Saturday, 30 June 2012

Essential Spider-Woman volume 1

We now come to Essential Spider-Woman volume 1, which reprints Marvel Spotlight #32, Marvel Two-in-One #29-33 and Spider-Woman #1-25. In addition there are Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Spider-Woman and the Shroud, a pin-up of Spider-Woman and Carmine Infantino’s pencils for the unused cover to Spider-Woman #1.

As noted previously, Marvel Two-in-One was the Thing team-up book equivalent to Marvel Team-Up, although as the Thing had no solo title of his own there’s a greater emphasis on him here than Team-Up has on Spider-Man. Marvel Spotlight was one of a number of try-out titles to test new concepts on the market before launching them in their own title, as well as to secure trademarks.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Spider-Woman (like She-Hulk) was created primarily so that Marvel could secure the trademark on the name and copyright on the concept of a female version of their lead hero. The main concern were the plans by the Filmation animation company (best known to my generation for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power) to create several original superheroes to appear in slots in a cartoon package hour. (This a concept that seems to be unique to the United States in that era. Basically, two or more cartoon characters share an hour-long slot which alternates between various shorts featuring either the banner characters or some of their supporting cast. This often makes it easy to combine new material with repeats. For both later repeats and the international market the cartoons are often depackaged back into their separate components.) This particular package would be Tarzan and the Super 7, following on from the success of The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour. On of the Super 7 slots was to be “Spider-Woman”, a woman with, you’ve guessed it, spider powers. Marvel reacted quickly to this and rapidly created their own “Spider-Woman”, filed the trademark and got her into print in order to secure it. Filmation’s creation became “Web Woman”. (Many thanks to Comic Book Resources: Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #28! for the details on this.) My understanding of US trademark law is limited, but in general companies can’t just sit on a trademark but instead have to actively and continually use it in order to keep it secure. Hence an ongoing Spider-Woman series. This may also be the reason why Spider-Woman got her own cartoon in 1979, but that only lasted one season and it’s easy to read the issues in this volume and be totally unaware of it.

And to be honest this awkward birth shows in this volume. The most obvious signs are the major changes in Spider-Woman’s origin between Spotlight and her own title, and also the modifications to her costume. Less obvious are some of the changes throughout the series as the book seems to be in a state of flux, with the location changing abruptly after the first two issues, the supporting cast and alter-ego status quo also changing quite rapidly, and even little things like whether Spider-Woman’s long black hair is real or a wig change between issues. This is a serious sign of a character rushed into print before being properly thought through and it shows. There’s a bit more stability on the writing and drawing front, but still rather a lot of regular writers for twenty-five issues. Marvel Spotlight #32 is written by Roy Thomas, then all the Marvel Two-in-One issues and Spider-Woman #1-8 are by Marv Wolfman. Mark Gruenwald writes #9-20, with Steven Grant co-plotting #20. Michael Fleisher then writes #21-25. The art fares better – Spotlight is drawn by Sal Buscema, then four of the five Two-in-One issues are by Ron Wilson with John Buscema filling in on the other. Carmine Infantino draws Spider-Woman #1-19, then Frank Springer on #20-22, Trevor von Eeden on #23-24 and finally Steve Leialoha on #25 (and he continues into the issues in the next volume). (With so many creators, their labels have been placed in a separate post.) Again this reinforces the idea of nobody really knowing why the series is there other than to protect Marvel’s corporate interests.

But in several areas the series avoids doing the obvious. Most of the other female spin-off heroes up to this point tended to have a clear connection to the male hero and obtained their powers either the same way or through them. Mary Marvel was the hero’s long lost sister. Supergirl was a long lost cousin. She-Hulk was a previously unmentioned cousin. Ms. Marvel was a supporting cast member. Batgirl the daughter of one. Bat-Girl was the niece of Batwoman. I totally forget the background of the various Hawkgirls and Hawkwomen (but in my defence Hawk continuity is more complicated than brain surgery). It beggars belief that as a result of this the Wasp (the daughter of a murdered previously unseen associate of Ant-Man) and Batwoman (a wealthy heiress who admired Batman from afar but had no pre-existence or previously unseen connection) should be the most original in this regard. But in both her origins Spider-Woman beats them all hands down. As for powers, the Bat characters had none but developed their skills in imitation of their hero. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk were both involved in accidents with their male counterparts whilst the Wasp was given hers by Ant-Man. Supergirl was of the same race as her cousin and so gained her powers the same way, whilst Mary Marvel found that the Marvel family all had access to powers. So it would have been totally natural to make Spider-Woman a woman close to Spider-Man who gained powers very similar to him – perhaps the radioactive spider could have tracked him down and bitten her by accident? Or a blood transfusion? (Oh wait, Aunt May had that way back in the Lee/Ditko years and nobody’s ever seen the Amazing Spider-Aunt.) Or even an experiment to try to reproduce Spider-Man’s powers? But instead they tried something different that’s completely detached from Spider-Man, who in turn doesn’t show up for an obligatory guest appearance until issue #20. Spider-Woman shares the ability to stick to walls and super strength, but she lacks both a spider-sense and webshooters (and probably the ability to crawl along rope and cables as though they were webs). Instead she has the ability to generate “venom blasts” of electrical discharges, and the ability to glide on air currents, though the way that’s usually portrayed she might as well be flying outright. And then there’s her two origins.

