Comics : Spider-Woman #23

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This story is part of an Arc: "Gamesman"
     Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

This story is part of a Lookback Series: Worst of the Worst

This review was first published on: Jun 2010.

Background...

These days, Jessica ‘Spider-Woman’ Drew fights crime as a bounty hunter in Los Angeles, with the assistance of her wheelchair-bound, computer-whiz sidekick, Scotty McDowell. Unbeknownst to Jessica, Scotty has a crush on her, one that he is too shy to discuss.

In Detail...

"Enter the Gamesman"
Spider-Woman #23
Feb 1980 : SM Spin-Off
Arc: Part 1 of "Gamesman"
Editor:  Jim Shooter
Writer:  Michael Fleisher
Pencils:  Trevor Von Eedon
Inker:  Mike Esposito
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 Reprinted In: Essential Spider-Woman #1
Articles: Spider-Woman I (Drew)

At LAPD HQ, Jessica drops off a bunch of criminals in Captain Walsh’s office. It’s an important collar, because these crooks work for the Gamesman, a mastermind known for the intricacy and success of his criminal schemes. Walsh wants the Gamesman badly, and – though it isn’t discussed – it’s implicit there’s a large reward for his capture.

Remember how, in Dracula, the Count left Castle Dracula by scaling down the exterior walls, rather than flying away, as a sensible vampire might? Obviously, Stoker wrote that scene to emphasize, at the expense of verisimilitude, the inhuman nature of the Count and his unearthly wall-crawling abilities. In this issue, writer Michael Fleisher takes a leaf from Stoker, and has Jessica scale down the sides of LAPD HQ rather than gliding away. This scene is all the more aggravating because it lands Jessica in trouble in the alley below which, if she’d behaved in any plausible way, wouldn’t have become an issue. This is a hallmark of Michael Fleisher’s writing: he’s interested in executing specific scenes, and isn’t willing to build a plot that can deliver those scenes in a plausible way. We saw this in last issue’s contortions with the Clown, and we’ll see even more this time out.

Waiting in the alley below is a street gang, the sort that infested Marvel Comics in the 1980s: young toughs with leather jackets, blue jeans, and casual attitudes towards violence. Think The Warriors meets Clockwork Orange. Or perhaps they aren’t specific to the Eighties – I just (May 2010) read a preview of DC’s Green Arrow #1 which features the same specimen of street gang. Perhaps urban, street-level heroes will always be wailing on these guys. At least today’s versions have fewer mohawks.

Anyhow, the gang is excited at meeting a “a sexy babe in skin-tights” and makes veiled references to gang-rape. Spider-Woman zaps one with her venom blast, but unfortunately she’s now out of juice, and will have to subdue the rest with her fists, since “it takes about an hour before [she’s] sufficiently recharged to unleash” another. This is another Fleisherism, of course. Fleisher finds a freely-available venom blast problematic, because it means Spider-Woman has little to fear from non-super-powered villains. Rather than write around this obstacle, he chooses to retcon it away. Unfortunately for Spider-Woman, she’s unable to fight her way out of this, as a few bat-wielding thugs quickly batter her into helplessness.

You know, telling a story in which Spider-Woman, or any superhero for that matter, is defeated by a bunch of random mooks would be an interesting one. On the face of it, I could accept that in a one-against-many fight, sometimes the one will lose, despite super-strength or super-toughness. Coordination of fire, or of attacks, really can make a difference. But that story would need to be set up a lot more than this one is. I mean, Spider-Woman has slugged it out with Nekra and come away the winner. It’s hard to accept that a few street toughs with baseball bats really pose a threat to her.

Especially when those toughs are immediately subdued by a passing newspaperman – an unarmed newspaperman – who beats the stuffing out of them, permitting Spider-Woman to escape. The damsel-in-distress role is bad enough, given this is Marvel’s premiere superheroine. Having to be rescued by a random civilian, that’s just rubbing the wound.

