The evil Dr. Malus, in the pretense of curing Scotty McDowell from poison, has gifted him with the superhuman powers of a hornet: super-strength, flight, and a venom blast (the ‘hornet’s sting’, natch). Scotty, suddenly in receipt of these powers but not knowing their source, used them to become the Hornet, a costumed adventurer with a penchant for casual violence and for sexually harrassing Spider-Woman. Our heroine tried to subdue him, but was felled when Dr. Malus, released from jail on condition that he apprehend the Hornet, ‘accidentally’ shot her with a stun-ray. Spider-Woman recovered quickly, presumably thanks to her spider-metabolism, but by then the Hornet was gone, fled back to Scotty McDowell’s apartment... where Malus, having escaped his guards, was waiting for him.
We open with a two-and-a-half page recap of last issue’s events, told just as if they were happening in the present. I’m grateful that these days we get all of that out of the way with a single-issue recap page; we’re 10% of the way through the book and nothing new has happened yet.
Finally, in the middle of page 3, we can get going. As an exhausted Hornet wonders what Malus is doing in Scotty’s apartment, the good doctor confesses all: he himself caused Scotty’s transformation into the superhuman Hornet, while also bringing forth “certain hostilities that normally remain repressed”. Last time I wondered if Scotty’s loutish behaviour as the Hornet was caused by his transformation, or whether his transformation allowed him to reveal his previously-concealed loutishness. Seems like it was the latter. Good to know that Scotty’s creator, writer Michael Fleisher, is aware that his creation is in fact a jerk; we readers figured that out some time ago.
Malus, who thinks events have shown a single dose of hornet-juice didn’t give Scotty enough mojo, administers a booster shot to Scotty, who’s too weary and surprised to react. As one might suspect, the larger dose will give Scotty even more power than before. “Unfortunately,” Malus adds, “it will destabilize your personality, making you even more erratic and mentally unstable than you have already become”. Huh. I guess that means Fleisher isn’t aware that Scotty is a jerk. Instead, he thinks it’s all the drug’s fault. Sigh.
Scotty is down with the plan of ‘annihilating’ Spider-Woman, to use Malus’ word. Using his “untraceable phone line”, he calls Jessica at home. What do you suppose she’s doing? If you guessed ‘just getting out of the shower’, give yourself a cigar, although - to my surprise, at least - it’s inked in shades of pale blue, royal blue, purple, and black, which is hardly conducive to titillation. Maybe the colorist, credited only as “Gaff”, didn’t get the memo that these panels were supposed to provide fan-service.
Speaking of silly errors in this scene, I feel compelled to point out that, as per Spider-Woman #21, Scotty doesn't need an untraceable phone line to call Spider-Woman. If he wants to talk to her, he can just roll down the hallway and knock on her front door, because the pair are next-door neighbours. I guess Fleisher forgot this detail, understandably, as it hasn't come up for ten issues.
And while we're on the subject, why does it matter that the line is untraceable? If Jessica did trace Scotty's call, she'd find it came from Scotty's apartment. So what?
Scotty tells Jessica that while she was “playing tag” with the Hornet, he “was doing the real work”, and has gotten a “hot tip” that the Hornet will be in Long Beach later tonight. “A short time later”, according to the caption box, the two meet again, in costume, above the beach. “You look real sexy when you’re angry, dollface!” says the Hornet. “But that ain’t gonna help keep you from being thrashed by the Hornet!”
Spider-Woman doesn’t reply. Instead, she does a complicated aerial manuver that’s pretty hard to follow on a static, two-dimensional comic panel, especially one that’s six inches long but only one inch wide. Even the Hornet is confused: “What th-!?” Then Spider-Woman blasts him at point-blank range in the back with her venom blast. “Zdak!”
“Ha ha ha! Do that again! I like being tickled!” boasts the Hornet, who retaliates with one of his own, pink blasts. Jessica is equally unfazed.
Having gotten their tricks out of the way, a straightforward physical brawl ensues, which lasts for only one page, brought to a premature end when, in classic comics fashion, the hero (Spider-Woman, of course) has to protect some civilians from being struck by masonry dislodged by the fight. By the time she’s finished, the Hornet has disappeared, just like last issue.
