Spider-Woman #31

Background

Last issue, Spider-Woman captured the third-rate supervillain the Fly and his sidekick scientist, Dr. Malus. Malus bargained for good treatment by offering to cure Scotty McDowell of the poisoning he suffered at the hands of the Enforcer back in Spider-Woman #27. Malus was as good as his word, but we readers have reason to suspect that Scotty isn’t as healthy as he seems.

Story 'Sting of the Hornet'

  Spider-Woman #31
Summary: Scotty Becomes The Hornet
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Writer: Michael Fleisher
Pencils: Steve Leialoha
Inker: Jim Mooney

In a full-page splash, a mystery man shoots Spider-Woman with a pink venom blast. No “zdak” sound effect is on offer, but “bzaaakt” is pretty close. As he fires, he monologues: “Ha ha ha haaaa [sic]! Your doom is at hand, Spider-Woman! For no living mortal can withstand the STING of the HORNET!” I’ll give that dialogue a pass because the page is so pretty, and because the dialogue anticipates Vincent Price’s bit from “Thriller”.

As Spider-Woman falls to her death, we follow her trajectory down into the bedroom of Scotty McDowell, who awakens suddenly from a nightmare. Nice use of panel layout, that. As Scotty comes to, his thoughts serve to establish the status quo for the readers, namely that’s he’s Spider-Woman’s brainy sidekick, and that secretly he’s in love with her even though she’s never given him any hint that she reciprocates.

Of course, Scotty’s never indicated his interest to her. In other circumstances, Scotty might decide that indicating his interest was the appropriate next step. But Scotty’s not himself these days. In a fit of irrational rage, he smacks his wheelchair, which flies across the room, knocking down a bookcase in the process.

Scotty stares at the smoking (!?) wheelchair, aghast at his unearthly strength. He’s distracted by a ringing telephone, and thinks “The doorbell! Now who on earth could that--?”

No, Scotty’s not confused, just the readers. That is his doorbell ringing, but unfortunately the “briing” sound effect appears immediately over his bedside telephone, so it’s natural for the readers to think the phone’s ringing. That’s why the thought balloon about the doorbell was added after the fact. Too bad it’s inked so heavily; Scotty sounds absolutely infuriated that anyone might dare to ring his bell.

Somehow righting the wheelchair, Scotty makes his way to the door, where a young man explains he was offered “an ounce of primo Jamaican to deliver this package”, but that he didn’t expect to deliver it to “the White Rock girl!” Scotty, angry at the courier’s insolence, grabs the package and slams the door.

Scotty doesn’t understand the White Rock reference, and until I googled it neither did I. It seems that White Rock is a regional soft drink in the American Midwest, and it features Psyche on its label; Psyche, of course, was a girl from Greek mythology who, according to White Rock, anyway, sported delicate insect wings on her back. And now Scotty does too: he’s somehow sprouted “hornet wings”!

Scotty’s legs are still paralyzed, but thanks to his wings, he can fly! This is exciting news. Quickly he dons the costume that was in the package and flies out into the night, exulting that he’s “through living in the Spider-Woman’s shadow! Through doing all the brainwork while she flies around in her sexy red costume and hogs all the glory...! Even Spider-Woman is just an empty-headed piece of fluff compared to the Hornet!”

The Hornet is Scotty, naturally - he’s adopted the name from his dream, as well as the costume. In other circumstances, a crack detective like he is might think it worrisome that his powers and costume were given to him by hidden people through hidden means for hidden purposes. But the release of his long-repressed, long-frustrated desire for Jessica seem to distract him from matters like that.

Speaking of Jessica, she’s in her Spider-Woman garb, trying to rescue a light propellor plane that’s lost engine power and threatening to crash into the downtown skyscrapers. Spider-Woman tries to intervene, but given that she can’t fly, but only glide, she’s got no leverage to help steer the plane. She drops back and tries to think of something else, but before she can, enter the Hornet. “...It’ll take more than a skin tight costume to fix this mess!” he announces. “It’ll take a man!”

Yup, Scotty’s frustrated desire is coming through loud and clear.

Thanks to his wings, the Hornet maneuvers the plane out over the shore, where it lands in the water, permitting the occupants to swim to safety. Exit the Hornet, to the crowd’s delight and Jessica’s bafflement. Who was that sexist masked man? Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that she didn’t recognize her partner in that costume.

Elsewhere, Dr. Malus sits in jail, listening to an account of the Hornet’s adventure on a large radio. Actually, it’s more like a hi-fi; Malus’ cell is pretty well furnished! He’s also got a TV, desk lamp, and what looks like a pin-up poster of an overweight man. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Malus exults in the success of his work, for - surprise, surprise - it was he that created the Hornet. It seems Malus didn’t so much cure Scotty of the Enforcer’s poison so much as he changed Scotty by injecting him “with a powerful transformer drug”, which he developed by studying superhumans. So why is Malus doing all this?

We’ll have to wait and see. It’s time to check in with Spider-Woman, who’s searching the city for the Hornet. Wait, doesn’t she have a bounty-hunting business? Maybe not. After all we haven’t seen her go after any quarry since issue #27. No, wait, I guess she does, because when she happens across a jewelry-store robbery in progress, she reflects that “there’s probably no reward out for them... but it’ll be good public relations if I nab them anyway!” That’s true, given that Jessica burned all of her goodwill with the people of L.A. by working as the Enforcer’s partner for the last three issues.

In a quick burst of action, Jessica takes out three of the thieves: two with socks to the jaw, one with a venom blast (“zdak!"), while also finding time to break one of their rifles over her knee.

