Three months ago, Jessica ‘Spider-Woman’ Drew quit the Avengers, in order to find a more grounded, street-level life. Throwing in with Ben Urich and Roger ‘the Porcupine’ Gocking, she’s hit the road to travel America and help the helpless. In Dodge City, Kansas, Jessica and her companions stumbled into a strange conspiracy of dead-eyed locals doing the fearsome bidding of a sinister sheriff. With Roger and Ben captured, a groggy Jessica is at the mercy of a trio of blank-faced slaughterhouse workers, who are menacing her with the tools of their bloody trade...
...At least that’s how last issue ended. This one begins with Jessica, in her old costume, making small talk with the Black Widow as above, a fleet of SHIELD helicarriers is preparing to attack the Ultimate Universe. I don’t think I know that story well enough to do it justice, but it’s immaterial to understand this one. All we need to know is, the world is very likely about to end.
Jessica is whining and complaining (sigh) about how she doesn’t want to be here, and that she hasn’t made a single contribution to the whole Avengers effort, so what’s the point?
“What do you want me to say, Jess?” asks an exasperated Widow. “Do you want me to apologize that your nervous breakdown P.I. fantasy had to come to an end… You’re an Avenger [and] we don’t get to run around alleyways beating up D-listers with Ben Urich. And we don’t have time to teach the Porcupine how to be a hero.”
“I know,” says Spider-Woman. “That’s why I quit.”
Obligatory gesture to the ongoing continuity events having been made, we can get back to the story of this book. Cut to two days previously, where the dead-eyed cowboys that captured Roger and Ben are preparing to bury them in a shallow grave. Ben is conscious, and arguing fruitlessly with his silent captors. We saw Roger get shot in the chest last issue, but - of course - his Porcupine costume is bulletproof. He’s simply playing dead, and at the appropriate moment he uses his suit to knock the cowboys out with stun quills fired from his battlesuit.
Meanwhile, we don’t even have time to pretend that Jessica is in any danger from the slaughterhouse guys. The very first panel of Jessica we see is her giving a massive uppercut to the guy with the sledgehammer. “Maybe do a bit of research next time,” she sneers. “My origin story is scarier than this.” Darting out of the slaughterhouse doors, she finds more workers injecting the steers in the feedlot with a strange glowing fluid. The cows proceed to grow giant and green. “Hulk cows,” monologues Jessica. “Sure. And why not?”
Back to Roger, who’s escorting a wounded Ben into the local hospital. He’s intercepted by a nurse who’s running out, pursued by zombie doctors. In the space of two panels, they pile into an ambulance and drive away. The nurse explains that she’s been off duty for the past two days, but just arrived at work to find everyone dead-eyed and crazy… everyone but her.
The Porcupine proceeds to make a series of remarkable deductive leaps. What makes this nurse different? Why, she’s vegan, of course. So the problem is at the local meat-packing plant! Rushing there, he leaves his new buddy and his old one in the ambulance, and proceeds to the CEO office, which, just as he expected, is kitted out like a supervillain lair. Intuiting immediately that “dude marinated the beef in some kind of mind sauce,” he confronts said CEO, who’s wearing a weird hybrid of western fashion, lab coat, and futuristic goggles.
I hope that’s not a confrontation you’re dying to see, because we never will. Let’s wrap this up! Back to Spider-Woman, who’s overmatched by the Hulked-out cattle. The sinister sheriff watches, saying “You can stop now, Jess. The fight is over.” With her never-say-die attitude, Spider-Woman head-butts the guy, who says “Whoa, man! Jess, man! Relax… It’s me. It’s Roger.”
Yep, we can see that Roger used his knockout quills to subdue the CEO and his squad of goons, and is now in control of the whole town via those funky goggles.
Cut to ‘Later’, where Jess, a healed-up Ben, the unnamed nurse, and Roger are having a private party in a motel room, celebrating their triumph over evil. Jessica goes to get more ice, but never comes back - in the parking lot, she meets the Black Widow, who just dropped in by hovercar. Remember that package that Jessica received right before leaving New York last issue, i.e., six weeks ago? Turns out it was her old costume, and a note from the Widow telling her to report in. Since Jessica never turned up, the Widow has come to fetch her. Jess makes a few weak arguments in favour of staying, but an impatient Widow doesn’t want to hear them. So off they go to save the world. Jess doesn’t even stop to say goodbye.
