Spider-Woman #38

Background

Last issue Spider-Woman interrupted the criminal trio of Black Tom Cassidy, Siryn, and the Juggernaut robbing the San Francisco Mint. For all of her skills, Jessica was no match for the Juggernaut, who easily knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, a squadron of police had arrived, and arrested her for the crime.

Story 'Criminal at Large!'

  Spider-Woman #38
Summary: Spider-Woman Captured, Fights X-Men
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Writer: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Steve Leialoha
Inker: Bob Wiacek

We open in a fashion that must have been quite remarkable to readers in 1981: with comics panels drawn as if they’re images on a TV screen, and caption boxes that aren’t the voice of an omniscient narrator, but that of a TV newscaster. The newscaster provides an unobtrusive recap of the publicly-known events of last issue, one that’s cut off as Spider-Woman - identified as a “Los Angeles bounty hunter” - uses her unearthly strength and agility to escape from the grip of the police officer holding her; shatter the handcuffs on her wrists; and fly into the night sky. The cops raise their sidearms to fire at her departing form, but their commanding officer says “You know the rules. If you miss, your spent shells could hit an innocent civilian when they fall back to earth. Let her go.”

It’s up to us readers to decide if the officers’ restraint is sincere, or just for the benefit of the cameras.

Now two pages in, the caption boxes switch to reflect Jessica’s own internal monologue, which is standard today but was quite unusual in 1981; it wasn’t until Frank Miller used this technique in The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that it became the norm. (The same might be said for the ‘panels as screens of a TV newscast’ bit that opened the issue.) As Jessica flies away from the police, she monologues internally on the other events of last issue, all of which we readers see in flashback. These are helpfully coloured in shades of blue, to distinguish them from the present, which is in full colour; nice to see the comics taking advantage of the fact that they’re a visual medium.

A page later, the display technique changes again, as the page splits in half. On the left, Jessica’s internal monologue returns to the traditional thought balloon, and we have panels that show her returning to her new home, changing back into street clothes, and rejoining the housewarming party still in progress. These panels are still in full colour. On the right, we have shades-of-blue panels, but these aren’t flashbacks: they’re surveillance footage taken by an unknown source. These panels have their own caption boxes, coloured yellow, which provide a conversation among several people commenting on the footage. This transition to a new technique, with panel design, caption boxes, and use of colour abruptly being used in a different way, has obvious potential to confuse, which is why there’s yet another caption box, this one representing Jessica’s own thoughts again, but coloured pink - that sets up that Jessica is being observed, “though I didn’t know it then”.

This is clumsily handled, but I give writer Chris Claremont and editor Denny O’Neil props for trying to innovate their storytelling.

Back at the party, Jessica reassures a worried Lindsay McCabe and David Ishima with a lame story about taking a walk to soothe her headache. I guess David accepts this, because while it looks to us readers like they’re just having a friendly conversation, Lindsay departs thinking “Young lust. Ain’t it wonderful!” She goes to the door to let some newcomers in: Ororo, Warren Worthington, and Peter Rasputin. (Yes, unlike the men, Ororo introduces herself by her first name only. She also wears a sable-fur coat and Cossack hat combined with Sun-Ra-style sunglasses. That’s style, baby.) Peter’s introduction clues us readers in that these are the same folks who were spying on Spider-Woman earlier, as that name was also used in that conversation.

While Warren gladhandles at the party - apparently the excuse for their gatecrashing is that he’s on the board of directors of the theatre where Lindsay works - Ororo buttonholes Jessica and tells her, discreetly, that they know she’s Spider-Woman and they need to discuss what happened at the mint. Unfazed, Jessica escorts the visitors back to her private room for a discussion. They quickly compare notes: Jessica explains that she is Spider-Woman and didn’t rob the mint, but that Black Tom, Juggernaut, and Siryn did. The visitors explain that they’re the X-Men Storm, Angel, and Colossus.

To the readers, this isn’t a surprise, because the X-Men appear on the cover. What is a surprise is how the introduction happens: even though it’s narratively plausible that the X-Men would confuse Jessica for a villain and attack her, as first meetings between superheroes stereotypically go, instead they meet, converse, and decide to team up. From a vantage point of thirty-four years later, it’s refreshingly different.