Back at Scotty’s apartment, Scotty peels off his Hornet mask and exults in his accomplishments. “Ha ha haaaaa [sic]! You should’ve seen what I done to her!”
Malus, who watched the whole thing by telescope, is unimpressed. “Despite all I’ve done for you, the Spider-Woman very nearly defeated you again!”
“What!? Defeat me?! Defeat the Hornet?! Ha haaa! Don’t be ridiculous! No one can defeat the Hornet!”
“It’s as I feared...” Malus thinks. “He’s becoming erratic, unstable, losing touch with reality more and more with every passing minute!” I’ll say. In that last fight, which he entered for the purpose of ‘annihilating’ Spider-Woman, he showed up, threw a few punches, and then flew away, even though it was clear he was about to win. He’s lost touch with reality to such an extent that he doesn’t remember what his own goals are.
Malus isn’t much better. His interior monologue continues: “...I wouldn’t give a fig about his sanity, if only he could destroy the Spider-Woman for me! But he can’t!” This is a good point to stop and remind ourselves about Malus’ true motives, which are... what? When we first met him in Spider-Woman #30, Malus was trying to help Richard ‘the Fly’ Deacon retain his superhuman powers. When Spider-Woman captured Deacon, Malus bargained his way out of trouble by promising to help Scotty, but that was a ruse: he only helped Scotty in order to turn him into the Hornet, so that he, Malus, could earn his parole by promising to subdue the Hornet. Having broken that parole last issue, we readers might have expected him to disappear, but instead he’s trying to use the Hornet to destroy Spider-Woman. But why?
Let’s say ‘revenge’ and keep going. Malus is determined to get the Hornet some assistance, because the Hornet is too erratic, too hard to control, to be an effective tool. So Malus turns to... Jack ‘the Werewolf by Night’ Russell?
Uh-huh. Because werewolves are so well known for their cool and rational natures.
Malus makes contact with Russell over the phone, and offers him some ‘counselling’ sessions that Russell had previously requested. As the Foundation building is unavailable on account of Malus being a fugitive from justice (though Malus doesn’t mention that), Malus smoothly directs Russell to meet him at his auxiliary laboratory.
So Malus used to maintain a reputable front, complete with a foundation and an office. Good to know, or it would be, if Malus was actually going to appear in this title after this issue. SPOILER ALERT: he won’t.
Not long after Malus has departed to meet Russell, Jessica drops by to check on Scotty, who’s just waking up from a nap. There are several signs that all is not well: he calls Jessica “web-doll”, smashes his books to the floor, and says cryptic things like “I can’t wait to buzz out of this pad and fly into action! Like that Hornet character! I know so much about him that I almost feel like I am him!”
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right?” asks Jessica.
“Ha haaaa! Sure! I’m fine! Fine but buggy!”
Jessica fails to pick up on the significance of this loaded dialogue, instead attributing it to post-traumatic stress from his recent poisoning. Off she flies to the police department, to see if they have any leads on the Hornet. If you were hoping for a cameo by Captain Walsh, I’m afraid you’re out of luck; instead, we cut to Malus’ auxiliary lab, where Malus is tricking Jack Russell into wearing an electronic collar that he promises will allow Russell to control his lycanthropic transformations.
“ I sure hope it works, Doctor!” says Russell. “You don’t know what a pain it is to have to lock myself up in a cage three days every month!” Huh. You’d think he was describing a trivial annoyance, like having to pay his rent to the landlord in person, not a terrible curse that transforms him into a bloodthirsty monster. I guess you can get used to anything.
At least I hope he’s used to it, because he’s just been tricked. “Yes, Mr. Russell,” says Malus, "this device isn’t a simple regulator at all, but an electromagnetic apparatus that will give me complete control” over both of Russell’s forms, a control that Malus tests by having Russell transform into his bestial form and then transforming back to his human self. Malus takes it one step further by driving the pair of them to “the main outdoor promenade of the Los Angeles Centre for the Performing Arts”, having Russell transform back into a wolf, and then ordering him to destroy “a magnificent marble structure... a costly work of art currently on loan for the season’s operatic openings!”