This is ten pounds of story in a five-pound bag. On the one hand, we’ve got the wrap-up of the Dodge City story, which has lots of good elements. We’ve got Jessica fighting waves of innocent-yet-dangerous zombies, plus Hulked-out cows. We’ve got Roger’s hero turn, with him playing detective, using battle tactics, and saving the day. We’ve got a new character in Vegan Nurse, and a new villain in Slaughterhouse CEO. There’s some interesting stuff here.
But we also have six pages of Jessica whining about how Oh my GOD why won’t the Avengers just LEAVE ME ALONE I mean the Multiverse I can’t even. This is unbearable! Worse, because it’s presented as a frame story, it sucks all of the oxygen out of the first part. Any sense that Jessica might be in danger is lost when we know, from page 1, that she gets out of it all right; worse, that Dodge City sequence becomes less a story and more a series of gestures at story. We only have 14 pages to wrap the whole thing up (22 page issue = six pages of Jessica bitching about her fate + one recap page + one letters page + only 14 pages of anything interesting), which isn’t enough. Consequently, we have Roger making a series of deductive leaps that would embarrass Sherlock Holmes. We’ve got two important characters who don’t even get names. We’ve got Roger winning two fights in exactly the same boring, anticlimactic way, namely using his stun quills. We’ve got the mastermind of the whole villainous plot who only appears in one panel, and whose motives are never provided. We’ve got an interesting idea, the Hulk cows, which doesn’t make sense on its own (what do they have to do with mind control?) and isn’t explored at all. We’ve got continuity slips: Jessica’s car was shot to pieces last issue, but in this one it’s fully repaired two days later; the Sinister Sheriff was obviously not mind-controlled last issue, and in fact was clearly the one controlling the zombies - despite not having any gear to do so -but in this one he’s just another pawn for Roger to move around on the board.
And we have the major villain from last issue, the evil Sheriff, who was set up to be the antagonist of this arc, but who only appears after he’s already mind-controlled by Roger. Writer Dennis Hopeless seems to plot issue by issue rather than for the whole arc: how else to explain how he keeps losing track of his villains? First Raspberry Beret in the kidnapping arc, who was the focus for one issue and then disappeared, now Sinister Sheriff.
I’d like to cut Hopeless some slack and say he was expecting to have one more issue to round out the Dodge City arc and also transition Jessica off to the Secret Wars, but it’s not like the company-wide event should have been a surprise to anybody. So I can’t guess why this happened. But I do regret it.
A potentially interesting story withers on the vine so that a lame crossover event can take its place, complete with Jessica being obnoxious. One measly web, with a half-web bump-up for nice fill-in art by Natacha Bustos, who manages to combine a fun, zippy, cartoony style with very expressive faces.
And so ends volume 5 of Spider-Woman. After the Secret Wars, the title reboots! Except not really - Dennis Hopeless and regular artist Javier Rodriguez return, and so too do the trio of Ben Urich, Roger the Porcupine, and Jessica Drew, who - as per the last page of this book and any number of Internet solicits - will be joining us in late-term pregnancy. As Jessica says, “Sure. And why not?” But that’s a story development to mull over when Volume 6 arrives.
For now, is there anything worth saying about Volume 5 as a whole?
Not really, I think, since Volume 6 is simply an accounting trick; it’s really just a continuation of Volume 5 in terms of creative staff and vision. Nor does Volume 5 cohere as a body of work, with its own themes or motifs. It consists of two halves that are only linked by author - the first part a Spider-Verse mini-series that featured a whiny incompetent Spider-Woman, the second part a Jess-is-a-P.I.-again mini-series that featured a whiny and occasionally effective Spider-Woman. The art style, iconography (i.e., Jessica’s costume), scale, and genre were different. As a result, Volume 5 doesn’t hold together as a unit of analysis.