Spider-Woman #4

Background

Jessica Drew is in Los Angeles looking into the murder of her father Jonathan. In her Spider-Woman alter ego, she's tangled with local supervillain Brother Grimm. Might there be a connection?

Story 'Hell is the Hangman!'

  Spider-Woman #4
Summary: Brother Grimm, Hangman
Editor: Marv Wolfman
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Pencils: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Tony DeZuniga

We begin with what is now the classic Wolfman opening: Spider-Woman lounging alone, at night, in some unusual location, thinking angsty thoughts-- in this case the top of the Hollywood sign. In a textbook example of overreaching your material, the story begins with Spider-Woman quoting the Bible in her internal monologue: "I have been a stranger in a strange land. Moses spoke those words of himself, yet I feel they were meant for me," she thinks. What prompts these delusions of grandeur? Why, the fact that she's lived her whole life apart from people, among the Ani-Men of Wundagore, and that now, free of Wundagore, she's still alone. Right... alone her whole life, except for when she lived with her parents as a child, and with Magnus now. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Gliding into the night, she muses that perhaps she'll have more perspective on her own life if she finds her father's murderer. "Maybe then I can remove the costume and mask-- and let the woman who wears it live out her life-- in peace." Uh, Jessica, no one's making you wear the costume and mask now. The only reason you have to wear it is the metanarrative reason that you can't be a costumed superhero without a costume. There's no good narrative reason at all.

Well, Wolfman can't have the reader thinking too hard about that. So, in the very same panel in which she reflects on her dual identity, Jessica looks down at the road below. "Eh--? That car speeding below, and on its roof-- Brother Grimm?"

Yes, in a stunning coincidence, Brother Grimm just so happens to be clinging to the roof of a car speeding along the deserted mountain road over which Spider-Woman is gliding. It's a small world after all. (Or maybe it's just Wolfman satisfying another metanarrative demand, namely that there be action violence every few pages, regardless of how it fits into the plot.)

Grimm helpfully explains what he's doing in a long expository monologue. "Ha hah! So you thought you could escape ole B.G., did ya? Shame, shame-- don't you know I carry along a Grimm grenade just to prevent that sort of thing?" As the grenade he's tossed inside the car explodes, the car careens with a 'whap' into the mountainside. Grimm dives off before the impact. Landing on his feet, he continues: "Tra la! And another diamond merchant is done away with, allowing a poor-but-hopeful Brother Grimm to collect the sparkling goodies he carried with him."

Wait, isn't this the same Brother Grimm who, just last issue, had a huge pile of 'sparkling goodies' offered to him at his charity heist, but turned on his heel and abandoned them because a better plan had occurred to him? And that was the same Brother Grimm who spoke this annoying Joker-manque dialogue. Call this an inconsiderate slur if you must, but the writing on this title gets worse with every issue.

(And we're still only on page 2 of issue #4. We've yet to hit rock bottom...)

Jessica hasn't been idle during Grimm's prattle. She swoops down from the sky and drives her foot, with all her weight behind it, into the base of Grimm's spine ("krak!!"). You'd think that would be enough to take Grimm out of the fight, or even out of the class of people who don't need a wheelchair to get around, but he doesn't even notice. Instead, he shows off yet another gimmicky power: raising his palm, he fires a yellow-orange energy beam at Spider-Woman that knocks her right off the cliff.

As Jessica plummets, headfirst, into the gorge, looking for all the world like a woman about to die, she chides herself mildly. "I wasn't prepared for that electric blast." Next panel, she's racing upward like Superman, spitting threats, but when she returns to the roadside, Grimm has vanished. "-gone? But it only took moments to pull out of my fall... to glide back to this clifftop." From where I was sitting, it looked more like a power dive, but straight up. L.A. must have some unusual air currents. "How could he have vanished so quickly? How?"

