Friday, 6 July 2012

Essential Spider-Woman volume 2

Next comes Essential Spider-Woman volume 2, which reprints Spider-Woman #26-50, Marvel Team-Up #97 and Uncanny X-Men #148. This sees the conclusion of the title and this particular Spider-Woman wouldn’t have another for over twenty years. (There would be other Spider-Women in the meantime but they’re now mainly forgotten.)

These issues see the rest of Michael Fleisher’s run, followed by a run by Chris Claremont (who also writes the X-Men issue) and finally a brief run by Ann Nocenti. There’s also a fill-in by J.M. DeMatteis, whilst the Team-Up is by Steven Grant. The art sees runs by Steve Leialoha and Brian Postman, with fill-ins by Jerry Bingham and Ernie Chan. The Team-Up issue is drawn by Carmine Infantino, whilst the X-Men issue is done by Dave Cockrum.

The Team-Up issue, which hasn’t yet been reached by Essential Marvel Team-Up, is a rare one without Spider-Man and instead headlines the Hulk, no doubt because of his TV series. It’s an odd inclusion here as it doesn’t contribute anything to Spider-Woman’s own series and instead just sees her and the Hulk fighting a mad scientist and his monstrous creations in a remote desert town. The X-Men issue’s claim to be here is more arguable because it’s the aftermath of a storyline in Spider-Woman’s own title that sees the X-Men guest-starring for the final battle, but whilst the issue completes the introduction of Siryn it again adds nothing to Spider-Woman, being just another guest appearance and a fight, and could have been equally left out. After all it also guest stars the Dazzler but hasn't been included in her Essentials. The most surprising omission is of Avengers #240-241 which served as an epilogue to the series, undoing much of the conclusion and ending things on a more positive note and putting Jessica Drew into the status quo she’d have for another two decades until the New Avengers came along. Had that been included then the initial story of Spider-Woman could have been told completely across these two volumes. Instead we get the main series itself and it’s really quite appropriate that the series ends with Magnus wiping all trace of Spider-Woman’s existence from everyone’s memory, making it as though she never existed. Because frankly the series is still as forgettable as ever.

Part of the problem is the turnover of writers, with few lasting long enough to make many developments last. Instead, each writer seems to rapidly alter the status quo from their predecessor. So we have Spider-Woman working as a bounty hunter in Los Angeles, followed by Jessica Drew working as a private investigator in San Francisco with Spider-Woman working to enhance the service, and finally the last few issues see a temporary return to Los Angeles followed by what appears to be a rapid dismantling of her San Francisco life in favour of something different when suddenly a final crisis emerges from nowhere and ends it all – for now. To add to the mess we also get changing of the handling of Jessica’s physiognomy and powers – at one point she ditches the drugs to suppress her negative pheromone problem and for most of the rest of the run people don’t find her unsettling – until another writer comes along and briefly uses that aspect. Her powers fluctuate quite a bit, particularly her capacity to recharge and store her electric venom bolts, whilst at times she has super hearing and other times not. (And she apparently lost her power of immunity in an appearance in Marvel Two-in-One that isn’t included here; not that the series itself notices.) And of top of it all the bounty hunter set-up was just dropped into the title back in issue #21 in the first volume, with a promise that a future story would reveal how the set-up came about. That promise is never delivered on. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this title was still being produced solely to secure the intellectual property. Were writers forced onto the title as a contractual obligation? Several of the writers have won huge accolades for their work elsewhere, but there’s little here that soars to such heights. However Steve Leialoha’s art is extremely good, and his longevity on the title (drawing all but two issues in a twenty-two issue run – well that’s epic compared to everyone else) suggests he actually wanted to be there. However Brian Postman’s work on the last four issues does little for me, although there are signs towards the end that had both he and the book lasted longer he would have improved.