The X-Men don’t know who Siryn is, but they know Black Tom’s plans should be thwarted on principle, and that the Juggernaut is very dangerous; too dangerous, perhaps, to tackle without more aid. But Jessica insists that they act right away, because otherwise the villains will get away with the Vibranium they stole from the vaults, and what’s more, Spider-Woman will lose the opportunity to clear her good name. And that, you’d think, would be important to her, as her good name was tarnished as recently as ten issues ago, when she reluctantly partnered with the Enforcer to commit robberies, back in Spider-Woman #28. You’d think that the editorial team, or famously-verbose Claremont, would throw a reference to that in, but no. Perhaps they want to put the Michael Fleisher era behind them as much as the readers do. Anyway, with a plan formed, the four super-heroes make their goodbyes and depart the party. David is clearly disappointed, but Lindsay tells him that “It’s fine to worry, beautiful to care -- I do both -- but don’t crowd her.”

Yep, it’s beautiful to care. 1981, everybody!

Cut to Suisun Bay, up the Sacramento River, where derelict ships are sent for storage. Here, among the hulks, Black Tom and his crew hide out on board one of the vessels. Storm calls up some fog to disguise the heroes’ approach, and Colossus, flown high into the sky by Storm’s winds, dive-bombs the ship. He misjudges his momentum and passes all the way through the hull, puncturing it from deck to bottom. Storm then uses a lightning bolt to knock the investigating Juggernaut right through the hole into the waters.

Everything is going so well, and then Jessica picks up the Idiot Ball, just like she did last issue. Having infiltrated the ship, she sneaks up behind Siryn. Last time, instead of just zapping her with a venom blast and knocking her out, she foolishly spoke to the girl - and not to ask her to surrender or anything, but just to advertise her own presence. The result was a serious battle, one which Spider-Woman ultimately lost. So she’s learned her lesson, right?

Nope. “We haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Spider-Woman.”

Just like last time, Siryn brings the pain: she uses a sonic blast to paralyze Spider-Woman’s nerves, then drags her outside the ship with her sonic-flying powers, and drops her from a hundred feet up. Thankfully, the Angel swoops in for an aerial save, or Spider-Woman’s stupid bravado would have killed her.

Claremont hangs a lampshade on this as follows: “I’d badly underestimated Siryn and it had cost me everything.” Which would be fine, if she hadn’t done exactly the same thing last issue, i.e., about two hours earlier in her time. Unfortunately, Claremont is succumbing to the same temptation Fleisher did, which was to write Spider-Woman as a bumbler. Not cool, guys.

Of course, as I write in 2015, Dennis Hopeless is doing just that in Spider-Woman (vol. 5), so I guess it’s a perennial temptation. Sigh.

The X-Men aren’t faring any better. Siryn uses her sonic powers to manipulate the chemical balance in Angel’s brain, mind-controlling him, while the Juggernaut emerges from the water to give Colossus a severe smackdown. At Black Tom’s orders, Siryn sends Angel to fight Storm, and the winged mutant gives Storm enough difficulty that Black Tom is able to use his own powers to batter Storm with shrapnel. Angel recovers his wits in the process, but that takes those two X-Men out of the battle.

Then the momentum reverses. Colossus gets Juggernaut off-balance and knocks him back into the water. The metal-skinned mutant then tracks down Black Tom and gives him a fearsome uppercut, taking him out. Then Spider-Woman does the same to Siryn: she tricks the girl into blasting a decoy, and when Siryn pauses in horror, thinking she’s dealt our hero a lethal blow, Spider-Woman finally does the smart thing and zaps her with a venom blast from behind, knocking her unconscious.

Of course, dealing with the Juggernaut will be an entirely different matter. The team decides to rig up some cables to the metal poles on top deck. The plan is to use Storm’s lightning and Spider-Woman’s bio-electricity to create “an artificial arc strong enough to stun him”. I’m not sure why that would be any more effective or efficient than simply blasting Marko directly, but hey, that’s comics. What’s not comics is what happens next. Juggernaut climbs on deck and sees Colossus, who is acting as bait, standing on the far side of the rig. He considers the situation, and then says “Y’know, kid, we’re a lot alike. We’re big an’ strong an’ we talk slow, but neither of us is stupid. Facin’ me alone is stupid. I smell a trap.”