That's a very good question... one which Wolfman, in his guise of omniscient narrator, informs us is "...a question not destined to be answered..." And he means ever; this matter will never be cleared up. Wolfman needed Spider-Woman to have a quick skirmish with Grimm to draw in casual browsers at the newsstand, so he put one in the book. Fine, but what he didn't put in was any plausible way to have it begin, or any plausible way to have it end inconclusively (because otherwise his story's over right after it begins). But who cares about plausibility?

Cut to our subplot for this issue. Somewhere in the city, a citizen has come to a bad end. He lies unconscious in his car as a young hoodlum, one of Grimm's flunkies, pours booze all over him. It seems the young man aims to run the car off the mountain, killing the unconscious man inside. The plan is that when the body is found, the death will seem to be by misadventure. Surprisingly, Grimm's minion has left a bag of diamonds in the car, to be discovered along with the body. The hoodlum doesn't think that's such a great idea, but he's not about to cross Grimm: "I seen too many guys rubbed out," he thinks, just "for asking looneys [sic] like him questions. An' I ain't puttin' my neck on the..."

Just at this moment, a noose (!) drops from above, catches the young man by the throat, and jerks him off his feet. Oh, the irony! Above, on a rooftop, a black-garbed figure in an executioner's cowl hoists the rope aloft. "Filth! Scum! Corruptor of justice! You've committed your last act of villainy, evil one!"

But then he drops the rope, allowing his victim to fall with a 'thump' to the pavement. "But before I deal with you, I demand answers!" He must be quite lithe, because in the very next panel, he's down in the alley, kicking the dazed thug in the jaw ('kakk!'). Now we can see him a bit better: he's wearing purple pants and a purple tank top, with navy-blue boots and a navy-blue executioner's cowl, with his hangman's rope tied around his waist like a belt. This, of course, is the Hangman referred to in this issue's title, and he's full of righteous fury. "Jewelry merchants have been disappearing for weeks! Who is the evil force behind these abductions? Who?"

Softened up as he has been, the anonymous thug only snivels a bit before giving up Grimm as the guilty party. In this particular case, Grimm wanted to cover his tracks, and so ordered his man to leave a bag of diamonds in the car of the man he was about to murder. As a result, the police would assume that he, the dead man, was the party responsible for the diamond robberies, and close the books on those thefts. But wait, snitchy here has even more secrets to spill: apparently, Grimm keeps a warehouse on "Fifth Street." (Next time you're in Los Angeles, be sure to visit that well-known boulevard, Fifth Street, pearl of the warehouse district.) The Hangman, having got the information he needed, exacts grim justice, lynching the young man in cold blood. Thankfully we only see this unsettling scene in silhouette. "Justice is the Hangman's noose! And justice will be served-- tonight!"

Now we know what we're dealing with here: it's the Grim Vigilante Who Has Crossed the Line. Characters like this would be a staple of the grim 'n' gritty comics of the next two decades, but back in 1978 they were a recent vintage, a response to the rising urban crime rates of the 1970s, and a justice system that many citizens felt was inadequate to the task of responding. For historical reference, see Charles Bronson in the original Death Wish. Or, simply see the monologue the Hangman delivers immediately after the lynching. This speech provides a good snapshot of the sense of frustration indigenous to many in Jimmy Carter's America: "The fool expected leniency. And what else should he expect-- in a society that coddles criminals? The police turn their backs on crime! The courts dismiss evil-doers... return them to the streets to wreak more havoc on the innocents who live in fear. But the good need cringe no more! The law-abiding citizen has found his masked avenger to hunt his criminals down-- to punish all who commit evil... The Hangman lives-- and he acts to quell the rage which dwells within us all!"

Now I recognize that the Hangman is supposed to be one of the heavies in this piece. But I think there's something of significance in the way the story lingers a little too long on his crimes, and on his self-justifications. Sure, he's the bad guy, but isn't there a hint of attraction in how he's portrayed? For would-be cultural historians, interested in how the USA could go from Watergate to Ronald Reagan in just a few short years, there's plenty grist for the mill here.

