Comics : Spider-Woman #2

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Lost Classics

This review was first published on: 2006.

Background...

Jessica Drew, the Spider-Woman, has escaped from the High Evolutionary and from HYDRA. But what should she do with her newfound freedom? Maybe finding her long-lost father will give her life the direction she needs. But while she searches, Jerry Hunt, agent of SHIELD, continues his own search-- for Spider-Woman...

In Detail...

"A Sword in Hand!"
Spider-Woman #2
May 1978 : SM Spin-Off
Summary: Morgan LeFay, Magnus, Excaliber
Editor:  Marv Wolfman
Writer:  Marv Wolfman
Pencils:  Carmine Infantino
Inker:  Tony DeZuniga
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 Reprinted In: Essential Spider-Woman #1
Articles: Excaliber, Spider-Woman I (Drew)

Like last time, our story begins with Spider-Woman clinging to the ceiling of a dark and shadowy room. It's a good pose: it illustrates at a glance that she's got special powers, without being so showy that it distracts from the story. It draws people into the story.

Unlike last time, Jessica doesn't dominate the page: in fact she's tucked away, off to one side, in the background. The foreground is dominated by a massive, shining sword. The blade is sunk deep into a piece of wood. The shaft extends upward, long and hard, at a forty-five degree angle from the margin, its hilt thrusting forward in a prominent bulge at the top. Did I mention that Jessica's clinging to the ceiling by her back? with her hair stretching out around her head in a wild, untamed mane? and her legs are spread?

I guess that's another good way to draw people in, however tawdry it might be. At least if we compare this page to those in the comics produced twenty-five years later, we have to give Infantino marks for subtlety.

The omniscient narrator tells us that this is the British Museum, and that Jessica is "a dark angel... searching... ever searching." Her own internal soliloquy informs us that she can't hear the guards' footsteps anymore. "I'm alone! Alone with my thoughts! ...Alone-- as I've been all my life!" And there's our final hook. Powers, sex appeal, and angst: Spider-Woman's got everything a boy might want! This page is the perfect bait for any casual (male) readers picking this book up at the newsstand, and idly beginning to read. You can't do genre fiction without a formula.

Moving on to page two, the story begins to move forward at good speed. Jessica's internal monologue informs us that she's here at the British Museum to find out more about her father, who mysteriously abandoned her in her severe illness years before. She's found out (how?) that after leaving her he came here to work. "But even if I find him-- how will that make me any different?" she wonders.

Just in case a double dose of angst is too much, we readers are allowed to see that while Spider-Woman prowls the museum, looking for... er... whatever she expects to find, there's another nocturnal visitor who's watching her from the shadows. (Seriously, just what does Jessica hope to accomplish? What is there to learn here she couldn't learn in the daytime, in her civilian guise?) The mysterious figure, we find from his own internal monologue, is a petty thief, impatiently waiting for Spider-Woman to depart so he can rob the place.

He scowls with irritation as Jessica turns her attention to the sword framed so prominently in the opening splash page. According to the placard, the blade is none other than Excalibur! Jessica considers the sword carefully, and realizes that it's not the original, but rather a knockoff, fashioned by Morgan le Fey and secretly substituted for the real one. You'd think that a genuine Arthurian relic would get pride of place in any collection, even the British Museum's, but no, it's just jumbled in with a bunch of other medieval armour and weaponry. It doesn't even get a velvet rope, for crying out loud.

"Wait!" thinks Jessica. "I've never read Mallory's Arthurian stories... I've never read any source books." (What an odd term for her to use!) In fact, for a girl isolated in Wundagore among the Ani-Men for her entire adult life, Jessica's knowledge of literature, history, geography, and many other subjects is remarkably specific. We can sympathize with writer Marv Wolfman here. Given the facts of Jessica's origin as he and Archie Goodwin have established them, Jessica should be profoundly ignorant of the world. But such a character would be extremely difficult to write, as her ignorance would constantly get in the way of the story. Brian Bendis, in his re-vamp of the character's origin, solved this problem by having her spend several months at university immediately after her initial escape from HYDRA. Wolfman's solution to the problem is far less elegant; in fact it barely deserves to be called a solution. She shouldn't be familiar with _La Morte d'Arthur_ at all, 'yet, instictively, I know...' she thinks. It worked so well last issue, writer and editor Marv Wolfman drags this trick out again: when faced with an insurmountable plot problem, have Jessica articulate it herself in the form of a rhetorical question. Then we can pretend there's a mystery here that will be solved at a later date rather than just laziness on the part of the author. As computer programmers put it, it's not a bug, it's a feature.

