With the help of her sidekick Scotty, Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew works as a bounty hunter, capturing the felons of Los Angeles for fun and profit. With the conclusion of the three-part ‘Gamesman’ arc last issue, the decks are clear for a new Spider-Woman adventure.
Spider-Woman glides over the L.A. docks, eyeing some crooks who are pulling a late-night heist of furs from a sealed freight container. Oddly, this information is established twice, once in Jessica’s interior monologue, and again in the omniscient narration of the caption boxes. Jessica swoops in for the capture, which she executes swiftly in a page’s worth of melee. She’s so competent at this stuff by now that she’s not even paying attention to her work: even while delivering a flurry of kicks, venom blasts, and head-smashings, she’s contemplating the office furniture she’s going to buy with the bounty on these hoods. Moreover, she reflects at length on how easy her job is, thanks to her anonymity. The crooks can’t prepare for her if they don’t even know she exists.
Superhero action to draw casual readers in? Check. Foreshadowing of plot development to come? Check. Now we can move onto the boring expository work of setting up the real antagonist of this issue. Enter “transplanted Englishman Rupert M. Dockery”, a media mogul who has just purchased “the ailing Los Angeles Courier.” How do we know he’s the antagonist? Let’s count the ways:
All he needs to complete the depiction of ‘cartoonish supervillain’ is a mustache. Either the waxed kind a la Snidely Whiplash or the pencil-thin kind a la Hitler would do. Of course, if he had a mustache, his resemblance to a noted real-life figure might be compromised. Which figure is that? Why, an Anglosphere media tycoon named Rupert whose surname sounds similar to “M. Dock” who is noted for buying up newspapers and running them entirely for his own benefit without concern for the public good.
They wanted a real-life example of a cartoonish supervillain, and they made an excellent choice, it seems to me.
As Dockery and his “pretties” leave the Courier building, they are accosted by two crooks who seem to have taken their leads in fashion from Voight and Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. These two aren’t muggers, as Dockery seems to think at first, but rather kidnappers. “Why should we settle for the few lousy bucks in your wallet when your newspaper’ll ante up a million bucks easy just to get you back in one piece!” Dockery, in awe of their magical ability to make guns appear in their hands from nowhere (seriously, at the top of the page they’ve got their hands out and empty, at the bottom they’re holding massive pistols, despite the fact that they’re not wearing holsters and their coats are still buttoned up) goes along quietly.
Too bad for them, because Spider-Woman just happens to be gliding by overhead, and intervenes in force. Voight receives a venom blast (“zdak!”); Hoffman gets a sock to the jaw. Both collapse, though Hoffman first has a chance to complain, “Hey, Rupe, this wasn’t in the plan!”
Plan, eh? Yes, this was all a set-up. As Spider-Woman glides into the night, Dockery abandons his dates to return to the Courier offices. “This is much better than my phony kidnapping plot!” he thinks. “That flying chick is going to sell a million!”
Next morning, the (badly drawn) front page of the Courier screams the headline “Mystery Woman Saves Publisher”. Scotty is displeased. “Didn’t you stop to think how this kind of glaring publicity could impair your future effectiveness as a crimefighter?” Jessica is impatient with this reasoning, as she should be. What was she supposed to do? she asks. And how was she to know the man in peril was a newspaper publisher? Scotty backs off, confessing that of course Jessica did the right thing, but that the loss of her anonymity is bound to be problematic.
Or maybe not. In New York, Spider-Man is reading up on Spider-Woman’s activities. He’s naturally curious, given that though he met Jessica back in Spider-Woman #20, he never learned her name. Now that he has, though, he’s not concerned about trademark infringement. “She struck me as one capable lady. One way or another, I’m betting she’ll find a way to cope” with this unexpected deluge of publicity.
A completely gratuitous cameo? Actually, no, for reasons that will become apparent in a couple of issues. And it’s a nice touch to bring back this pre-Fleisher bit of continuity. We readers would expect that Spider-Man would be interested in hearing of a Spider-Woman operating out on the coast, so we get to see his reaction. I expect Bendis will be revisiting this scene in flashback in Avengers one day.
Meanwhile, Dockery’s plan is a great success. “The morning edition has completely sold out,” a flunky reports to him. “The whole town’s gone bananas over that flying heroine...! [but how] can we continue to use her to build circulation for the Courier?” Dockery knows the answer to that one. He takes his limo to a seedy bar, where he takes a meeting with (ahem) Brute Bashby, a “major crime figure” in L.A. The deal is that Bashby will warn the Courier in advance of his crimes, so that the newspaper can cover them. In return Bashby will be paid “lotsa extra bread”. What’s more, Dockery will provide Bashby with a costume and equipment, so he can be “set apart from the average, uh, small-time crook.” Yes, Bashby is entering the big time as... the Grinder!
