Yeah, we know this is a Spider-Man site, but as a slight diversion, please allow us to take you back to Marvel Spotlight #32 (February 1977) for the introduction of a character principally designed to protect a trademark.
The cover told the prospective reader, "Don't miss the nerve-numbing Origin of Mighty Marvel's Newest Sensation!" and promised "Positively the most shocking ending you'll read this month!" And, yes, the ending was so shocking it was retconned the instant the character appeared again.
Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the first appearance of Spider-Woman!
Night on the Riviera. A man stands guard on the rooftop of the Mediterranean Branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, at this time, still stands for Supreme Headquarters International Law Enforcement Division) and somehow doesn't see a woman flying towards him even in the light of a full moon. The woman wears a red costume with gloves, boots, an area on her front and a spot on her back in yellow. She flies "on finely spun wings of glistening filament" and lands on the side of the building, just below our nervous clueless guard, where she sticks to the wall like a spider. This is the debut of the Spider-Woman and the reason for her appearance is the same as the reason for the guard's nervousness: Shield director Nick Fury is visiting the facilities.
She wall-crawls around the building, disconnecting the alarms that are attached to the air conditioning unit. She doesn't know who she is, she doesn't know why she has the powers she has, but she does know what her mission is. She stops at an air conditioning duct and waits for "the night flight to Paris" to pass overhead. It is two minutes later than scheduled, which annoys her a bit, but she needs the roar of the plane to mask the sound made when she rips the metal grill off the air duct and the splash made when she drops it into the Mediterranean. Undetected, she crawls into the exposed airshaft.
High overhead "protected by clouds and anti-radar force screens" a mysterious airship reports in to base that "Agent Arachne has successfully gained entry to the Shield complex". Within the ship are agents of Hydra; worldwide terrorists, arch-enemies of Shield and all-around kooks in green tunics, capes, and masks with the ever-popular hockey pucks over the ears and the yellow-suspenders look that give them a big "H" on their chests. Hydra is primarily known for its many failed plans, its jazzy slogan ("Hail Hydra, Immortal Hydra, we shall never be destroyed" and so on.) and its tendency to kill more of its own men for failure than any of its enemies. (Why anyone would join an organization that will execute you if you so much as get the theme song wrong is beyond me.) This bunch is an "isolated reserve unit" and they hope to do what all the previous Supreme Hydras have botched up before them: kill Nick Fury!
And if they don't actually end up killing the cigar-smoking, eye patch-wearing leader of Shield, they at least get one good lick in on Fury's chops. For Shield has captured a Hydra agent and this unmasked, good-looking, blonde bad guy has just thrown a punch that sends Fury to his knees. The three Shield guards threaten the prisoner with their guns but a recovering Fury tells his men to lay off. After all, this prisoner is "livin' proof that there's a nest of Hydra vipers around we ain't ever discovered!" and the sole reason for Colonel Fury's visit. The enemy agent knows that "even if Shield did shoot prisoners, which it don't" that they "wouldn't harm [their] only lead" so he gains the courage to pop Fury in the snoot. But with the guards backing off, the Shield leader lays into the prisoner, knocking him flat with one powerful left-handed punch.
On the same floor, Arachne comes to the end of the airshaft, removes the grill, and enters the corridor. She makes her way along the wall until she comes to the Interrogation Room. Two more oblivious guards listen to the activity in there and figure Nick Fury is giving the prisoner quite a physical grilling. They are easy prey for the striking Spider-Woman (and they generously position themselves in such a way so that she can kick each of them unconscious simultaneously by leaping in the air and doing the splits). Demonstrating super-human strength, Agent Arachne smashes down the steel door in time to see Fury pounding away on "Hydra's little hotshot". The three Shield guards train their weapons on Spider-Woman. They have seen what she did to the door and they are keeping their distance, not taking any chances. But Arachne calmly removes the glove from her left hand and points at the trio of agents. With a "zdak", a blast shoots out from her fingers. This, she tells! the men, is her "venom bolt" and it is fortunate for them that it is "not fatal at this range". Still, it does the job. When Fury turns away from the now-unconscious Hydra agent, he is shocked to see "every blasted man... totaled!" (Or is it, "every totaled man... blasted!") An advancing Arachne tells Fury he is next. "But the bolt will come when I'm touching you", she says, "bringing death for what you've done... to the man I love!"
And if that isn't a cue for a flashback, I don't know what is.
