Spider-Woman #1

Background

Back in 1977, word reached Marvel Comics that a rival company intended to feature a Spider-Man knockoff on a Saturday morning cartoon show, with the gimmick being that this knockoff hero would be a woman, not a man. To defend its copyright, Marvel quickly debuted their own Spider-Woman character in a one-off story. That story, which appeared in Marvel Spotlight #32, sold surprisingly well, leading Marvel to launch Spider-Woman in her own book a year later...

Story '...A Future Uncertain!'

The story opens in media res, with Spider-Woman engaged in an internal soliloquy. "Heaven help me, I'm reduced to stealing food to live. Is this my curse for becoming-the Spider-Woman?" The Spider-Woman indeed: she's weighing this question while hanging upside-down from the ceiling of a London grocery store, dressed in her red-and-yellow Spider-Woman costume. Thanks to Carmine Infantino's pencils, her skintight costume leaves no doubt that it certainly is a woman under the spandex (though, this being the '70s, her proportions of her figure aren't nearly as exaggerated as they would be in the pages of New Avengers twenty-five years later).

The opening splash page sets up a number of questions: Just who is this person? Why did she become "the" Spider-Woman? Why might she think she's cursed? What is her relationship to Spider-Man? But the story's going to draw us in before going into any of that.

Falling from the ceiling, Spider-Woman bemoans the fact that she has neither a job nor any prospect of getting one, and her "bizarre powers" are a mystery to her. But before she can worry about that, she needs to eat. Driven by hunger-- she hasn't eaten "in days"-- she picks up a can of tomatoes, but the idea of becoming a thief is revolting to her, and she throws the can away with a cry of "No!" It's an overhand throw, and knocks down the entire pyramid of stacked cans. I suppose not eating for days gives you anger management issues. Me, I'm just surprised she had a whole supermarket at her disposal, and her first choice of food to steal was canned tomatoes.

Suddenly, her "extra-acute hearing" warns her of approaching footsteps. (Bizarre power #1.) "Another second and I would have been spotted." An elderly security guard shines his flashlight in the aisle, but sees no one. Blaming rats, he departs, and never sees Spider-Woman, who is silently clinging to the store's tiled ceiling. (Bizarre power #2.)

The security guard locks the front door from the outside and continues his rounds, leaving Spider-Woman free to drop to the ground. (The omniscient narrator, common to Marvel books of the period, helpfully informs us that the guard, whom we will never see again, is named "Archie Kalnan".) "Almost caught," she thinks. "Perhaps I should have been." The next instant, she rejects that thought: "Blast! Self-pity? Is there any depth I won't stoop to? I'm responsible for all my actions. Me! No one else!" Having established her feminist credentials, Spider-Woman underscores her feelings on the subject by kicking over another pyramid of canned goods. Departing through an air vent, she comforts herself with the thought that "I know I'm not a thief. I've taken nothing, no one will ever know I've been here." Unless they look at the boot-prints on the cans, I suppose.

Wrapped up in her own thoughts, and not having a spider-sense, she's surprised in her exit by an observer, a handsome middle-aged man wearing a blue suit and a really snazzy purple-and-black-striped bow tie. (1978: I guess you had to be there.) The mysterious stranger demands to know why Spider-Woman was leaving an empty market at night, and why she's wearing that costume. "I'm sure anyone as gorgeous as you must have a ready answer for this. Don't you?" Spider-Woman's mask conceals her eyes, brow, hair, and cheekbones. Given that he thinks she's gorgeous, he must have a thing for even white teeth.

Spider-Woman, reasoning that she couldn't possibly explain her situation, decides to escape. She implements this plan by knocking her interrogator down with a shove to the belly. He recovers quickly, and lunges forward to grab her ankle. Despite this impediment, she manages to kick him in the stomach, knocking him down (again) and he responds by lunging forward and grabbing her (again). This time she's the one who is knocked down, and canned goods fly everywhere.

Wait, didn't she just exit the store? And didn't he challenge her and ask her what she had been doing in there? And if they are fighting in the store, how did this mysterious man get in? We just saw the security guard-- sorry, "Archie Kalnan"-- lock the door from the outside. Looks like Wolfman's script and the art direction that Infantino received didn't quite mesh.

