Spider-Woman #34

Background

Spider-Woman is still bounty-hunting in L.A. with the help of her criminologist sidekick Scotty McDowell. But now that superior scribe Chris Claremont has taken over the writing duties for an extended run, we readers can expect some shake-ups to that status quo before too long. Perhaps even in this issue!

Story 'The Wildfire Express!'

  Spider-Woman #34
Summary: Hammer And Anvil, Mandroids
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Co-Plot/Pencils: Steve Leialoha
Writer: Chris Claremont
Inker: Al Milgrom, Bruce Patterson

Spider-Woman is gliding through the L.A. night when she encounters two costumed supervillains who are driving an expensive car off the road. “Way to go, Anvil,” says one. “Nothin’ like trashin’ a Rolls-Royce to make a man feel good!”

“Amen to that, brother Hammer. Amen to that!” says the other one.

Hammer and Anvil are two guys in colourful matching jumpsuits. Their most notable feature appears to be a supervillain homage to The Defiant Ones, with Anvil as Tony Curtis and Hammer as Sidney Poitier. Just as in the film, the two men are handcuffed to each other, with the intervening chain running about ten feet long. And it’s less of a chain than a flexible cable, rather like one of Doctor Octopus’ arms. They “trashed” the Rolls-Royce by standing on either side of the road and permitting the car to collide with their cable. The impact destroyed the automobile rather than the two men, which hints at just how tough they are.

Enter Spider-Woman, who glides in to deliver a fearsome two-fisted blow, with all her momentum behind it. Anvil is knocked over, but Hammer isn’t fazed; he’s proud to boast of the time he and his partner put a beat-down on the Hulk, which means Spider-Woman is punching someone in a higher weight class.

“When I hit Anvil,” Spider-Woman thinks, “it felt like running full-tilt into a brick wall! And as I pulled out my loop, my gliding ability suddenly vanished... What’s happening to me! Why have my powers become so weak, so undependable?”

Lost in introspection, Jessica is easy prey for the supervillains, who beat her to her knees with only two blows. Luckily for her, they are also easily distracted, and turn away from her to the occupants of the Rolls-Royce. “Let’s collect the Sheridan broads an’ make tracks outta here. This caper’s takin’ too long as it is.” Having regained tempo, Spider-Woman uses another weapon in her arsenal and blasts the pair with a full-strength venom blast. Unfortunately, this only slows the pair down, and it completely drains Spider-Woman’s energy reserves. Still it’s enough to cow the pair. Much as they would like to beat our heroine into submission, they stay on mission, grabbing one of the two women from the car and flying off with her on a hovercraft. (The sort of hovercraft that actually flies, not just floating a few feet off the ground on a blast of air. It’s comics, remember.) Jessica is too drained to give chase.

While Jessica privately ponders her mysteriously fluctuating powers, she takes the time to escort the other woman - the one that Hammer and Anvil didn’t kidnap - back home. The omniscient caption box tells us this woman is Samantha Sheridan, the granddaughter of Amanda, who founded Sheridan Industries. Samantha plays the exposition card: it seems that an outfit called the Deterrence Research Corporation (DRC) was behind the attack, which they mounted in order to prevent any interference by the founder in their imminent takeover of Sheridan Industries. That should really be enough, but Chris Claremont loves his continuity, so we readers are also informed that DRC was also complicit in the murder of Samantha’s parents and siblings... and that there’s no doubt that DRC was behind this attack as well, as John Anvil carelessly dropped his DRC photo identification card at the kidnapping scene.

There’s a Spider-Man connection here, as Spidey and the Punisher teamed up to take out the DRC’s murder operation - a foreign-based camp where they engaged in research on human subjects - in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4. The leader of that camp later turned up in Luke Cage, Power Man Annual #1, also scripted by Chris Claremont; I guess for a while in the late 1970s and early 1980s the DRC was like the Brand Corporation or Roxxon, a default ‘evil corporation’ for Marvel heroes to contend against.

Obviously, Granma Sheridan must be rescued! Samantha wants to “whistle up a crack commando team” to go after her, but Spider-Woman insists on going instead: not only is that option less likely to get the old woman killed, but it will also permit Spider-Woman to salve her wounded pride. What’s more, it’s a move that DRC won’t expect.

Cut to Jessica Drew working the phones. A phone call to Scotty nets Jess a dossier on DRC and her own ID card, duplicated off of Anvil’s. (It also allows us readers to learn that Jessica didn't just happen on the Sheridan kidnapping; Scotty tipped her off on it. No word on what bounty she expected to earn by breaking it up.) A second phone call to Lindsay McCabe gets Jessica a loan of some clothes and a promise of a lift to the DRC facility the following morning.

As she dresses for the mission, Jessica reflects on how much she likes the outfit Lindsay gave her. “It’s a bit more daring than I’m used to, but the overall look is very nice. I wish this [trip] was pleasure instead of business. I haven’t been out on a date - I haven’t been out to enjoy myself, period - in ages.”