The first origin we’re offered is that Spider-Woman was a real spider who was evolved to humanoid form by the High Evolutionary and named “Arachne”, but she found she didn’t fit in with his other evolutions and left to wander in confusion. Eventually she fell under the spell of Hydra and became an agent for them, but in her first appearance she discovers Hydra’s true nature and breaks from them. (And since she was created to see off Filmation’s plans, it seems almost appropriate that Filmation in turn went on to borrow this latter element of her origin for She-Ra.) This is all rather messy (and reportedly was originally planned for Wolverine!) and it’s hard to see how the character could have lasted in a workable way as an animal in human form with no real roots at all. The original version of costume is also a little too generic – other than the underarm webbing it’s just a standard issue jumpsuit with only the design and colours to mark it out. The first couple of Spider-Woman stories aren’t much either – an assassination attempt on Nick Fury in which she discovers the true nature of Hydra, and an overlong adventure with the Thing in London in which Spider-Woman once more starts out as an agent of Hydra (did something got lost in communication) but winds up allying with Ben Grimm against a string of foes. The team-up doesn’t really add anything beyond the revelation that she is actually a woman after all, and that comes at the very end. A five part epic in the Thing’s title with yet more guest stars wandering in and out doesn’t strike me as the best way to build excitement for Spider-Woman’s own series. It also doesn’t help that so much of the Marvel universe is centred on New York, but up to this point all of Spider-Woman’s stories have been set in Europe (although the London depicted is more of a tourist postcard than the real thing, as is so often the case in American comics).

Once the series gets going things start to change, although the justification isn’t always the best. After encountering a SHIELD agent who pulls her mask off, Spider-Woman decides she needs to disguise herself further in both identities – and so dies her hair black and cuts the mask to let said hair flow freely. No I’m not sure how that works either. Still it brings a greater degree of originality to her design, although it’s not always the most practical, especially as her Spider-Woman hair gets longer and longer to the point where it’s hard to believe that Jessica is able to compress it all in her every day hairstyles. I’m also astounded that it’s not until issue #16 that a villain grabs her by the hair – and this brings the revelation she’s wearing a wig with her costume (so what was the point of having the same hair colour in both identities?). But it’s the origin that’s revamped.

We are now told that Spider-Woman is a real human, Jessica Drew, who succumbed to radiation sickness when her father worked with the High Evolutionary to build Mount Wundagore (all part of wider Marvel mythology and best not gone into here). Jessica’s father had noted the ability of spiders to survive extreme conditions and so injected her with an experimental spider-serum to save her but it wasn’t enough, so the High Evolutionary proposed to place her in a genetic accelerator to enhance her chances. The strain of Jessica’s condition and arguments over cures killed Jessica’s mother and her father disappeared, whilst she remained in the accelerator growing at a reduced rate. Eventually she emerged in adulthood and cured, with the ability to resist all venoms, toxins and the like, but also highly detached from the world around her, both because of the ignorance in her knowledge but also because most other people (and the High Evolutionary’s creations) sensed something about her that made them distinctly uneasy in her presence. Further on in the series this is revealed to be down to abnormal pheromone production but as soon as Jessica starts taking special pills the problem magically disappears.

There’s some real magic in these stories as well but after the first year it fades, which just adds to the sense of confusion about the direction. In the second issue Spider-Woman befriends the mysterious Magnus, but it’s never really explained how he found her or why – points explicitly acknowledged in issue #13 when the character is written out and he doesn’t reappear in this volume. There are things such as long running subplots and mysteries, and then there are unexplained points that are just forgotten about, and this comes under the latter heading. Magnus appears at a point when there’s quite a lot of magic flying about due to the presence of Excaliber (sic) – a thief who has been transformed by the legendary sword – and Morgan le Fay. Once the scene shifts to Los Angeles the magic is toned down apart from some individual issues and Magnus becomes less a mentor to Jessica than a convenient plot device, most obviously when he magics up her costume at a party and wipes all the guests’ memory of her presence. Magic can work in specific stories, most obviously the climax of the Brothers Grimm storyline, but as part of the overall set-up it fails because the attempt is to present Spider-Woman as an adventurer and crime fighter, and a magical supporter who can fix so many of the problems, but curiously doesn’t solve others such as Jessica’s aura putting off others, jars with that.

“Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?” That was the reaction of the Angel many years after the Champions series, but it could apply just as much to Spider-Woman. As I said above the Marvel universe is concentrated on New York and it’s been rare for a title to successfully locate elsewhere. Avengers West Coast is the longest lasting I can think of but in general it’s hard to escape the orbit of the Big Apple in a universe with a high degree of interaction and crossover. And this shows with the threats Spider-Woman has to face. In a series where the civilian side of Jessica’s life is poorly developed it’s natural to hope for some good villains to up the tension. But instead the foes here are a generally dire collection with few having had much prominence elsewhere other than Morgan le Fay which is usually a sign of just how forgettable a foe is. Early on were are presented with the mysterious Brother Grimm, whose personality varies at times and who appears to be in two places at once. I wonder how long it took contemporary readers to work that one out! And whilst the mystery of his identity isn’t shoved down readers’ throats it isn’t actually that hard to guess. Others like the Hangman, Gypsy Moth, Madame Doll, the Clown (no relation to the Circus of Crime member) and Nekra all feel rather uninspired, whilst Congressman Wyatt is just a straightforward corrupt politician who serves a single purpose. The Needle is an exception, providing a strong degree of real fear, though his origin is full of plot holes (just how does an old man beaten up suddenly gain such powers?) and unfortunately much of his impact depends on his novelty, making it hard to reuse him. Then there’s the Gamesman, who rather improbably falls in love with Spider-Woman to the point where she tries to get him early parole but the romance rapidly evaporates after an encounter with his successor.

Romance and the supporting cast also get poor development. Early on Jessica and Magnus take up residence in the home of Mrs Dolly but she and her sons aren’t really developed until a two-part story that reveals they are the Brothers Grimm (the revelation that there are in fact two could be sign a mile off) and she has powers of her own. That story in #11-12 quickly removes them from the scene and soon after Magnus departs to work in showbusiness. The other early supporting cast member of prominence is Jerry Hunt, a SHIELD agent who falls for Jessica at first sight but who has an up and down relationship with her before assignments take him away and it becomes clear the two are incompatible. This helps wipe the slate clean midway through these issues, and Jessica develops a friendship with Lindsay McCabe who she meets at group therapy. Lindsay is one of the few people who does not instantly recoil from her and the two become close, though Jessica neither confides her big secret nor takes steps to protect Lindsay who is targeted by the Clown after he spots Spider-Woman entering her apartment. Jessica also briefly has her first job as a receptionist at the clinic but this is dropped after the revelation the clinic was being used by Nekra and the Cult of Kali for their own purposes.

We get a few guest appearances by other heroes but two stand out the most. The Shroud pops up during the Nekra storyline together with his origin that’s a cross between Batman and Dr Doom. Despite an initial fight Spider-Woman rapidly comes to trust him, even letting him stay at her apartment when he tracks her down, before taking out the Cult of Kali. However the encounter everyone must have been waiting ages for comes in issue #20, showing remarkable restraint, when Spider-Woman finally meets Spider-Man. However neither is aware of who the other is – Spider-Woman has managed to maintain a degree of secrecy about her existence and is generally ignorant of the New York superhero scene (Peter Parker is on a photo assignment out west). The two have a fight that shows off their respective powers before a final conversation in which Spider-Man gives her some useful tips for the future. It’s also notable that he never learns her name so doesn’t get worked up about infringement.

Issue #21 sees a new status quo suddenly dropped into place whereby Spider-Woman is now working at times as a bounty hunter, delivering criminals direct to Police Captain Walsh (with rewards sent to a secure box), operating in tandem with Scotty McDowell, a would-be agent who has been confined to a wheelchair and so now uses his genius and computer to help others catch criminals (this was a decade before the similar Oracle at DC). And yes he’s carrying a torch for Spider-Woman but she doesn’t notice it. Spider-Woman has also somehow obtained a theatrical costumer’s due to some unexplained tragedy. The last few issues here follow this status quo but it’s yet another change of direction for a young series.

As I said at the start, Spider-Woman was created and kept around for corporate reasons and creatively it shows. The early issues of her series are by Marv Wolfman who at the time was turning in a fantastic run on Amazing Spider-Man but here his work feels like an afterthought, written to satisfy a mandate. Mark Gruenwald’s work tries to undo some of the problems and then take the title in a clear direction, but all that takes a while and by the time the book is clearly repositioned he was about to move on, then Michael Fleisher comes in with a whole new status quo. When combined with the shifting supporting cast the whole thing is very much a series that exists for the sake of existing, rather than because it had developed a strong identity and purpose. It’s to be commended for keeping for the originality in not becoming a crude feminised version of Spider-Man and instead having as little to do with the wall crawler as possible, but this may have gone too far in the other direction, resulting in a series set in an awkward location with poor villains and a badly defined, ever shifting status quo. At this stage it’s quite forgettable.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Tim,
    That's the first I heard about Wolverine's origin. Might you recall where you learned that?
    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete

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