Rave : 2015 : Spider-Gwen: Overrated

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Ever since Gerry Conway killed Gwen Stacy in the fateful Amazing Spider-Man #121, there has been a cult petitioning Marvel to revive her character. The sect has especially manifested itself on comic message-boards. Of course, Marvel knows that they cannot bring Gwen back in the mainstream comics; after all, her death has become even more of an influential event to Spider-Man’s character than perhaps the death of Uncle Ben. The company has attempted to bring her back in the forms of clones and flashback stories, but none of these have managed to truly appease fans.

However, Marvel found the solution to the Gwen Stacy dilemma in Edge of Spider-Verse #2. In it, an alternate form of Gwen was introduced in a world where she took up the role of a super hero rather than Peter Parker. She was not the mainstream character that so many fans wanted to return, but she must have been close enough because Spider-Gwen has made a considerable impact in the comic book community. Spider-Gwen’s books, even after a relaunch, have sold well for a Spider-Man spinoff. Her costume has become a staple for cosplayers, and fans have even made a mock trailer of a movie starring her character. Her debut story has been reprinted about 7 times so far within a year, and her ongoing series has received outstanding critical approval (although not from Spider-Fan’s bold Keith Moore).

Of course, being the nonconformist I am, I am reluctant to immediately accept Spider-Gwen. Unlike nearly everybody else, I have entered the comic book no-spin zone (except without the stigma and partisanship of Bill O’Reilly’s ridiculous no-spin zone) and I will analyze the first arc of Spider-Gwen’s solo series to see if she lives up to her hype.

Edge of Spider-Verse #4 by writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez launched Spider-Gwen’s character, and it has been elevated by fandom to the status of a modern day classic. As a story, though, it is not particularly ground-breaking. It establishes Gwen Stacy as a punk drummer and a lighthearted superhero who appears to have recently graduated high school. The supporting cast of Mary Jane, Glory, and the rest of her band is introduced, and the dynamic between Gwen and her father, who is a police commissioner, is familiarized. In essence, it follows the checklist for a character debut.

The main problem with Spider-Gwen’s introduction is the explanation of her origin. Like her 616 counterpart, Gwen was bit by a spider, and she mistakenly sought profit from her powers. Sadly, her powers are never elaborated on, so fans should just assume that she has the same powers of Spider-Man (which is a bit disappointing). Of course, like Peter Parker, Gwen needed a traumatic event to define her as a hero. Writer Jason Latour decided to use the Peter Parker of her universe as her “Uncle Ben.” After Peter turned himself into a man-lizard hybrid, he somehow got himself killed, and he explained he was only attempting to imitate Gwen with his transformation. The super heroine feels somehow responsible for his death and vows to make it mean something. So…she begins fighting crime as a hero? If she truly wanted to prevent another incident like Peter’s, she would stop jumping around in her costume, right? I understand that the origin is all told in four panels, but the connection between Gwen and Peter’s death just doesn’t make enough sense to make her motivations realistic, and they are not elaborated later on.

Despite her conventional and problematic origin, there are two reasons that I can observe why Spider-Gwen gained so much popularity from her debut. First, her costume is an instant classic. As far as I know, the fantastic artist Oliver Coipel made it. The contrast between the white, black, and purple-brown color is distinct, and the hood is brilliant in reflecting Gwen’s character. Second, the social climate for Spider-Gwen’s introduction was in the book’s favor. The teenage comic book audience from the recent pop culture boom of superheroes was looking for a new character for their generation to latch onto, and the young, rebellious Spider-Gwen was just the thing. She attracted similar fans that follow other female heroes like Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel.

There was a half year wait for fans to see Spider-Gwen gain her own solo series, and during this time, Gwen’s character just kept on growing larger and larger in many fans’ consciousness without any actual characterization in comics. Gwen began to be seen as a symbol of many causes: feminism, the teenage generation, and comics in pop culture. Expectations built and built, even if there wasn’t much of an actual foundation provided in Edge of Spider-Verse.

Eventually, fans instigated the creation of a solo series for Spider-Gwen. Marvel editorial, as it seems, was not expecting to make a series for her, and it shows in the messy way the series was handled. The first volume only lasted five issues before it was cancelled by the Secret Wars event. Obviously, Marvel must have known it wouldn’t last long, and any good editor might have waited until after the event to launch the series. Alas, that is not the case with the current, messy editorial direction, so 2015 has seen two Spider-Gwen #1’s. Furthermore, poor editing is seen in the title of the series, which is just silly. While it may be acceptable for readers and fans to call the character Spider-Gwen, that is not her superhero name; it is Spider-Woman. But Marvel already had a Spider-Woman series going, so against logic, they called the series “Spider-Gwen.” (Even the font used for the title looks haphazard and does not contrast well in covers.)