Arachne thinks back to the first thing she remembers. She was in "a small Alpine village", being pelted with rocks by an angry peasant mob that waves pitchforks and says things like "Witch! Agent of Satan! Flee... or die!" (Where do they get these villagers? These guys have been lighting torches and waving pitchforks in the Marvel Universe since the days of the Atlas monster magazines. They tormented Dr. Doom, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Nightcrawler, among others, over the years. Surely, Marvel doesn't think Europe is crawling with roving gangs of hysterical villagers, does it? It's got to be just the same 15 guys over and over again, right? Somebody should pull them aside and tell them that every time they heave rocks to piss off some newfound mutant, they don't do the world any favors.) The young attractive woman with the short brown hair, the slacks and the close-fitting sweater that shows off her figure doesn't know why these men are attacking her.! (What are these guys, blind? It 's not like their going after Fin Fang Foom or something.) She has no memories of who she is or what she can do but she instinctively turns and blasts one of the pitchfork wielders with a venom bolt. (It makes that "zdak" sound again, though at other times the sound effect is "zadt!", "zaat!", or even "za-dak!", and it's powerful enough to knock the hat right off the villager's head.) Apparently this one attack is enough to make the other villagers back off, because a limo drives right up into the action, a chauffeur steps out, opens the back door and lets out a gray-haired man wielding a cane and dressed in a topcoat, cravat, gloves, fedora, and sunglasses. This man introduces himself as Count Otto Vermis (and how can you not be comforted to be in the presence of a man with a name like that?), "an area commander for the organization known as Hydra". He has heard of the young woman and her abilities. He takes her back to Hydra headquarters and fills her head with lies; ! explaining that Hydra, too, has "b een unfairly persecuted, made outlaws by an uncomprehending world we struggle solely to aid and improve". He offers her a position in the company. She accepts.
The young woman remembers nothing but the last few days and her name... Arachne. Commander Vermis treats her gently, with fatherly affection, and "promises to penetrate that dark barrier clouding her memory". To that end, he puts her in the hands of Hydra scientists who place a big metal helmet on her head that looks like some elaborate beauty salon hair dryer from the 50s, but is, in fact, a "mind probe". The machine puts Arachne into a dreamless sleep, then spits out its data on what looks like an unwinding sheet of toilet paper. The scientist is stunned by the revelation of Arachne's past. "No wonder the past has been traumatized from her mind!", he says. Vermis, on the other hand, is exultant at the information. "It's perfect, doctor", he says, "far better than I'd hoped. I can use it all... mold her into Hydra's deadliest weapon ever!"
So, Vermis keeps Arachne away from the truth by telling her that the mind probe was unsuccessful. He sends her to be trained under his unit's "top combat agent", a familiar-looking blonde-haired guy named Jared. (Not to be confused with the guy in the Subway commercials.) In this training, she hones her abilities (venom blast, sticking to walls, spider-agility) "to fighting perfection". She is given a costume and the codename "Spider-Woman" and, in the shadow of some Alpine mountain, she falls in love and gets cozy with Jared. Soon, after, however, Vermis informs her that Jared has been captured by Shield. "Their director is a fanatic when it comes to Hydra", Vermis tells Arachne, "You know none of us can ever be safe until Nick Fury dies!"
And back to the present as Spider-Woman fires a venom blast at the director of Shield. Fury leaps out of the way and counter-attacks by sliding some big honking machine on wheels toward Arachne ("Let's see what good them venom bolts are with some furniture between us", he says.) but she leaps and sticks to the ceiling, then fires her venom bolts at Fury from above. The Colonel evades the blast and makes it to "the interrogation chamber's Control Console". ("Spider-Man should sue this dame for violation of super-powers", he thinks as he runs.) The Console not only (conveniently) has a "video-playback system of all our info on a subject" but also has an alarm button. Nick is just reaching for the alarm when he is grabbed from behind by Arachne's honey, Jared. "I can't hold him long" says her sweet young beau, "kill him! Kill him now!" Spider-Woman doesn't hesitate to strike but Fury uses a little judo to flip Jared over his head. Instead of striking Nick (and it's hard to tell if she's used a venom bolt or just thrown a punch), Arachne nails Jared in the back.
Shaken by this turn of events, Arachne goes to her fallen lover, which gives Fury the time to punch the alarm button. But will anyone arrive in time to save the Shield leader's life? Arachne quickly seizes Nick by the throat and smashes him up against the Console. This impact fortunately hits just the right switch to get the video-playback running. Up on the screen is a clip of Jared engaging in terrorism. He leers menacingly as he holds a woman hostage during an airplane hijacking.
Arachne can hardly believe what she is seeing. At first she's sure the tape is "some sort of fakery" but then the truth starts to seep in. She releases Fury and puts the back of her hand across her eyes. She begins to believe that "everything I've been told has been a lie" and that "Hydra has manipulated me... used me". Fury stands to the side caressing his bruised neck. "It's one of their specialties, lady", he tells her.
