Five weeks ago, Jessica quit the Avengers, in order to find a more grounded, street-level life. Ben Urich asked her to investigate the disappearance of the wives, girlfriends, and daughters of New York’s small-time supervillains. She captured the Porcupine mid-bank-robbery and found out that someone is holding his daughter captive, to use as leverage against him. Using her private-detective skills, she traced the kidnapping conspiracy to Moon Hollow, New York, where she discovered the ‘conspiracy’ was actually a loose association of women who’d fled their loser husbands, taking their children with them. Before Jessica could decide what she thought about all this, the community’s leader - a woman with a construction-equipment exosuit the caption box dubs ‘Lady Earthmover’ captured Ben and Roger (the Porcupine), and sucker-punched Spider-Woman with a diesel-powered blow.
So who is Lady Earthmover? Her civilian name is Cat, and in flashback, we see how she came to be. A year and a half before, she lived with Derek, a criminal who built the Earthmover battlesuit in his garage. Derek is a creep and a loser, which we can tell from the bruises on Cat’s face and Cat’s remark that his job ‘doesn’t ever pay’. He’s petulant, entitled, and a bully, and when Cat stands up for herself even a little, he throws a fit, smashing her car to pieces with the suit. After he goes into the house, satisfied with himself, a terrified Cat reaches up for the suit he left behind.
The rest isn’t shown, but we can infer that she stole the suit, left Derek, and set up the Moon’s Hollow collective.
In the present, Lady Earthmover is beating the snot out of Spider-Woman, who’s reflecting that she (Jessica) is pretty good in a street fight, but a front-end loader might be out of her league. Meanwhile, Cat is hitting her again and again, while muttering to herself “What gives you the right, Jessica Drew? To come up here and take away everything we’ve built?” Spider-Woman, now bruised and eye-blacked, isn’t sure she can win this one without allies.
Cue the allies, namely the other women in town, whom Jessica met last issue. They aren’t sure what to make of all this, but they are sure they don’t want their friend Cat to straight-up murder someone before their eyes, so they try to hold back the suit. Cat won’t have it, and electrifies the works, throwing her friends roughly to the pavement. Turning back to Spider-Woman, she smashes out with a pulverizing blow, but it hits only pavement. Where’s our heroine? She’s leapt onto one of the suit’s arms. That doesn’t seem smart, given we just saw it electrified a moment ago, but perhaps the battery is drained, or Cat doesn’t have the presence of mind to activate it. It doesn’t matter: now that Lady Earthmover has lost tempo, Spider-Woman is free to act, rather than react. And with her superior speed, agility, and spider-strength, it’s the work of a moment to rip the suit to pieces, leaving Cat defenseless.
Cat suddenly bursts into tears. “Oh, God, I… I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just… please don’t take it away.” Her posture and body language mirror exactly what we readers saw in the flashback scene earlier; it’s a nice bit of parallelism that is made nicer by the fact that the story leaves it as subtext.
Speaking of subtext, the fact that Cat behaved exactly as Derek did, lashing out physically with the suit and leaving a woman battered, is another bit of parallelism that the story lets us notice for ourselves. Say it with me now: I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, that those to whom evil is done do evil in return.
Jessica is left with a problem. Despite the beating she just took, Jessica doesn’t want to punish Cat or the women of Moon’s Hollow. “They crawled out of God knows what kind of muck, built this sanctuary up from nothing, and what happens now? Have I really come to drag them back down?”
Time for an inspirational speech! Jess stands atop the Earthmover suit and tells the inhabitants of the town (they gathered during the fight) to tell them that she likes Moon’s Hollow, but she doesn’t like “criminal coercion and larceny”, and that “blackmailing your idiot exes into stealing things is just stealing things”. If the criminal stuff stops, then Jessica will leave everything else as she found it, along with a threat to keep tabs on the town to make sure they stay honest. Writer Dennis Hopeless must like that story beat, since he used as recently as Spider-Woman (vol. 5) #4, when Spider-Woman left Espy in charge of running Loomworld.
During the fight, Roger’s ex Liv freed him and Ben so that they could help Spider-Woman, though the fight was over by the time they arrived on the scene. Roger seems to have gotten out of his Porcupine suit at some point, which seems silly - I think artist Javier Rodriguez just forgot he drew Roger in the suit in last issue’s final scene. Oh well, even Homer nods. Roger is confused by why he was blackmailed, but Liv is in no way apologetic. Sure, Roger never abused her, but he did spend stints in jail, and even took off to serve as henchman to Baron Zemo. “Hitting’s not the only thing that hurts, Roger.”
