Spider-Woman #36

Background

Now that Chris Claremont is writing this title, the status quo is in flux and hasn't settled down yet. For the moment, the changes are these: Spider-Woman has dissolved her partnership with Scotty McDowell and given up her bounty-hunting gig. She’s also given up Los Angeles, and is moving to San Francisco to be roommates with her best friend (well, only friend) Lindsay McCabe.

Story 'The Wanderer!'

  Spider-Woman #36
Summary: Spider-Woman shot

The story opens in the pre-dawn, somewhere along the California coast. As per last issue, Lindsay and Jessica are driving up to San Francisco, but they haven’t gotten there yet. They've broken up their journey with an overnight stay at a roadside inn, and Jessica has slipped out of her room in the pre-dawn blackness to do some joy-gliding. Apparently the wind currents above the surf are well suited for it, and Jessica is taking advantage of the opportunity.

As she floats along the beach, she sees a meteor pass by. It’s so large that the shockwave of its passing knocks Spider-Woman right out of the sky and into the surf, where she remains as the sun slowly rises.

Eventually, she is washed up ashore, having avoided drowning somehow. Perhaps that’s another spider-power of hers, but if so it’s one that passes unremarked in the text. Having become conscious again, Jessica sneaks back into her motel room by spider-climbing through the window, just in time to intercept a knock at her door from Lindsay. Jessica begs off Lindsay’s offer of an early-morning jog. Only after Lindsay has departed does Jessica realize that while she’d removed her Spider-Woman gloves and cowl, and concealed her costume under her robe, her boots were in plain view. Did Lindsay see them, or recognize them? Neither Jessica nor the reader is sure.

Later, the pair continues their drive along Highway 1. They had expected to make Frisco by nightfall, but their progress is slowed by a sudden fogbank; a mysteriously thick and unmoving one. Before Lindsay can adjust her speed properly, a pedestrian appears on the road ahead! “Using every skill taught her by an old boyfriend who happened to be one of the best stunt drivers in Hollywood,” Lindsay manages to avoid striking the figure, but in the process smashes through the guardrail separating the road from the cliff’s edge, leaving the car teetering on the brink of a long, long fall.

While this would be a nerve-wracking experience for a normal person, it’s an easy fix for the Spider-Woman. After considering how lucky she was to be wearing her seatbelt - yes, kids, wearing your seatbelt was uncommon in 1981 - Jessica uses her wall-crawling abilities to climb out of the car (it’s a convertible) and make her way through the back seat, over the trunk, and onto the blacktop, where she uses her spider-strength to wrench the car back onto the road. Thankfully (?) Lindsay is unconscious from the impact of the collision, and Jessica doesn't have to make any lame excuses about adrenaline. When Jessica rouses her, the two go to investigate the cause of the collision. This being a comic book, we don’t stop to wonder about concussions, shock, post-traumatic stress, or any of that. Comic-book people are sturdier than we are.

Well, not all comic-book people. The figure in the road lies on the ground, dead. It wasn't the impact of the car that killed him; in fact, Lindsay didn't’t hit him at all. He died from a gunshot wound.

Nor is that his only notable feature. He’s also boasting a set of facet eyes, rather like those of the Hornet or the Human Fly.

Looks like Jessica’s got another mystery on her hands!

Our intrepid pair of erstwhile sleuths only has time to make the obvious link between the mysterious, alien-looking stranger and the mysterious object blazing in the sky this morning before the sheriff and his deputy arrive. We readers are aware they the cops know all about the stranger and his gunshot wound, but Jessica and Lindsay aren't, which is why they’re so surprised when the sheriff, brandishing his sidearm, arrests the two on a charge of vehicular homicide. Carted off to jail in the space of a single panel, Lindsay and Jessica wait helplessly in a cell until dinner time, at which point they are given a tasty diner-cooked meal. Sadly for them, the meal is drugged with a sedative, knocking them both out.

