You want background? Okay, Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew occasionally fights crime in her red-and-yellow outfit. Her powers include the ability to glide on air currents and to shoot venom blasts; she also has spider-strength. She occasionally hangs out with her friend Lindsey McCabe.
That’s it, the entirety of the background for issue #21. That’s because this issue establishes an entirely new status quo for Spider-Woman. I don’t know what they called issues like this back in 1979, before computers were ubiquitous, but today they call it a “re-boot” issue.
After a quick splash page depicting Jessica in mid-flight, provided so we readers don’t forget whose book this is, we begin the story with a bunch of hoods in outrageous period suits robbing a jewelry store. As they leave, they patronize – in both senses – an old woman with a sidewalk flower stand. Little do they or the readers know that the crone is actually Jessica Drew in disguise! As the hoods leave, Jessica sneaks into an alley and changes into costume. Taking to the air, she pursues the hoods’ car and, “within moments,” has tracked them into the countryside.
Either this is lazy writing or rush-hour traffic in L.A. was a lot better in 1979 than I’ve been led to believe.
Anyway, with the hoods now isolated, Spider-Woman is free to make her move. She alights on the car roof, so gently that no one aboard hears her descend. Using her spider-powers to cling topside, she exerts her spider-strength to force the vehicle off the road. (I don't think that’s possible – what’s she bracing herself against? – but I’m not sure, so let’s continue.) The car is pulled off-road and cracks up. The crooks emerge with guns at the ready, but they’re outmatched: one venom-blast and two applications of “a small dose of your basic martial-arts razzle-dazzle”, and all three are out cold.
Cut to LAPD headquarters, where someone named “Captain Walsh” is chewing out his detective squad for their lack of progress on the “Majestic Jewel job.” So far all they’ve got is a positive identification from the clerk that the robbers were part of the “Louie DeFalco gang.” I suspect this is a jab at Marvel staffer Tom DeFalco, but who knows? The Captain, your stereotypical gruff cop who shouts at his staff all the time, knows he’ll have to work late to crack this case. “Somebody send me up a pizza... extra cheese, mushrooms, sausage, and tell Beppe if I catch a single anchovy in there, I’ll bring back the pizza box and shove it down his throat!”
What a character! What depth! I hope a future issue reveals the origin of his hatred for anchovies.
The Captain leaves the squad room and heads for his office, where he is shocked to discover Spider-Woman and the three unconscious goons from the DeFalco gang. That’s a good trick Jessica pulled, bringing all three from the countryside to an eighth-floor office in downtown L.A. without anyone noticing, and so quickly that the goons didn’t wake up. The Captain isn’t too pleased that Jessica using his office window as an entryway, and he isn’t pleased to be working with a stranger who covers her face, but he’s satisfied so long has Jessica is catching crooks. In turn, Jessica is satisfied when she gets paid for the work: she asks the Captain to send the $20,000 bounty on the DeFalco Gang to her “blind box number.” I don’t know if that’s a post-office box or a bank account, but the point is, Jess is a bounty hunter now, and expects to get paid for her superheroing work.
As Jess leaves, we eavesdrop on her thoughts. Seems that meeting Spider-Man (last issue, in Spider-Woman #20) inspired her to turn her life around, and she’s reinvented herself as a bounty hunter. She’s got a new apartment and a new base of operations. “I only wish,” she thinks, “that this old theatrical costumers which has begun to play such an important role in my life, hadn’t had to come to me as the result of a terrible tragedy!” A footnote box notes that “a future issue will reveal the entire nerve-numbing story!”, but don’t hold your breath. She’s got a working relationship with Captain Walsh, even if he’s not pleased about it, and she’s got a new partner: her neighbour, Scotty McDowell.
Scotty is interesting from a comics-history point of view: a decade before Oracle made her debut, Scotty was introduced as a wheelchair-bound genius who, unable to catch crooks in person, instead uses his computer savvy to provide intel to a costumed crimefighter. He’s the one that feeds Spider-Woman the information she needs to find her quarry, and she bankrolls his operations out of her bounties. Jessica is glad of his assistance, but, as is typical for a comic-book character, she fails to see that beneath Scotty’s professional competence, he’s got a serious crush on her, one that he’s too nervous to act upon.
We need a bit more action to round out the issue, so Spider-Woman takes two pages to follow up on a tip from Scotty and catch some robbers that have taken over a lighthouse. The crooks barely have time to explain their cockamamie scheme before Jess bursts in, beats the snot out of them, and leaves. Presumably to collect the bounty, though nothing on that point is specified. In an ominous sign of things to come, the book is already starting to lose track of its premise.
Cut to Jessica’s apartment, where she indulges in what today we would call fan-service. Back in 1979 I suppose they simply called it exploitation. Jessica strips down, takes a shower, and takes a phone call from Lindsey McCabe while wearing only a towel. She promises to meet up with Lindsey soon to catch her up on what she’s been doing lately, but has to cut the call short to answer the door – Scotty wants to invite her to a late dinner. The two relax over wine, giving us our moment to go out on: Jessica naively suggesting that Scotty needs a woman in his life, oblivious to the fact that she is the one he’s interested in.
The first run of Spider-Woman had its peaks and valleys. The Gruenwald era, just ended, was one peak, and the Claremont run to come was another. In between was the Michael Fleisher era, a valley if there ever was one. Be prepared for some lousy stories for the next ten issues or so.
A 1979 reader would have had no reason to expect what was coming. After all, this opening issue of Fleisher’s run isn’t bad. It sets up the new status quo in an economical fashion, bringing in new characters, settings, and motivations quickly. Under other circumstances, doing it this fast would be too jarring and too violent to the previous status quo, but given that Gruenwald had largely cleared the decks of all that stuff – Jerry and Magnus, the Hatros Clinic, and the rest – by Spider-Woman #20, Fleisher’s fresh start in media res feels earned. Seeing Jessica carry out her activities so competently is a refreshing change from the hesitant, self-doubting woman that Wolfman set up and that Gruenwald retained. Yes, there are a lot of positive signs here.
There are warning signs also. As suggested above, by the second action sequence the writing is already losing sight of the bounty-collecting premise. Sure, she captures some thugs, but there’s no hint that she’s going to turn them in for a reward, not even some defensive exposition to that effect. Captain Walsh couldn’t be more cringe-worthy or unoriginal a character, rolling up all the stereotyped senior cops of the 1970s into one package. The fact that Fleisher and his editor (Jim Shooter!) don’t know how Jess got ownership of that theatrical-costume warehouse is a bad sign too, albeit one that readers wouldn’t twig to. How could they know the promise to reveal the backstory there would never be fulfilled?
Yet another bridge issue for the title, setting up yet another new status quo. But competently done, so far as this title is concerned. And the artwork by Frank Springer and Mike Esposito is a step up for the book as well. Three webs.
Remember that rating. We won’t see anything of that level again for some time to come.