Spider-Woman #18

Background

Writer Mark Gruenwald has retconned Jessica's bad vibes from a metaphysical problem to a chemical one: it seems Jessica, thanks to her spider heritage, emits pheromones that provoke negative emotional reactions. This is a problem that modern pharmaceuticals can remedy! Jessica's doctor has given her a pheromone-blocking drug, and Jessica agreed to test it in a "vigourous social situation," i.e., her local disco. There, she picked up a hustler who has driven her to the local make-out spot. She's not in the mood, though, and has just asked to be driven home. Bad timing, Jess: your date's face has just begun to melt!

Story 'Sins of The Flesh'

As Jessica's date, Eric, turns his face away, Jessica asks him what's wrong. "It's happening!" he thinks. "I'm losing control over myself! But it's not time yet – she's not ready for it!"

Hmm. When will it be time? And time for what?

We won't find out just yet, because Eric isn't sticking around to explain. Instead he's bolting from the car and running off into the woods. Jessica, who didn't see his melting face, thinks she understands why: the obvious explanation for this bizarre behaviour is that her pheromones have filled him with revulsion and disgust, and have propelled him out of the car. While Jess didn't want to make out with Eric, she didn't want to part from him this way. If he got hurt while running in the dark, she'd feel responsible. Annoyed with the whole situation, Jess leaves the car and ventures after him, into the dark woods.

Eric is in the shadows, desperately smoothing his face into something that approximates normal. "What's wrong with me?" he thinks. "My face usually holds longer than that – it's only been three hours since I put this one on!" Hmm. If this was a decade later, I'd think Jessica was dating Darkman. But as this is 1979, there must be another explanation. "Maybe I got myself too worked up over Jessica." He takes a rest to "cool down," presumably because there are no cold showers in the woods.

Ahem. Jessica arrives on the scene, and Eric, whose face now looks normal, apologizes for running away. "I guess I just can't face rejection."

Jessica is underwhelmed. "This guy is not what I call well-adjusted," she thinks. But she can relate to what he presents as his problem: that the opposite sex avoids him for no good reason. Pouring his heart out, "Eric talks on and on... until, finally..." Until finally what? Until he wears down Jessica's good sense, I guess, because in the next panel his lips are almost brushing hers. "A person just needs to be held once in a while," he breathes.

"I know," she whispers.

Caption box, take it away!

"Just as Jessica decides there's no harm in a friendly kiss, Eric's face erupts, spilling his liquid flesh like wax from a candle..." Meanwhile, Eric is thinking "I can't hold it, anymore!" and Jessica's gasping "eh- eh- ehrigk!"

Yes, it's hard to talk when your face is covered in goopy slime, or as the caption box puts it, in "warm, wet worms."

Hmm. So a nice girl makes out with a boy she doesn't know, and before she knows what's happening, she ends up with her face covered in an eruption of his warm slime.

I'll leave working out the subtext here as an exercise for the reader. For the moment, anyway.

In a frenzy of disgust, Jessica runs into the woods, away from Eric, and uses her venom-blasts to cleanse herself, burning off the liquid flesh that drenched her, leaving a "bubbling pink mass" on the forest floor. I guess that solves the mystery of what the girl from last issue tripped over. Hiding in the woods, Jess changes into her Spider-Woman costume, which soothes her nerves. "What just happened to me... has to be the most repulsive thing I've ever experienced," she thinks, but her superhero garb bolsters her courage. She watches Eric search the woods for her, and when he gives up, she follows him back to his car.

Now, feeling more like her old self, she tries to flag the car down. "I'm not going to let him get away with what he did to me." Or maybe she will, because Eric doesn't stop, and only the Spider-Woman's enhanced reflexes allow her to get out of the way. Clinging to the roof of his car, she bides her time, intending to engage him when the vehicle stops.

Unfortunately, he drives back to the disco parking lot, which is too crowded for a confrontation. Taking to the rooftops, she waits him out. It doesn't take long before he returns to his car with a new young lady on his arm. He's no longer blond, though, but brunet. As the car drives away, Jessica shadows it from the air, musing that Eric must be able to change his own appearance. And why not? I don't know enough about face-melting to say it couldn't be so.

The car ends up at someone's house, maybe hers, maybe his. As they go inside and close the blinds, Jess begins to feel self-conscious. She waits on the roof for ten minutes, and hears nothing. Deciding she can't invade the couple's privacy, she flies away, reasoning that if something was going to happen, she'd know about it by now. Perhaps, she wonders, she hallucinated the whole episode in the woods.

No, I think Jess can be fairly sure she didn't. Her civilian clothes are still stained with Eric's... er... fluids, right? As Jessica arrives home, she's finally honest with herself about her motives. "The real reason I left is that I actually don't want to face him again if I don't have to." She tries to sleep, but can't, plagued by a creepily-drawn nightmare of "Eric's sticky embrace – smothering her, enveloping her, absorbing her..."