I’m not sure what this sequence proves, other than that Malus is a vandal and a risk-taker. Why conduct such a public test, especially when Malus is already a wanted criminal? Beats me.
Back at Scotty’s apartment, Spider-Woman returns to find a note that says “Spider-Woman, if you ever want to see your gimpy little lover-boy alive again, you’d better meet me on Metro-Movies Lot ‘C’ as fast as you can fly there! And you’d better come alone! [signed] The Hornet”. Jessica, knowing she’s about to enter a trap, sees no alternative to springing it.
Cut to Lot C, which is dressed up for a Western. Did they still make those in 1980? I thought not, but no time to wonder about that: the trap is sprung. A voice over a loudspeaker, which we readers can infer belongs to Malus, informs Spider-Woman that nothing is left of Scotty but his wheelchair, which a shadowed figure pushes off of a balcony. It falls, breaking into a heap, illustrating Malus’ point. Spider-Woman flies up to confront that figure, who springs into the bright spotlights. Spider-Woman recognizes him immediately: “It’s Jack Russell! The Werewolf! And judging from the sound of that growl, he’s got blood on his mind! My blood!”
Er, who are you talking to, Jess? And should you be talking so much in the middle of a fight? Eh, that’s comics.
“Jack! It’s me! The Spider-Woman! What’s the matter with you? We’re friends, don’t you remem--” Jack, fully bestial, doesn’t reply, just tries to grab her. Incidentally, editor Denny O’Neil falls down on the job here: inquiring minds might want to know that Spider-Woman and the Werewolf by Night became friends in Spider-Woman #19, and that they met for the first time (though Jack doesn’t remember this) in Spider-Woman #6.
Spider-Woman correctly deduces that, since Jack has none of his faculties and yet this is not the night of the full moon, Malus must be controlling Jack somehow. “But that little tidbit of deductive reasoning won’t do me a lot of good if the werewolf succeeds in tearing my throat open!” Luckily, by Jessica’s reckoning, “he’s strong, but I’m stronger!”
Jessica proceeds to give Jack a thorough pounding. Wak! Zok! Thak! It’s an effective sequence, especially as it’s delivered without any dialogue. But for all of Jessica’s work, Jack takes the lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. Jessica knows that “the smart thing to do” would be to use her venom blast, but she prefers to keep it in reserve for “the real culprit”. Right on cue, enter the Hornet, who almost tags Jessica with his own energy blast. He’s also demented, babbling to himself: “ha haaaa! The Hornet! The Hornet! Here comes the Hornet!”
Jess, again using her tactical smarts, takes to the skies, since the Werewolf can’t fly. Unfortunately, he can jump, and pretty far too. Fortunately, Spider-Woman is able to “apply a little leverage” and maneuvers herself such that, just as the Werewolf grabs her legs, the Hornet attacks (“here comes the Hornet a second time! Whoopee!") and zaps the Werewolf with his hornet’s sting.
The Werewolf is down, but only momentarily; Jessica can tell that the blast had very little power to it. Sure enough, the Hornet is getting weaker even as he gets crazier, zipping around in the air, reciting nursery rhymes in his head, abandoning the fight completely. This frees Jessica to beat up the Werewolf some more, to the point where she’s able to break the collar controlling his mind. Quickly recovering from Malus’ control, Jack tracks Malus down and smacks him around: the last we see of Malus is Jack throwing him into the saloon mirror, shattering it into smithereens.
Elsewhere, the Hornet is faring no better. It takes Jessica only one page to find him, smack him around, and unload a venom blast on him that knocks him out cold. Jessica quickly unmasks him and is shocked to discover that the Hornet is, in fact, her partner Scotty.
“Five days later”, according to the caption box, Scotty wakes up in a hospital bed, and Spider-Woman is there to greet him. Malus is back in jail now, and the doctors say that with a few days of bed rest, Malus’ drugs will be out of Scotty’s system. So too will his Hornet powers, but at least he’ll be sane again. No mention of the Enforcer’s drugs that caused Scotty to take Malus’ treatment in the first place, so I guess that’s all right then.