Anyway: having pinned Spider-Woman to the ground, the stranger announces he's working with Scotland Yard, "which means, shortly and simply, I'm taking you in!" He pulls away Spider-Woman's mask, revealing that she is indeed gorgeous: delicate eyelashes and a full head of honey-blonde hair. And it's pretty full, given that at this point Spider-Woman's cowl covers her whole head and fits tightly. Where does she keep all that hair? The same place Wolverine keeps his claws, I guess. Either that or this is bizarre power #3. Shocked, the stranger stammers "Your face! I-- I've seen it before!" I guess he was so shocked he didn't maintain his grip, because in the next panel Spider-Woman is running away at full tilt, leaving her cowl in the stranger's hands. So preoccupied is he that he doesn't even bother to give chase. Just where has he seen her?

Cut to the following morning. Spider-Woman, now in civilian garb-- purple blouse, lavender slacks, and black pumps-- strolls down the street. She's returning from a job interview, where she failed to get the position. "That's an even dozen 'sorry, you won't do's' in three days. What's wrong with me?" And something does seem to be wrong with her, for the people she passes by all look at her with suspicion and dislike. They know she's different: they know she's "not all human!" That's Spider-Woman's take on the situation, anyway. Her landlord is different, though: his wife wants him to kick "that Drew lady" out of the tenement flat they keep, but he refuses. "Her eyes tell me she's the suffering kind, and I just couldn't bear to see that lovely face do any more suffering." So some people respond to Spider-Woman with unmerited dislike, others with unmerited trust. Another bizarre power, it seems.

That night, asleep, Spider-Woman dreams, which provides a handy excuse to re-cap her origin for those readers just becoming acquainted with the character. What follows is a detailed and severe retcon of the account of her origin presented in Marvel Spotlight #32. Spider-Woman's true name, it seems, is Jessica Drew, child of John and Meriem Drew. John Drew was a scientist who studied arachnids and dreamed of infusing humans with the special powers of spiders: a consummation devoutly to be wished, it seems, because "then man could adapt... could evolve into a being capable of living in tomorrow's world of over-pollution and radiation. Man could survive the total gamut of our technological devastation." Unsurprisingly, Drew found that his peers regarded him as a crank, so he and his family, in company with another unnamed scientist, bought land at remote Wundagore Valley, where the two men could "pursue [their] visions unhampered."

Luckily for the two scientists, their land was filled with uranium, the sale of which made them rich (though we never see any evidence of mining). Unluckily, the uranium gave little Jessica, just a toddler at this stage, a severe case of radiation poisoning. Seeing no alternative, John injected his daughter with his experimental infusion-of-spider-powers serum, hoping she would thereby gain the ability to shake off radiation poisoning. But the serum alone was insufficient: it would also require years of treatment with the genetic accelerator John's anonymous friend had built. Seeing no alternative, John's friend begins the treatment.

Meriem Drew is so outraged at this dangerous course of action, she does the only sensible thing and immediately expires from the strain. John Drew, now suddenly called "Jonathan," sticks around long enough to lay some flowers on his wife's grave, then "mysteriously vanishes." You say mysteriously, I say conveniently... because now, when Jessica awakes years later, her parents aren't on hand to welcome her back into the world. The young girl, now grown into a young woman, is forced to rely on her father's friend-who has lately assumed the role of the High Evolutionary-as a parent figure.

All of this convolution is necessary because Wolfman is here making significant changes to Spider-Woman's origin. According to Marvel Spotlight #32, the High Evolutionary created Spider-Woman just as he created all his Ani-Men: by taking a non-human organism and evolving it 'forward' into humanoid form (any Darwinists present, bite your tongues). So originally, Spider-Woman's origin was a neat inversion of Spider-Man's. In the latter case a man took on the powers of a spider, while in the former a spider took on the powers, so to speak, of a woman. It was a neat, creepy origin. And, said Marv Wolfman, it was the first thing that needed to go if Spider-Woman was to be a successful monthly character. In a recent interview ("Marvel's Dark Angel", Back Issue 17 (August 2006): 59), Wolfman reiterated that he'd changed the origin because as he saw it the idea of Spider-Woman being fundamentally inhuman just wouldn't have worked: Spider-Woman needed to be a woman foremost.

I don't know about that, I wasn't there, but my suspicion is that Wolfman's claim is wrong. Archie Goodwin's premise from Marvel Spotlight was original, creepy, and interesting, and I suspect much more could have been made of it than the ho-hum quotidian premise that Wolfman re-worked it into. But, sadly, we'll never know.

At this point, the new material Wolfman wants to introduce being exhausted, Jessica wakes up from her dream in the present day. Rising from her bed to stare out the window (still dressed in her clothes from earlier that day-- saves on pajamas) she continues her origin in soliloquy, re-capping the events of Marvel Spotlight #32: how her human heritage made her an outcast among the High Evolutionary's Ani-Men, causing her to flee to the human world, where her spider heritage made her just as much an outcast. How she fell in with HYDRA and became its soldier, until she discovered how the terrorist organization had manipulated her. Now, free of the Evolutionary and HYDRA, she is free to work out her own destiny... albeit a destiny cursed by her spider-based blood, which will forever mark her as an outcast among humans.