This is a real surprise - the big dumb galoot recognizes that the heroes are trying to play him for a fool? I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen that in comics. Well played, Claremont.

To distract Juggernaut, Colossus tosses a big piece of steel at him, and Juggernaut, annoyed, leaps forward and grapples with the X-Man. Colossus escapes the hold by transforming back into flesh - I’m not sure how that works, exactly - and Angel swoops in to provide an aerial rescue. With their allies clear, Storm and Spider-Woman turn on the juice. This fails to stop the Juggernaut, because ‘nothing can stop the Juggernaut’ is his entire schtick. However, the energy release does cause an explosion which sinks the ship. Our heroes manage to escape, taking an unconscious Black Tom and Siryn with them. Juggernaut is lost to the waves, though he’s certainly not dead.

In a quick wrap-up sequence, a revived Tom is horrified at his niece Theresa’s injuries, though he calms down when he finds out that she’ll make a full recovery. This prompts him to have a change of heart, and he willingly confesses to the police (who’ve arrived on shore pretty quickly) that he and Juggernaut were fully and solely responsible for the robbery at the Mint. Siryn is released to the X-Men’s custody, and Spider-Woman is free to go, albeit not without some snotty remarks by the local law. This prompts a few panels of commiseration with the X-Men. The phrase ‘protecting a world that hates and fears us’ isn’t uttered, but the sentiment is certainly there. I’d make fun, if this sort of thing isn’t exactly what 1980s readers craved.

Cut to our epilogue, where Jessica enters her new office and proudly hangs her private investigator license, which she’s now obtained, thanks to Nick Fury’s help last issue. “I’ve been a renegade too long,” she thinks, “first as a HYDRA agent, then as a bounty hunter.” But now, “I’m part of society - working within the system - yet free to operate my own way.”

The caption box intones: “The… Beginning.”

General Comments

The transition is complete: it took five issues, but Chris Claremont has jettisoned the elements of the title he doesn’t like - L.A., bounty hunting, and Scotty McDowell - and replaced with the ones he does: San Francisco, private detection, and David Ishima. Or as Claremont puts it in this issue’s letter column, “Scotty has… been scuttled.” Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Some elements of the older stories have been retained, like Lindsay McCabe. Unfortunately, one trope Claremont’s chosen to keep is Jessica’s uncertainty over whether she should be Spider-Woman. “Perhaps Spider-Woman’s life should end, so Jessica Drew’s can finally, truly begin. And yet, what’s one without the other?” Ugh. This sort of will-she-or-won’t-she is stupid, since we know that she won’t so long as she’s the star of an ongoing title named Spider-Woman. This moping should either be promoted to a full-fledged plot thread, or jettisoned, not kept around in the background to bore us.

For the second time in two issues, characters have noted that the place where Jessica and Lindsay live is supposed to be haunted. I hope that pays off, eventually.

This is a pretty good introduction for Siryn, who would go on to be a big deal in the X-Men franchise, and is still going strong over there in X-Factor (she’d even appear in small roles in the second and third X-Men movies). With her sonic powers she can fly, smash things, and even engage in mind control, making her quite a versatile warrior. This, combined with her youthful inexperience, make her an interesting character, which helps to explain her longevity. I must say, though, for someone whose powers have only just manifest - for otherwise, Cerebro would have alerted the X-Men of her long before last issue - she’s got remarkably fine control of them. I would have thought mind control, at least, would have required some practice.

Overall Rating

This is a fun issue. The opening is ahead of its time with its untraditional use of panels, layout, and point-of-view. We get a nice combination of Jessica Drew’s civilian life as well as her adventuring career. The X-Men are used to good effect but don’t overshadow our heroine. Still, Jessica’s portrayal as making the stupid mistake of talking to Siryn rather than zapping her, precisely one issue after she made that exact same mistake, sours things a bit. Let’s call it three-and-a-half webs.