Jessica is a costume-wearing bounty hunter, who, with her sidekick Scotty McDowell, fights crime in L.A. As the title of this issue suggests, these circumstances are about to change.
At the end of last issue, Jessica and her best friend Lindsay McCabe were sunbathing on a Malibu beach, and Lindsay was about to make a big announcement. But their conversation was interrupted when a passing hippie began to argue with some police officers. They asked for some ID, and he responded with a scream... and then “the world went mad!”
The omniscient narrator gives us the deets. The screaming hippie - also known as The Screamer, natch - is named David Angar, and his scream induces hallucinations in the hearer. Those visions take the form of the listener’s worst nightmares, and has the added side effect of erasing their short-term memory, making it a useful trick for avoiding close scrutiny. Angar gloats a little that his power still works, as he was afraid he’d left it unused so long while in prison that it might have lost its effectiveness. Pleased that it hasn't, he leaves the beach, leaving the sunbathers to their own private horrors.
Jessica’s dark fantasy is that the “arachnid serum that saved her life as a child” turns her into a full spider, complete with eight limbs, facet eyes, and “cruel, venom-encrusted fangs”. I don’t think this account is right on the details, either about Jessica’s origin or spider anatomy, but let’s not quibble; I can surely see why Jessica would harbour such anxieties.
In short order, everyone on the beach rouses from their terrors, except the police officer. Yes, somewhere between last issue and this, the pair of cops became a single one. He’s still unconscious, and the beach denizens stand around, wondering what happened to him. To Jessica’s shock, while she can clearly remember the screaming hippie and the nightmares that he induced, no one else can remember these things. To them, their day at the beach was never interrupted at all.
And so it is for Jessica. Her memories are the last to fade, but they melt away as well. Harbouring only “a vague sense of unease”, she packs her things and returns to her apartment. She’s to meet Lindsay later for a fancy dinner, where the big announcement will be made. Jessica prepares for her evening out by - sigh - taking a shower, giving the audience the I-suppose-it's-a-editorial-mandate helping of fan service. This time, in case you’re wondering, the shower scene is done in silhouette, succeeded by Jessica wandering her apartment in a towel. This pandering accompanies a long phone conversation between Jessica and Scotty, who calls just as Jessica dons a robe.
Scotty is his typically brusque self, complaining about Jessica’s absence during a time when a valuable bounty has just become available. That bounty, of course, is on David “the Screamer” Angar, who’s just escaped from a “prison in the Middle Eastern country of Halwan”, and is rumoured to be in L.A. Jessica is annoyed that Scotty took this assignment without consulting her, but with some justice he points out that he tried to contact her, but she took the day off without warning him. Unwilling to put up with Scotty’s attitude, even if he’s got a point, she brushes off his demand she come over for an immediate briefing, and tells him she’s taking the evening off and that they’ll talk later.
Scotty doesn't take this well. “If I wasn't stuck in this wheelchair, I’d find Angar myself! You’re my legs, Spider-Woman. I depend on you. I guess that was my big mistake. Hello? Web-lady-- hello?”
Yes, Jessica decided she didn't want to take what Scotty was dishing out, so she hung up on him. He calls back, of course, but she breaks the connection with a twist of a knob. “We seem to be hurting each other a lot lately,” Jessica muses. “You’re a man with a mission to bring criminals to justice. I’d... rather help people.” If you say so, Jess. We haven’t seen much of that on this title so far, which was one of the refreshing things about it: Jessica wasn't a costumed do-gooder, she was just a woman who used her costume to achieve her other goals. She wasn't a card-carrying altruist, like so many superheroes. But it’s Chris Claremont’s title now, and if he wants to make Jessica over, I suppose he has as much right as any of the previous writers have had.
Elsewhere, Angar reflects on his backstory, which involves brief dust-ups with Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Colleen ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ Wing, the latter having ended her contretemps with Angar by slicing his gut open with a sword. He’s since got better and has escaped from Halwan and into L.A. with the help of a “mysterious benefactor”, whom he expects to meet this evening at Star City, which doubles as an amusement park and “the Los Angeles terminus of a top-secret criminal Underground Railroad”. Uh-huh. It seems Star City is run by the local crime syndicate, and they’re unhappy that Angar left the premises; by driving the cop on the beach insane, he’ll draw the attention of law enforcement to the area, since Angar’s modus operandi is well known. And that attention might expose the Underground Railroad setup they have here. Angar decides the only thing to do is to cover his tracks by killing the mobsters who run the place with his scream.
Ah well, I can’t get too upset. Serves those mobsters right, calling their outfit an Underground Railroad. That’s extremely poor taste.
While all of this is going on, Jessica is at dinner with Lindsay, who’s ready to make her big announcement. She’s been accepted into the cast of the San Francisco Repertory Theater, and will be moving up-state shortly. Would Jessica like to come with and be her roommate? Jessica thinks that indeed she might, given how much she enjoyed her trip to that city back in Spider-Woman #33. She promises to give Lindsay a firm answer soon, and, dinner over, says goodbye to Lindsay and glides over to Scotty’s place to get the briefing on Angar.
That briefing, plus some legwork talking to witnesses, puts Jessica onto Star City. Gliding over the now-deserted amusement park, Jessica searches for Angar, but is easily ambushed by him. Before she can react, Angar’s scream zaps her into a hallucinated nightmare, complete with flying roller-coaster cars, colour contrails, and all the paraphernalia of a bad acid trip.