Too distraught to sleep, she flies back to the house, where – of course – she finds paramedics carrying away a body on a stretcher. From hiding, she eavesdrops as the dead girl's roommate explains to the police how she came home to find her friend lying on the couch, smothered to death, covered with... something that the girl can't bring herself to describe.

Jessica is furious with herself. "It's my fault that woman was killed. If I had stayed I could have stopped Eric. But I didn't, because I was afraid... I'm going to find you, you slime-sucker, and I'm going to make you pay!"

So where Spider-Man didn't stop the burglar, Spider-Woman didn't stop the intimate assault. It's resonant, but not slavishly imitative. And it sets up what is to come: a montage of her hitting disco after disco, night after night, looking for the man with the face of wax. "No matter what he looks like, she will know him."

And know him she does, when she finds him, five nights later, looking like the Fonz, of all people. Well, maybe that's not so surprising. Happy Days was in the middle of its run in 1979, and Grease came out the year before. In any case, Jessica is certain that "Bill" is the man she's looking for, even if, oddly, Bill doesn't seem to recognize her. Jessica offers to take him back to her place. In a nice nod to continuity (Gruenwald's trademark) Jess takes him to the currently-empty Dolly house, where she can confront Eric without putting anyone else at risk. Leaving him to "slip into something more comfortable", i.e., her Spider-Woman costume, Jessica nips out the window and through the front door, boldly confronting Eric and accusing him of murder.

The accusation prompts a moment of expository reminiscence from Eric, which we can pass over quickly. Scientist, skin-disease research, tests his formula on himself, skin-melting powers, pros include imitating others, cons include skin smothering the people that he embraces. In a nice bit of characterization, he pretends to himself that it's his skin that kills people, not him.

Determined to escape, Eric runs upstairs and hides beneath a blanket. Even Jessica is embarrassed at such a juvenile trick. Actually, it's better than it seems: under the blanket he's taken own Jessica's own likeness, in an attempt to fool Spider-Woman into thinking he's just an innocent bystander. Jessica isn't taken in, of course, but is momentarily fascinated by meeting her own self. Now Eric really slips up. He tries to take advantage of her distraction by drowning her in a spray of his fluid, but this prompts an instinctual venom-blast that kills him, scattering his flesh all around the room, leaving only a skeleton behind. (What, no organs?)

Jessica is too numb and revolted to stick around. She flies off into the night, leaving behind a pool of goopy flesh... a pool that slowly begins to coagulate together.

Is this really... the End?

General Comments

Yes, it is. We'll never see Eric of the Melting Face again in this book.

But damn, once was enough.

This book has played around with sexual tensions and sexual fears in the past, typically through Wolfman's covert fascination with bondage scenarios. But this is a completely different card from the deck. What do we have here?

Unease about meeting other people; talking to them without seeming needy or stupid; wanting things from them; worrying about what they might want from you; making oneself so vulnerable to a stranger; feeling like one doesn't have other choices.

Unease about how, when boys get excited, their bodies can behave in ways they can't control, in ways that even seem like the work of an outside force.

And, most of all, unease about how if a girl gets too close to a boy, the boy might lose control and spray the girl with warm, sticky fluids.

Most comics written for boys are too scared to venture into this territory. They content themselves with pushing buttons related to power and dominance. They want to make boys feel safe and secure. Not this one. I'm not even sure who is audience is, because the story is pressing all kinds of buttons. It's about how intimate encounters between girls and boys can end up with boys being embarrassed, but girls suffering worse fates.

I wonder what Gruenwald was riffing on. I think it was around this time that the sexual revolution brought about by the widespread availability of birth-control pills was being squashed by the spread of herpes, and the fear of same. Perhaps he's giving a superhero take on Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Or maybe there was no period-specific trigger, and it was just general psycho-sexual unease about puberty, etc. that Gruenwald wanted to explore.

It doesn't matter. This story is raw, and it's fearless enough to venture into territory that still feels taboo thirty years later.

Overall Rating

The first volume of Spider-Woman was mostly a dud, but it had its moments. Two, in fact, and this story is one of them. It's a must-read for any fan of the character, and worth reading today for anyone interested in what superhero comics can do when they aren't pandering to the boys. Five webs.

Footnote

It's rich territory. Let's try the captions discussing Eric's death from Spider-Woman's venom blast. Eric's tried to "drench" her with "liquid flesh," but she zaps him,

"exploding the obscene mass of flesh around her into a shower of globules, the splattering rivulets striking their master like scalding water. Almost a minute passes before she can bring herself to open her eyes. What she sees nauseates her."

Yes, Eric's own emission is what kills him. And seeing that emission, and its results, nauseates our heroine.

Forget zombies and werewolves. This is the real face of horror right here.