The next few days pass in montage as Jessica Drew (named by Wolfman for his daughter Jessica and plucky teenage detective Nancy Drew) tries, and fails, to find a job for herself. Everywhere she goes potential employers, sensing the bad-spider-vibes she apparently exudes, refuse to hire her. This train of disappointments is interrupted when, "as she paces her way down fashionable Oxford Street," the stranger who sparred with her in the grocery days before recognizes her from across the street and yells at her to stop. Jessica, warned of danger, immediately takes off. (I'm reminded of the old security guard from an episode of The Simpsons who, after trying a similar tactic, mutters to himself "Why do I always shout first? Just gives them a chance to run away. Well, I'm an idiot.") Jessica rounds the corner and gets out of sight, but suddenly has a change of heart. "Well, if he wants me, he'll have to put up a good fight! From now on, Spider-Woman fights back!"

In the blink of an eye, she changes into her costume, which is a good trick. She wasn't carrying the costume with her, and she wasn't wearing it beneath her clothes: her civvies-- a short-sleeve shirt and skirt-- leave her arms and legs bare, while her Spider-Woman costume keeps her entire body covered. And to change into spandex of any sort that quickly is quite a feat. Not a feat worth harping over, though: she's not the first superhero whose costumes materialize with suspicious ease. What matters is that the costume signifies action! And that's what we came to see, right? Well, that and superhero angst: this is a Marvel title, after all. But mainly action!

The mystery man runs up, explaining how he found out she was right and nothing was taken from the grocery, but Spider-Woman's not listening. Instead she's ripping a lamppost out of the street and hurling it at him. And not the easy way, either: she throws it longwise. But no sooner has it left her hand than she repents of her deed. "I'm not a murderer! But if that post hits him, I'll have killed him!"

In another really good trick, Spider-Woman leaps at the mystery man and reaches him before her own projectile does, knocking him out of harm's way. As the narrator helpfully puts it, "she is fast." Really remarkably fast, it seems, but again, let's not harp on the details. (Oh, okay, we can harp a little more: the narrator refers to her opponent as "Jerry Hunt," as if we already know his name, but this is the first time it's been introduced.) Hunt is helpfully knocked unconscious by this rescue, allowing Jessica to take to the rooftops and escape.

In the blink of a caption, three weeks pass. Jessica sits by her window at night, gazing at her Spider-Woman cowl, which she holds in her hands. "He knows what I look like beneath my mask," she reflects, which means she'll have to disguise herself to prevent him from tracking her down. To that end, she makes two decisions.

The first is to dye her hair. "A little black hair dye will take care of Jessica Drew," she thinks, holding a bottle marked 'hair color'. Interestingly, even though Jessica is in London, the bottle spells 'color' in the American fashion. Ponder this bottle carefully, because it's the last time you see it, or any other bottle of dye, in this title. The fact that Jessica Drew dyes her hair will very quickly be consigned to the memory hole. (Or maybe she found some magical permanent hair dye, like the sort that Dinah Lance, the Black Canary, uses. Only her hairdresser knows for sure.)

So, having decided to dye her hair to conceal Jessica Drew's identity, she then decides to alter her Spider-Woman costume. Why? To distinguish the new, differently-garbed Spider-Woman from the old one that Jerry Hunt knows. How does she intend to do this? Why, by opening the cowl... so that her hair can be free.

Pause a moment and think about that. She's keeping the mask and bodysuit and not changing the colours, their cut, or anything about them. All she's doing is allowing her cowl to reveal, rather than conceal, her hair. Not only is she keeping almost exactly the same look as before, she's allowing anyone with eyes to see that Spider-Woman has black hair. So she's dying her hair black to sever the connection between Jessica Drew and Spider-Woman... then advertising that Spider-Woman has black hair, establishing the connection again. It seems that Jessica has the proportional strength of a spider, but not the proportional intelligence of one.

Now, when she goes into action as Spider-Woman, her long mane of jet-black hair can whip around fetchingly, just like the hair of all the tough women warriors from comics and animation. Just like Artemis, Wonder Woman's erstwhile nemesis; or Disney's Pocahontas; or Mattel's My Little Pony. Nothing titillates-- er, terrifies-- one's opponents like long, lustrous hair, right? Right?