If you’re snickering now, wait until you see his costume. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“And in Los Angeles’s [sic] World Skytower Building, in the lavish penthouse suite occupied by Arnolde [sic] Windersmith and Sons, exhibitors and vendors of rare coins,” Arnolde (really? well, anyone who can make that muttonchops-to-mustache combo work can call himself whatever he wants, I guess) is showing off “a quarter of a million” in gold coins. The coins will be sold the following day, and to keep them safe, they’re being kept in a “massive molybdenum-steel vault.” Just as Arnolde closes the lock on the safe, the Grinder makes his entrance by slicing a hole through the wall!
Too bad. If he’d arrived even a few seconds earlier, the coins would have been easily accessible. But then he wouldn’t have needed to cut through the safe. Which is what he does, naturally. It’s child’s play, thanks to his “handy-dandy titanium grinder gizmo!” I guess that sounded a lot more impressive in 1980, before titanium products were in wide circulation and people were generally aware of what titanium is and what it can do. Which isn’t much; its virtue lies in its hardness relative to its weight. A titanium saw is light, but not especially powerful. It’s certainly not powerful enough to shatter a steel vault door to pieces in a single stroke, as the Grinder does here. But that’s comics for you.
Speaking of ‘that’s comics,’ I have to pause for a moment to comment upon the absolute ludicrousness of the Grinder’s outfit. He’s wearing a hot pink jumpsuit, with lime-green boots and gloves. He’s also got Superman-style underwear on the outside of his pants; the underpants are also lime-green. If that’s not painful enough, he’s wearing a helmet on his head and a fuel tank on his back, both of which are orange-brown. A fuel tank, you say? For what? Why, for the circular saw-blade (made of titanium, you know) that spins above his head, like the propellor blade on a beanie cap.
Oh, and he’s got a bright yellow circuit board, or something, in the middle of his chest, held there by a belt encircling his chest. An orange-brown belt, natch.
Were you wondering why the Grinder doesn’t appear on the cover of this issue, but only his saw-blade? Wonder no more!
It’s time for Spider-Woman to spring into action! We readers know that she’s already on the scene, disguised as the arm candy Arnolde was using to show off the coins. She quickly changes into her action uniform... or I guess she does, because in one panel she’s dressed in a white dress and blonde wig, and four panels later she’s in mufti. How she pulled that off without anyone noticing is anyone’s guess, because the ‘eye of the camera’ in this scene is firmly on the Grinder and his takedown of the safe. Perhaps everyone else’s eyes were too? Nah, I’m chalking this one done to Fleisher’s already-well-established laziness at narrative.
Speaking of which, you may wonder how Jessica happened to be here at all. Well, Scotty had previously determined that set-up or not, Jess had to take down the Grinder to preserve her reputation. (Why?) Given that the Grinder can fly, he deduced that the crook’s first exploit would be “an aerial crime.” He ordered Jessica to hit the books and “try to come up with a good caper you could pull in L.A. tonight if you could fly through the air and slice your way through stuff!”
But when the Grinder appears, Jess thinks that “Scotty is an absolute genius!” So I guess he figured it out by himself.
Anyway, the Grinder is monologuing. “All I gotta do is...” “All you gotta do is go straight to the slammer!” interjects a now-costumed Spider-Woman, who tries to blast him with a venom bolt. Too bad he ducks his head just in time for the bolt to bounce off of his spinning grinder blade. All of this is confusingly presented in a single panel, making the sequence of events rather hard to follow.
The Grinder dives back out the hole he drilled, while Jessica berates herself for being too self-confident. “If I’d waited till I moved in closer, I could’ve probably hit him in a spot he couldn’t protect with that shield!” Or maybe your problem is you warned him by making tough-talk quips instead of just shooting him. I could go either way on this one.
Outside, Spider-Woman glides in the night air, her body caught in a spotlight cast by the Courier TV affiliate, broadcasting from the streets below. With her arachnid senses, she can even tell that reporters and photographers from the Courier are at street level, covering the story. “But how did they get here so fast?” she wonders. Wait, didn’t Scotty work out that the Courier was working an inside job seven pages back? Jessica has to learn to stay focused, because while she’s worrying about her Q-rating, the Grinder is lobbing a grinder blade at her.