Or one of them out, anyway. The drug in the food is a common one, and Jessica’s been exposed to it before, which means her spider-metabolism is immune to it. Still, she feigns unconsciousness, which allows her to listen in on her foes’ plans. It seems that the sheriff, and his wife the mayor, intend to prevent there being any record of Lindsay and Jess ever having been in the town of Point Wrath. Therefore, our two protagonists are going to be bundled back in their car and knocked over the edge of the road, where they already broke the guard rail.

It’s a solid plan. But, for whatever reason, the villains don’t want to execute it yet. Accordingly, Lindsay and Jess are left alone in their cells while the sheriff and the mayor go off to undertake more dirty work.

Just as before, a situation that would confound a normal person is no match for a woman with spider-powers. It’s trivially simple for Jessica to snap the cell-door lock with her bare hands, use her wall-climbing to retrieve her handbag from under the nose of a deputy, and climb out the skylight. “The sheriff searched our bags when he arrested us,” thinks Jessica, “but he missed my Spider-Woman costume in its secret compartment!” I’m guessing he didn't search very thoroughly, Jessica; that costume is bulky. But if the Flash can get his whole rig into the setting of a signet ring, I guess I won’t quibble over this.

Because of the fog, the mayor is driving slowly. Interestingly, even though it’s a police vehicle and her husband is in uniform, she still takes the wheel. It’s a hint as to the power dynamic in this town, and their marriage, I suppose. Anyway, Jessica is able to glide right up to the car and cling to the roof, allowing her to eavesdrop on the conversation within.

The conversation is revealing. The pair are villains, but not cartoonish ones: they honestly regret having to kill Jessica and Lindsay, just as they regret having murdered the strange man on the road. But the killings are, in their eyes, necessary to “save” the town of Port Wrath from economic ruin. Three lives are an acceptable price to pay, it seems, though a seething Jessica, eavesdropping from above, notes how easy it is for them to sacrifice others for their own happiness.

Unbeknownst to all of them, other forces are in motion. Jessica has already noted uneasily how uncannily the fog is behaving: she’s able to glide thanks to the ample winds, which means the fogbank enveloping the town should have long since dispersed. But it has not. Elsewhere, an unseen figure is using the fog to its advantage. It confronted, and killed, the mechanic that was bringing Lindsay’s car back into town; and even as Jessica is in pursuit of the mayor, that figure has broken into the town morgue. Discovering the corpse of the facet-eyed stranger, it wails in grief, and slays the two deputies who come to investigate. Finally, it confronts a now-roused Lindsay in her cell, who screams in terror before the story cuts away from her.

We cut to the Mayor, who’s arrived at her home, a family estate in the hills. She and her husband descend to a gigantic wine cellar, with Jessica trailing discreetly. In the cellar, the town doctor and his assistants are examining their captive, whose value exceeds the risk of imprisoning him. “He’s money in the bank,” exults the mayor, even as her husband grumbles about how the other captive was strong enough to escape the house and flee for miles, even with a bullet in him.

This conversation is interrupted by a phone call for the sheriff, who’s just gotten word that his station is trashed, his deputies are dead, and Lindsay McCabe has disappeared. That call should really tell him that “Lindsay McCabe and Jessica Drew” have disappeared; writer Chris Claremont is letting the readers know that Lindsay has left the cell, but forgotten that while the readers know Jessica is also not there anymore, the Sheriff doesn't. Oops. The sheriff leaves quickly to investigate, but doesn't get far: Spider-Woman ambushes him on the stairs. She tries to interrogate him, but he won’t talk, so he gets a quick venom blast for a takedown, and then Spider-Woman springs into action.

In the airy space of the wine cellar, she can glide, kick, punch, and venom-blast without restriction. It’s simple for her to subdue the remaining deputies and the scientists… but not the Mayor, who shoots Spider-Woman in the back. Down goes Jessica with a punctured lung.

But the fight’s not over! Bursting through the wall is a horrible monster, one that looks sort of like Stegron the Dinosaur Man, but green rather than orange. This, we readers understand, is the same creature that slew the mechanic, destroyed the police station, and made Lindsay disappear.