I'm being terribly unfair here, of course. What's really at work here is not Jessica's intelligence but her writer's sense of the commercial: Wolfman is making his heroine sexier. Never mind that dressing this way, with a whip of hair that touches her heels, doesn't make sense in story terms: it would get in her way when she was gliding or wall-crawling, it would provide her foes with a convenient handhold, and would be deadly difficult to keep clean and dyed. Never mind that the whole thing is impossible: Jessica's hair isn't that long when she's in civilian garb, and it can't grow or shrink when she changes costume. Forget all of that. Wolfman needs to make his heroine sexy so that the largely male comics readership will be more likely to buy the book. This is blatant sexism on Wolfman, or rather Marvel's, part. Looking at Spider-Woman today, as drawn by Frank Cho-- just the same, that is, but with breasts the size of her head-- we can see just how far the comics industry hasn't come in twenty-five years. At least Spider-Woman has a costume that covers her entire body. That's more than almost any superheroine, before or since, for any major comics publisher, can say.

As she dons her new costume and crawls out of her flat window into the night, she wonders to herself why she bothers to keep her Spider-Woman identity. After all, she muses, she's not a superhero, nor does she intend to become one. So why go to all the trouble of keeping two guises? In what will become a staple of Wolfman's tenure on the book, pressing plot problems like these are framed as rhetorical questions, to signal to the readers that the creative staff knows they exist. In another staple, these questions are then left unanswered: providing solutions isn't necessary. Before Jessica can answer her own question about why she bothers to dress in costume and lurk in the night, she's distracted by gunshots. "I'd swear they're coming from Parliament!"

Making her way to the scene, she looks down to see Jerry Hunt (what a coincidence) in a gunfight with two criminals. She recognizes these latter two as two burglars she'd tangled with back in Marvel Two-in-One #29-32. Wolfman had been writing that book at the time the Spider-Woman assignment reached him, so he wrote Spider-Woman into a largely forgettable storyline in which she teamed up with the Thing to foil a HYDRA operation in the United Kingdom. As he admits in his editorial note in this issue, those stories were just exercises to get to know the character. Thus, at the conclusion of the arc, he had one of the characters, a wizard, cast a spell to make everyone but Jessica forget what had happened, thus wiping the continuity slate clean.

But one loose end was left untied: these two criminals, who had been running about London stealing obscure treasures, which when combined provided a treasure map to something of real value concealed below the Houses of Parliament. Just what that thing was got lost in the shuffle of wizards and magic at Stonehenge, and the Marvel-Two-in-One story arc concluded with this sub-plot unfinished. So Wolfman aims to finish it up here.

Jerry Hunt, pinned down behind his car by the fire from the criminals' laser rifles (!), is urged by his companion to "back up." "'Back up?' You're joking, Sid! We weren't assigned to Scotland Yard by SHIELD to worry about ourselves!" Jerry should spend less time establishing what a tough guy he is and more time paying attention to the fight he's in, because a laser beam "zwap"s him in the head in mid-sentence. Laser beam to the face: now that's gotta hurt.

That's Spider-Woman's cue to swoop in on her costume's glider-wings. The erstwhile burglars blast her with their lasers (where did they get those, anyway?), but the beams have no effect: Spider-Woman's unique metabolism, as we've already seen, makes her immune to radiation, and lasers are "stimulated radiation," apparently. Er, that's true, they are both forms of radiation, but then water and hydrochloric acid are both hydrogen-based liquids. And just because you can drink one of those without harm doesn't mean that you can drink the other. You can see where I'm going with this, but never mind. Let's get back to the fight. Shrugging off the lasers, Spider-Woman returns the favour with her own distance attack: her venom blast, a lime-green ray from her hands that drops one robber with a "zdak." The other curses "if you've killed him..." but never completes his threat. Spider-Woman helpfully informs him, and the reader, that she can temper her blasts to stun rather than kill, and proves her point by stunning him too.

The fight over, she runs to Hunt's side. "I don't know why I'm getting involved with this. But when I saw him fall-something inside me went haywire! I-I don't even know this man... yet for some reason I care for him. Why? WHY?"

Jerry Hunt took a laser beam to the face, but he's not singed, and even his hairdo is fine. But despite the lack of burns, he's still in trouble. "His heart's slowing down with every beat. He's dying in my arms. He's dying!" While she ponders this the first thug, insufficiently stunned, rises up and tries to shoot her (again) but she simply shoots him with her venom blast (again) and down he goes. Like Hamlet, she engages in an internal soliloquy, in which she ponders how divided she is, with one hand that embraces life and with another that deals death. But unlike Hamlet, her musings don't preclude swift action. Staring down the approaching London bobbies, she warns them to let her take Hunt away for medical treatment. When they demur, she simply picks up the thug she just knocked out and hurls him into the bobbies, knocking them down like bowling pins. Now free to act, she takes Hunt into her arms and glides away.