Anyway. The passing reporter, Tim Braverman, drives Spider-Woman out of danger, and asks her out on a date. Jessica accepts, and then glides off to report in to Scotty. Scotty is concerned when he hears Jess rumbled with a five-man gang, and jealous when he hears about Braverman’s heroic turn. He gets his own back by pulling a wretched bit of passive aggression. Jessica, understandably, wants to call it a day, after the beating she received, but Scotty won’t have it. “You know as well as I do that tonight’s your night to do the underworld-hangout circuit! If we expect to nail the Gamesman, we’re going to need all the up-to-date information we can get... of course, if you think capturing the Gamesman isn’t important enough...”

Annoyed, Jess gives in and prepares to go undercover. Listening in on her thoughts, we readers hear her already begin to excuse Scotty’s behaviour on the grounds of his disability. News flash, Jess: being handicapped doesn’t get you a free pass to be a jerk.

Elsewhere, “in the sprawling underworld sanctum known as the Situation Room,” the Gamesman, dressed like Cobra Commander avant la lettre, plots his next move by moving action figures of police officers and Spider-Woman around a giant table. It’s laid out in a grid pattern; I bet he plays miniature wargames on that table when he’s not plotting crimes. He explains to his crime cronies, who don’t seem to notice that he’s wearing a jumpsuit and hood while they’re wearing business suits, that his plan failed because he failed to take Spider-Woman into account, a mistake he will not repeat.

Spider-Woman has, by now, begun to patrol the underworld, frequenting bars and nightclubs in disguise, hoping to overhear juicy tidbits. Dressed as a cigarette vendor at a “sleazy gangland nightclub”, she eavesdrops on some Godfather-style mafiosi discuss the Gamesman’s plan to heist the “Rajah Ruby” from the International Gem Exhibit. This crime is so surefire, he’s going to participate himself, rather than simply plan the crime.

Cigarette girls in a nightclub overhearing gangsters discussing plans for heisting something called “the Rajah Ruby.” How contemporary. I guess since the Shadow and the Green Hornet are unavailable, Spider-Woman will have to tackle this one.

But not until after her date with Tim Braverman. Jess spends the afternoon with Tim on a hillside in the country (which looks more Long Island than Orange County), eating sandwiches and talking about... what, I don’t know, because we cut in just as she’s drawing things to a close. She’s got to get back to thwart the Gamesman’s robbery. Tim is discombobulated. “Spider-Woman, I know we’ve only known each other for a day! But please! Forget the Gamesman! D-don’t go to the exhibit hall tonight!” Why not? Because he’s fallen for her, hard. He lets his kiss explain how he feels.

By the way, Spider-Woman is in costume in this scene. Their romantic afternoon was spent with her in costume. You’d think they’d both be self-conscious about it, but no.

Spider-Woman checks in with Scotty, who smugly reports that there’s no ‘Tim Braverman’ on the staff of the L.A. Times, and that in all likelihood he’s working for the Gamesman, who arranged the mugging in order that his minion could earn Spider-Woman’s confidence and gain the opportunity of spying on her. Spider-Woman pretends not to hear any of this, and instead feels indignant that Scotty has been “poking around in [my] personal affairs.” The truth hurts.

Over at the Exhibition, the Gamesman and his crew have incapacitated the security guards and disabled the alarms. They enter the showroom, looking about for Spider-Woman, whom they know will be lurking on the premises. Sure enough, she leaps out of hiding, and sure enough, they knock her out with a gas-gun.

Elsewhere, Scotty tardily realizes that if his hypothesis about Braverman is correct, the Gamesman will know Jess is coming and will be prepared for her. He races to the scene in a multi-panel affair that shows off the fact that his building has ramps, his wheelchair is collapsible, and his car is engineered to be operated by hands alone. I suppose the coping mechanisms of the disabled were novel enough in 1980 to be worth the amount of ink spilled on it. He arrives to find the hall in flames, and Spider-Woman, unconscious, tied to a pillar inside. Scotty frees her just as the Gamesman returns! He had previously left with his gang, but left the getaway car half a block away with the lame excuse that “I – I forgot something! Go ahead without me! I – I’ll catch up later!” Held at gunpoint by Scotty, the Gamesman removes his hood to reveal that he is indeed Tim Braverman, and that while he set up his relationship with Spider-Woman to keep an eye on her, he has now been overcome by love. His feelings are genuine, which is why he came back to free her.