The next issue box intimates that Michael Fleisher’s run on the title is now finished. “Marvel’s most misunderstood heroine goes to San Francisco... to an adventure neither she nor you may ever forget! It’s greatness, gang! (Well would you believe goodness?)”
You know things are bad when even the book’s editor can’t find the strength to hype it. Of course, that editor knows that next issue will feature the premiere of Turner D. Century, truly one of Marvel’s most ludicrous villains. Goodness doesn’t begin to cover it.
Compared to the rest of Michael Fleisher’s run on this title, this issue has some high points. If we accept Malus’ unexplained motive for annihilating Spider-Woman, his plan to take her out with the help of some unreliable tools isn’t bad. More to the point, Jessica’s savvy and fighting ability is well displayed in the second half of the issue, when she manages to take out both the Werewolf and the Hornet all at once. There’s even a hint of character development for Scotty, whose antics as the Hornet illustrate not only that Scotty isn’t such an admirable character, but also - which is more important - that the creative team may know it too.
Still, this isn’t anything one can objectively describe as ‘good’. Two webs.
With this issue, we say farewell to Michael Fleisher, whose run on the title ends here. A review of Fleisher’s run reveals few positives. His debut in Spider-Woman #21 was decent, establishing a new premise and status quo for Spider-Woman as a bounty hunter, a superhero who fights crime and villainy for a paycheque. Unfortunately this premise was never really exploited. It was explicitly ignored in Fleisher’s second issue (Spider-Woman #22) when Jessica went up against the Clown. After that point, the last time we see Jessica go after crooks for a bounty is in Spider-Woman #24 when she takes down the Zoot Suit McCandless Gang. From that point on, i.e., four issues into Fleisher’s tenure, her status as a bounty hunter is only raised in order to explain why she’s not hunting bounties. It’s not a good sign when a book’s bold new direction is something you have to explain away, rather than something that’s actually driving the story forward.
Fleisher did introduce a new supporting cast, but not much of one, namely Captain Walsh and Scotty McDowell. There’s little to be said for Walsh, a stereotypical gruff-talking tough cop. But Scotty had potential. As I noted when he was introduced, Scotty was ahead of his time: he was Oracle avant la lettre, a paraplegic computer whiz who teamed up with a superhero to fight crime. Better still, the locus of his character was neither his computer skill nor his disability, but rather his unrequited attraction for Jessica, and his tendency to manipulate others into getting his own way. This is a character that could have been the basis of great stories.
Unfortunately, that potential never paid off. During the Gamesman arc, Fleisher used Scotty only as a jealous foil to Tim Braverman; during the Enforcer arc, he was a comatose hostage; and during the Hornet arc, he was a crazed villain. There were hints in the latter that a taste of power had brought out Scotty’s ugly side, which would have been an interesting foundation for future stories, had Fleisher been clear with the readers, or perhaps with himself, about what kind of story he was telling; but sadly this very issue, #32, suggests that he didn’t, with the blame for Scotty’s behaviour placed squarely on the Hornet formula.
Beyond this, there’s little good to say about Fleisher’s run. During his tenure Jessica’s interior life - her fears, aspirations, and even motivations - dropped away, leaving her a cipher, who spent her time out of costume painting her apartment or, worse, just coming out of the shower, in order to give the readers (presumed to be male and hetero) a cheap thrill. What elements of Jessica’s status quo that remained after the bounty-hunter reboot were used only sparingly: Lindsay McCabe turned up in one issue and was name-checked in another, while Jack Russell turned up only once, and his previous relationship to Jessica was immaterial to that appearance. Spider-Man turned up as much as both of them put together, and while he had appeared previously, it was pretty clearly an attempt to draw existing Spider-Man readers into buying Spider-Woman’s book.
Worst of all, the book’s story often failed to cohere, as Fleisher would throw together a few strong scenes with only a token effort made to string them together. But I’ve harped enough about that in the individual reviews.
Leaving Spider-Woman wasn’t the end of Michael Fleisher’s comics career; he would keep at it for another decade or so, albeit without doing much work of note, or so it seems to me. Then he left comics to become a professional anthropologist, work he’s still engaged in today, or so sayeth Wikipedia. I hope he’s found his calling, because writing Spider-Woman sure wasn’t it.