Five weeks ago, Jessica quit the Avengers, in order to find a more grounded, street-level life. Is she crazy?
The initial evidence is that yes, she is, if Billy Joel lyrics are anything to go by: she’s riding her motorcycle in the rain. Her inner monologue is justifying her decision to give up the free room, board and expense account associated with the Avengers, and all in search of a normal life. “Look,” she explains to us readers, “my parents were mad scientists who pumped me full of spider-juice just to see what would happen… Everyone I've ever dated has had super-powers. (Except Hawkeye.) I've been extraordinary my entire life.”
For those keeping score at home, none of this is true. Spider-Woman has had three different origin stories. In the first, she was a spider that was evolved forward to become a person. That origin was immediately abandoned after Archie Goodwin introduced it in Marvel Spotlight #32. In Spider-Woman (vol. 1) #1, Marv Wolfman had it that little Jessica fell ill to radiation sickness, and was given an infusion of spider genetic material to save her life. (The recap page immediately preceding the story seems to take this line, though it refers to radiation sickness as a “disease”, which isn't quite right.) And in the most recent origin story, Spider-Woman: Origin #1, Brian Bendis told the story of how Jessica, while still in utero, was accidentally hit with the rays of a spider-loaded DNA splicer. Notice how in none of these cases were her parents using her as a test subject just because.
And off the top of my head, Jessica has dated lots of non-superpowered guys: Jerry Hunt, for one, and Tim Braverman for another. Now both of those, like Hawkeye, were larger than life, with the former being a SHIELD agent and the latter a master (so to speak) criminal. But David Ishima was a med student and a gardener and in no way superpowered; in fact, he ultimately dumped Jessica precisely because he couldn't handle how extraordinary she was.
The point is, this book is going to be about Jessica, for the first time, getting to live a normal, street-level life, which means all the evidence that she ever did otherwise - the bulk of her first solo title, for instance - is being flushed away. Admittedly, all of that was thirty-five years ago, so I won’t complain too much. It would be nice to have found a way to make this book about the present without directly contradicting the past, however. But I guess that’s comics today for you.
Jessica’s train of thought is interrupted by a cry for help! This is what Jessica was hoping for: something normal, where ‘normal’ is defined as busting muggings and street-level crime rather than cosmic stuff like Secret Invasion or Spider-Verse. Abandoning her bike, she zips up her leather jacket to reveal the spider-woman logo on the front and off she goes! Leaping over a tall building in a few bounds (think vertical parkour up the fire escape), she leaps into an alley to save the day.
Let’s talk for a moment about her new costume, which I quite like. It’s mostly biker clothing: black leggings and sleeves, with red boots, red-and-black gloves, and orange goggles. She’s got the classic yellow diamonds imported from the old costume, but they’re smaller, and clearly indicate the abstract form of a spider across her chest. It’s a nice colour scheme, and it omits the three most embarrassing features of her old costume, namely the way that the yellow triangles were deployed to emphasize her breasts and her crotch.
I presume, since she was biking in the rain, her costume is made of leather? Sounds about right. I like the way that this costume only emphasizes her superheroic nature when she wants it to. The two most obvious features that make it a costume are the underarm gliding panels and the logo on the chest. The former retract into the jacket when she’s not in mid-air (nice trick), and the latter can only be seen when the jacket zips up.
A few quick kicks, a proper green venom blast - unfortunately given the sound-effect KAZAT, rather than the classic ZDAK - and a judo throw are sufficient to bring the big bad mugger down. Except, oops, he’s not a mugger, he’s a cop pretending to be a mugger; this was all a SWAT training exercise in how to deal with super-powered perpetrators! If Jessica was still with the Avengers, she’d have gotten a text about this in advance, but she’s not, so she didn't, and the cops are steamed. So much so that they all point their weapons at her, which seems to be extremely uncalled for.
Cut to Jessica in stir, playing charades with the other inmates, until she’s sprung by Ben Urich, whom she remembers vaguely. “Newspaper writer. We met at Matt Murdock’s ‘for real I’m not Daredevil’ party.”
“One of them”, says Urich.
Did he bail her out? No, because she was never arrested; the cops just wanted to inconvenience her for a while, and embarrass her by putting up photos of an incarcerated Jessica Drew on the Internet. Jessica absorbs this information with a surprising amount of grace; she handles it way better than I would.
Ben accompanies her back to her office, where the lettering on the frosted glass says JESSICA DREW, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR. What’s all this? Well, says Jessica, she “set this office up when I first moved back to New York. Then ran off to join the super circus without booking a single case.”