Yes, it comes off of his head. No, I don’t know how he aims it. Yes, he’s got another one, so he doesn’t fall to his death. No, Jessica doesn’t get hit, but it does sever the “glider-web” under her right arm. So maybe she’s the one who will fall to her death.
Not this time. She curls up and cannonballs through a conveniently-placed awning (“Wong’s Deli”) into a crate of greengroceries. “I’ll ache all over in the morning but I made it!” You or I would take a moment to catch our breaths, contemplate our mortality, etc., but Spider-Woman is made of sterner stuff. She grabs the Grinder’s blade, which managed to fall only a few paces away from her.
If you think that’s unlikely, given its trajectory and momentum, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Jess picks it up and hurls it like a discus. “Take spider strength – add unerring aim – and the result is...” The result is, Jessica throws the blade up twenty or more storeys at the Grinder, who’s still puttering around in the vicinity for some reason, and manages to strike him just so, in order to sever the axle connecting his helmet to his grinder blade. Now it’s the Grinder who’s falling toward certain death.
Except not, because Jessica catches him, jogging over and plucking him out of the air at ground level, like he was a pop fly ball or something. A guy who weighs 200 pounds or more in street clothes, let alone the heavy Grinder crime-suit. And who’s got all the velocity of someone who’s just fallen twenty storeys. That’s remarkable, especially given how weak Jessica is supposed to be these days: significantly weaker than Spider-Man, according to issue #20.
Oh well. Looks like the police are on hand, along with the newshounds and photographers, and they smartly take the Grinder into custody. Dockery, watching from his nearby limo, smirks to himself. He got his one day of news out of this, but that’s a lousy return on investment, given the time and money he sank into the Grinder. “Next time I’ll have to come up with something better!” he muses.
“Next issue: Rupert Dockery makes good on his threat!” burbles the caption box. Seems Dockery will pit Jessica “against her deadliest foe... the insidious Enforcer! This one is not to be missed!”
I guess we’re all supposed to have forgotten how easily Spider-Woman overcame the Enforcer back in Spider-Woman #19... deadliest foe, my eye. Oh well, that bit of hyperbole is the least of this issue’s sins.
WHAT I LIKED: Jessica’s overall level of competence. Her only gaffe is failing to shoot the Grinder with a venom-blast straight off. And that blunder is understandable, because if she had simply used the element of surprise to knock him out, it would have been plausible, but anticlimactic. So I let her off the hook, for the same reason I forgive Spider-Man for not opening every fight he gets into by webbing up the antagonist.
WHAT I DID NOT LIKE: Everything else.
Sheesh, this issue is bad. In theory, it could have been good. Dockery represents a promising type of villain, a type we haven’t seen in this title to date: a man who poses a threat to the hero but not the kind of threat that can be solved by punching. And the idea that he might sit back and sponsor physical threats to the heroine while lurking in the shadows, physically and legally untouchable, could make for a great story.
But this isn’t it. Dockery is an embarrassingly-obvious roman-à-clef character, which robs him of any real menace. He’s ludicrously over the top as a villain – firing loyal employees! sexing up empty-headed party girls! faking kidnapping plots! hiring criminals! – that he never develops any sense of menace. Speaking of lack of menace, I think the Grinder wins the prize for the least-developed and least-thought-through villain ever. I’m betting that, if Bendis had continued his new-millennium revival of Spider-Woman, this is one villain he wouldn’t have returned from obscurity. Obscure is what this character deserves.
As a final note, I observe that Fleisher’s tendency to think of a few good scenes and write them up, without paying any attention to how they fit in the larger narrative, is getting worse. How did Jessica get herself hired on as Arnolde’s assistant, given the short time she had to prepare for the Grinder’s robbery? How did she change costume once he arrived? Why don’t any of Dockery’s criminal employees, like the two guys facing a felony kidnapping rap for trying to fake his abduction, rat him out to the cops after they’re arrested? How on Earth could Jessica throw a discus twenty storeys up at a moving target and manage to hit the grinder axle, rather than, say, the Grinder’s neck? And what happened to the blade after it severed that axle? Did it hit anything or anyone else on the way back down?
I was going to raise the grade to one web, given that I like to reward issues where Jessica displays herself as good at her job, but the Grinder is so tragically, ludicrously wretched as a character I can’t do it. Half a web.
So the cover features Spider-Woman, legs spread, with a gigantic tool thrusting at her crotch. And if it penetrates her, she`ll die.
You stay classy, Marvel.