Spider-Woman #33

Background

With former writer Michael Fleisher’s departure from Spider-Woman, we have a fill-in episode written by the usually-capable J.M. deMatteis. As this is a stand-alone issue, all we need to know is that Spider-Woman is a bounty hunter, based in Los Angeles, who captures criminals with the help of her computer-whiz sidekick, Scotty McDowell.

Story 'Yesterday's Villain'

  Spider-Woman #33
Summary: Turner D. Century
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Pencils: Steve Leialoha
Inker: Bruce Patterson

Spider-Woman is gliding back to Scotty’s place, tired after a long night of crime-busting, when she observes a protest below. It seems that a gang of sign-wielding activists is annoyed with their elected representative to the City Council, who campaigned on a platform of historical preservation, but once in office headed up the committee to tear down the “Hotel Anastasia” and replace it with a shopping centre. The gang is so upset, they’ve come to their counselor's home and are pelting it with garbage. When the counselor comes out onto his balcony to explain that there’s nothing he can do, one of the protesters hits him in the face with a rock, and, with a “WONNKK!”, he falls over the rail.

Enter Spider-Woman, who swoops down and plucks him out of the air, bringing him to rest on a gabled rooftop. The counselor is remarkably unfazed by the blow to his face. Seriously, that rock was the size of a baseball, and it struck him right in the left cheek! He seems more concerned with explaining to Spider-Woman that tearing down the hotel is the right thing to do.

Spider-Woman, disgusted, glides away, thinking nasty thoughts about politicians. Like the counselor, she’s surprisingly uninterested in the protesters she’s leaving behind, even though she just saw them try to injure someone they disagreed with, almost committing manslaughter in the process. Whatever; all that matters is that this issue set up its theme of ‘progress versus memory’. How we get there isn't important, I guess.

Sigh - I thought we were leaving bad plotting behind, but deMatteis is keeping the streak alive, so far.

At Scotty’s place, Jessica alights at his open window, surprising Scotty in the act of checking out this month’s Playboy centrefold. Jessica pretends to notice as Scotty stashes his skin mag, and the two discuss Jessica’s work of the night before. Seems she caught “the Siciliano Brothers” and delivered them to Captain Walsh, who in turn is going to leave the $10,000 in reward money in “the usual place”. But enough with the verisimilitude, if that’s the word I want (seriously, just leaving cash out in the open? Even Fleisher bothered to make it clear Jessica takes wire transfers), let’s move onto this issue’s villain!

Enter Turner D. Century, a San Francisco vigilante. It seems he’s been cleaning up petty crime in that city while giving speeches about restoring the decency of the olden days. Too bad he didn't leave it at that; since then, he’s been travelling around on his flying bicycle, using his pyro-umbrella to burn down “bars, discos, rock clubs -- any place that didn't live up to his ‘pure’ standards. Thirty kids have died so far!”

Yes, that’s right, flying bicycle and pyro-umbrella. Did I mention that it’s a tandem bicycle, with the back seat occupied by a mannequin wearing 1890s women’s garb? And that Century himself sports a straw boater’s hat and waxed handlebar mustaches?

The gold medal for 'Worst Supervillain in Spider-Woman volume 1’ went to the Grinder back in Spider-Woman #26. Here’s the silver medal finalist: Turner D. Century.

Jessica is reluctant to pursue Century, on the grounds that she and Scotty have been through a lot lately. Since this is a fill-in issue, aimed to fit into anywhere in Fleisher’s run, deMatteis doesn't specify what that ‘a lot’ is, but Jessica’s crime spree with the Enforcer and Scotty’s transformation into the Hornet certainly qualifies. Scotty won’t hear it, and guilt-trips Jessica into going. Annoyed, Jessica grits her teeth and departs for San Francisco.

In a nice big panel, we see Jessica playing tourist - cable cars, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf - before settling into a bar to relax. The bartender - a woman - tries to pick Jessica up, but before matters can develop, Turner D. Century bursts in through the picture window. “I’ve come to smash the gods of decadence you worship and purge the sin from your souls!” He proceeds to bust up the bar’s mirror and set the place aflame, all thanks to his pyro-umbrella. Jessica uses the smoke screen to change into mufti. A quick right cross and a venom blast (“zakt!”) takes Century out, and Jessica is free to save the bar’s patrons, which she achieves in an appropriately superheroic way: she rips up the actual bar, all twenty feet of burning wood, and uses it to smash open the front entrance, allowing the people trapped inside to flee. Too bad that Century escapes while she’s doing this.