"Elsewhere," says the omniscient narrator. Where? It's not obvious: Brother Grimm is delivering a monologue in a dark room, his interlocutor off-panel. I don't think I can bear quoting any more of his ridiculous dialogue, so let's sum up: Grimm is pretty pleased with himself. He's now so rich that his decision to leave the money he'd had at hand in the playhouse (last issue) has been vindicated. So now Grimm has lots of cash, while his conversation partner is poor. The fact that Grimm is rich but not popular with the ladies-- or, as Grimm puts it, "girlees" [sic]-- is immaterial. He doesn't care about making time with women; let his interlocutor have the women, he'll take the money.

To whom could Brother Grimm be talking? Who can say, except anyone with an IQ higher than a cabbage's? But we beat that horse to death in last issue's review. Let's continue our tour of what the supporting cast is up to. Take it away, omniscient narrator! In "North Hollywood, [at] the lovely frame home of Priscilla Dolly..." we find said Mrs. Dolly complementing her new boarder, Magnus, on his haircut. She feels he looks more "distinguished," and I have to agree: he looks more like a waiter at a high-class restaurant and less like a waiter from a 'medieval times' restaurant. But here comes Jessica down the stairs! Mrs. Dolly hasn't met her before and isn't happy to meet her now, because Jessica's bad spider-mojo is in full effect. Mrs. Dolly's clumsy dialogue makes that clear. "I feel something strange", she snarls. "There's something different about you-- something I don't like--" Thankfully, Magnus interrupts the exposition train by bewitching Mrs. Dolly and forcing her to find Jessica sweet and charming. As Mrs. Dolly nods in perplexed agreement, Magnus congratulates himself: "I knew you'd se things my way, Priscilla." Once again, Magnus behaves outrageously, in this case depriving his landlady of her free will just so he doesn't have to change apartments, but the story presents what he does as cute. It's not coercive assault... it's magic!

Omniscient narrator, move us along. "Then..." Then Mrs. Dolly's two sons, seen briefly last issue, storm in, shouting at each other. Before we readers can glean what they're arguing about, Mrs. Dolly tells them to stop "squabbling" with each other. She introduces them to her new boarders, and one of them, Jake, makes a clumsy pass at Jessica. (That thud you hear is a clue dropping like a bowling ball.) In the course of casual conversation, it comes out that Jonathan Drew was a previous boarder in this house, and that William, Jake's brother, worked with Jonathan at Pyro-Technics.

Jessica reacts, for once, as you might expect a woman with no significant social experience to act: rather than playing it cool, she declares that she's in L.A. investigating her father, Jonathan Drew's, murder, and that William should immediately tell her everything he knows. William demurs: "I'm sorry, but I haven't the time," he explains, and leaves the room. Isn't that always the way? People are always pestering you about ho-hum murder investigations just when you have to go get your hair cut. Who has the time to talk about boring old everyday murder anymore? Not William, evidently. Jessica also leaves in a hurry, leaving Mrs. Dolly and Magnus to gripe about the younger generation over mashed potatoes.

Before we follow Jessica's further investigations, let's check in with even more of our supporting cast. People like Congressman Wyatt, who's just been ditched by his wife. Rather than spend the evening with him, she's off to have dinner with "Frank and Dino," leaving him to mutter to himself about the way she wastes his money. Apparently, it's her fault he's been drawn into criminal activity, to support her lifestyle. In the issue's only nice bit of characterization, he's so absorbed in self-pity that he doesn't reflect on the fact that he spends his own weekends committing adultery in exotic locales. Frankly I think that this is just Wolfman losing track of his story again, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the reader is expected to remember as far back as last issue and see through Wyatt's self-justifications.