Scotty isn’t convinced, but Jessica is. “Oh, Tim! I do believe you! I do!” They kiss as the flames roar higher. Eventually they leave the building, and Jessica, heartbroken, asks Scotty if they can let the police go to the trouble of rounding up the Gamesman’s gang, as she wants to be alone for a while. Scotty, all heart, agrees.

In General...

What we have here is a done-in-one tale of Spider-Woman falling in love with a man who turns out to be her enemy, and having to put him in jail. Ludicrous as that may sound, it’s a perfectly acceptable basis for a pulp action tale. Spider-Man: Family & Amazing Friends is another done-in-one story that features Firestar and Iceman meeting, falling in love, and breaking up all in one story, with superhero action included in the price of admission. And falling in love with the wrong person is a time-honoured feature of the soap opera (er, that is, superhero) genre. Spider-Man has the Black Cat, Daredevil has Elektra, the Invisible Woman has Namor, and so on.

So this story is just fine in theory. It’s the execution that’s ghastly.

There are lots of things to nit-pick. Why does the Gamesman wear a costume when none of his thugs do? Why does he have an underground lair? Where did he get a Spider-Woman action figure, and does having one really help him plan his crimes? If he’s such a master planner, why doesn’t he make even a token effort to substantiate ‘Tim Braverman’’s cover story (Scotty manages to pierce the veil with a single phone call to the L.A. Times)? Why does the Gamesman go through with the jewel heist once he knows that Spider-Woman knows about the plan... and why don’t Jessica and Scotty, who know that the Gamesman knows, prepare for that eventuality? And why does Spider-Woman, the mysterious urban legend, spend an entire afternoon out in public, in costume, on a date, and no one notices or comments on it... Jessica and Braverman not least?

I could go on, but let’s not beat a dead horse any further. The worst sin in this story is the violation of the fundamental story-telling rule to show, not tell:

  • We’re told that the Gamesman is responsible for a string of crimes and that he poses a significant threat to law and order, but we don’t see any of his crimes or the consequences of them. To the contrary, the only crimes of his we see are ones that fail.
  • We’re told that the Gamesman is dangerous because he’s extraordinarily clever and composes ingenious plans, but we don’t see any evidence of this: his crimes seem to be simple smash-and-grabs, and his one scheme – impersonating Tim Braverman – falls apart when Scotty, who sees through it immediately, makes a single phone call.
  • Worst of all, we’re told that Braverman and Jessica fall in love over the course of one date, but we don’t see it happen. We only see the end of that date, after the emotional connection has already been made. I could buy that they fall in love quickly – it’s been established that Jessica is prone to falling head-over-heels for inappropriate men – but I’d like to know why. Is Braverman witty? charming? attentive? paternal? Just what is it about him that she finds attractive, and vice-versa?

This issue is a classic melodrama, with the Hero, the Villain, and the Damsel in Distress. Those roles are traditionally stereotyped by gender, but by 1980 they should be just names. Spider-Woman, by virtue of the fact that it’s her goddam book, should be the Hero, but no, she gets to play the Damsel. Scotty gets to be the Hero: seeing through the Gamesman’s scheme, racing to save the day, saving the Damsel and capturing the Villain. By contrast, Spider-Woman gets beaten up by thugs and subsequently rescued on two separate occasions, and her emotions and libido threaten not only her own life, but Scotty’s mission to bring the Gamesman to justice.

Bad enough that Spider-Woman is reduced to a victim in her own book, and that she plays into a misogynist script that convicts women of being unreliable because of their supposedly emotional and lustful natures. The final insult is that Scotty, whom the book seems to think is the hero, behaves like a passive-aggressive sneak – he runs guilt trips on Jessica, he snoops in her private life and gloats about it – and the book takes his side.

Overall Rating...

This is drivel: full of plot holes, poorly written, and thoroughly sexist to boot. It has no redeeming features. Half a web, and I’d give it lower if I could.

Footnote...

Done in one? Not quite - we have a sequel coming up next issue, with the thrilling origin of the Gamesman. Can't wait, can you? See you in thirty.