantes. Though the teenaged Jameson is a little too eager to use his fists (a foreboding temperament, given how many abusers were abused as children themselves), the flashback makes it clear that Jameson’s hatred of hypocrites was strong enough to overcome whatever destructive patterns he might have inherited from his father. Ask anyone who had to survive an abusive or alcoholic parent, and you’ll start to understand the strength of character it takes not to fall into the same self-destructive patterns.
14. “Spider-Man: Murderer?” (The Pulse #1, 04/2004)
No relation to Jennifer Garner’s exploits, Alias was an early 2000s Marvel series that followed the adventures of Jessica Jones, a private investigator who used to be a junior-league superhero until… well, that would be telling. In one storyline, Jones is tracking down Mattie Franklin, a young woman who also used to fight crime as Spider-Woman… which may have come as a surprise to her adoptive parents, Jameson and Marla Madison. Long story short: Franklin was the daughter of one of Jameson’s closest friends and he took her in when both her parents were gone. When Jones returned their drug-abusing daughter safe and sound, Jameson showed his appreciation (in his usual curmudgeonly way) by promoting Jones’ agency in his paper and later hiring her as a reporter for the Bugle’s new Pulse magazine, despite his well-documented aversion to people who use capes and costumes to flout the law. He may be harsh, people, but he’s fair, as anyone (like Jones) who calls him on his bluster will attest.
15-16. Spider-Man (2003); “The Invisible Hand” (The Spectacular Spider-Man, 2008)
I paired these two together because they both involve actions that are very similar in nature. In the first Spider-Man movie, Jameson (played by the always-amazing JK Simmons) is visited in his office by a clearly dangerous Green Goblin (the hole in the side of Jameson’s building a dead giveaway) who wants information that will lead him to Spider-Man… like, say, the name and location of the photographer who keeps sending Jameson all those Spider-Man photos. Even when faced with an immediate threat to his health, Jameson covers for Parker, saying he doesn’t know who sends him the photos. Similarly, in the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series, the Rhino crashes into Jameson’s office demanding to know where he can find Peter Parker — who just happens to be there, partially hidden in the rubble caused by the Rhino’s entrance. Again, Jameson refuses to be intimidated, telling the Rhino he doesn’t know where Parker could be (all the while gesturing for Parker to skedaddle while Jameson stalls for time). Cranky? Definitely. Hard to work for? No question. But willing to sell out his people to save his own skin? Don’t bet on it.