Despite the editorial mess, the series lasted five whole issues (which I guess is a long tenure by modern standards), produced by creators Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez. While all the issues are included as a single story arc entitled “Who’s Responsible?” the first three issues are the only ones that really fit together, while the second two are more like one-shots. The story follows Gwen as she fights against the Vulture and the police. As far as villains go, they fit the pop culture aspect of the character. The conflict highlights the conflict between the younger generation with the older generation and authority. Of course, I will elaborate on the villains later and concentrate on the main character first.

The interesting aspect of the arc is the characterization of Gwen. Fans had been portraying her as bombastic, rebellious, and comical before her solo book debuted. In essence, they viewed her as a leader for the counter culture. Latour’s characterization of Gwen out-of-costume is very different from the fans, though: Gwen is dreary, introverted, and confused. She finds herself in a mindset of self-hate over the death of Peter, and her superhero persona acts as an escape from the monotony of her life. In all practicality, Gwen’s character is very realistic as a moody teenager. But she’s not the fun, energetic character many fans were hoping her to be. She isn’t a bubbly, enthusiastic character like Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel. Gwen is representative of the depressive, moody young people who would sooner reject pop culture than indulge in it.

Still, Latour attempts to make up for the possible disconnect between fans and Gwen with her persona as a hero, but it comes off as very uneven. While Gwen dejectedly lies on couches and avoids her social life, her persona as Spider-Gwen is very erratic. She vandalizes buildings but then scolds a few teenagers for doing it themselves. In issue #3, Spider-Gwen is worried that the Vulture will figure out her secret identity from subtle clues while a man who works closely to her father had just unmasked her. She is also talkative and prone to tell jokes that are absolutely horrible and childish: “Missed me, ya missed me, now ya gotta--kiss these!” And of course, Latour had to stick in a feminist moment to appease fans, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. After Frank Castle unmasks Spider-Woman, he is surprised to see she is a girl, and she beats him up. But what is so surprising about her identity? Was it not obvious that she is a young girl? Yes it was, but Latour couldn’t think of any better way to fit it in the script. This unpredictable hero is very inconsistent with her gloomy, moody alter ego.

The situations Spider-Gwen finds herself in do nothing to enhance her character. During a battle, the Vulture drops her from a measurable height, like the mainstream Vulture has done countless times to the mainstream Peter Parker. Moreover, Spider-Gwen finds herself fighting the cops and getting yelled at by J. Jonah Jameson, also like Peter. The subplot following Gwen’s father and his corrupt coworkers seems like it was just taken from any given bad cop show on television. The poor plots are rife with inconsistencies as well. For example, at the end of issue #2, Gwen confronts her father in an alley, while at the beginning of #3, they haven’t encountered each other. When they do eventually meet in house, it just so happens that the Vulture chose the one time they met in about a month to attack Captain Stacy’s house in look for Spider-Gwen. Honestly, plot contrivances like this hurt my intelligence.

Speaking of Latour’s scripts, I must say that his characters are so poor that I can’t tell if they are caricatures or if he truly thinks he can get away with such generic, horrible characterization. The Vulture is about as one-dimensional as villains come, with no real motivation other than the drive to destroy modern society by throwing cops off buildings, I guess. Frank Castle is a cop with an intense, self-destructive devotion to his job, but readers never learn quite why, other than the fact that the mainstream Castle is even crazier. Also part of the police force, Jean DeWolff is a shadow of a character which gets angry and defensive for no real reason, like in a poor cop drama. Felecia Hardy’s character fails to be anything more than a silly parody of Lady Gaga. Ben and May Parker fail to differ from their mainstream counterparts at all. Perhaps the largest problem Latour has with his characterizations is that he doesn’t have a common motif to follow with the characters. The Ultimate universe had a realism (to the point of cynical) motif, the 2099 universe had a future motif, and the Noir universe had a dark motif. Spider-Gwen has no such element to bind the characters.

Rather than providing any substantial characterization, Latour decides to throw in random elements like a producer of a kid cartoon might throw in a juvenile rabbit for comedic relief. The kids may enjoy it, but the device even further insults our intelligence. For example, a cat of Gwen’s friend named Murderface often appears when the social interactions of a scene are not interesting. The cat is a prop to keep the script interesting for the dim-witted to keep reading the story. In the relaunch of the book, Latour decided to throw in yet another comedic animal named Bandito, who is the Bodega Bandit’s small pug that wears a costume and eats corn dogs. Of course, we cannot simply forget how Latour put in a third comedic relief device, Spider-Ham, a hallucination from when Gwen got hit on the head. I can stand comedic relief like this once and a while (in fact, I really dig Spider-Ham), but Latour relies on it far too often, and it is a tiresome ploy that distracts from his horrible plots. (Actually, maybe he should just rename the series Spider-Ham and Spider-Gwen. It would be better anyways.)

