Mark Gruenwald has written out (or is that written off) Brother Grimm, the first millstone Marv Wolfman hung on Spider-Woman's neck. Only Magnus and Jerry Hunt remain.
One down, two to go...
...and of those two, one departs on the second page of this issue. Now that's efficiency.
Jessica and Jerry are at LAX, seeing Magnus off on his trip to Las Vegas, where he will pursue his career as a stage magician. He doesn't have any plans to come back, so that's it for Magnus... he won't be seen again in this title for quite a while, i.e. the series wrap-up in Spider-Woman #50.
Gruenwald, who took continuity seriously, takes the opportunity of this lull in the action to clean up some of the lingering questions in Magnus' and Jerry's backstories. Jessica notes that "I still don't know how he [Magnus] found me... why he cared. I won't ever forget him." This is what is known in the professional-writing game as hanging a lampshade. Gruenwald doesn't have a solution to this plot problem, but by making overt reference to it within the text, he can present it as a plot point, even if he never resolves it. And he won't; he has no intention of re-introducing Magnus to the book. That's the right attitude. Finding a plausible answer to the question would necessitate spending more time with Magnus, so the costs definitely outweigh the benefits here. Hang all the lampshades you want, Mark; after Wolfman's blatant disregard for plot problems (cf. the Hangman in Spider-Woman #4) I'm grateful to have a writer who thinks paying attention to verisimilitude is part of his job.
In the same spirit, I'll forgive the next bit of cleaning up as well. Jerry has been called back to active duty with SHIELD, and asks Jessica to enlist. Good thinking, Jerry; nothing makes a shaky relationship more solid like sharing your personal and your professional lives. This sort of cloddishness about relationships is just what I expect from Agent Hunt: Gruenwald has certainly come to grips with this character, and will demonstrate that insight over the next few issues. But back to the matter at hand: Jessica turns Jerry down flat, on the grounds that she "had [her] fill of espionage when [she] was forced to serve HYDRA."
Jerry suddenly has a brainwave. He's always wondered why he had such an immediate emotional reaction to Jessica; why he felt he knew her before; why they became lovers so quickly and with such intensity. Now he realizes the truth: he recognized her, subconsciously, from studying SHIELD casefiles on HYDRA operatives. "Well, that certainly demystifies that mystery! I'd wondered why I was drawn to her but... I thought the connection was more... more... ethereal." You thought that because it was more ethereal, Jerry: this explanation doesn't hold up at all. Those who have read Marvel Spotlight #32 know that back when Jessica was a HYDRA agent, SHIELD never had the opportunity to take photos of her out of uniform... and that that uniform concealed much more of her features. So it's impossible for Jerry to have seen any such photos, but even stipulating that they did exist, Jerry still wouldn't have been able to recognize her, given she had a different hairstyle and hair colour back then. Still, I'm going to give Gruenwald an A for effort on this one. Implausible though it is, I like it better than the direction Wolfman was driving in, namely a past-life connection or something equally asinine. Assuming he had a direction, and wasn't just making it up as he went along.
Jerry then behaves like a decent chap and offers Jessica the use of his apartment, which he won't need and is fully paid up for the next few months. Jessica is thrilled: she can't stay at the Dolly guesthouse any longer because of the owner's nervous breakdown, so Jerry's offer gets her out of a jam. Jerry then peels off in his convertible, leaving Jessica to muse that "[t]he two men in my life [are] leaving within hours of one another! It looks like I've finally got the independence I've always craved... the question is now—what am I going to do with it?"
She thinks over the problem while cruising the city in her Spider-Woman costume, idly thwarting a robbery while she's at it. The only conclusion she reaches is that she'll still need to eat and pay rent, so she'll need a job. In the weeks that follow, she tries to land one, but her spider-heritage makes that impossible... thanks to the bad vibes she emits—and the lack of work experience or references—makes it impossible to hold any job, even the most menial, for a few days.
Gruenwald missed one angle here: she also doesn't have legal standing to work in the USA. Jessica isn't an American citizen by birth (her parents were British) or naturalization; I don't think she's even in the country legally. Spider-Woman #3 skated over the question of how she entered the country without a passport, but it's reasonable to assume Magnus used his magical whammy to sneak her in. Having neither a Social Security number nor immigration documentation will make it hard for her to do anything other than live on the margins of society, or it would have done so if Gruenwald or any later writers had bothered to pull on this thread. Ah well.
One evening, watching TV in a negligee cut down to her navel (fan-service alert!), Jessica channel-surfs past a news story about "ritualistic slayings" to watch Rich Little fill in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, a delicious throwaway bit that offers up only the first topical Seventies reference of many in this issue. A nameless actress gushes about how the Hatros Clinic really helped her "get in touch with [her] innermost feelings", and Jessica, intrigued, decides to drop in for some free-trial therapy, in the hopes of nullifying the bad mojo she's emitting.
In montage, we see Jess go through a variety of psychological tests, including an amusing one-panel encounter group. The clinicians are privately very interested in the results, which indicate that she may be "the key to unlocking emotion!" Accordingly, they offer Jessica free weekly therapy sessions, as well as a job as the clinic receptionist (discreetly firing the current receptionist to make room). Having joined the workforce, Jessica promptly discovers how boring clerical work really is. In montage, we see her gradually begin going through the motions in her new job, until one evening when the unexpected happens: the office is infiltrated by the Shroud!
I'll condense four pages of expository background into one sentence: this Shroud began life as a one-note Batman ripoff, now given a second lease on life by Marvel Editorial as a costumed adventurer who can summon supernatural darkness. The Shroud knocks out Jessica Drew, but thanks to her spider-metabolism she quickly recovers. Changing costume, Spider-Woman chases the Shroud through the clinic.
It's a good action sequence. They're equally strong and agile. The Shroud's darkness makes Spider-Woman's venom blasts ineffective, because she can't hit what she can't see, but her knowledge of the clinic's layout makes her just as effective as he is at operating in the dark. Finally, after three pages of tangling, she finally gets a solid venom-blast in on the Shroud, who falls unconscious. Before Jessica can work out who he is or what's going on, the lights turn back on, and "a dozen dagger-wielding men come crawling out of the woodwork—closing in around her and the Shroud in a circle of death!"
There's a lot to like in this issue. Magnus is gone, for one thing, and we don't need the benefit of hindsight to see that Jerry's exit is being prepared. Gruenwald is plugging up as many of the holes Wolfman left in the fabric as he can, including the characters' backstories and the inconsistencies in Jessica's powers, while laying the groundwork for future issues: rest assured we wouldn't be spending so much time on the Shroud if Gruenwald didn't think he might serve as a new member of the supporting cast. It even ends on an effective cliffhanger.
That cliffhanger points to the biggest weakness of this issue, and indeed of the arc which it opens: the "dagger-wielding men" who appear in the last panel are all white guys in robes and turbans, with wavy Indian-style daggers. Imagine the Thuggees from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom played by white extras and you'll have it. This sort of cheese—white guys initiated into "the mysteries of the exotic East"—is embarrassingly dated today, whether we're talking about bit players like these cultists or bigger characters like the Shroud himself. To be fair, though, we could convict many more prominent comics figures of this sort of faux pas: Batman and Iron Fist, I'm looking in your direction.
A decent effort by Gruenwald, especially the final Spider-Woman-vs.-Shroud duel. Still, no fireworks. Three webs.