While investigating her father's murder, Jessica has crossed paths with the Hangman, a brutal vigilante. Having subdued and restrained her, the Hangman promised that he would now keep her safe by imprisoning her in his dungeon... for the rest of her life!
"Listen carefully to the rustle of bitter wind whipping through the barren, winter-set branches, to the faint moaning of a watchful moon whose golden light shimmers on a shadow-shrouded manse."
That's quite an opening. It's evocative and unsettling, a fact not diminished by the purpleness of the prose or the confused metaphors (a moaning moon?). It's in stark contrast to the eroticized moping that Marv Wolfman has used to open his previous issues. The artwork is different as well: the first panel is of a dark, ramshackle house, framed by the silhouettes of dead trees and an impossibly full moon. With each panel we telescope in, as in a movie, to a close-up of Spider-Woman, whom we see through an attic window, bound, gagged, and tied to a chair. None of the frames, after the first, is level, skewing the image first left, and then right. Taken as a whole, the opening page works beautifully, drawing the reader in while oppressing her with an aura of Gothic intensity and menace. Right away we can tell that this issue will be very different in style and tone than previous numbers on this title.
Gradually Spider-Woman rouses. With her spider-strength, freeing herself from her bonds is simplicity itself (though it does make one wonder where her strength was when she was being bound in the first place). As she snaps the cords that tie her down, she flashes back to the events of last issue, when the Hangman captured her. This time we get some new information: after tying her up, he slung her over his shoulder and walked (!) to this house on a hill, where he imprisoned her in his attic dungeon.
Attic dungeon? Huh.
Anyway, the whole time he spouts the same over-the-top dialogue as he did in last issue: society is corrupt, I stand for unadulterated justice, women are frail and weak, etc. etc. He does add that he's inspired by old-timey movie heroes, and that Clint Eastwood is a poor substitute for John Wayne. That's the first hint of any depth to this character, but it will also be the last: Jessica's flashback is, so far as I am aware, this guy's final appearance. Jessica muses, as she removes her gag, that the Hangman must have returned to Los Angeles, but we'll never know: Marv Wolfman is taking this book in a new direction, and the Hangman has become a loose end that will never be tied up. No great loss, really.
So just what is this new direction? The first page has given us our hint: gothic horror, a field where Wolfman, a longtime Tomb of Dracula writer, seems much more comfortable than he was in the cloak-and-dagger terrain he staked out over the last two issues.
Finally free of her pinions, Spider-Woman is distracted from her thoughts of the Hangman when she notices the "[s]piderwebs stretched across the ceiling? Strange I hadn't noticed them before." Wolfman gives her only one panel to brood angstily about the connection she has with spiders before the webs vanish, replaced by a horrible vision of her Jessica's own self, hideously withered and aged. And before Jessica can react to that, the image shatters into thousands of glass shards, which fall down like rain. Paralyzed by shock, she cannot dodge the spray of jagged glass, but rather than slice her to ribbons, the splinters pass through her and land all about her, reflecting the horrible image of an ancient and deformed Spider-Woman a thousand times over.
Now certain that the house is haunted by some malevolent, spectral force, Jessica searches for a way out. But everywhere she looks, she finds illusions: of dark abysses, giant spiderwebs, and other macabre settings. And those settings are haunted by other illusions: one by one, important figures from her past emerge from the darkness to challenge her. First Jerry Hunt; then a gigantic, Shelobesque spider (which represents her own genetic heritage); then her father; and finally Magnus. Each denounces her as evil or unworthy, and then transforms into a hideous, monstrous parody of itself, and then attacks. Spider-Woman fends off their attempts on her, both physical and verbal, refusing to be killed or driven mad. And finally, the assaults relent.
Free to act rather than react, Spider-Woman makes he way to the basement, descending rotten stairs with a flaming torch in her hand (did I mention this story was Gothic?). There she is once again beset with illusions: she sees a withered, desiccated corpse dressed in her own Spider-Woman costume, and is menaced by a band of animated suits of armour (a subtle hint about the perpetrator of these illusions). Jessica's venom blast is useless against these foes, but she doesn't need it: her own native agility and strength is sufficient to reduce them to bits. But her unknown assailant doesn't stop: the basement suddenly floods with a torrent of water, which threatens to drown her. Undeterred, she picks up a fallen sword and attempts to cut an exit into the walls; and with that the illusions end. Triumphantly, Spider-Woman addresses her invisible foe: "Is this a stalemate, then? You've given up trying to drive me insane? Don't you realize you could never get my psychoneuroses to destroy me? Whoever you are-you're a fool! Instead of exploiting my weaknesses, you've only forced me to confront them. And now that I have-they can no longer haunt me!"
Cowed by her words, a figure materializes out of the darkness: Magnus! Is he the one responsible for all of these horrors? No: he's unconscious, and bound with ropes to a chair, just as Spider-Woman was at the beginning of this issue. Jessica attempts to revive him, but it's no good: he can't be roused, for he's in the grip of a magical spell. And who cast it? On the last page of the issue, the truth is revealed: the shade of Morgan le Fey appears, flanked by monstrous servants. "I am Morgan le Fey... and nothing that lives can stop me! "
This issue continues Marv Wolfman's search for a direction to take on this title. He flirted with espionage thriller stuff in Spider-Woman's appearances in Marvel Two-in-One and issue #1; he tried magical mystery in issue #2; he tried roman noir in issues #3 and #4. None of these worked particularly well, especially the final two, so here in issue #5 he's going the safe route, and retreating to familiar territory: the gothic horror tale. In 1978 he'd been a writer on Tomb of Dracula for several years, so when he wrote this he was a master at all the Gothic beats: isolation, darkness, madness, secrets, monstrosity, the past spilling over into the present. And, surprisingly for a superhero book, this Gothic touch works very well.
I've supplied less of a blow-by-blow synopsis for this title, which is deliberate: this issue aims to deliver atmosphere rather than story, and it succeeds. The art and story combine to form a truly unsettling whole.
So the best of Marv Wolfman's writing (as of 1978) is on display here. Unfortunately the worst of his writing is on display here too. Let's run down the scorecard:
Characters that Wolfman is no longer interested in dropped from the story unceremoniously? Check: the Hangman gets the bum's rush on page 2. Unlike his spiritual cousins, the English robbers from the Marvel-Two-in-One issues, he won't even get to have his storyline hastily wrapped up at a later date. Boom, he's a dot, he's gone.
Plot problems disguised as plot points? Check: again, Jessica shows off erudition she should not have -- in this case, the basement crypt reminds her of Dante's Inferno -- and wonders at her own impossible knowledge, before some bit of business allows us to drop the matter.
Plot as a whole bent out of shape to allow Wolfman to do what he likes? Check: Jessica finds it easy to escape her bonds after the Hangman is gone, which allows her to have a harrowing adventure in her house. But no reason is given why she didn't escape earlier, before he left, and beat the tar out of him. And what is Morgan le Fey doing haunting the Hangman's house anyway? And how did an incorporeal spirit subdue Magnus, bring him to the Hangman's house, and tie him up? Don't ask questions to which there are no answers.
Ah, well. At least this time Wolfman has something to offer us instead of coherent plot: genuine chills. That's worth something: 3.5 webs, to be exact.
If only they could all have been like this. And perhaps they were to have been: in this month's lettercol, Wolfman (who had editing as well as writing duties on this title) promised us that he'd had a sudden revelation, and issue #8 would represent a startling change in direction. What that direction was I can't say for sure, as by the time issue #8 rolled around Wolfman wouldn't be on the title anymore, but internal evidence from the next few issues suggests that gothic horror was to be on the menu. What might have been...