Jessica, who’s admirably quick-witted for someone with a punctured lung and a bullet hole in her back, notes that the captive the mayor and her cohort were examining is alien; while he superficially resembles a human child, he has facet eyes, just like the dead man from the coast road. The mayor, not wanting her meal ticket to be lost, snatches up the child and makes a run for it, but Jessica tags her with a venom bolt and she falls, freeing her captive.

Meanwhile, Not-Stegron is massacring the resident scientists and deputies. Jessica, a true hero, doesn't hesitate, and steps forward to save the people who kidnapped her friend, were preparing to kill her, and have indeed dealt her a terrible, perhaps mortal wound. She engages Not-Stegron in two full pages of confusing, poorly-penciled battle, and despite her injuries, triumphs over her foe. She does this, if you’re curious, by drawing him in, then shooting him in the eyes with a venom blast. While he staggers, she clobbers his head with a chunk of granite. While flailing around, Not-Stegron delivers his own coup de grace by knocking down a section of roof, which collapses and buries him in rubble.

With the monster defeated, Jessica’s adrenaline wears off, and she collapses, unable to breathe any more, much less move. “I’m dying. My new life is over before it’s even begun. What a surprise. What a joke. I don’t fear death. I've always accepted it as a reality of my life as a pawn of HYDRA then as a free agent. But i never expected the reaper to claim me so soon. I suppose no one does. Oh, Lindsay -- I wish you were here. I don’t want to die alone!”

This is a moving piece of internal monologue, and had it been delivered in its own panel, it might have been effective. But as it is, it shares a panel with a scene of more facet-eyed aliens burning a tunnel into the room, which captures the eye far more than Jessica’s acceptance of her own mortality. When the alien creatures enter, they use their rifles to stun Jessica, and presumably the other occupants, into unconsciousness. This also might have been suspenseful, had it not happened in the middle of the page; the very next panel, in plain view, shows Jessica waking up and being greeted by Lindsay.

It seems the pair are being held by aliens named the Tsyrani, who have taken the trouble to heal Jessica’s wounds (by way of a stint in a “regeneration chamber”, rather like Luke in the first act of The Empire Strikes Back), as well as swapping out her costume, and Lindsay’s clothes, for some tight-fitting jumpsuits. Interestingly, Lindsay’s features a slashing neckline, showing off her cleavage; neither Jessica’s nor any of the Tsyrani’s outfits has such a feature. That’s show biz, I guess. Or perhaps I should say that’s the male gaze.

Anyway, after surreptitiously changing her own hairstyle from Spider-Woman’s to Jessica’s, our heroine accompanies Lindsay to a trial, or as the pompous Tsyrani call it, the Hour of Judgment. The trial is held in a room aboard the Tsyrani mothership that looks just like any alien room ever seen on the original series of Star Trek. Lindsay explains that a Tsyrani scout ship crashed on earth, stranding a Tsyrani man, his son, and the son’s pet. The townsfolk of Point Wrath took the former two prisoner, in an effort to turn the advent of alien life on Earth into financial gain. When the man escaped, they shot him, but he lasted long enough to make it to the highway, where he perished. To conceal their activities, the townsfolk arrested Jessica and Lindsay and intended to make them disappear, but before they could do that, the marauding pet, searching for its family, got in the way. Thanks to Spider-Woman’s intervention, the pet was restrained - it’s still alive, and now reunited with its family - and the child kept safe. Accordingly, Jessica and Lindsay are free to go, but the other townsfolk will be punished “to the full extent of Tsyrani law”.

Jessica doesn't think that’s fair, even though she doesn't know what the proposed sentence is, but she’s too weak to intercede. When she asks Lindsay to do it on her behalf, Lindsay, not knowing what else to do, busts out Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy from The Merchant of Venice. The Tsyrani are moved: “to us, you are savages. In our grief, our rage, we nearly descended to your level, but your words, Lindsay, reminded us of our heritage.”