The inconsistency is also present in the situations Spider-Woman goes through, but this is a feature common within writers’ runs as well as between them. Is Spider-Woman a series about a costumed crime fighter like Spider-Man or Daredevil, an espionage/world conqueror series like Captain America, a magic and myth series like Thor, or a science fiction/fantasy series like the Fantastic Four? Elements from all of these sub-genres pop up over the course of these issues with the result that Spider-Woman can go from fighting Hydra in one issue to having to cope with the Impossible Man in the very next. Whilst some books can effective juggle a wide variety of scenarios and problems, most are at their best when they decide early on just what sort of series they’re going to be and broadly stick to that. Here it feels like the series is going through all manner of situations and menaces without much great reason, adding to the disjointed nature of the work.

That’s not to say there aren’t some individual stories that work reasonably well on their own. The volume kicks off with an epic focused on the twin troubles of the return of the Enforcer, albeit now as a generic supervillain with a gag, and the manipulations of the press. Issue #26 introduces us to a particularly odious character, the new publisher of the Los Angeles Courier, once a highly respected newspaper but since its take-over by a publisher from the UK it’s become a rather trashy rag. He and his reporters also resort to rather dubious methods to obtain stories, including a willingness to break the law. His name is “Rupert M. Dockery”. Now I wonder who he’s a parody of?! It’s a reminder that even thirty years ago Rupert Murdoch’s approach to journalism had its critics. I’m writing this at a time when in the real world the Murdoch empire is taking a battering, starting with revelations about the way reporters on one of his papers obtained stories through illegal and immoral methods, but the revelations have gone much deeper. So it’s amazing to see such a blatant parody of him engaging in equivalent activities such as arranging for the creation of a supervillain to fight Spider-Woman and then contriving the Enforcer’s escape from prison in order to generate exclusive news stories his papers and television stations will have coverage of. Curiously few people realise what’s going on until a visiting Spider-Man spots the coincidence and follows up the lead. (Now what profession does Jessica subsequently go into again?) But Dockery gets his final comeuppance when Spider-Woman and Captain Walsh obtain a confession and since it’s not enough to convict they force him out of the city’s media. This parody is over thirty years old but it’s still recognisable to those day.

The same storyline sees Spider-Woman’s ally, Scott McDowell, try to save her from the Enforcer and instead winds up wounded by a poison dart and in suspended animation, with Spider-Woman blackmailed by the Enforcer into aiding him so she can obtain the cure for Scott. It’s good to see that both Spider-Woman and Scott care for each other to go to such lengths, but not enough is made of Spider-Woman’s moral dilemma over the situation. It would have been more credible to show her resisting at fist and trying to find an antidote independently below reluctantly accepting the situation. It’s also a sign of her gullibility that she accepts the Enforcer actually has an antidote – when captured he admits he doesn’t. The story also brings in a return guest appearance by Spider-Man, and both spiders have now discovered each other’s name. It takes his intervention to break the chain of the Enforcer’s hold but it could have been achieved by Captain Walsh or another character so this does feel like a more gratuitous guest appearance than is necessary. The narrative doesn’t end there but flows into the next tale as Spider-Woman fights the Fly, a minor Spider-Man villain, and Dr Malus, one of a number of scientists who stay on the sidelines helping the supervillain community. Malus, it turns out, invented the dart and cures Scott – but also injects him with a drug that changes him into a new villain, the Hornet.

Over the years there’s been a lot of discussion about the treatment of women in comics and whether they specifically get a raw deal because of their gender or if it’s just the curse of being major spin-off or supporting characters. Much of this debate stems from the Women in Refrigerators website. I’ll come to Spider-Woman’s fate later, but the treatment of Scott could be held up as a case for the argument that it’s really about putting supporting characters through the wringer. The character is confined to a wheelchair due to a past incident but now serves as an information support resource – a decade or so before DC’s Oracle. When he tries to rescue his partner he winds up very much in the damsel in distress role, held hostage to manipulate the hero, and he’s even stored in a refrigerator! Then he gets turned against his will into a monstrous form to fight the hero, similar to Alicia Masters in the Marvel Two-in-One issues reprinted in volume one. And the Hornet particularly brings out a lot of male stereotyping as he’s written as a very macho, sexist man, with Malus’s drugs massively boosting Scott’s testosterone levels. However he’s ultimately cured quite easily – just a week’s rest in which the drugs are naturally purged from his system. I guess it became clear quite quickly that Hornet didn’t have much ongoing potential as a recurring villain.