In an epilogue, we see him in a hospital bed, being visited by Scotland Yard men. They explain how she saved his life by forcing the medical staff at this hospital to give him a transfusion of her blood, to help him resist the laser radiation. They also explain the big mystery from the Marvel Two-in-One stories: the hidden treasure the thieves had hoped to steal were printing plates from the British treasury, which they could have used to print their own money! A great prize, except for the fact that sometime after the plates were buried Britain adopted a new currency, rendering the old plates worthless. Insert trombone music here: Wah-WAH.

Hunt isn't listening though, he's staring into space, thinking of Spider-Woman. He doesn't know why she intervened to save him, which puzzles him, and he's certain he knows her from somewhere, which puzzles him more. "I don't know if it's to stop her or to love her. But I want that woman more than I've wanted any woman in my life. Whoever she is, I want Spider-Woman!"

General Comments

This issue does a few things well. It sets up the relevant facts about Spider-Woman for new readers: her powers, her costume, and just enough about her background to set up the stories Wolfman wants to tell. HYDRA is played down and Spider-Woman's weird powers and effect on people is played up. Old loose ends are tied up, and a new puzzle is introduced: how is it that Jessica Drew and Jerry Hunt know each other, despite never having met? And is there romance in the offing?

Let's run down the '70s era Marvel checklist, shall we? Origin: check. Interesting powers: check. Striking, primary-colours costume: check. Supporting cast: just Jerry Hunt so far, but getting there, so check. Angst: yes, Jessica fights to protect people who don't really like her, and she's not sure who she is or where she's going, so definitely check. This issue is hitting the right marks.

Unfortunately to do that it lets plot slide egregiously. There are small problems: did Jessica and Jerry meet inside the store or outside? Where did those criminals get energy weapons, and why do they seem to shoot hard radiation instead of laser beams? Is Jessica's father named John or Jonathan? How can Jessica change costume, and hair length, in an instant, even when she's not carrying her costume with her? How can she knock Jerry Hunt out of the way of her own missile? Why did she bother wrestling with him at their first meeting, and throwing a lamppost at him in their second, when at either time she could have just knocked him unconscious with her venom blast?

Bad as this laundry list is (and it could go on longer), all of these are trumped by the big plot problem: Why is Jessica Spider-Woman at all? She doesn't want to fight crime and she has no family to protect. She has no need of an alter ego. Spider-Woman, the costumed identity, has no reason to exist. Cravenly, Wolfman lets us know he's aware of the problem, but can't be bothered to provide a solution.

This issue is relatively well-crafted in many respects, but certainly not in regard to plot. Wolfman has certain scenes, images, and relationships he wants to show us, and he'll do whatever he needs to do to get us there. If that means letting some details slide, or glossing over the implications of his story or his characters, he'll do it. This does not bode well for his future work on the title.

Overall Rating

It's an origin issue. It clears up previous continuity problems and pitfalls, introduces Spider-Woman to new readers, and sets up tantalizing hooks for future issues. That's a lot of work, and given so much is at stake we have an impetus to overlook the constant offences to plot. Still, the best adjective you could apply to this book is 'competent.' Three webs, with an extra half-web for Carmine Infantino's excellent art, which does a great job at both the superheroics and the civilian linking sequences. (Unfortunately for future issues, while Wolfman's writing will get no more disciplined, Infantino's art will get more lazy.)

Footnote

Continuity buffs take note: none of the origin depicted here, or in Marvel Spotlight #32 for that matter, is Marvel canon anymore, having been totally re-written with no regard to continuity by Brian Bendis in 2006's Spider-Woman: Origin. Indeed, that series seems to invalidate everything in volume 1 of Spider-Woman prior to issue #37. Bear that in mind in future reviews. (Some people are disturbed at Bendis' cavalier treatment of established continuity. Frankly, having read ahead, I can't blame him at all.)

Future reviews? Yes! Spider-Woman volume 1 ran for fifty issues, and I, your faithful reviewer, aim to review them all! This is an endurance test, like Al Sjoerdsma's "From the Beginning" project. And with all respect to Al, to whom I offer big ups, I wonder if this project I'm engaged in might be more taxing, because frankly this title is nowhere near as good as the stuff he's working on. Will I make it all the way to #50? Keep checking the site to find out...