Next we look in on... Jerry Hunt, whom we haven't seen for two whole issues! He's just arrived at LAX, where Bill Foster, one of Tony Stark's men, is picking Jerry up: a favour of Foster's boss to SHIELD. Jerry is as snappy a dresser as ever: white pants, white shirt, black tie, and, er, purple-and-black-checked jacket. Jerry's got a picture of Spider-Woman (from where, I wonder?) but Bill doesn't recognize her, and he's "sort of an expert when it comes to costumed characters." As Bill's only in this story for a few panels, and we never meet him again, I can only presume he's making a cameo from Iron Man. The last we see of him, he's driving Jerry to get some Mexican food.

Action! Thrills! Spider-Woman!

I guess Wolfman realized the story was lagging, because the pace immediately picks up. "Meanwhile...", according to the omniscient narrator, Spider-Woman has shadowed William Dolly to Pyro-Technics, and follows him inside, skulking along the ceiling to avoid detection. If Pyro-Technics was anything like where I work, she'd get to spy on William drinking coffee, reading memos, and other gripping stuff. But this is the Marvel Universe, so William instead leads Spider-Woman into a wind tunnel. Before she can figure out what's going on, the door slams shut behind her, and the giant fan whirrs to life, sucking Jessica in towards the giant spinning blades.

I'm no expert on wind tunnels, but wouldn't a giant spinning fan push you away from the spinning blades? Beats me. But in any event, Jessica's in mortal peril, which makes this a good time to cut away from the action, right? Right?

Well, maybe not, but that's what we're doing. Across town, in that warehouse on Fifth Street, the Hangman busts in and clobbers two more of Grimm's minions, killing one and seriously beating the other. That's okay, of course, because "you have no rights, filth-- you have nothing-- not even your life-- unless you tell me what I must know."

What will the crook tell the Hangman? What must the Hangman know? Let's cut away from that dramatic scene in progress back the other dramatic scene in progress. Jessica's grasped a steel strut in the ceiling to keep from being pulled into the fan, but she's still in a precarious position. Her venom bolts are of no use against something without a nervous system, so she has only one chance: ripping the steel strut out of the wall (what's she bracing herself against?) and, as she's sucked into the fan, pushing the strut into the blades ahead of her, shattering them before they can cut her (huh?).

Whatever. Having freed herself from the deathtrap, Spider-Woman finds herself wondering what she's gotten herself into. Coincidences are piling on coincidences: Magnus just happens to rent living space from the same boarding house where her father lived; her father just happened to work with another tenant, William Dolly; Magnus just happened to suggest that Jessica check the police files, where Jessica just happened to learn of Congressman Wyatt's involvement. Jessica's not stupid: the common link here is Magnus. Unless all of these events are just happenstance-- and surely they line up together too neatly for that to be the case-- then Magnus is somehow involved in Jonathan Drew's death. Just what is that involvement?

Sadly, we'll never know, because Wolfman is going to abandon all of these plot threads by the end of next issue, and no future writer is going to pick them up again. So just what the deal is with Magnus, Jonathan, and the rest of our supporting cast will never be revealed. Sorry to get your hopes up!

Jessica's too busy to think about all of these questions at the moment, because as she busts out of the wind tunnel, William Dolly is waiting there for her. But she barely as time to call out his name before Brother Grimm bursts onto the scene! How convenient. He repays Spider-Woman for her attack earlier in the book by returning the favour: leaping down from behind, he gives her a mighty kick to the spine ("whak!").

But Spider-Woman is unfazed. In the Marvel Universe, apparently, spinal cord injuries are nothing anyone needs to worry about. Must be nice. Spider-Woman returns fire with a venom blast ("szak"), but Grimm shrugs it off. He's getting tougher: one blast was enough to knock him out as recently as last issue. Grimm is intent on his "unfinished business! Namely-- your doom!" He throws a firebomb, which detonates, spreading fire everywhere. Willam Dolly is horrified: "this lab will be a blazing inferno in minutes. And if it reaches the generators-- we'll be blown off the map!"

Spider-Woman has larger concerns. Ignoring William, who doesn't stick around to watch, she tackles Brother Grimm. She's not leaving until she can make Grimm "answer a few simple questions!" Grimm staggers to his feet...

