Comics : Spider-Island: Spider-Woman

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This review was first published on: Oct 2011.

Background...

Thanks to the machinations of the Queen, New Yorkers are suffering from a virus that mutates them into spider-people: monstrous hybrids of human and spider, with multiple limbs and eyes, fangs, bristly hair, and whatnot. Naturally, the Future Foundation and the Avengers are trying to maintain order amidst the chaos of the outbreak. To that end, Reed Richards has sent Jessica ‘Spider-Woman’ Drew on an important mission.

In Detail...

"Gypsy Moth"
Spider-Island: Spider-Woman
Sep 2011 : SM Title
Summary: Spider-Woman appears
Writer:  Fred Van Lente
Pencils:  Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker:  Klaus Janson
Lettering:  Dave Sharpe
Colorist:  Frank D'Armata
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By way of openers, Jessica flashes back to the circumstances of her own birth, or at least how she imagines it to have been. In it, her mother is struck by “a laser encoded with the DNA of a variety of arachnids” while Jess was still in utero. As a result, Jessica was born different: “0.1% of me is woman. The rest... all spider.”

This account largely conforms with the third revision of Spider-Woman’s origin, as presented in 2006’s Spider-Woman: Origin miniseries, if a bit coloured by self-pity. Jessica should pay less attention to her past and more to her present, as she’s being assailed by a band of spider-monsters. The splash page on p. 3 is remarkable, as it shows Jessica doing three things at once: reminiscing, talking to Reed Richards over her communicator (not depicted), and kicking monster butt. She’s kneeing one monster in the chest while zapping another behind her with a yellow-coloured venom blast.

Did I say she was doing three things? Actually, it’s four: she’s also giving the (male, hetero) readers some fan-service, as this position foregrounds both her posterior and anterior aspects. The more things change...

The dialogue with Reed establishes what Jessica is doing. Reed has asked her to fly a solo mission to Empire State University (ESU), where Alicia Masters went to teach a class. Alicia turned into a spider-hybrid herself, in an arc that began way back in Marvel Two-in-One #29 (published in the late Seventies). Reed thinks that, as a result of that experience, Alicia will have an immunity to the spider-virus currently plaguing New York, and that he could study her blood to find a cure. And he thinks that Jessica, who was involved in that earlier adventure, is the perfect person to retrieve Alicia and bring her to the lab.

Jessica flies to ESU, thinking moody thoughts that a spider-island is where she, genetically all but a spider herself, belongs. The angst is quickly broken by the surprise appearance of the Gypsy Moth! Spider-Woman has a history with her, as they've tangled in Spider-Woman #10 and Spider-Woman #48; in fact, with the demise of the Brothers Grimm, the Moth is the closest thing Spider-Woman has to a nemesis. The two engage in airborne battle while trading snarky dialogue. It seems that, these days, Gypsy Moth has left the Thunderbolts and is doing freelance mercenary work, and her current mission is just the same as Spider-Woman’s: retrieve Alicia Masters! But not for Reed, for her own employer, the Queen.

At ESU, Jessica finds Alicia first, but the Moth catches up quickly and uses her powers of manipulating cloth to gag Jessica securely in silk. While Jessica tries to remove the gag - “Can’t get it off without venom blasting myself in the face” - Gypsy Moth clobbers her with a giant piece of rubble. As Spider-Woman slumps unconscious, the Moth and Alicia fly off into the night: Alicia isn’t sure about what’s going on, but she’s willing to go along with a former Thunderbolt.

Enter the Thing, who busts through the wall to rescue his sweetie. His entrance wakes Spider-Woman up, who proceeds to blast her way out of her cloth prison. Too bad for her, the Moth had a contingency plan worked up, which was to alter Spider-Woman’s costume so it looks like the Gypsy Moth’s. Now the Thing thinks Jessica is a villain, and Jessica, still gagged under her Moth outfit, can’t explain. Cue the superhero brawl.

I have two questions about this. Firstly, is what the Gypsy Moth just did really possible? Secondly, stipulating that it is, why would she bother? Seems contrived to set up a pointless superhero brawl. Oh well.

Neither Spider-Woman’s spider-strength nor her venom blasts are much use against an angry Thing, so Jess does the next best thing and contorts herself in just the right position that the Thing’s punch removes her mask and her gag, without removing her head. (Uh-huh.) Conveniently, a band of spider-things chooses this moment to attack; they go after Ben but leave Spider-Woman alone, because, as Jessica says, “they recognize me as kith and kin”. It’s a good thing they didn’t do that twelve pages back, or we wouldn’t have had a gratuitous battle to open the story with. Anyway, with communication restored, the two heroes agree that Spider-Woman will rescue Alicia while the Thing protects the still-human students of ESU from their infected classmates.