Certainly that’s how Scotty feels. Later that night he calls her up at her hotel to bust her chops. “You almost had our man and then you let him get away! How could you do that?”

Jessica responds with righteous indignation, annoyed that Scotty is berating her for choosing to save lives rather than apprehend her quarry, and hangs up on the twit. Good for her! Although it would be more satisfying if she hadn't been equally annoyed with him for waking her up with his phone call... and if she hadn't been topless while she spoke to him. It’s a Comics-Code-approved book, so there’s no full frontal, but there’s enough cheesecake here that it undermines the point of the scene. It’s hard to root for Jessica’s moral principles when she’s so obviously providing (male, hetero) fan service.

Cut to the next night, when Jessica is patrolling San Francisco’s adult-entertainment district: peep shows, X-rated cinemas, etc. Jessica is mulling whether this sort of thing is an expression of degeneracy or of normal human appetites, but she doesn't get to finish her thought: as Scotty anticipated (and informed Jess by phone message), Century appears to burn the whole thing down.

While doing this, Century also gives a long-winded speech about shame, sin, female clothing and agency, etc. It’s all very tedious, especially because it’s so predictable. There’s only one line worth quoting: “Can’t you [i.e., the sex-show consumers] find happiness in a Sunday picnic or a friendly game of touch football on the front lawn?” I guess they can’t.

In a series of sparsely-drawn panels, Spider-Woman and Turner D. Century battle across a pale-blue panel devoid of background detail. In yet more tedious predictability, Century finds he’s outmatched, and knocks some children off of a fire escape. While Jessica acts to save them, Century flees, stopping only to give a flower to an old woman looking out a window.

When Scotty hears about this, he loses his cool again, shouting at Jessica over the phone lines. Credit where it’s due: this page is well-rendered, with a curly phone cord serving as the panel border. And the coloring of Scotty’s panels, which begin in dark blue and increase in temperature to magenta, reflects the rising emotional heat of the scene. Jessica defends herself with reference to the lives she’s saved, but Scotty counters with the jejune comeback that by permitting Century to escape, she’s become responsible for the murders he commits in future. It’s lousy moral philosophy but an effective guilt trip, and it leaves Jessica speechless. Having won the argument, Scotty tells Jessica to get over to Oakland the following day, find Century when he strikes there, and capture him.

It’s a painful fall off of that high horse. After a day of fruitless, but relaxing, loitering in Oakland, Jessica returns to her hotel to find that Century attacked Chinatown instead, hurling both racist and nativist epithets, as well as a napalm bomb concealed in the head of the mannequin sitting on his tandem bike. Sorry, deMatteis, but I can’t take the horrific nature of this crime as seriously as you clearly want me to, not when the weapon of choice is a bomb in a mannequin head mounted on a tandem bike... I mean, the Joker he ain’t.

Jessica’s angry, but Scotty is so abject and apologetic that Jess lets it go. Scotty, chastened, tips his hand: he’s found out that all of the sites Century has attacked were the former property of a Howard-Hughes-style multi-millionaire named Morgan Hardy. Hardy, sickened by what he perceived as the moral decay of the city, sold off his property and became a recluse in his Marin estate. The only problem with this theory is that Hardy is at least 90 years old, and Century is clearly a young man. Still, it’s a lead worth checking out, and off Spider-Woman glides to Marin.

The Hardy mansion is shabby and unoccupied, though the grounds are well-kept and the fence is electrified. Curious, Spider-Woman walks in the front door and explores the house. Following the faint sound of music, Spider-Woman visits the basement, which is gigantic: it’s a vast open space, filled with a theme park along the lines of Disneyland’s Main Street USA. That is, it’s a replica of San Francisco circa the 1890s, with a trolley, a bandstand, and a series of two-storey buildings, each with a veranda.

Spider-Woman is impressed, but not distracted. Quickly spotting Century on the bandstand, she approaches. He’s apoplectic - “you’ll ruin my speech!” he shouts - but before he can get his battle on, he’s cowed by the arrival of Morgan Hardy. Hardy, the aristocrat, won’t hear why Spider-Woman has come until he speaks his piece. It seems that, as a boy, he’d been orphaned by the 1906 San Francisco fire. Growing up, he’d become a wealthy inventor, and had watched, appalled, as the city he loved “became infected with the noxious disease called change”. Accordingly, Hardy took his toys and went home, building the perfect world in his basement, and raising another orphan boy, the son of his chauffeur, in that world, a place dedicated to old-time decency.

