Jessica "Spider-Woman" Drew's life has taken new direction lately. Magnus and Jerry are pursuing their own interests, which has left her on her own in Los Angeles. She's taken this opportunity to develop some interests of her own: she's taken a job as receptionist at the Hatros Clinic, she's gone into group therapy, and she's embraced her Spider-Woman persona, having accepted that the role of costumed adventurer gives her life something it needs.
Lately she threw her lot in with the Shroud, a fellow superhero, to break up a dangerous murder cult. But while the cult is gone, the cult leader - Nekra, a mutant supervillain who feeds on pain - is still active. Nekra knows who Spider-Woman is, and has plans for her...
Jessica arrives for work an hour late. This is what happens when you stay up to all hours smashing murder gangs. She made up for lost time by gliding across town in her Spider-Woman garb. Hiding her costume in her purse, she reflects on how compactly the uniform folds. This is a classic Gruenwald touch, an oblique explanation of why a necessary superhero trope – the costume quick-change – is perfectly realistic and reasonable.
Now in civilian garb, Jessica enters the clinic, where she's greeted by one of the doctors. Is she in trouble for showing up late? Quite the contrary: the doctor has relieved her of her receptionist duties so that she can assist him with an experiment. The clinic staff were intrigued by the fact that her fellow patients in group therapy disliked her, for no obvious reason. They have a hypothesis, and a few hours of testing confirms it: the "bad vibes" Jessica emits, which have bedeviled her for her entire adult life (since Spider-Woman #1, in fact), are chemical in nature. One of Jessica's less obvious spider-powers - so subtle that even Jessica was not aware of it - is the emission of pheromones, enzymes that induce emotional reactions in people. These pheromones are sex-based, which means that most women find her presence distasteful, while men either find her alluring or alarming. And now that the doctors know what the situation is, they can fix it, by prescribing a pheromone-blocking drug. Jessica's bad vibes will trouble her no more.
This is Gruenwald taking his taste for continuity to a whole new level, by coming up with a clever and imaginative solution to a problem weighing the book down, and doing so without offending continuity. Originally, of course, when Archie Goodwin created Spider-Woman, the bad vibes she spread were metaphysical, an unconscious reaction in regular humans prompted by the fact that though Jessica seemed human, she was actually a spider evolved into a human form. When Marv Wolfman took the character over, he didn't like the she's-really-a-spider angle, but he did like the bad vibes, because the only characters he knew how to write were ones alienated from the society they fight to protect. So Jessica continued to make people uncomfortable, despite the fact there was no real reason for her to do so, a fact Wolfman accounted for with some handwaves towards her dark fate, or something. Gruenwald, who can write circles around Wolfman, recognizes that warmed-over angst in the Peter Parker or X-Men vein, without any explanation, is tiresome. So he produces Jessica's pheromone problem, and a drug to make it go away. Nice and neat, Mr. Gruenwald.
After a brief interlude, in which Jerry Hunt fills in his superiors – and readers fresh to the story - on the events of last issue (and, not incidentally, demonstrates that for all of Jessica's attempts to preserve his own dignity by rescuing him anonymously, he knows exactly who saved him), we return to Jessica, who has arrived at her boss' house for a Hatros Clinic staff party. She's surprised to find the house – a stately mansion, far from town – empty of guests. The only person on hand is her employer, Adrienne Hatros, "but you may call me NEKRA!"
Nektra is dressed in skimpy black lingerie and a red cape. This sexy garb will serve her well at holding the reader's attention for several pages of dry exposition (if we assume the reader is a hetero boy). One of Gruenwald's strengths as a writer of comics is his love for continuity, but it can be a weakness too, as it is in this sequence, where he has Nekra reminisce for pages about every appearance she's ever made in a Marvel comic. Long story short, Nekra thrives on hate, the emotion which is the source of her powers. Normally unable to feel any other emotions, she has in the past been compelled to feel them, which has sapped her supernatural strength. Nekra wants to be sure that, from now on, she will always and only feel hate, and so took over the Hatros Clinic to study the nature of human emotions. That acquisition has now paid off, because her study of Jessica's pheromones has allowed her to develop a drug that will suppress Nekra's own emotional responses. With that suppression complete, Jessica is now superfluous, and Nekra intends to remove her erstwhile pawn from play.
What follows is a knock-down, drag-out battle. Seven pages long, it eclipses the dry exposition that preceded it. Nekra and Jessica rampage through the house, pummelling each other fiercely. Jessica is desperate, but unable to hurt her foe: the more Jessica fights, the angrier Nekra becomes, and her anger makes her stronger and tougher. Ultimately, Jessica wins by outlasting Nekra, matching her blow for blow, hate for hate, until Nekra's suppression-drug wears off, and Jessica's pheromones deprive Nekra of the hate that gives her power. As Gruenwald presents it, though, this is a hollow victory, a triumph achieved only by Jessica lowering herself to Nekra's own level.
And Gruenwald isn't done yet. The following evening, as Jessica recuperates at home, Jerry Hunt pays her a surprise visit. Seems he's been re-assigned to London, and he wants Jessica to come with him. Jessica doesn't want to go; she's too invested in the new life she's built for herself. Jerry isn't fazed by this.
"I'm going to miss you, Jessie. We had some good times... I'm not really one for long goodbyes."
And that is that. Out he goes to his car and drives off, out of Jessica's life and out of this title; for good, as it happens. This is Gruenwald's final touch, and a deft one it is. It turns out he's not using the pheromones retcon merely to explain Jessica's bad vibes, but also her relationship with Jerry. There's no ethereal connection between their souls, as Wolfman had insinuated: it was just Jessica's pheromones, bewitching him all along.
"That was easier than I thought it would be, somehow," he muses. "When I saw her again," in a state where she no longer emits any mind-clouding enzymes, "all the feelings I felt for her seemed like distant memories."
But it's not just the pheromones at work here. "If only she'd have owned up to rescuing me from the assassins the other night. No, I guess I really didn't want to hear her say it." The pheromones brought them together, but fundamentally they're different people, both too strong to tolerate leaning on another.
As his car disappears, Jessica watches from her window, tears in her eyes.
As I said, the best and worst of Gruenwald is on display here: a strong story, burdened by too much exposition; an emphasis on continuity that makes things plausible while slowing the story down; two pages of interminable recapping followed by seven pages of gripping superhero action. Yes, there are some weak points, but the strong points outweigh them, especially the pheromone retcon's one-two punch that disposes of both the bad-vibe curse and Jerry Hunt. In a subtle, uncontrived, and emotionally affecting way, Gruenwald removes two liabilities from the title while making us feel real emotion at Jessica's loss.
Bravo, Gruenwald. Bravo.
Superlative stuff. Half a web is docked for the Nekra flashback sequence, but still, this is far better than regular readers of Spider-Woman have a right to expect.