Jessica manages to come to her senses, but not before flying at full speed right into a Ferris wheel. Trying to get her bearings, she stumbles over the corpse of the Star City manager that Angar killed earlier; while she’s distracted by this discovery, Angar zaps her again, and then a third time, this instance amplified by the park’s public-address system.
And that’s the one that breaks her. Screaming and sobbing, Jessica is transported into a horrible reenactment of her past. She relives her exile from Wundagore Mountain, her association with HYDRA, and, interestingly, her contretemps with Morgan le Fey from Spider-Woman #6. Unable to restrain what she regards as her dark instincts, she lets loose with her venom blasts, and her tormentors melt into vapour. Although it’s not explicitly spelled out, it’s suggested that this sequence represents Jessica not merely hallucinating, but flirting with full, permanent psychosis; but her desire for self-mastery keeps her grounded until, finally, the mental assault ceases.
As she regains consciousness, she finds herself sprawled at the summit of the roller-coaster track. Far below her is Angar, who’s astonished at her recovery. “Ladybug, I hit you with everything I had. You should be dead!” Rather than make a witty rejoinder, Jessica uses her venom blast on the metal rail of the track, which makes a superb conductor. Even at his great distance from her, Angar is knocked off of his feet and falls to the ground, several storeys below. Luckily for him, a convenient awning breaks his fall.
As he struggles to his feet, Jessica grabs a nearby bag of cement mix and uses the last venom-blast she can muster to break it open, filling the air with powder. Angar tries to scream again, but the dust-filled air chokes him, neutering his power. As he tries to flee, Jessica “runs a bluff” and attempts to “frighten Angar as he’s frightened so many others”. She can’t manage a full venom blast any more, but she can generate a few sparks. These aren’t enough to harm, but they are scary, and Angar finds himself hemmed in by them, unable to escape. Exhausted and terrified, he surrenders.
Jessica stares into his popped eyes and dilated pupils. “I was going to repay you for the harm you've done. I planned to beat you to a pulp… but you’re not worth the effort. I’m summoning the police, Angar. Don’t move. If you run, I’ll find you… and next time I won’t bother controlling my temper.”
Fortunately for Angar, he’s been playing possum until his voice returned, and he now uses it on Spider-Woman.
Unfortunately for Angar, she’s now immune to the cerebral toxins that his power induces, thanks to her spider-metabolism. Annoyed, she punches Angar out. So much for him, though I wonder why her metabolism didn’t kick in after her first exposure at the beach. Let’s say it was because that exposure was so fleeting and leave it at that.
Requisite superhero action aside, let’s go to the heart of this issue: Jessica’s break-up with Scotty! Jessica’s finally seen that Scotty is no good for her (I’d strike “for her”, but let’s not quibble) and means to dissolve their partnership. She glides over to his apartment to do just that, but before she can say anything, Scotty tells her that he’s quitting. He’s tired of fighting with Jessica, and wants to preserve their friendship by ending their professional association. Jessica, who wasn’t looking forward to giving The Talk, fakes resigned acceptance: “if this is what you want, Scotty, I’m happy for you.” Gloating over the irony, Jessica glides out of Scotty’s life, for good as it happens.
Cut to Lindsay McCabe, who’s packing her car for the drive upstate. She’s delighted when Jessica joins her, sporting only a single suitcase (“I pack light”). San Francisco, and new status quo for this title, here they come!
The A-plot for this issue isn't that great. As a villain and a character, Angar isn't very interesting. His powers feel contrived for the sake of the plot: he can induce amnesia, bad acid trips, and permanent insanity, all by screaming? That’s unlikely, even by Marvel Universe standards. And while he gets points for having a realistic look, namely ‘grungy hippie’, there are no points for verisimilitude in this instance, as the outfit is uninteresting and unmemorable.
The story is likewise bland: Angar is simply wandering around and picks fights with Jessica for no particular reason. This is held together with the slender plot thread that he’s waiting for a mysterious unknown benefactor that has plans for him, but that thread is dropped as soon as the final battle begins and is never picked up again.
We could forgive these lapses if the metanarrative was strong, but there’s no motif here that illuminates the larger plot. When we explore Jessica’s psyche through the medium of her psychotic break, all we learn is that she feels like an outcast, just like all the rest of Claremont’s heroes. There’s nothing here that feels specific to Spider-Woman, or to the decision she takes at the end of the issue.
Speaking of that decision, exit Scotty McDowell, who’s now down the memory hole, just like Magnus or Jerry Hunt, and good riddance. He lasted 14 issues, and was unpleasant in all of them, thus proving that it’s possible to write a character who is physically challenged who isn’t defined by that characteristic: Scotty was a jerk for reasons that were largely independent of his paralysis. There was interesting subtext in the Hornet sequence that his unpleasant behaviour sprang from feelings of inadequacy and frustrated sexual desire, but Claremont chose not to pick up on that in his brief handling of the character. If this series was being written today, we’d have gotten a whole origin issue on Scotty, explaining how he lost the use of his legs, and how that tragedy both spurred him into becoming an ace crimefighter and creepy human being. Ah well, for better and for worse, the comics sensibility was different in the early 1980s.
The A-plot with Angar doesn't go anywhere, and Angar himself isn't interesting. Against that, the B-plot shakes up the book’s premise, taking Spider-Woman to San Francisco with Lindsay McCabe and dropping Scotty McDowell permanently. These are positive changes! So I’ll average out the good and the bad and give this issue three webs.
Not just Scotty is dropped from the book at this point, but so too is minor character Captain Walsh. Too bad; we’ll never learn the origin of his hatred for anchovies now.