Publisher: Marvel Comics
First Appearance: Amazing Spider-Man #196 (1979)
Created By: Marv Wolfman & Al Milgrom
One of the times Aunt May was presumed dead/dying/just taking a really long nap, Peter Parker found a sympathetic ear in Debra Whitman. A secretary at Empire State University, where Peter was a student, she had recently separated from her husband and was up for some hot sad sack lovin’. However, being Spider-Man meant that sometimes Peter had to unexpectedly cancel dates or just not show up altogether, so they never got truly serious.
At the time, Debra was seeing a therapist due to some issues she was having, one of which was her tendency to idealize people. This was what kept her from divorcing her husband, whom she still saw as a good guy despite the fact he’d been physically abusive. It also led to her having hallucinations that Peter was — gasp — Spider-Man, because apparently this was the only way her brain could justify him being a douche. Luckily, her completely awesome therapist decided to break any implicit promise of confidentiality and tell Peter this. (Please note that the previous sentence should be read with a totally sarcastic tone in your mental voiceover.) So Peter put on his Spider-suit, told Debra that she was right and, faced with how absurd the idea actually was, she was shocked into realizing that Peter couldn’t possibly be Spider-Man. She decided to start fresh, divorce her husband and move away, leaving Peter behind.
Years later, when Peter revealed to the world that he really was Spider-Man, Debra reemerged at the co-writer of a tell-all book about how he’d ruined her life. Peter was, understandably, rather butthurt about this, and to be honest, Debra wasn’t crazy about it either. It turned out that the editors of the book (who just so happened to be Daily Bugle staff members) had pressured her into portraying Peter as being worse than he actually was, and since she needed the money to take care of her sick mother, she went along with it. This information ended up being leaked to the Daily Globe, the Bugle‘s arch-rival.
So What’s So Great About Her?
Forgive me, I’m going to open with an anecdote from Friends. In one episode, as Phoebe regales the group with her happy memories of watching Old Yeller as a little girl, they quickly realize that Phoebe’s mom had been turning off the movie before it reached its ultra-depressing climax. Phoebe’s horrified by the real ending, along with the sad endings to a lot of other movies she’s just finding out were edited for her consumption.
That’s kind of how I feel about Debra Whitman. My introduction to her was the incredibly rad mid-1990s Spider-Man: The Animated Series. You know, the one where Peter always ran around in really tight jeans and sounded suspiciously like Greg Brady. But anyway, on that show, Debra was one of Peter’s college classmates. She had a hot-nerd thing going on, with huge glasses and a tall blonde pony and cheekbones for days. She was also sharp, a brilliant student, and kind of bitchy in a wonderful way that made me want to be exactly like her. Eventually, she also started dating Flash Thompson, the resident Big Dumb Boy of the Spidey mythos and, well, I don’t exactly hide my love for Big Dumb Boy and Uptight Girl pairings.
So imagine my dismay when, years later, I found out that the Debra of my childhood was gussied up for the show. Instead of a snide, borderline genius college student, she had insecurities about her intelligence, and rather than just being banter buddies with Pete, they were rather underwhelming steadies. Moreover, a lot of the time Debra’s portrayed as being rather hysterical, and it’s sometimes played off for laughs.
But for all I prefer my caustic animated Debra, there’s still a lot to like about her four-color counterpart. For all she had to be ‘shocked’ into it, she did leave an abusive marriage, which takes an incredible amount of strength and courage, especially at a time when resources for women were even more limited than they are now. I also admire that she realizes she needs therapy and is actively seeking treatment.
And of course, the biggie—yes, Debra is among the first to realize that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, even if it’s a result of her hallucinations. Of course she, along with several others who’d seen Peter being unmasked, immediately realized the ludicrousness of Peter being a superhero and shrugged it off, but the fact that she was able to figure it out at all, in any state, is a testament to her level of intelligence. Plus, she’s the co-writer of a bestseller. Even if a lot of that bestseller was lies. Um.
So, Debra Whitman, you may not be my Debra Whitman, but hey, you’ve got potential. Maybe when Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil, things somehow worked out so you got a university scholarship and are now discovering your untold aptitude for science and sarcasm.
Amazing Spider-Man #196
Spectacular Spider-Man #36; 42-43
Amazing Spider-Man #207
Spectacular Spider-Man #47-48
Amazing Spider-Man #209
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14
Spectacular Spider-Man #50-51
Amazing Spider-Man #211-213; 215-218; 221
Spectacular Spider-Man #60-62
Amazing Spider-Man #228
Spectacular Spider-Man #67-70; 72; 74
Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #14-16