In this case Jessica's question never even gets posed properly, as she's interrupted in mid-thought by the museum's security guards. "Too busy worrying about myself, I didn't hear..." she thinks.

"Don't budge, lady," orders the senior guard (we know he's the senior one because of his stylin' handlebar mustache), "not even to powder your pretty face." Powder her face, get it? Because she's a girl. We readers aren't supposed to forget that. And we're not supposed to forget that she's pretty, either, although, just like last time, we have to call 'facts not in evidence' on that one, since Jessica's mask covers most of her face.

Jessica just stares at the two of them, and their bravado quickly begins to melt: thanks to their expository conversation, we learn that their knees are beginning to knock, their bodies to freeze, and their minds being drawn forward, into her eyes. Jessica is exercising a heretofore unseen spider-power, the power to hypnotize people! I guess Jessica's spider wasn't the kind with a precognitive sense that warns it of danger, it was the kind with hypnosis. The guards no longer a threat, Jessica glides away through the dark corridors, giving the guards, and the hidden sneak thief, yet more consternation. "Tell me that birds like her can't fly!" says the junior guard, Geoffrey. "Tell me anythin', sir-- I think I'm goin' crackers!" "I wish I could, Geoffrey," says the senior guard, Stylin' Mustache. "But after we're done here-- remind me to turn in my badge and take up aluminum siding!"

I know what you're thinking. "'Aluminum?' Don't the English spell and pronounce it 'aluminium?'" And you're also thinking, "If Jessica can hypnotize people like that, why didn't she use that power on Jerry Hunt last issue? And, for that matter, why does she bother to hypnotize these two? As soon as she leaves, they chase after her. Why not just stun them with venom blasts and have done?" Beats me, but I bet that writer and editor Marv Wolfman was also asking these questions at some point. I bet he decided that Spider-Woman's hypnotic power is weird and redundant, because he never used it again, and later writers used it so infrequently that it finally disappeared without comment.

Anyway, while the guards are distracted, our shadowy sneak thief creeps out from hiding and grabs the fake Excalibur. Unfortunately, it's cursed! But fortunately, as the omniscient narrator informs us, this thief, one 'Slapper' Struthers, "...is not a nice man." He's a thief and a murderer. "Therefore, do not pity him for the pain he suddenly feels... he has earned the devastating torture..." Now I recognize that back in the late '70s everyone was tough on crime, especially New York writers who didn't feel safe riding the subway at night, but still, this is laying it on a bit thick.

While Struthers writhes, the spirit of Morgan le Fey addresses him. She herself is still in the past, but through her magic she can partially manifest herself in the present, in the form of a glowing, disembodied head that floats in the air over Struthers. Gloating, she casts a spell-- Rary's Telepathic Exposition, I suppose-- and explains that she has been waiting for a person "totally without compassion" to grasp the hilt, because only such a man could be controlled. Now the enchanted sword allows her to infuse Struthers with the "powers of the black arts."

Receiving such powers is evidently agonizing. Struthers' screams attract the guards' attention, and the pair of them return to investigate. Geoffrey is even less prepared for what he sees in the exhibit hall this time. "Tell me I'm a blinking loonie raving half out of my mind! Please, sir, tell me anything... anything is better than believing a man could turn into... that!"

Believe it or not, this dialogue is marginally improved by seeing it on a computer monitor. Because when you see it on the printed page, you see it at the same time as the newly-transformed Struthers. Has he become a hideous monster? Is he disfigured or deformed now? What has he become that is so blasphemous and mind-shattering?

Well. He's got the same face, body, and build as before. His sweater and trousers have become chainmail with a snappy green tunic and jewellery. And he's now sporting a green skullcap with golden horns and funky, oversized golden goggles. In short he looks like Danny Kaye crossed with Elton John. It's a sight to make you wince rather than rave in fear.