So that’s Roger. Where’s Ben? Why, he’s gone back to the city to file a story on all of this, of course. Jessica springs into action and asks Rebecca the mechanic for a motorbike, and then rides back to New York to persuade Ben not to file the story. Reaching him at his office, he explains that he didn’t run the story, and never intended to. (So why did he leave in such a hurry then? Never mind.) Why isn’t he running the story, given that the Daily Bugle could certainly use the pageviews? Because he, likes Jess, wants the women of Moon’s Hollow to keep what they have. He recognizes this will only hasten the Bugle’s demise, but can’t help himself.
“I guess I want to squeeze the last few drops of life out of the only place I ever wanted to work before they board it up and haul me out with the rest of this old crap. I want to go after the scary stuff again. Maybe write a few more stories that mean something. Mostly though, I just want to help people.” That’s an agenda that Jessica can agree with. Ben produces another file full of problems that need solving, and a smiling Jessica begins to read.
This issue leaves me conflicted.
There’s a lot to like here. Jessica comes off as heroic, for once. Sure, Lady Earthmover nearly kills her, but that’s because she’s a much stronger opponent who ambushes Spider-Woman and never stops hitting her. As soon as Spider-Woman gets a chance to respond, the fight’s over. And that’s not all: not only does Jessica seem to be good at superheroing, she also refrains from making any whiny, irritated, or asinine remarks. Both of these are welcome changes from what we’ve seen from her recently.
Another thing to admire is the willingness of the story to keep the subtext where it belongs. Cat’s present-day behaviour springs right out of what was done to her in the past: she sometimes acts like an abused woman, and sometimes just like the abuser who hurt her. It’s a recognizable and sadly plausible dynamic, and the story is confident enough to let us notice it for ourselves.
If only the rest of the story was as well thought through. There are small slips of plot: Raspberry Beret, who was so important last issue, doesn’t appear at all in this story, and won’t appear again, I suppose. And Ben takes off without explanation, which only makes sense if he’s going to file a story, but he later explains that he never intended to, which means his sudden departure was a trick to generate suspense that wasn’t earned.
There are larger problems, though. One is this idea that the women of Moon’s Hollow have built something special and that it has to be kept secret or it will all fall apart. It seems to me that they didn’t summon up this town out of nothing: they found a pre-existing town and all moved there. 18 months is too short a time to build a brand new town, with businesses, homes, and public infrastructure out of nothing. That means, of course, that lots of people in town aren’t part of the Supervillain’s Exes Protection Program, and they just saw an Avenger fight a resident in an exo-suit, right in the middle of downtown. How is that supposed to be kept secret? Won’t the police want to follow up? What about the Avengers? What about Derek the Earthmover himself?
But let’s stipulate that Jessica could keep the whole incident, and the Protection Program, under wraps. Should she? If everyone in town was fleeing domestic abuse, I could accept it. But the story itself makes explicit that not everyone is. Roger the Porcupine is dumb and makes bad choices, but he never used violence on his family. It’s obviously problematic that he was blackmailed into committing crimes on the pretense that his child was in danger, but less obviously, it’s problematic that his wife took off with his daughter without consulting him or apprising him of their whereabouts. I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that constitutes kidnapping, or some such. It’s criminal behaviour, and it should be. How many more men like Roger are there? If the blackmailing stops, that’s good, but they still don’t know where their children are. Is keeping them ignorant, in defiance of both the law and their moral status as parents, really something that Jessica wants to abet?
Even if we stipulate a happy ending - that the blackmailing stops - we’ve still got parents filled with concern that their kids are in danger. If the mothers come clean, well, then you’ve got supervillains who’ve been manipulated and who know it. Aren’t they going to start looking? How long before they find Moon’s Hollow, and what will they do when they find it?
And if the mothers allow for visitation, well, then the secret of Moon’s Hollow is out, and we’ve already established that would be the end of the community.
I can see why the story didn’t want to pull on these threads. The vicissitudes of relationship breakdown, the obligations of parents to children under such circumstances, and the obligations they have to each other, whether moral or legal, are fraught ones, especially when you introduce criminal acts to the mix, whether those acts are blackmail, robbery, or domestic violence. If Hopeless thinks those are too fraught to deal with in the context of a wisecracking superhero suspense story, then I agree with him! But in that case, I also think he shouldn’t have brought them up in the first place.
I could go on regarding the moral standing of Ben’s decision not to file the story, even though he’s using Bugle resources to find and investigate it, and presumably is getting expensed on his mileage, diner meals, etc., given his remark about “squeezing the last drops of life” out of the newspaper before it closes. But I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll leave working out why this is problematic as an exercise for the reader.
The story is brisk, exciting, and has more depth than it appears, and is willing to respect our intelligence. If only its moral underpinnings were handled as well.
Fairness where it’s due: this cover depicts Lady Earthmover and Spider-Woman going mano-a-mano, which is indeed the central set-piece of the issue, earning it the coveted Miller Award for Honesty in Comics Covers of Totally Accurate. I do wonder why the two of them are both grinning, though.