This is still a big problem for the series, and the relocation to San Francisco doesn’t solve it. Most of the villains in this volume are either imports from other Marvel series who don’t have a direct connection to Spider-Woman, or they’re forgettable localised creations or both. As well as the Enforcer, Hornet and Dr Malus we also get Turner D. Century, Hammer an’ Anvil, Angar the Screamer, the Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy, Deathstroke and his Terminators (appearing very soon after Deathstroke the Terminator debuted in DC’s New Teen Titans – I assume this was a coincidence), the Flying Tiger, the Silver Samurai, Cthon, Daddy Longlegs, the Gypsy Moth, Locksmith and Ticktock, as well as the forces of Hydra and various organised crime groups, plus a variety of non-costumed foes including crooked businessmen, corrupt small town officials and the like. The Kingpin shows up but on this occasion as the target to be saved rather than the criminal. Whilst there are a few big names on that list, they’re by and large only around for a single story to serve wider purposes. Otherwise the list is full of second stringers and one-offs. They may make for some good individual tales – Turner D. Century’s crusade to replace modern day “immorality” with traditional values from the 1900s makes for a strong tale about the dangers of taking refuge in an idealised past – but overall they add little value with few personalised rivalries built up. Even when villains from earlier in the series are brought back like the Enforcer or the Gypsy Moth they largely go through the motions rather than add anything particularly spectacular to the series.

The two main exceptions are Morgan le Fay and the Viper. Morgan le Fay pops up several times, and brings the revelation that Spider-Woman grew up near the influence of the demon Cthon and was believed to be a pawn of him, but it feels like a clumsy attempt to shoe-horn in an explanation for why an immortal sorceress is so interested in Spider-Woman. Morgan first tries to enlist Spider-Woman to her side but when rejected she swears vengeance. By virtue of her number of appearances and the level of the conflict Morgan le Fay is basically Spider-Woman’s archenemy but it’s an incredibly imbalanced conflict. Magical arch foes can work when the hero has a suitable power level and a background with myth and magic in it, but here it feels clumsy. The theme of Cthon’s influence also comes up in a multi-part story the Hydra, the Silver Samurai and the Viper. Here we get the revelation that the Viper arranged for Spider-Woman to be recruited into Hydra and she is in fact Jessica’s mother. Yes the mother who was supposed to have died when Spider-Woman’s origin was revised at the start of the series. That particular inconsistency isn’t really resolved here (although later on it would be retconned away) and instead we get a retcon just to reinforce the ties between Spider-Woman and Hydra; ties that have not really played much of a part in the series. And with this (#45) being Claremont’s penultimate issue the ties are swiftly forgotten again for the remainder of the run. I’m not sure what this revelation really adds to either character and once again it shows just how poorly established and developed Spider-Woman’s backstory is. The Cthon link is explored as it’s revealed that the demon has had the Viper as his slave for half a century, hoping to use her to escape from his realm but she proved flawed and so he now hopes to use her daughter. Again this is all mystical stuff that doesn’t really feel naturally connected to Spider-Woman’s more normal run of adventures.

Better handled are Spider-Woman’s supporting cast. By far the most prominent is Jessica’s best friend Lindsay McCabe who is about as close to a depiction of a lesbian as you can get in c1980 Marvel Comics. She sticks with Jessica through thick and thin, and works out her identity early on but doesn’t let on until after she’s been badly injured falling off a roof with the Viper and Jessica decides to confess up. Subsequently she gets involved in further adventures, including giving relationship guidance counselling to the Impossible Woman! (Another female spin-off because the Impossible Man wanted a mate. But neither of them understands relationships which just adds to the madness.) Unfortunately with changing writers she does get left on the side at times – in particular she’s absent from most of the early issues of this volume before a new writer and status quo comes along. Sadly for Lindsay, Jessica finds a boyfriend in San Francisco in the form of David Ishima, their landlord. David brings an early storyline when he discovers the building he’s working on is for a criminal organisation, but otherwise drifts onto the sidelines and it appears the next writer sets things up to ditch him altogether by having him unable to accept both sides of Jessica’s life. However because of the shortness of the run the actual break comes in the very last issue. The one other recurring character of note is Lieutenant Sabrina Morrell of the San Francisco police force who becomes a recurring reluctant ally and associate of both Spider-Woman and Jessica. Like a number of others she is sharp enough to work out the secret identity and she is also a member of the shadowy Yakuza organisation, a Japanese clan. In Claremont’s last issue the Yakuza are revealed as an organisation dedicated to protecting the powerless, whether inside the law or outside it. There is clearly more potential in the Yakuza but once again we get another change, the dropping of possibilities and characters and a new direction for the final few issues.