Spider-Woman, who is finally permitted to talk, tries to explain to Hardy why she’s come, but Century interrupts her with a tackle. As the two battle, Century monologues that he wanted to live out Hardy’s plan of exemplifying the value of old-time decency as a costumed crusader, but he realized the task was too big, and that the only thing to do was to burn out crime and degeneracy, much as the 1906 fire did.

Hardy is horrified and Century, in the face of that horror, is contrite, both so much so that they fail to notice that Century’s pyro-umbrella has ignited the whole basement, and, as per Jessica, “the whole place is going to blow!”. I’m not sure why, unless Hardy has built the theme park out of explosives, but oh well. Jessica, unable to reach the two men, flees for the front door. Meanwhile, Hardy has a revelation: “I did this to [Century]... made him a wax distortion of a man...” while Century says “I’m staying with you, Morgan -- I love you too much to let you die alone!”

Naturally, Jessica escapes just as the whole place explodes in a “Ba-Ba-Bloom!”

Our omniscient narrator takes us home thusly: “Too many thoughts assail the arachnid as nightwinds carry her aloft: thoughts of an idealist who raised a madman, and a madman who sacrificed himself for love... thoughts of Scotty’s rage and bitter tears, of her own frustration and guilt... there is surely a lesson to be gleaned from all this, and someday, the Spider-Woman will puzzle it out... someday... but not tonight.”

General Comments

You know what? I don’t think there is a lesson here. Sorry, J.M.

I can see that there was supposed to be one. Superhero comics, especially in the late Silver and Bronze Ages, often reduced ideas to a caricatures. Once dressed up in silly costumes, those caricatures went out to fight allegorical battles with the superheroes. And that’s what’s on offer here: Turner D. Century is what curdled nostalgia looks like in a Bronze Age story. I think DeMatteis’ point is supposed to be that reactionary affection for the past has some good points - witness Century’s politeness to the old woman, and his affection for Hardy, even unto death - but those are sparks of light in a very dark room, a room filled with intolerance, bigotry, sexism, and a casual disregard for other people’s welfare. None of which is to say that emancipated modernity is all good, which is the point, I think, of the prologue, in which fine old architecture is being cleared away for the benefit of a crass and unremarkable shopping mall. All the same, emancipated modernity’s good points outweigh the bad, and the only way you’d think otherwise is if you live in a dream world, where you only remember the parts of the past that you liked... a dream world signified by the life-sized diorama in Hardy’s basement.

There’s several problems with this story. The first is that the plot and subplot don’t mesh: the final panel suggests that there’s a link between this account of why nostalgia is a trap and Scotty McDowell’s jerky behaviour. But there isn't any such link: sure, Scotty is a sexually-frustrated creep (seriously, Scotty? Looking at softcore porn while you’re waiting for your female partner to show up?) and he channels that frustration into his work, a zeal which leads him to lose perspective and treat people badly. But that has nothing to do with the past vs. present conflict the main story is telling.

The second problem, of course, is that Turner D. Century is ridiculous.

As a character he’s absurd. Those clothes! Those gadgets! His name! He works as camp, but that’s it. He might just work as an allegory, except the equation he represents is mucked up by his dialogue. All of his talk about worship, sin, and purging souls is fine talk for a zealot, but not this kind of zealot: Century isn't a fanatic, he’s a reactionary. His concern is not (or shouldn't be) how modern-day San Franciscans have offended an angry God, but how they've abandoned the good old ways for bad new ones. Introducing religion into the mix just confuses matters, and Turner D. Century doesn't have enough credibility to bridge that confusion.

The final indictment is how formulaic all the story is. The duplicitous politician; the fight that Spider-Woman is going to win, until the villain menaces some bystanders to facilitate an escape; the gratuitous explosion of the villain's hidden lair that ties up all the loose ends; we've seen all this before, in Spider-Woman and elsewhere. The only redeeming feature is Century choosing to sacrifice himself so that his adopted father won’t die alone. It’s a small touch, but having a villain die nobly is still a nice one. DeMatteis could have had Century vanish into the flames and seem to die that way, but I like the fact that the writer made a different choice.

Overall Rating

Century’s final moments, and Scotty making a mistake at his crime analysis and being confounded by it, are the only redeeming features of this issue. One-and-a-half webs. Thanks for coming out, deMatteis: thankfully you’d write much better stories than these in the decades to come.

Not in Spider-Woman, though. Our new steady writer is Chris Claremont. Will he bring the same quality to this title as he brought to X-Men during the period? Keep tuning in to find out!

Footnote

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