But maybe the guards were right to be afraid, because this fellow isn't Struthers, but rather one of Morgan's knights, sent forward to possess his body (despite Morgan's claim that Struthers would be the one receiving powers). Powers are indeed on hand, though, and the knight proceeds to use them. He points his sword at the guards and fires a golden blast that "szaakkk"s them. Geoffrey and Stylin' Mustache say "arrghh!" and fall dead.

Jessica hears their cries (even though she didn't hear Struthers', moments earlier) and ponders if she should go to their aid. Their situation, she thinks, "does not involve me. I've no reason to aid my pursuers. I must be concerned with me! Only me!" In the space of a single panel, though, she overcomes her selfish instincts. In a nice turn of phrase, she frames her situation as a choice between the two sides of her nature, and her decision is to be more woman than spider. And as a woman, or rather as a human being, see sees it as her responsibility to "get involved." I guess the shadow of Kitty Genovese still lay across public consciousness back then. (If you don't know who Kitty Genovese is, look her up. Try the Google toolbar just at the top of your browser.) As Spider-Woman swoops into the room, The Funky Knight Formerly Known As Struthers begins monologuing. "Destroy her, you say? She wields an incredible power? What does that matter when Excaliber has powers of his own?"

No, that's not a spelling mistake. His name is now "Excaliber" with an 'e.' I suppose Marvel couldn't copyright "Excalibur" with a 'u.' And he does have powers of his own, or at least one power we've already seen: he blasts Jessica with another sword-bolt. She shrugs it off, so he tries again, but this time his aim is bad, and Jessica recognizes he's about to hit a security guard, a third one who just arrived on the scene. Heroically, she leaps in front of the bolt, saving the hapless guard's life. Jessica slumps and Excaliber, at Morgan le Fey's direction, takes off. Jessica, drained of strength, disdains to follow. "I... I just want to go home... home..." And, apparently, she does, as the next panel shows her gliding through the night sky. What that third guard whom Jessica saved makes of all this, of two costumed characters fighting over the corpses of two of his colleagues, we never find out. Nor do we find out why he lets both of them leave without trying to stop them. Oh well.

As for me, I still can't get that darned opening splash page out of my head. As a result, it's impossible not to notice that Excaliber is shooting long glowing streams out of his sword at our plucky heroine, who in turn is struck by them in her mid-section, with her legs spread wide. There's only one word for this: ick.

Cut to the following morning. Jessica leaves a job interview, where yet again, she's been rejected for employment because her spider-mojo makes women instinctively mistrust her. It also seems to fascinate men, but for some reason that doesn't translate into a job either. Why not? Don't ask questions like that, because Marv Wolfman doesn't know (the question of just what the deal is with Jessica's vibes will not be answered until another writer takes over the title). All that Marv cares about is that Jessica, through now fault of her own, is isolated from the rest of humanity: the spider part of her will always trump the woman part. Just like Peter Parker, Jessica Drew's spider-powers keep her exiled from the world. Actually, of course, it's not Peter's powers that make him an exile, it's his sense of responsibility: Peter's fundamental problem is moral, not biological. There's lots of reasons why Spider-Man is more popular than Spider-Woman, but for my money it is this difference that is key.

But I digress. Jessica wanders, desolate, through Trafalgar Square (which, in a nice touch, is clearly recognizable but never referred to by name) and through the streets, mourning her fate. Her thoughts are broken by a shopkeeper's hail. According to his shop sign, he's Magnus, Specialist in the Super Natural [sic], and he certainly looks the part: flowing white hair and beard, purple robe spangled with silver moons and stars and such. North American readers may remember the cartoon spokeswizard of Alpha Bits cereal: apparently he and Magnus use the same tailor. "Please enter my shop," he calls. "There are many curios within that will fascinate you. For here, in Magnus' shop, all shadows diffuse with light... all pains wash away with love."

Jessica is so distraught, she doesn't recognize that old guys in Hallowe'en costumes who ask young women into their shops with promises of love aren't intriguing; they're just creepy. She also doesn't recognize that he misuses the word "diffuse." She steps inside the doorway, and Magnus tells her "please, my dear Miss Drew-- Enter. I promise you will not regret your decision." Okay, he knows your name, Jessica, that's double creepy. But again, she's intrigued.

