Jessica "Spider-Woman" Drew was kidnapped by the Skrulls. While she was away, the Skrull Empress took Spider-Woman's guise. It was in that guise that she led the Skrull invasion of Earth. The invasion was defeated, and the Empress killed, but Spider-Woman's reputation is destroyed.
What should she do now?
Mope, apparently. Jessica's in London. Though she's affiliated with the Avengers right now, she's apparently in between missions, leaving her with nothing to do but fly around the city, sit in her motel room, and reflect on how she has, in her estimation, surpassed Wolverine as "the most screwed-over person in the history of the universe." It's enough to make a woman contemplate suicide by venom blast.
Not enough to make her follow through, though. And good thing too, because if she had done away with herself she would have missed the mysterious letter slipped under her door, which invites her to a meeting the following day.
She's afraid she might be assassinated at this meeting (held on a deserted London trolley bus), but we readers aren't, because we recognize the other party as Abigail Brand, leader of SWORD. That agency – Sentient World Observation and Response Department, natch – is responsible for defending the Earth from alien threats, a job they colossally bungled during the Secret Invasion. (And yet Brand still has her old job...) Brand figures Jessica is in a place dark and angry enough where she'd be willing to kill any aliens Brand sics her on. In a quick sequence, the deal is made: Jess gets a fat salary, an iPhone that delivers missions specs, an alien detector, and a license to kill. Her job is to track down aliens and "stop them from doing whatever it is [she] finds them doing."
We can infer that Jessica takes the job, because next thing we readers know, she's in Madripoor. It's the "seedy corner of the world." "Everybody here is the worst of who we are," Jessica thinks, and then reflects that, yes, now she has come to Madripoor as well.
Resting in her hotel room (the second so far this issue!) she undergoes a montage of flashbacks from Spider-Woman: Origin and Secret Invasion that refresh our memory of the raw deal she's received. Her parents, HYDRA agents, are dead, one at the other's hands. Her mentor at SHIELD, Nick Fury, took her on so she could be a weapon in his hands. Her career as a superhero was a middling success... and then the Skrulls came and took her life, and reputation, away. Now she's known and despised by the entire world, and understandably feeling a little self-pity about it all.
It's no surprise to Jessica or us that her first target is a Skrull, one of the Skrull Queen's direct subordinates. She barely has time to wonder what a Skrull might be doing in Madripoor before her alien detector goes off and Spider-Man bursts through the window!
In terms of storytelling, it's a misstep. Why not leave the readers briefly in doubt as to whether this Spider-Man is an impostor? He's an Avenger, after all, and it's just possible he came to warn or help a colleague. But no. He's a Skrull, and Jessica knows it, detector or no. She fires off a venom blast, "za-dak!" and all, and the fight is on. Not much of a fight: she knocks him out the window, smacks him right into a parked car four storeys below, and pounds him with venom-charged punches until he's unconscious... or dead, perhaps. His torn costume reveals a Skrull head. Don't they only revert back to their original shapes when killed?
In any case, the fight's over, but Jessica did just fall out of a building. If she faints at this point, who can blame her?
The most important thing to note about this issue is that while it exists as a print comic, it was written to be a motion comic, available on iTunes – although not in Canada – and on Marvel.com. The choice of medium determines the content: there's lots of images with no words. In a motion comic, they slowly slide across the screen, but on the page, they are static, of course. The result is a print book that's very quiet and reads very fast, because there's not as much dialogue, or even panels, to slow the story down. It's also a story that's paced strangely, one that stops rather than ends, with Jessica having beaten her Skrull foe but feeling a bit out of sorts. Has she passed out? Gone into shock? Or is she simply acknowledging she'll feel muscle strain in a few hours? It's not clear.
These are only mild complaints. In motion or frozen in time, Alex Maleev's art is gorgeous: it's dark, moody, and beautiful. Bendis is treading the ground he knows and writes so well, the crime story. Sure, it has aliens and superheroes, but it's got private eyes, mysterious clients, fugitive crooks, and mean streets, down which a woman must go, though both tarnished and afraid. While Bendis may have written the story with less verbiage than he usually features, the approach works just fine here, establishing the new status quo sharply and cleanly: she's back to being a bounty hunter, but now she tracks aliens, not criminals, and she's permitted (and willing) to kill them. And she does this when she's not working with the Avengers, though some of them – like Spider-Man or Wolverine – can be expected to turn up from time to time.
It's simple and clear for new readers, whether drawn from the Avengers books or from iTunes. Long-time fans of the character will appreciate the subtle shout-outs Bendis offers, though. To pick one: why do you suppose the opening of this book is set in London? You'd expect Jessica to live in San Francisco, her old haunt, or in New York, where the Avengers hang out. But no, it's in London, because – one suspects – that's where issue #1 of her original book was set. Later on, the action shifts to Madripoor, another shout-out to her occasional 1990s appearances as a private eye in that city.
Also, her venom blasts make "zdak" noises. Classic.
Speaking of classic tales, this book follows the Bendis-Reed re-writing of Jessica Drew's origin from Spider-Woman: Origin. As readers of my reviews of Spider-Woman, volume #1 know, that's all to the good, because her original origin and continuity, which SW:O retconned out of existence, were pretty lousy. The new version is better, although one would think it would make it harder to use some of those old characters. Reportedly Bendis plans to bring some of those old-timers back, folks like Jerry Hunt and (glee!) the Needle. I suspect he'll just use them without any reference to continuity. Fine by me: it matters more that the stories of today are told well than that they retain fidelity to thirty-year-old works that weren't that good to begin with.
I can't give it a perfect grade: it's easy to grasp this story was not prepared for the medium of print comics, as the unusual pacing and the emphasis on visual storytelling (to the exclusion of text) suggests. The whole doesn't fit together as neatly as, say, individual issues of Alias or Daredevil did.
But let's not quibble. It's a new Spider-Woman book, backed by Bendis and Maleev. The story and art are love letters to noir in superhero envelopes. It's a good time to be a Spider-Woman fan.
It's noir, baby. I fearlessly predict that Abigail Brand's offer to Jessica is not what it seems, and that Jessica is being played somehow. No private eye in a noir story ever gets an assignment that is exactly what it appears to be.