Spider-Woman is still living in the Dolly guesthouse, still dating Jerry Hunt, still hanging around with that creepy wizard Magnus... but she's got a new attitude, thanks to her new scripter Mark Gruenwald. In this story, which was (as far as I can tell) Gruenwald's first published story for Marvel, Gruenwald provides Spider-Woman's finest adventure published to that date. Read on...
The story opens with Spider-Woman gliding into the night, leaving behind an annoyed Jerry Hunt. They had been enjoying an evening at the theatre, but with the show over Jessica announced that she wanted some alone-time, leaving Jerry frustrated that Jessica wouldn't let him "drive her home..."
Huh. Didn't Jerry say as recently as last issue that he appreciated the fact that he and Jessica allowed each other their own space?
Oh, wait a minute. 'Drive her home' is a euphemism. No wonder he's frustrated.
As he stomps through the streets, Jerry begins to rethink their relationship, but he doesn't get far before he hears a cry in a dark alley. Heroic agent of SHIELD that he is, he bursts into the alley, gun drawn, but what he finds there stops him cold: a long, thin figure in a white jumpsuit and a white mask and cap, menacing a prostrate victim with a long, needle-like sword. The caption helpfully identifies this person as "the Needle", in stylized, 1970s-era sketched letters, too.
Jerry points his gun at the Needle and demands he "hold it right there!" The Needle turns and gazes at Jerry. As the panels 'zoom in' on the Needle, we see that his white hood covers his entire face, his features protruding skull-like under the fabric, with a only a small tear over a terrible blue eye. (These panels are fantastic, showing Carmine Infantino at his best. It's clear that, by this point on the book's run, he's only really making an effort on those pages which he himself finds visually interesting.) Thanks to the fine pencils, the reader knows immediately that the Needle is both malevolent and dangerous, without him uttering a word. As the Needle approaches, Jerry tries to respond but finds himself paralyzed, unable to resist as the Needle takes Jerry's head in his hands, and does... something to him that we the reader cannot see, as we're looking at the scene from behind Jerry's head. The next page reveals the horrible truth: the Needle has sewn Jerry's lips shut.
This deed done (and repeated on the similarly-paralyzed youth whom Jerry had tried to rescue), the Needle departs.
Cut to Spider-Woman, who's just arrived back at the Dolly rooming house. "Poor Jerry," she thinks. "I could tell he was perturbed by my wishing to fly home." 'Perturbed' is one way of putting it, but in a family-oriented mag (and website) we can't use more accurate terminology.
Or maybe not so family-oriented, because Jessica's internal monologue continues as she begins stripping off her costume. Surprise, surprise, she doesn't wear a bra under the spandex. (Not even a sports bra? Ouch.) Fan-service aside, these panels quietly put paid to the Wolfman-era notion that Jessica is going to put away her costume permanently: as Gruenwald writes her, Jessica is determined to accept the fact that she is genetically part-spider, and sees her life as Spider-Woman as an extension of her genetic heritage. "I love Jerry-- I think-- but he's going to have to learn to accept me for all that I am!"
She thinks she loves Jerry? Trouble in paradise...
Next morning, Jessica breakfasts with her landlady and her landlady's sons, but the repast is interrupted by a call from the hospital, informing Jess of Jerry's plight. As she rushes off, Mrs. Dolly sadly wonders why people can't be more like her dolls.
(See, Marv Wolfman? That's foreshadowing with subtlety.)
Jessica is shocked and outraged by the eerie assault on her boyfriend, and leaves the hospital room determined to bring the villain to justice. Jerry's not wild about this, but as his punctured lips are still too sore to allow him to talk, he can't express his opinions as forcefully as he might like.
Jess wanders around the neighbourhood where Jerry was attacked without turning anything up; all she achieves is creeping out passersby with her bad vibes. Remember those? Wolfman dropped that plot point like a bad habit around issue #3, but meticulous Mark Gruenwald, king of continuity, has picked it up again. Disgusted with her failure-- "playing daytime detective is just not my style," she thinks (if only she knew what was in store for her around issue #21)-- she waits until nightfall and begins haunting the alleys as Spider-Woman. The Needle, too, is on the prowl, stalking a young couple leaving a cinema. Paula, the talkative one, asks Chuck if he wants to "head over to my place? I made brownies."
Again, maybe this book isn't so family-oriented as it may seem.