Magnus plays up his role. He knows she's a stranger to London, and to the world. He knows she's searching for her father. How does he know all this? "By reading your eyes, my dear." Jessica's eyes also reveal, apparently, that she won't find answers about her father in London. (Her eyes told him that?) Jessica's too excited to ask questions. "Where? Where is the answer? Tell me--"

Now that you're on the edge of your seat, let's keep you there. Smash cut to Scotland Yard, where Jerry Hunt is frantic. It's been two weeks without any trace of Jessica, and Jerry's frantic with frustration. "I thought Scotland Yard could be expected to find a single woman in London. What in blazes is taking so long?" Uh, Jerry, it's a big town, and Jessica has no known associates. You might cut the police a little slack. Jerry's pal Frank tries to calm him down, but Jerry's insistent. He needs to speak to Spider-Woman, he says. "I-- I want her!" He said that last issue, but he repeats it here. Wolfman liked the phrase, I suppose, because it's so ambiguous what Jerry wants her for: to arrest her? To date her? Just to jump her bones? Frank sounds Jerry out on this, and he removes all doubt: "I think I love her, Frank." The look on Frank's face as he hears this is priceless: easily the best panel in this issue.

We're not done yet with the smash cuts. Cut to the London Underground, where Slapper Struthers is lost in thought, pondering the nightmares he had last night. They had to have been nightmares, because he can't face the idea they might have been real. Without warning, an unseen force knocks him forward, and he falls right off the tube platform, just as a train pulls into the station! See, kids, this is why the intercom tells you to stay back of the yellow line. But where Slapper fell, Excaliber rises, sword in hand, swearing again his allegiance to Morgan le Fey, whose powers have brought him living into the future.

In another nice touch, in the next panel we see a fearsome dragon leaping forward to devour him: this is the subway car, of course, but Excaliber, having no frame of reference for a subway car, sees it as a terrible monster. With a swipe of his magic sword, the dragon-cum-carriage is smashed to bits. Morgan's disembodied head appears once more, an abstract representation of her telepathic voice. "You are my knight... but you must understand the world you now walk. Permit the mind of the human you inhabit to co-exist with your own!" Excaliber happily obeys his lady's command, even as he leaves the Underground. Outside, he casually assaults a mounted policeman and steals the horse. With a wave of his sword, the police horse transforms into a knight's steed, with barding to match his own funky outfit. In a nifty splash page, Excaliber rides into the night, London crowding on both sides of him, Morgan's stern face looking down on the scene from above. Excaliber, now accompanied by the impotent consciousness of Struthers, sallies forth on his quest. Just what is that quest? We'll find out in a moment. Time for one last smash cut.

Jessica's back at her apartment, pensively gazing out of her window into the night. She's reflecting on what Magnus told her, that her destiny lies in America. Idly, she picks up a stray kitten that's found its way to her sill. "It's such a noisy world, isn't it, little one? Noisy, a bit frightening... and very, very lonely. But you're welcome to stay with me. We may as well be lonely-- together." No, we may as well not be, because this panel is the kitten's final appearance. Did Wolfman want Jessica to have a cat to talk to as a narrative device, or to establish her girly-girl credentials, or did he just need some business for these two panels? Beats me. Anyway, even as Jessica stoops to pick up the kitten, she decides she needs to go back to Magnus' shop and get more information.

Outside the shop she gets an unpleasant surprise: Excaliber, who appears to be... checking street numbers? I guess Morgan has telepathic access to not only the swords of 1978, but also the telephone directories, too. Jessica wonders at Excaliber turning up-- is there a connection between him and Magnus?-- but naturally she plans to investigate this in her alter ego. A presto-change-o wardrobe switch, and enter the Spider-Woman! The narrator informs us that Spider-Woman, at least, "is always ready for battle."

Good thing, too, because that's what she gets. She leaps at Excaliber, unhelpfully telegraphing her attack with the question "Why are you here?" She gets a backhand to the face for her trouble, which knocks her headlong into... a pile of books? Oh. This fight appears to be going on inside Magnus' shop. Seems we're into the same confusion as last issue, where the final script and the art direction don't mesh. (By the way, one of the books she knocks over is titled Red Riding Hood. Just what you'd expect to find in an occult shop: Nameless Cults; Monstres and their Kynde; and Red Riding Hood. Scary stuff, boys and girls!