As Spider-Woman speeds through the air, she reflects that for all of the good she tries to do, everyone she meets will still know, deep in their marrow, that she’s a monster, not a woman. Bleah. Let’s cut the self-pity to see Spider-Woman shoulder-check Gypsy Moth in mid-air, forcing the mutant to drop Alicia. Jess swoops down, grabs Alicia and sets her down safely on a rooftop, but before she can explain what’s going on, the Moth comes back, and in the ensuing brawl the blind woman is knocked into space... though not before grabbing the edge of the roof. Lucky her! Now both Spider-Woman and Gypsy Moth reach for her hand.

Ready for the big finish? Spider-Woman is worried, because she knows her body “produces pheromones, like a spider, that induce fear”, and Alicia will doubtless respond to them and go to the Moth. So Jessica appeals to sweet reason instead: “Maybe I am one of them [a spider], under this human skin. But I’ve spent my whole life trying to be more than what I was born to... Just like Ben.” This appeal reaches Alicia, who takes Jessica’s hand.

That’s the climax. In the denouement, Jess pulls Alicia to safety, and zaps the Moth in the head at point-blank range with a venom blast (“shrakkkooom”?). With the Moth down, Jessica thanks Alicia for helping her, finally, to “see more clearly.” Get it? Because Alicia is blind! It’s ironic! (Or maybe not.)

In General...

This issue fails in the way that, sadly, most Spider-Woman stories do. It’s simply phoned in.

The artwork is ugly, combining slapdash pencils and inks with ill-chosen colours. See p. 10 (scanned above), which features Gypsy Moth’s sudden entrance into Alicia’s classroom, for examples of both. The second panel is so poorly laid-out it’s difficult to tell what’s happening, and the third panel features punk Alicia Masters with purple hair. Ugh.

And the story isn’t much better. While the book draws on the modern retcon Spider-Woman: Origin for its plot details, for its theme it calls back to concepts we haven’t seen since the earliest days of the character. It was Archie Goodwin’s idea that Spider-Woman is fundamentally more spider than woman, and Marv Wolfman’s that Jessica’s origins isolate and alienate her from human society. These ideas aren’t useful takes on the character, which explains why Wolfman and then Mark Gruenwald wrote them out of Spider-Woman’s life, such that they haven’t formed the basis for any Spider-Woman tale since before 1980. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Fred van Lente, usually a reliable writer, didn’t know Spider-Woman’s background when he was given the assignment. Accordingly, he read the first part of the collected Spider-Woman Essentials which contains a reprint of the old Marvel Two-in-One story with Alicia Masters; went on to read the first few issues of Spider-Woman’s solo book from the 1970s, also reprinted there; and used that material for the basis of his story.

If that is indeed how it went down, it’s too bad, because there’s a reason Gruenwald turfed all that “I am a monster beneath my skin” stuff: it’s trite and boring. Between the Thing and the innumerable mutants, Marvel has done it to death. Certainly this story doesn’t have anything new to offer on that score.

It’s not just the big things like theme the story gets wrong: it’s the small stuff too. Spider-Woman’s powers don’t work like they should, for one thing. Her pheromone power can generate trust as well as fear, and it’s under Spider-Woman’s control, so she shouldn’t have any difficulty persuading Alicia to trust her. Her venom blasts are inked the wrong colour and have the wrong sound effect. Imagine Wolverine’s claws popping out green, making a “gickkk” sound effect as they do so, and you’ll see why this is a nit worth picking. For another small problem, consider the fact that Gypsy Moth makes a crack about Spider-Woman being the “Dark Angel of San Francisco”, except when Jessica went by that name, it was in Los Angeles, which also happens to be where she and the Moth first met.

Add to all this the fact that Van Lente isn’t sure whether Jessica’s spider-heritage means the spider-monsters see her as foe or friend - it’s the former in the beginning of the story, but the latter later on.

Taken as whole, the issue screams “half-assed job”. Too bad.

Overall Rating...

This issue is poorly researched and executed, in both the plotting and the art departments. That makes it two webs.

Footnote...

So if Spider-Woman uses her venom blast on herself, what happens?

Originally, nothing did: as per an old Gruenwald issue of Spider-Woman (not sure at the moment which one), Jessica is immune to it, as you might expect, given that she generates the blast herself. What's more, she's immune to toxins she's previously been exposed to. But in Spider-Woman (vol. 4) #1, Jessica briefly contemplates suicide by venom blast. So this issue isn't off the mark when Jessica considers, but rejects, using her own venom blast to free herself from the Moth's gag.