With tears streaming down her mask (I didn't think they would leak out those opaque eyeholes), Spider-Woman rushes to the side of her beloved. "Tell me it isn't true!", she implores him. But the dying (and since he's dying, I guess that means he got hit with a venom bolt and not a punch) Jared is disgusted by her. "D-don't touch me!", he says, "Least let me die without enduring that again!" With his dying breaths, Jared blurts out the whole truth. He was ordered to be Arachne's lover but the whole notion repelled him because "Commander Vermis told me what you really are". The plan was to be intentionally captured by Shield, knowing that a vengeful Spider-Woman would rescue her "lover" and "be in a rage to get Fury". Then, having spilled his guts for no good reason other than to provide vital plot information to Arachne and the reader, Jared takes the big sleep. Immediately, our heroine's tears are replaced with anger. She vows revenge against Count Otto Vermis. Nic! k Fury offers the assistance of Sh ield against Hydra but Arachne doesn't bother to listen. She heads out on her own.
Later, a Hydra flyer arrives at a "supposedly abandoned monastery in the remote Carnic Alps" which secretly houses Vermis's branch organization. Vermis is in there, sitting on a stone throne with a blazing brazier on a pole next to him. (Ah, that's living!) He is notified of the return of the flyer but there has been no communication with the occupants. Vermis is willing to forgive "a slight security breach" if it means that Arachne has accomplished her mission but the next thing the Hydras know, the flyer is heading right for their headquarters! Spider-Woman flies out of the plane and allows the ship to hit the monastery with a loud "ba-room!". Within the building, chaos reigns. There are Hydra bodies lying about. Huge flames gout up. The "defense system is a shambles". And the tall blazing brazier has shrunk to half its original size (not to mention that there are now two of them and steps leading up to the throne where before there were none and the back of the th! rone seems smaller than before and the Hydra symbol is above Vermis's head when it didn't look like it was there before). Suddenly, Spider-Woman soars in, knocking Hydra agents every which way, declaring that "a naïve girl you easily deceived is naïve no longer!" Count Vermis makes a run for it through the rubble but Arachne spies him. She vows to make him reveal "the secret of who I am" before she makes him "pay for all you've done".
Vermis doesn't even slow down. He makes his way to "the emergency escape system" located in the "monastery's deepest vaults", figuring that his men will regroup to slow down Spider-Woman and allow him to get away. He looks behind him, as he passes a large ventilation grill, and is pleased to see that Arachne is nowhere in sight. But, suddenly, the grill bursts out of its place, forced out by the arriving Spider-Woman. "You and Jared taught me how to move swiftly through a building's ventilation system, remember?", she tells Vermis as she strikes him head-on with the grill. She grabs the fallen Hydra leader by his tunic and demands answers. But first, they are distracted by the sound of shooting upstairs. Nick Fury and Shield have shown up and are putting all the Hydra fellows to rout.
Vermis realizes that Arachne intentionally led Shield to the hideout. He proposes a deal to save his skin. He implies that he will choose to die rather than allow her to force her origin from him. However, if she allows him to evade Shield, he will reveal the truth of her beginnings.
Spider-Woman agrees to this and the two of them make their way to a Hydra "rocket plane" on a launch platform, "designed to carry only one passenger". Vermis quickly starts to climb the ladder to the plane but Arachne grabs him by the wrist and demands her origin. "Of your true birth I know nothing", Vermis says, "but I can tell you much of the moment when the exploding energy was unleashed that shaped you into what you are now."
There is a powerful flash of light surrounding the outline of a female form. It is the laboratory of the High Evolutionary, before his very first appearance in The Mighty Thor #134 (November 1966). He is at the controls of his "genetic accelerator" and, as the woman who will become Spider-Woman shakily rises from the machine's platform (already dressed in a purple one-piece bathing suit get-up; the accelerator not only evolves you, it clothes you!), the Evolutionary declares the experiment a success. He has once again managed to achieve "uncountable eons of evolution... in mere moments" but this time is "unique compared to my others". In the past, he has always used mammals to create his "new men" but not this time. This is also the first woman HE has created so he "labored far longer at your creation... made far greater genetic improvements... so you would be far nearer human... though descended from a totally different species".
Arachne is stunned to hear this. If she has been descended from a different species and she has "spider like powers", then that must mean... (Memo to the completely clueless: It means she was created by accelerating the evolution of a spider!) This is why, according to Vermis, the High Evolutionary named her "Arachne". (Memo to the mythologically clueless: Arachne was the woman in Greek myth that challenged the goddess Athena with her weaving and was turned into a spider for her troubles.) Once again, those tears start to flow through the opaque eyeholes. Arachne cannot believe this story. She would feel the truth of it. "Not if it were traumatized from your memory", says Vermis. Besides, he tells her, the story is not over yet.