...and then the whole story goes right off the rails. (More so, I mean.) From behind, the mouth of a lasso falls around Spider-Woman's upper body, pinning her arms to her sides and knocking her to the ground. In the very next panel she's lying on the ground, helpless: trussed like a steer, arms to legs, the Hangman standing over her triumphantly. Nonchalantly he leaves the building and climbs up to a nearby hillside, dragging Jessica behind him. Along the way he explains how Brother Grimm has been stealing diamonds and replicating them chemically, then replacing the stolen diamonds with the replicas while he kept the originals. (Huh?) For this crime, says the Hangman, "I sentence you [Grimm] to death!"

What's Grimm's response? Why, he doesn't have one. He says nothing; does nothing; doesn't even appear on-panel. Apparently he just stays put, remaining meekly in the burning building until it explodes ("sparrang!"). And what's Spider-Woman's response? Why, she doesn't have one either. Apparently she allows the Hangman to tie her up, and even gag her, drag her for miles across the ground, and make sexist speeches ("Women are weak, frail creatures..."), and never once resists. You'll recall this is a woman who can rip lampposts out of concrete; throw them like shotputs; and shoot incapacitating venom blasts from her hands. But she does nothing to fight off the Hangman: she simply stares up at him as he intones "You shall be safe in the Hangman's dungeon-- for the rest of your life!"

General Comments

Spider-Woman got her own monthly title for a few reasons. One was her origin issue in Marvel Spotlight #32 sold well, which I'm sure was a compelling argument in Marvel's editorial department. But another reason was because, in the era of Women's Lib and the ERA, it was painfully obvious that all of Marvel's first-tier superheroes were men. Marvel Girl and the Invisible Girl were, at best, second-tier, being both members of teams, and maybe calling them second-tier is being generous. Certainly no Marvel superheroine headlined her own book. DC had Wonder Woman, and the lack of any such figure at Marvel was a black eye for the company. So Marvel introduced Ms. Marvel, and later Spider-Woman, to fill that gap.

Bear that in mind as you mull over this issue: Spider-Woman's raison d'etre was to demonstrate that Marvel Comics was unafraid to tell adventure stories that starred strong, confident women.

And what do we get in issue #4 of Spider-Woman? We get a story that ends in the classically androcentric bondage scene: Spider-Woman bound and gagged, at the mercy of a mysterious, malevolent man. And the story not only, er, climaxes on this scene: it takes this scene for its cover art, so that the entire issue is bookended with our heroine tied up and helpless before her male enemies. What we have here is less Spider-Woman and more The Perils of Jessica. And to pull this scene off, the story not only violates the book's metanarrative purpose-- to tell pro-feminist superhero stories-- but also violates the book's narrative logic, having Spider-Woman, possessed with fantastic strength, speed, and other unearthly powers, submit meekly to a garden-variety muscleman with a rope.

I could go on about the atrocious plotting and dialogue, but I think I've made my point clear. Let me be blunt: this is hackwork, the efforts of a writer who doesn't care enough about his material or his audience to make an effort. It's astonishing that Marv Wolfman, who had written and would go on to write such good stuff, is perpetrating this embarrassment. I have my suspicions as to how this could have happened, but I'll save that for a future review (probably Spider-Woman #8).

Overall Rating

I know that you see half a web, but it's only there because the computer refuses to accept a grade of zero. That's right, this issue gets zero webs from me. No webs? No webs. This story has no redeeming features at all. The characters are either contemptible, annoying, or jerked around like puppets for the sake of the plot; that plot doesn't even make sense; the art is mediocre; and the whole thing simmers in a atmosphere of fetishized violence and the threat of sexual assault. It's not enjoyable as straightforward superhero adventure, it's not enjoyable as roman noir, and it's not even enjoyable as camp. No webs.

Footnote

Sick to death of all this cloak-and-dagger stuff? Marv Wolfman certainly is! Tune in next issue for a completely new direction (yes, another completely new direction) on this title!