Jessica has taken a new job as a receptionist at the Hatros Clinic. Recently, in her Spider-Woman identity, she engaged in a complicated fight there, first engaging a mysterious burglar named the Shroud, then fighting alongside the Shroud against a band of weird cultists. After the fight, both the Shroud and the cultists disappeared. Troubled, she has investigated, but come up with nothing.
It seems that the Shroud has been doing his own investigating, because he's now broken into Jessica's home, and has confronted her as she exits the shower! A costumed character who knows her secret identity, and has no qualms about home invasion: this doesn't bode well!
On the other hand, the cover shows Spider-Woman and the Shroud fighting a "Death Cult," and a caption proclaims "Guest-Starring the Shroud!", so maybe this encounter isn't as sinister as it may seem.
|Essential Spider-Woman #1
The Shroud explains that Jessica needn't be concerned for her modesty, because he is blind. Settling into one of her living-room easy chairs, the Shroud drops an exposition bomb, explaining over many pages who he is and what's he's up to. Seems he's an adventurer, initiated into the Mystic Arts of the Mysterious East. In the earliest phase of his career, he made some bad choices, and as a result the monks who trained him are mystically hidden from him. He wants to get back, and so he began investigating the Cult of Kali. He's now convinced they don't know anything more about his mentors than he does, but their violent ways concerns him. He's resolved to shut them down.
So how does Spider-Woman come into this? He followed the cult's trail to the clinic, where the two vigilantes tangled, but after the fight he pursued the cultists through a secret passage, all the way to their hideout. Wanting to know more about these cultists, he's decided to pore over their SHIELD files, and for this reason he's recruiting Spider-Woman to his cause. He proposes that the two of them raid SHIELD's archives, where Spider-Woman will read the file (because the Shroud, being blind, can't read), and in return the Shroud will direct Spider-Woman to the cult's headquarters.
"I'm not thrilled with the idea of breaking and entering government property," says Jessica, "but having a cult of killers on the loose is far worse."
"Great! Grab your costume and let's—"
"...I've been up all night. Surely it can wait until morning."
"I suppose. Mind if I camp out on your couch?"
The next morning, the Shroud cooks some breakfast, after which the two adventurers travel to the local SHIELD outpost, hidden beneath a Chinese restaurant. Jessica knows all about this because she was here with Jerry in Spider-Woman #7. Using a Maxwell-Smart-style hidden elevator, the two descend below the front operation. Using the Shroud's mystical darkness, they are able to change into mufti without being detected, and begin their infiltration of the base.
Let's take a moment to review. The first time Jessica met the Shroud, he broke into her workplace and tried to knock her out, after which the two fought, a fight only interrupted by the arrival of a group of cultists who tried to kill them both. The second time she met him, he broke into her apartment and surprised her right as she was getting out of the shower. Based on this behaviour, Jessica has decided she trusts him enough to
I wish I could believe that all this was supposed to signify to the reader that Jessica, with her confused and erratic upbringing, is still woefully naive about the world, as well as attracted to the wrong sort of man. I wish I could believe that, but I can't.
Oh, well. Let's not think about any of this, but just go along for the ride.
In the darkness, Jessica zaps the innocent receptionist with a venom blast, knocking her unconscious. (The Shroud uses his mystical senses to guide Spider-Woman's aim in the pitch blackness he has created.) While the two heroes beat up some unsettled SHIELD agents, Jessica muses about her attraction to the Shroud, and how she hopes she doesn't run into her "favorite SHIELD agent, Jerry Hunt... How I'd ever explain this to him, I don't know!" I can't explain it either, Jessica. Again, while we could mine this scene for all sorts of psychological tidbits, that would be doing this issue too much of a favour. There's no depth here at all, just a badly-thought-out action sequence.
After some more violence in the dark, the two adventurers reach SHIELD's records centre. The computers there, once persuaded by the Shroud, tell Jessica that the Cult of Kali is in no way related to the Shroud's mentors. His fears relieved, he's ready to hit the trail. "It still seems strange that you were able to program the computer, but you can't read the information it gives," remarks Jessica. Lampshade hung successfully, Spider-Woman and the Shroud depart the base by climbing up the wall of the rocket launch bay (yes, really) to the roof.
Standing on the dark rooftop, with a gigantically-full moon in the background, the Shroud says "...since it's still light out, why don't we first go somewhere and get a bite to eat" before tackling the cultist's lair. I guess the inker didn't get the memo.
Elsewhere, Jerry Hunt and his new partner Laura Brown are also investigating the Cult of Kali. Their investigation takes them first to the Hatros Clinic, bringing them to the attention of a mysterious figure; later, the two take in a home-cooked meal at Laura's house. Readers note both the budding sexual tension between them, and the cultists lurking in the bushes outside.
Cut to a Glendale cemetery, where Spider-Woman and the Shroud have come to take on the Cult. Apparently the cult's lair is hidden beneath a crypt, accessed through a secret stairway concealed under a sarcophagus. A skeptical Spider-Woman hangs another lampshade on all this gothic silliness, but that's just a prelude to another long, uninvolving battle sequence where the two heroes battle with scores of badly-drawn thugs.
It's all too dull to recap. The key facts are that Spider-Woman and the Shroud take out the cultists; the high priestess, her identity concealed by a robe, escapes, despite having received a full-force venom blast; and the cult's two unconscious prisoners, whom the priestess was about to sacrifice, are revealed to be Jerry and Laura. Well, duh. In the issue's only moment of any depth, Jessica decides to leave before Jerry revives, because being rescued by his girlfriend is the one thing he can't forgive her for.
Our heroes depart separately, leaving to Jessica to mull over the attraction she feels towards the Shroud, the lack of attraction she now feels towards Jerry, and the implications of same. Elsewhere, the high priestess swears a private revenge against Spider-Woman and Jessica Drew; she knows that the two are the same person. How she knows this is yet to be revealed, but the high priestess' identity will be revealed right now: it's "NEKRA, Priestess of Darkness!"
Ugh. Gruenwald knows how to write, but he hasn't yet learned how to make the story serve his characters rather than his characters serve his story. As a result, we have a very little bit of genuine insight into Jessica's interior life: her waning feelings for Jerry Hunt, and the reasons for that waning, namely his need to be the dominant partner. But all that insight is buried by the ridiculous plot, which jerks Jessica around to suit its needs. For no plausible reason, Jessica throws her lot in with yet another manipulative jerk; unleashes punches and venom blasts against innocent law-enforcement officers who have been her allies in the recent past; and gets involved in the entire affair for no reason that Gruenwald has been able to articulate.
These sins might be forgiven if they were in service to a really gripping tale, but the whole thing is so badly drawn (by Carmine Infantino, who's clearly lost all interest in the proceedings) and so badly constructed (never has a melee battle with a score of bloodthirsty, knife-wielding cultists been so boring) that one has to force oneself to keep turning pages.
Lousy. Jessica's decision to conceal the fact that she's rescued Jerry yet again is the only bright spot.