The next step is to take her pheromone-dampening pills, but she pauses, contemplating the fact that, thanks to her spider-metabolism, she’s had to keep upping the dose to keep it from counteracting the effects of the drug. Her thinking leads to an epiphany: she started taking the drug around the same time her powers began to degrade. Roughly speaking, of course: for those keeping score at home, she began taking the drug in Spider-Woman #17, and her powers began to weaken in Spider-Woman #21. The only real connection between these events is the tumult in the writing staff: Marv Wolfman decreed that Jessica gave off bad vibes in his initial run. Those vibes were later retconned to a pheromone emission by Mark Gruenwald, who had Jess start taking medication for it in SW #17. Michael Fleisher reduced Jessica’s powers in SW #21 but didn't explain why (as was his wont). Now Chris Claremont solves that problem by linking it back to the medication. Here we are, more than thirty issues later, and we’re still paying off plot points introduced in the Wolfman era. Pays to keep on your toes.

Right after Lindsay drops Jess off at the DRC complex, she meets Ross Holden, director of personnel. Ross makes a pass at Jess in the third sentence he utters, and Jessica returns it, showing off her legs and letting Ross peep down her top. After a quick tour of the facility, Ross goes in for a full French kiss, which Jessica, startled, returns. As he leaves her to wait in his office while he attends a meeting, Jessica grimaces and attributes the man’s behaviour both to a sleazy personality and her own, now-unblocked pheromones. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair - as written, Jessica was certainly giving him the green light, which would be a third cause in the chain of events - but there’s no doubt Holden, as a job interviewer, was sexually harassing Jessica and abusing his authority. Unfortunately, neither Jessica nor the reader will ever see him again, so there’s no pay-off to this whole scene, other than a bit of grimy fan-service.

Finally alone, Jessica changes into lab-worker garb and, armed with Scotty’s forged ID card, ventures out into the facility, homing in on the building whose “ident code” was featured on Anvil’s ID. Entering, she’s accosted by a guard, and she explains that she’s “to check on Mrs. Sheridan...”

“The old lady in 18-west?”

“That’s the one.” Privately, Jessica exults: “My ploy worked! I let my voice trail off, and the man naturally finished my sentence for me”. A nice bit of detective work, which she follows up with some superhero action - blasting the guard with a venom bolt when he asks for authorization. Unfortunately, someone must have been monitoring the situation on the security network, because an alarm immediately goes off.

Jessica continues to make with the clever moves: to throw off pursuit, she summons a down elevator, but once inside breaks open the roof escape hatch and wall-crawls up the shaft, quick-changing into mufti as she goes. In a further nice touch, she reflects on the fact that the cover identity she used to enter DRC, ‘Ariadne Hyde’, was the same one she used back in Marvel Spotlight #32 as an agent of HYDRA. Investigating that trail should keep DRC very busy.

Reaching her floor, Spider-Woman uses her spider-strength to break open the elevator doors. There are guards, of course, but her speed and power allow her to make short work of them. “I haven’t felt this strong, this confident, in ages!” This newfound energy is good evidence that dropping her pheromone blockers was a good move on her part.

Reaching Granma Sheridan’s cell, she kicks in the door, only to find it empty. As she puzzles over this, Hammer and Anvil arrive. No doubt remembering how Spider-Woman sucker-punched them earlier, they pound her in the back of the head without warning. As she staggers, the two of them try to “crack the whip”, as they did before, but Spider-Woman isn’t about to fall prey to that tactic again. Ducking under the incoming Anvil, she gives him a blow with her spider-strength that smashes him right through the wall... and his own momentum pulls Hammer along. As Spider-Woman flees the scene, she thinks that, given the superpowers the two men possess, “an 18-story fall shouldn’t hurt them. Much.”

Accessing a DRC terminal, Spider-Woman looks for trouble spots in the complex. She finds two - one at her own location, the other elsewhere. Proceeding to that location, she’s attacked by a Mandroid, but before she can defend herself, it is itself defeated by a second one, piloted by - of all people - Granma Sheridan! “How did you escape from your cell?”

“The guards thought that, because I was a little ole lady, I was helpless. I wasn’t.”

All righty then. It’s a hanging lampshade, but the action is moving so fast I’m not going to complain.

Leaving the complex by a window, Spider-Woman wall-crawls down to the ground, Granma Sheridan under one arm. As per the caption box, “it takes no time at all for Spider-Woman to ‘hot-wire’ the ignition” of a nearby sports car, and the two zoom off, smash through the security gate, and burn rubber toward Los Angeles.

It only takes a few panels for a squad of flying Mandroids to catch up with the two fugitives. They try to blast the car, but Jessica is driving with “consummate skill, handling the sleek XKE [i.e., the car] as if it was an extension of her own body”. So the Mandroids speed ahead and destroy the road instead, forcing the car off the road and over a cliff. Thankfully the pair’s car is a convertible, permitting Jessica to glide out, with Granma Sheridan hitching a ride on her back.