In the High Evolutionary's stronghold of Wundergore, the New Men sense Arachne's difference and are repelled by it. She is so shunned by the others that she is forced to flee Wundergore and make her way to the outside world. (And now she's got a red blouse and yellow slacks ensemble.) She makes her way to that Alpine village and falls in love with some guy in a funny hat. When the High Evolutionary learns of this, he decides to leave her alone but others in the town decide it will be great fun to sneak up and scare the newfound lovers. "But the sudden noise" of this prank causes Arachne to instinctively lash out. She fires off one of her venom bolts (zadt!) and murders her funny-hatted lover. (So, as you can see, getting Arachne to fall in love with you is as easy as falling off a log but it has a tendency to get you venom blasted and consequently dead.)
With tears streaming down her face, Spider-Woman realizes that "that's what traumatized me! That's what I couldn't bear!" But now, "I remember! I remember!"
(But before we go any further, let's step back another five years to The Incredible Hulk #149 (March 1972) also written by Archie Goodwin. In this story, a strange saucer-shaped ship falls from the sky and a huge, ugly creature emerges. He has no memory of his past but senses that "this is the world meant to be mine" and that humans are his enemy because they delay his "inheritance on this earth". Calling himself "The Inheritor", the creature eventually discovers that radiation increases his strength and helps him to remember. He recalls that his species has been around since before the dinosaurs and have "waited and survived, knowing that in the end, earth would belong to them". His search for more radiation to restore all of his memories brings him into contact with the Incredible Hulk. Soon, the Inheritor encounters enough radiation to remember that he was made by the High Evolutionary, using the genetic accelerator. (There's even a footnote fro! m Stan that says, "This takes plac e prior to H.E.'s first Marvel appearance in Thor #134". Compare this to Archie's footnote in the Spider-Woman story: "This is before H.E.'s historic debut in the Mighty Thor #134".) Once evolved, the Inheritor refuses to conform to the code of the New Men, claiming that this chivalry is actually just "subservience to humans". The HE realizes he made a mistake by evolving the Inheritor and he banishes him to space, where, eventually a collision with a meteor knocks his ship back down to earth. In the end, the Inheritor subjects himself to a machine which he thinks is leaking radiation but is actually a device invented by Bruce Banner (in an effort to rid himself of the Hulk) that absorbs radiation. The Inheritor is so thoroughly drained of his energies that he reverts to his original form... that of a cockroach. And we're supposed to believe the High Evolutionary when he tells Arachne that this success is "unique compared to my others"?)
Count Vermis takes advantage of Spider-Woman's hysteria to toss a poison gas pellet at her. He figures she would uphold the bargain and let him go but he decides to be certain because that's just the kind of evil guy he is. He climbs the ladder and blasts off in the rocket. Spider-Woman is groggy from the gas but she forces herself to make "one powerful leap". She manages to grab the tailfin of the plane and her "spider-strong fingers" dig into the metal, holding her in place. Vermis is astounded that she is along for the ride. The gas should have killed her. Then he realizes that "a body which can manufacture its own venom may no doubt be immune to other poisons" and he really starts to panic. He leans out of the cockpit and fires a gun at her. Spider-Woman sneaks around to the other side of the tailfin to avoid the shots. Using all her strength, she bends the tailfin until she succeeds in turning the plane and pointing it right at a cliff. Heck, she's already ki! lled plenty so what's one more? T he plane crashes into the rock, killing Vermis, while Arachne manages to glide away.
Back at the Hydra hideout, the victorious Shield agents finish mopping up and take a breather. Colonel Fury lights up a stogie and remarks that there is "no sign of that Spider-Dame". He wishes her luck wherever she is. He's afraid she is going to need it.
Somewhere in the forest, Spider-Woman glides down to earth. Her anger has fled, replaced by "bone-deep tiredness". Finally, she knows who she really is. "The only thing I don't know now", she reflects, "is if there's any way I can live or survive with that knowledge." Dejected, her head down, Spider-Woman walks into the sunset.
Actually, Spider-Woman doesn't know who she really is yet because Marvel didn't have the nerve to create an ongoing series detailing the adventures of a genetically accelerated spider. When she shows up in her own book a little over a year later (Spider-Woman #1, April 1978), she is given a real name (Jessica Drew) and, unfortunately, a whole new origin that wipes out practically the only thing interesting about the character. That series lasted fifty issues and was followed by two other Spider-Woman runs with two other characters assuming the stage-name; a four-issue mini-series (November 1993-February 1994) with Julia Carpenter as the web-slinger and the recent, grueling now-thankfully-cancelled regular series (July 1999-December 2000) starring Mattie "Whatever-Her-Name-Is". And that doesn't count the evil Spider-Woman who sprang up not all that long ago, as well. So, from these humble beginnings, we have ended up with four Spider-Women in three different ! series. Which begs the question: Was all this really necessary? While I'm sure there were some good stories in some of these issues along the way, I can't help feeling it all would have been so much better if Marvel had come to the end of Marvel Spotlight #32 and then left well enough alone.