My point of devices leads into my most controversial point that concerns the black, female Captain America that was recently introduced in the book. On the surface, it looks like a good idea for a book that is supposed to lead the liberal pop culture, and the development has made an impact on fan sites and message boards. But if these fans were attentive, they would realize the new Cap is not that innovative. Of course, the character reflects the new mainstream Captain America, Sam Wilson. Marvel took a bold risk with the character, but it appears to have paid off. Then, Marvel created another black (this time female) Captain America in Al Ewing’s Ultron Forever storyline. At this point, the introduction of a black character in a traditionally white character’s position was a little trite, but the story was still decent enough. Then, Peter David introduced a female, Hispanic Captain America in the new volume of Spider-Man 2099. Of course, Marvel has also released other young, black female characters in their quest for diversity during the recent Infinity Gauntlet Secret Wars miniseries and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Apparently, Jason Latour was feeling left out from the trend, and he decided to join the bandwagon by introducing a new non-white Captain America too soon after the other three. Diversity is great and all, but the whole idea of replacing a formerly white superhero with a minority was just trite by the time it was done in Spider-Gwen. Even worse, Latour went with the clichéd, tough-as-nails, no nonsense female character route with Cap, making her little more than a plot device to get support from fans. He might as well have been writing, “I’m sorry for screwing you guys over with my horrible plots, but here: I reprocessed a tired comic book device. Please don’t drop this book; the other comics I write don’t sell much.” The trick is not fooling me, though.

Despite my many problems with the plot, nothing annoys me more than Rodriguez’s amateurish, poor artwork. He does not quite understand the concepts of anatomy or perspective because it is often incorrect in the book. The body type and facial structure of his characters often change. Of course, the stylistic problems are worsened due to the fact that Rodriguez does not understand comic book storytelling. The main goal of a comic artist should be to tell the story above all, but the panels are commonly strange and awkward. He often attempts strange angles in his storytelling for no real narrative reason, and many panels defy logic. The action regularly makes little sense, and the dynamics are off in many panels. Essentially, the inconsistency of the art only adds to the problems of the script rather than attempting to make up for them.

In essence, Spider-Gwen is not a good comic book. It’s not even a mediocre book. I regret buying it every time I do, but I am obligated to get it due to its association with Spider-Man. Marvel got lucky with her debut, as it hit the right spot with many readers, and the character was hyped as the pop culture leader of a new generation of comic readers thereafter. Many expectations were expected to be met when Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez released the Spider-Gwen solo series. Instead of the quality book so many envisioned, we have been left with an inconsistent comic with poor characterization, trite plot developments, and a seemingly bipolar main character. Yet, it seems that many fans have chosen to continue supporting the amateurish book, as displayed in the high sales of the new Spider-Gwen story. It appears that these fans are either required to buy the book as part of the Spider-Man line or they like the idea of Spider-Gwen rather than the reality.

Rather, I suggest fans disappointed by Spider-Gwen to pick up the book of the female-led Spider-Man spinoff, Silk. Her book was released alongside with Spider-Gwen, and it carried little fanfare because of the uncertain fan reaction to her introduction. Reading Silk alongside the book of her overrated peer, it is obvious to fluent reader of English that Silk is the complete antithesis of Spider-Gwen: an enjoyable character with great character development. Writer Robbie Thompson and artist Stacey Lee give their all to the book, and it certainly shows. Cindy Moon, Silk’s alter ego, is everything that fans wanted from Gwen: a fun, energetic, relatable female lead. While dealing with anxiety and difficulties of having been isolated from society for ten years, Cindy Moon still cracks jokes with fangirl references to Harry Potter, Pokémon, and Ninja Turtles as her superhero ego, Silk. She must also deal with her ongoing conflict with the ruthless Black Cat as she attempts to locate her missing family. If Spider-Man readers were wondering what happened to J. Johan Jameson, he now regularly appears in her book, and he’s actually well-characterized as a sympathetic human being! Plus, Silk’s new costume is just as good as Spider-Gwen’s, if not better. Basically, Cindy Moon is the enjoyable, dynamic character that Gwen is not, and I encourage you to buy her book instead. That way, Marvel will hopefully no longer publish Spider-Gwen, and I will hopefully no longer rant about how much I hate it.