“I can fly while carrying Amanda, but her weight cripples my maneuverability and speed,” thinks Spider-Woman. Under these conditions, she’s no match for the Mandroids, even assuming she could take one at the best of times; she’s well aware that Mandroid armour has gone toe-to-toe with Iron Man and the Hulk, and that consequently they may be out of her league.

The plot thickens! As mentioned earlier on Jessica and Lindsey’s drive to the DRC complex, there’s a brush fire raging in the hills, and it’s cutting off their retreat. That’s the hard place; coming up from behind is the rock, or rather the Anvil. (And Hammer.) They hurl a boulder at our heroine, injuring her and forcing her and Miz Sheridan to land. As they approach, eager to grind Spider-Woman into a pulp, she’s forced to think fast. She fires a few venom-bolts at the pair, which makes them “mad and careless”, just as she intended; and then she takes advantage of the opening to grab the chain connecting the pair. Her plan is to snap it, on the grounds that it must be the source of their power. After all, she reasons, if they didn’t need it, why use it? They’d be more effective without a tether.

She’s right about that. The two fill the chain with energy in an attempt to knock Spider-Woman out, but she’s made of stern stuff. Seeing no other choice, she fills the chain with her own bio-electricity, the source of her venom bolts. Her ploy works! The chain overloads and Hammer and Anvil lose their super-powers. The two normal men, now dazed and confused, are quickly subdued. As the Mandroids approach, Jessica and Miz Sheridan glide into the flames, trusting the updrafts to keep them safe. The Mandroids, unable to track them in the heat and fouled air, abandon the chase.

Cut to the board meeting at Sheridan Industries, where the final vote on the DRC takeover is about to proceed. Enter Spider-Woman and Gran, who arrive at the last possible moment to avert the deal! A DRC thug pulls a gun on the pair - I’m not sure what that was supposed to prove, I think a cold-blooded murder in a board room might have implications for any business the board was supposed to transact - but Spider-Woman uses the last of her juice to knock him out, saving the day. Exit Spider-Woman, with the gratitude of the Sheridan family.

The following day, Jessica and Lindsay relax on the beach, looking fetching in their bikinis, as they talk about Jessica’s failure to get a DRC job and her loss of Lindsay’s dress. Lindsay is unfazed: “Dresses I can replace. Best friends I can’t.” The two discuss their dinner plans for the evening and a surprise announcement that Lindsay intends to make, but their talk is interrupted by a strangely dressed man who’s arguing with the police. They ask for some ID, and he responds with a scream... and then “madness reigns on Malibu Beach!”

General Comments

After the overall crumminess of this book for the past 13 issues, #34 is a delight. It’s got a great cover that promises action and suspense; it’s got great art throughout; and above all, it’s got the superlative scripting of Chris Claremont. Claremont, of course, is best known for his legendary work on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, but this issue shows he can write great stories about non-mutants as well. There are more twists and turns in this one issue than in any issue of the Fleisher run, maybe as many as in the entire Fleisher run. The action starts with Jessica’s arrival at the DRC and doesn’t stop from then on, for a breathless fourteen pages. It’s wonderful.

What’s especially great is how competent Jessica is. I've observed before I enjoy reading about a Spider-Woman who seems to be good at her job, and this Spider-Woman is fantastic at it. She finds creative uses for her powers; she reasons out solutions to problems, and thanks to her thought balloons, we can follow the chain of her thought; and she comes up with clever tricks that don’t require super-powers at all, as shown throughout her search of the DRC complex. Claremont even finds a way to make Jessica’s return to competence into a plot point, by tying her overall lack-of-awesomeness to the pheromone blockers she began taking right before Michael Fleisher began writing the title... suggesting that Fleisher’s whole run was a pharmacological error. Delicious!

Another great thing that Claremont does is find time to show not just Spider-Woman, but Jessica Drew. Jessica thinks about her personal life and deplores the fact that she hasn't been out to enjoy herself in ages... not since Spider-Woman #19, in fact, and that only counts if you want to characterize a mercy visit to Mrs. Dolly in the hospital as enjoyable. The scene at the end of the book in which Jessica and Lindsay McCabe go sunbathing may have been thrown in as fan-service, but at least it passes the Bechdel test. So too, for that matter, do all the scenes with the Sheridan women. Good stuff!

A done-in-one story about a costumed adventurer who finds creative uses for her powers to solve mysteries, face down danger, and defeat evil-doers, without neglecting her personal life? It’s like a return to the Silver Age in the depths of the Bronze. What a triumph.

Overall Rating

The best issue of Spider-Woman since the classic Spider-Woman #18 (featuring the Waxman). It’s been a long dry spell, but more good ones are to come! Four webs.