Jessica has taken a clerical job at the Hatros Clinic, not just because she needs a salary but also because it comes with a perk: free group therapy. One night she discovers that a mysterious figure—the Shroud—has broken into her workplace; changing into mufti, she knocks the Shroud out with a venom blast, only to be immediately menaced by a crowd of white guys in turbans!
Oh, and they have wavy daggers too. That's why they're so menacing.
Having inconveniently (or, from writer Mark Gruenwald's point of view, conveniently) run out of venom blasts, Spider-Woman has to fight these cultists with her fists. That's no problem: she's stronger than them, faster than them, and can retreat to the ceiling, so she has them all knocked out in no time, i.e. five pages. And not a scratch on her!
During the fight, the cultists try to stab the unconscious Shroud, whom Jessica had left slumped on the floor. Jessica is chagrined when they go after him, because she had assumed the masked man was playing on the cultists' team: the symbol on their medallions is the same as the one branded onto the Shroud's face. Before she can mount a rescue, though, the turbaned dudes fall back, surprised and awed when they see that brand.
The plot thickens! And it thickens some more when Jessica, in a bid to safeguard her secret identity, leaves to change back into her civilian garb and to call the police. When she returns, both the Shroud and the cultists have disappeared! Spooky.
Elsewhere, Jerry Hunt carries out a missing-SHIELD-agent investigation with his new partner, Agent Laura Brown. The two don't care for each other, and they're not shy about demonstrating it with insults. Privately, Jerry wonders, "Why couldn't I have transferred back to London instead of choosing to stay in L.A. near Jessica?"
Foreshadowing accomplished, Gruenwald shifts the scene back to Jessica, who has endured a night of police interrogation and is now participating in her encounter group. For those who don't know, this was a style of psychological therapy common in the Seventies, and it was every bit as dire as portrayed here (or in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for that matter). Jessica does get a bit of value from it, though, when she goes through an exercise with a fellow participant, a blonde woman named Lindsay McCabe. Lindsay will be the longest-standing supporting character in Jessica's career; her tenure will last, on and off, for the remainder of this title's run, and even into Spider-Woman's appearances in the 1980s and 1990s, which is saying something. It's an inauspicious introduction for Lindsay, who appears in only three panels and offers up deathless dialogue like "Hi. The name's Lindsay McCabe. Yours?" and "See you next week, Jessica." But we all gotta start somewhere.
Later on, Jessica plays amateur detective and tries to track down the mysterious cultists. In an interesting slip, Gruenwald doesn't bother to explain why Jessica is doing this. Earlier Jessica did wonder what the cultists, who have made other appearances in L.A., were doing at the Hatros Clinic, but it seems to be idle curiosity at best. I'm not sure why Gruenwald doesn't go into her motives; I suspect the omission was a function of his inexperience. Despite his talent, he didn't have much experience with scripting comics at this stage in his career. In this case I think he just went along with the structure of the superhero genre, which dictates that costumed superheroes must pursue villains, without realizing there was no structural reason for Spider-Woman to do so.
Her best clue is a recent robbery at the (snort) "L.A. County Museum of Art". Good use of local colour to evoke a sense of place, Mark! A statue of the Hindu goddess Kali was swiped, and Jessica's research suggests that the cultists were Kali-worshippers; quite literally, 'thugs.' "Now then," she asks herself, "what's the best way to go about tracing stolen art objects?"
The answer seems to be to put on a trench coat and dark glasses and walk into a seedy waterfront bar, chosen at random, drink six shots of whiskey straight, and then tell the bartender that she's "looking for a hot jade idol. Know anyone that can help me?"
Unfortunately, Gruenwald isn't playing this scene for laughs, or to underscore what a naif Jessica is... we're supposed to take this approach seriously. The bartender directs Jess to a grimy dude in a sleeveless undershirt, who promises that he knows something about the missing jade. He's planning to string Jess along and roll her for cash once she falls down drunk, but he hasn't counted on Jessica's spider-metabolism neutralizing the effects of the whiskey. Jess, not to be trifled with, dangles him upside-down outside the window, and he gives up everything he knows about the jade, namely that the heist was the work of "the Warleggan gang, whose base of operations is a houseboat."
Sigh. Let's pass over the next few pages in silence, shall we? Suffice to say that Jessica has no trouble busting into the houseboat (sigh again) and subduing the gang; one tries to escape in a speedboat, but that ain't no thing to a woman who can glide, shoot venom blasts, and has spider-strength. But it's all for naught. The gang did steal the idol, but they were just looking for a quick buck. They don't know anything about any cult of killers.
Frustrated, Jessica goes home and decides to take a quick shower before bed. Bad timing, because when the Shroud appears out of nowhere, Jessica is alone, in her bathroom, wrapped in a scanty towel! Alas, poor Jessica: for all of her strength and power, she's still prone to winding up undressed and vulnerable to strange men, regardless of who's writing Spider-Woman.
Quite a few low points this time out. The middle act, where Jessica plays amateur detective, spools out in ludicrous fashion. I wish solving crimes was as easy as dressing in 'inconspicuous' clothing, wandering into any bar, and asking the bartender what he knows about a recent robbery, but it ain't, and I think even the twelve-year-olds this issue is aimed at know it's true. The first and third acts of plenty of action, but they don't advance the main plot: we don't know anything more about this cult than we did last issue, and it still isn't clear why we, or Jessica, should care. The whole thing is drawn in let's-get-the-art-out-the-door style, and it ends with the stereotyped and distasteful fan service and implied threat of rape we might have thought Gruenwald would leave behind.
It's poorly plotted and drawn, but the action sequences are okay. Still, I can't go any higher than one web.
In the letters page, editor Roger Stern reveals that Mark Gruenwald shares the fan community's concern that neither Magnus nor Jerry Hunt belong in the book's supporting cast, as they lead to stories that play up occult and espionage themes, which run against the grain of the lead character (who belongs in the sci-fi or the roman noir tradition, depending on whom you ask). Me, I don't care about the book's theme; what I care about are well-written and sympathetic characters, and neither Magnus nor Jerry fit that bill. Begone and good riddance.