Enter the Needle. Spider-Woman, some blocks away, hears Paula's screams, and glides over to investigate, but too late: Chuck's lips have been sewn shut.
Next morning, Jessica welcomes Jerry back from the hospital. Jerry's grumpy that Jess has been investigating the Needle in his absence, but Jessica doesn't have time for his hurt feelings. She's more interested in the fact that the Needle went after Chuck but left Paula alone: why is the Needle only going after young men?
The readers find out immediately, as the story cuts to the lair of the Needle. In captions, the omniscient narrator tells the readers the Needle's backstory. It seems the Needle was until recently an elderly tailor, who was severely beaten by a gang of punks one evening on his walk home from work. Now blind in one eye, and apparently mute as well, he has fashioned the garb of the Needle so that he may take revenge on all young men for the injuries he has suffered.
That evening Jerry and Spider-Woman patrol the streets, looking for the Needle, Spider-Woman in the air and Jerry on foot. Jerry is privately bristling at what he regards as Jessica's patronizing treatment of him. "Now that I know what I'm up against, I'll be ready for it. You can't take a SHIELD agent twice," he thinks, even as the Needle's shadow appears behind him.
Again, Spider-Woman hears the sounds of a struggle, in this case a shot from Jerry's gun. She races to the scene to find Jerry, paralyzed again, but this time the Needle hasn't had a chance to sew his lips shut. A fight ensures, and Jessica quickly finds the Needle is no pushover: able to dodge some of her venom blasts, and withstand the others; fast and strong enough to resist her blows, and with his paralyzing gaze. For a moment it seems that the Needle has Jess at his mercy, and is preparing to sew her lips shut, but his decision to move in close is his undoing, as Jessica takes him out with a venom blast at close range. Jessica's spider-metabolism helped her shrug off his paralysis gaze, and her venom bolt, delivered at full power, was enough to finish the Needle off.
As the police arrive, Jessica makes a quick fade, and the cops take the Needle away. Jerry, now himself again, mutters that he was "about as useful as a bicycle is to a fish!" (Ooh, how topical.) Jessica replies that "you've rescued me before, Jerry. I think I'm entitled to my turn! Come on, you can buy me dinner!"
This is the best issue of Spider-Woman that had been published up to that time.
Admittedly, it wasn't up against strong competition. Archie Goodwin only turned in an origin issue, and Marv Wolfman's subsequent work was clearly not his best. But still: this story the best one so far? That may seem strange, given the gaping plot hole, namely, just where did the Needle get his suite of powers? Old men beaten up within an inch of their lives don't become faster and stronger as a result, let alone developing weird paralysis powers. There's a hint that the beating the old man received unlocked some heretofore inactive part of his brain, triggering a mutant origin or something, but it's only a hint. Surely this is of a piece with the casual, sloppy writing that Wolfman brought to the table?
Far from it. This story's goal is to scare the daylights out of you, and it succeeds admirably. The Needle is genuinely creepy: mostly seen in shadow, with a skull-like head, and a single eye blazing with malice. And what he does is also genuinely creepy: sewing your lips shut, as you stare at him, helpless. Behaviour like that breaks at least three taboos, off the top of my head.
And he doesn't say a word while he's at it. That total silence is most eerie of all.
Contrast Gruenwald's Needle with Wolfman's Hangman, another grim-'n-gritty vigilante who's also motivated to use brutal violence against criminals. The Needle is scary while the Hangman is a joke, mostly because the Needle is silent while the Hangman throws chunks of exposition every which way.
A writer who understands that fewer words, or even no words, are more effective than many words: clearly Gruenwald's grasp of the writer's craft is significantly better than Wolfman's. And this is Gruenwald's first published comics story, while Wolfman was one of Marvel's top writers at this time. The comparison speaks volumes.
Clearly a new era for Spider-Woman is beginning here.
The first Spider-Woman story to deserve a perfect score, despite the handwaves in the Needle's background. Few villains before or since are as creepy or as memorable as this guy.
If any one-shot character ever deserved a comeback, it's him. And Spider-Woman has her own series coming back to Marvel's publishing schedule... Brian Michael Bendis, are you listening?
Gruenwald shows how to work continuity. He's got plans for Jessica that will take her far away from her status quo under Wolfman, but he's not going to abruptly shake up everything, he's going to lay the groundwork for those changes first.