Huh. The Tsyrani have mastered spaceflight, but not comparative anthropology. “Savages”? “Your level?” Even in 1981, educated people would have been embarrassed to use language like that to describe other human cultures, let alone alien ones.

Ah well. What matters is, the aliens decide to forgive the townsfolk and release them, albeit with their (the townsfolk’s) memories of the Tsyrani - and of Lindsay and Jessica - erased. After a quick goodbye, the humans are all transported back to Point Wrath, their descent hidden by the artificial fogbank the Tsyrani created to cloak their presence. As the befuddled mayor and company revive, Lindsay and Jessica make quick farewells to them. “We’re just passing through, actually. Heading north. Be seeing you.”

General Comments

Chris Claremont knows how to write pulp adventure. No matter what your taste, this story presses the button. If you like mysteries and suspense, you’ve got the dead man on the road and the sheriff’s office covering it up. If you like horror, it’s got a nice build of impending doom with the mysterious fog and the stalking monster in it. If you like sci-fi, you’ve got the alien Tsyrani and their mother ship. And if you like superhero action, you’ve got Spider-Woman using her powers and crimefighting skills against the corrupt sheriff’s department, and Not-Stegron the Dinosaur Man, to boot.

On top of all that, we’ve got the secret-identity-in-peril business twice, as Jessica’s boots, and, later, her hairdo threaten to give away her secret. Claremont even works in some social critique befitting the early Reagan era, noting that the townsfolk’s villainy is motivated by the fact that they’re teetering on the brink of economic collapse, and the first casualty of their stretched financial circumstances is compassion for the plight of others.

Like a pro, Claremont keeps the story moving fast; like a shark, a pulp adventure has to keep moving forward quickly or it dies. The quick pace means that some questions prompted by the plot aren’t answered, but we readers can answer them ourselves, I suppose. It’s strange that the alien pet wasn’t with its masters, the Tsyrani man and his son, when they were captured by the Sheriff and his men, but if it later caught the man’s trail, it’s reasonable to suppose it would follow it to the car, and then to the morgue. From there, it could use its alien senses to pursue the younger Tsyrani, leading it to the confrontation in the wine cellar. It would have been nice for this to be spelled out, but I guess pacing didn’t permit for that.

That same pacing means that parts of the story that could have used some space to breathe - like Jessica’s putative death scene, or the Tsyrani’s trial - disappear in the rush. I guess we’re supposed to presume that the Tsyrani meant to execute the humans who imprisoned the scouts? It’s never stated, but I guess Jessica’s strong reaction to the Tsyrani’s proposed sentence implies it. I’m glad the townsfolk weren’t killed, but isn’t there a middle ground between execution and pardon? The Tsyrani seem a little softer on crime than I would be, in their position. I guess leaving the townsfolk to suffer the consequences of economic collapse - another implied, not explicitly stated, outcome - is enough justice.

Too bad the story ended when it did. Lindsay and Jessica mean to continue their journey to San Francisco, but they’ve got a totalled car, and the town’s mechanic was killed by a monster. So how are they going to get out of town? Plus they’ve lost their civilian clothes and are wearing Tsyrani jumpsuits. Those are going to attract attention, I think.

Hey, did Jessica get her costume back from the Tsyrani? If so, where is it? The last we saw of the Spider-Woman outfit, Jessica was wearing it when the Tsyrani knocked her out.

And while I’m thinking of it: the town mechanic is dead, killed brutally by Not-Stegron. So too are most of the sheriff’s deputies. The police station is trashed, as is part of the mayor’s home. And nobody remembers this, nor how or why it happened. I hope Jess and Lindsay move on quickly or their odd appearance, coupled with the strange events in town, is going to get them into as much trouble as they were in before.

Overall Rating

The fast pace undermines the story sometimes, as does the less-than-stellar pencils on the latter half of the book. But it’s a good pulp adventure that moves fast and doesn’t wear out its welcome. Three webs.