The other two thugs don’t have rifles, they’ve got pistols, and they’ve produced them by now. Jessica doesn’t seem fazed, but we’ll never know how she would have dealt with them, because here comes the Hornet! And his desperate posturing comes through as loud as ever. “Looks like you could use a man around the house, eh, Spider-Woman? These mugs don’t need gentle coddling by a female! They need a real hero... who’s man enough to show them who’s boss!” All this while dealing out punches and kicks, plus throwing one head-first into a wall. And that hard enough to make the stones shatter! Shades of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Spider-Woman remonstrates with the Hornet to stop, given that the crooks are already well subdued, but the Hornet won’t have it.

“And now I’m going to show you a really phenomenal power I just discovered I have! See that scum climbing to his feet...? Well, what good would a Hornet be without his sting?”

Well, a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for? The sting-blast misses the robber and hits the jewelry-store manager. “You may have just killed an innocent bystander!” snaps Spider-Woman. “Yeah? Tough...! He shouldn’t have been standing so close to the action!”

Question for debate: has Malus’ process not only given Scotty powers, but also turned him into a jerk? Or is his fundamental jerkiness simply asserting itself now that he’s no longer weak? I vote the latter.

Spider-Woman is disgusted with the Hornet, whom she describes in inner monologue as “insane with vengeance and hatred”, but she doesn’t have time to deal with him, as she’s got to get the stricken manager to a hospital. It’s a good choice with unfortunate consequences, as Scotty’s id continues to run rampant. Furiously angry that Spider-Woman tried to “hold [him] back with her bleeding-heart morality”, Scotty asserts himself, Ubermensch-style, by attacking the passersby: throwing signs, smashing cars, using his sting on cops.

This is what Malus was waiting for, it seems. He calls the Police Commissioner to his cell and offers a bargain: Malus will use his expertise in “supranormal abilities” to “bring this villain to justice”, in return for leniency in the Human Fly affair. The Commissioner accepts Malus’ offer, and paroles him to the custody of two officers. I’m guessing that the Commissioner, who fails to recognize the similarities between the Hornet and the Fly, didn’t get his job by working his way up the ranks from detective.

Spider-Woman, having gotten the fallen manager some medical help, returns to deal with the Hornet, who’s just finished tossing a city bus into a storefront. Attacking without warning - good for her! - she blasts the Hornet (“zdak!”) and follows it up with several solid punches. Unfortunately, she’s unable to subdue the Hornet, because Malus, who has just arrived on the scene, fires into the melee with a funky tranquilizer ray-gun, and wouldn’t you know, he hits Spider-Woman rather than the Hornet.

Of course, we readers know from Malus’ interior monologue that his shooting Spider-Woman was deliberate.

Spider-Woman quickly recovers, thanks to her spider-metabolism, but too late: he’s gone! And so has Malus! Man, those are some ineffectual cops he had escorting him. As it happens, both fugitives have returned, independently, to Scotty’s apartment, where a battered Hornet receives Malus’ offer “to help you achieve total mastery over the Spider-Woman that I know you so fervently desire!” And what does Malus want in return? We’ll find out next time!

General Comments

There’s a lot of holes here, for sure. To pick only one, the story depends on the idea that Malus has the wherewithal to make a fancy, custom-fit costume; find an ounce of “primo Jamaican”; and find a courier to accept the latter to deliver the former to Scotty. Also that he knows Scotty well enough to anticipate what actions he will take, and for what reasons, while empowered as the Hornet. And he can do all this and know all this even though he only met Scotty once and has been locked away in prison ever since that time.

But why go on? We know plotting isn’t Fleisher’s strong suit. I’m more interested in the character arc we have on display here, namely that Scotty is a creep, whose creepiness has been restrained up to this point by his disability. Given a taste of physical power, he immediately uses it to sexually harass his partner, as well as abuse anyone who gets in his way. We’ll see if this insight is sustained over future issues, or whether it’s just written off as a side-effect of Malus’ treatment.

Overall Rating

The treatment of Scotty is interesting enough to elevate what would otherwise be yet another exercise in poor plotting. Two webs.

Footnote

I’m heartened by the letter column this month, which contains reader feedback on the execrable Spider-Woman #26, i.e., The One Where Rupert M. Dockery Hires the Grinder to Fight Spider-Woman. A sample of reader reaction follows:

  • “I hereby give up on SPIDER-WOMAN...”
  • “The Grinder was such a stupid character that his ludicrous costume still didn't make him laughable. This book is dull and going downhill.”
  • “If this level of incompetence continues, so much for this series!”
  • “I feel that Spider-Woman, after one of your best origins, has been a complete failure. Complete.”

Editor Denny O’Neil, to his credit, doesn’t try to evade responsibility. “If you weren’t entertained, we blew it. It’s no secret that the web lady’s career has been choppy. She’s been handled by three writers, five pencillers, and four editors, and these gentlemen didn’t always agree on who she is... When I came to Marvel six months ago, Jim Shooter thrust a pile of SPIDER-WOMAN back issues at me and said, ‘Do something with her’. We’re trying. Hard.”

O’Neil’s analysis of the problem is mostly correct. With so many writers and editors having a hand in the development of the book - and it’s actually four writers, if you count Spider-Woman’s creator, Archie Goodwin - it’s no surprise that Spider-Woman has been inconsistent in plot and tone throughout its run to date (indeed, it would remain so for the entirety of the book’s run). I’d add, though, that the problem is less that so many creators have had a hand in the book; it’s more that so few of them have been good, or given it their best effort. Marv Wolfman was, at this time, a writer of limited gifts who was already spreading himself quite thin, while Michael Fleisher just couldn’t write comics well at all. At this point in the book’s run, only when Mark Gruenwald was at the helm did the book shine, and as it was his first time writing an ongoing comics series, his work suffered from rookie mistakes. Really, it’s amazing that the book did as well as it did.