Again, that’s not true. Jessica was working as a largely depowered private eye in San Francisco when she was kidnapped by the Skrulls as part of the lead-up to Secret Invasion (see New Avengers #42). The Skrull Queen Veranke impersonated her and joined up with SHIELD, in which capacity she moved to New York and began work on the Raft, as discussed in New Avengers #1. That job led directly into her joining the Avengers. So neither real-Jessica nor imposter-Jessica ever moved to New York and set up a P.I. office there.
Writer Dennis Hopeless is following in the not-so-grand tradition of writers helming a Spider-Woman solo book and simply writing scenes that allow him to move the story where he wants it to go, irrespective of what we readers think we know. Dag.
Jessica, according to Ben, has been trying to help regular people, but has been bad at it: aside from the previous night’s misadventure, she’s damaged property, injured civilians, and tied up public transit. “Do you think maybe we can agree you’re not very good at helping people?” Maybe, he gently asks, her time would be better spent doing investigation work, not freelance superheroics.
Interested, but playing it cool, Jessica accompanies Ben to a sadly-dilapidated Daily Bugle. I guess Old Media isn't where the money is these days. Ben shows Jessica a file on a series of disappearances. The common denominator is that each one is close family to some low-rent supervillain or other. Jessica isn't impressed: “Did you consider that these women might not want to be found, Urich…? That this is what happens when a person claws their way out of a violent relationship?” And with that she leaves.
Driving away on her bike, she thinks that it’s “hard not to like the idea of someone good at this playing Watson to my Holmes. But I didn't quit the Avengers to help an old newsman sell papers.” I think canonically Jessica was a better private investigator than she’s allowing here, but whatever: her train of thought is interrupted by the Porcupine, who’s committing a bank robbery right out in plain sight. After some not-funny banter, she takes him out with a venom blast (KAZAT again, sigh). The helpless Porcupine, now desperate, begs her to back off: “I can’t fail… gotta… finish the job. Please… they’ll kill.. my little girl.”
Jessica is woman enough to admit when she’s wrong. Rather than leaving the Porcupine for the authorities, she binds up his hands with zip ties and takes him back to the Daily Bugle. It’s now after business hours, but that doesn't keep a big-time super hero from her goal: with her wall-crawling abilities, she infiltrates the building and removes Urich’s file on the kidnappings, thinking to herself that she’s realized that she “was a smugly dismissive jackass who was also wrong.” As she and the Porcupine drive away, Ben - who just arrived back in his office - watches her leave from the window, with a smile on his face.
Let’s call the first four issues of this book a “Spider-Verse” mini-series featuring Spider-Woman, and treat this issue, #5, as the first, because it might as well be. So how well does it stack up as a first issue?
Pretty well! The cover proudly proclaims “NEW costume! NEW status quo!”, and that’s true. This issue tells us everything we need to know: Jessica is proud, stubborn, and determined to make a go of it as a street-level hero rather than a globetrotting, dimension-hopping adventurer. She’s super-strong and super-agile, and can shoot venom blasts that knock people out. She can fly when she needs to. No sign of her pheromone powers, but they got plenty of workout over the first four issues, so it’s all right if they stay on the shelf for now. Her new costume is nice to look at, and clearly had a lot of thought put into it: it seems like the sort of costume that befits a brawling superhero rather than a porn star doing cosplay. And we've got an interesting story to follow: someone is extorting low-level supervillains by threatening the women in their lives. Bad, meet Worse. This is a story that hasn't been done to death, and even faintly echoes Spider-Woman’s feminist past, by showing a woman who deals with the exploitation of other women.
And the artwork is fantastic: easily the best art Spider-Woman has ever had in a solo title, and I’m including Alex Maleev's moody work in Spider-Woman (vol. 4) in that count. The lines are clear, firm, and detailed; the panel design is inventive; and the little arrows making it clear how Jessica’s hands are moving are clever and helpful. I’m not familiar with Javier Rodriguez’ work, but one issue was enough to make me a big fan of it. I hope he stays with this title for a good long time.
If only I could be as enthusiastic about Dennis Hopeless’ writing. Jessica isn't as relentlessly unpleasant here as she was during the Spider-Verse arc, but she’s still full of snide observations about regular people, her fellow superheroes, supervillains, Ben Urich, the Porcupine, and even herself. And the ‘Jessica fails at everything she tries’ meme is still in effect. Apparently Jessica is not only lousy at spying, as shown over the past four issues, but also at private investigation and bread-and-butter superheroics. Like I said in my last review, why does Marvel think we want to spend time reading about an unpleasant person who’s bad at her job?
After five issues, Spider-Woman’s new ongoing book is finally off to a good start, with an engaging new story, a welcome addition to the supporting cast in Ben Urich, a great new costume, and fantastic art by Javier Rodriguez. If only Dennis Hopeless would tell a story that didn't make me think he hates the character.