The last four issues are by Ann Nocenti and see the series wandering once more, almost literally with two of them taken up with a brief return to Los Angeles. Spider-Woman tackles a string of characters who are not bad but rather frustrated with aspects of their lives – a would-be dancer who’s too short until he fools with Giant-Man’s growth serum, the Gypsy Moth just seeking attention and affection, and a runaway boy with no control over psychic powers that cause chaotic destruction whenever he’s upset. All three, plus the guest starring Tigra and other foes are then captured by Locksmith, a former escape artist who saw audiences dwindle due to superheroes and so now captures them and imprisons them in specially designed cells, and his sidekick Ticktock who can foresee the near future. Spider-Woman saves the day halfway through the double-sized issue and we get a strange follow-up as she freely invites everyone to her home for a party, not even caring about her secret identity. Okay a lot of people have figures it out, but she’s hardly gone public with it and taking some former foes is really risky. The party sees her finally break up with David, wiping the slate clean then suddenly Magnus reappears in spirit form after having been completely absent for some four years. He reveals he’s a ghost who takes others’ forms and she’s never seen his real self – once again altering a character from what was see before. Morgan le Fay has been attacking Jessica with illusions but is based in the sixth century and Magnus explains they must astrally travel in time to defeat her, so Spider-Woman’s spirit form laves her body and goes back to do this. But on her return she finds her body dead, thanks to Morgan’s final act. Jessica faces death and asks Magnus to cast a final spell to wipe everyone’s memory of her. Then she walks off into the afterlife and the series ends.

My dislike for the magical elements of the series has been stated enough by now, so all I’ll say on this is that the universal mind wipe is a very easy plot device to remove all traces of the character and cut out loose ends so future writers wouldn’t have to worry about the series. But it brings different problems such as what happens to Spider-Woman’s body? How do all the party guests react to each other when they can’t remember who brought them there? What happens to all the other consequences of Spider-Woman’s actions? It’s bad enough to kill off a character with good potential just because her own series wasn’t selling well enough. But to try to make it as though she’d never existed is even worse. I don’t know if there were developments in corporate or intellectual property practices at the time so I have no idea if it was now the case that Spider-Woman was no longer needed. I suspect not as a new character using the name showed up a year later in Secret Wars – and she also appeared without a clearly defined backstory and set-up at outset. Had somebody realised that the character was a creative mess, with a backstory regularly revised and tied in umpteen knots, and decided that the only solution was to literally wipe the slate clean and start again with a new Spider-Woman? But whatever the reasons it’s a very poor way to end a character’s series, even if it was a pretty poor series anyway.

Of all the Essential volumes I’ve reviewed so far, the two Spider-Woman ones are by far the weakest, because of the ever changing set-ups and poor situations the character is put through. About the only clear idea that ever stuck was “Don’t make her too much of a female Spider-Man”. She’s to be credited for not being a more direct derivative of the male character, and the series understandably tried to avoid being an urban crime-adventure series like its counterparts. But when a core aim is to not be something and another is “be in print” it leaves a complete lack of defining principles and direction. As a result just about every writer brought their own take on the character and there’s little character and situation building across the series as a whole. The result is a massive missed opportunity. The character certainly had potential and interest, and in the right hands could have become a big hit for Marvel. Instead she seemed to be an assignment dumped on writers and it shows. “To know her is to fear her!” proclaimed the tagline on an early version of the logo, used on the volume’s cover (although none of the issues in here use it). I wonder if that reflected how many in Marvel felt at the time?

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