With a 'fwoosh' Excaliber tries to finish Jess off with a sword-blast (this time, thankfully, it's to her shoulder, and she's not in a sexual pose at all) but Jessica isn't fazed. She returns fire with a venom-blast ('zdak'), but Excaliber is equally unaffected. Not only are the two equally matched in power, they're equally matched in their grasp of tactics, as Excaliber breaks off the fight to ask Magnus "where have you hidden my mistress' book? She must hold it once again!" Magnus isn't having any of this, though. He refuses on the grounds that Morgan will only use the book to travel to 1978 and "lay the world to ruin."

Cut to Scotland Yard, where Jerry Hunt gets word that the "bird" he's looking for has been spotted. Cut back to the battle, where Spider-Woman shakes off her angsty thoughts ("there are so many things [she] doesn't know, and the thought of that frightens her") and gets back in the game. She tries another frontal assault, and gets batted away again for her pains. Ignoring her, Excaliber turns to Magnus, and, sword held in anticipation of a killing stroke, demands the book. Magnus refuses for the final time, but as the blow falls, Jessica, having gotten a clue, throws a spear at Excaliber's sword. We know just how strong she is, and the spear easily knocks the blade from the knight's hand.

Say good night, Excaliber. In a moment, the knight, pleading with his lady for aid, fades away, leaving plain old Slapper Struthers. He's jabbering to himself, but Jessica puts a stop to that with a quick left cross that knocks him out. Turning to Magnus, she demands answers, but none are forthcoming. "There is nothing to understand, young one. Morgan le Fey and I are... old enemies, that is all." "But she lived centuries ago." "So--?" Magnus, following in the footsteps of Gandalf and anticipating the footsteps of Dumbledore, appreciates that old-mysterious-wizardly-father-figures never give straight answers to expository questions, or at least not at first meeting. Better by far to deflect such questions with non sequiturs. "My dear, let us go. We're no longer needed here."

"Here" is the street, where, in a really good magic trick (or is perhaps just the wonky art direction again), the two of them are speaking, despite the fact that one panel ago they were in his shop. The shop, by the way, has disappeared: "Everything I am-- I take with me," explains Magnus unhelpfully. "Now, America awaits us." Apparently, he and Jessica share a destiny, and for a time at least, they will travel together. It's a fait accompli, I guess, because the two of them are strolling off into the moonlight together. Still, given that Jessica has up to now been portrayed as oscillating between assertions of hard-edged selfishness and of feminist self-responsibility, it would have been nice to hear her agree to Magnus' airy plans for the two of them.

In an epilogue, we see Jerry Hunt arrive on the street where Magnus' shop used to be. He's underdressed for the chill of evening, but at least he's very stylish, sporting-- ahem-- a forest-green suit, yellow-and-black striped dress shirt, and navy blue tie. There's no sign of Jessica or Magnus. Jerry is, surprisingly, more resigned than frustrated, especially so as he somehow senses "she was here... and she's gone. And something tells me she will not be back here."

There's no sign of his quarry, but an unconscious Struthers is lying in a heap in an alley. Pinned to his sweater is a note that says "America Spider-Woman." Just as he somehow knew she had been here, she somehow knew he was coming, and left word of her intentions. Jerry, no slouch, asks his policeman buddy to book Struthers ("I'm certain he's guilty of something"); tell SHIELD that Jerry's taking an extended leave of absence; and finally, book a flight on Jerry's behalf to "America".

Don't worry, Jerry. It may have been hard to track her down in a sprawling place like London, but once she's in cozy little America, she'll be in your grasp in no time.

In General...

Just like last issue, writer-slash-editor Marv Wolfman is less interested here in telling a story than he is in moving the pieces around on a board. By the end of the issue he's got Jessica, Magnus and Jerry Hunt on their way to America; he's got Magnus set up as Jessica's mentor and father-figure; and he's got Morgan le Fey set up to be a recurring antagonist. He's not quite done yet, as the Jerry-Jessica relationship needs some firming up, but he's getting there.

In doing all this, he offends the thinking reader far less than he did in issue #1. There are an awful lot of coincidences in the story-- Jessica being on hand for Excaliber's first appearance, Jessica just happening to run into Magnus, the one man whom Excaliber wants to see-but magic is supposed to be about such coincidences. The plot fallacies are still present-why didn't Excaliber just hotfoot it to Magnus' place immediately, instead of waiting a day to do it?-- but there are far fewer of them. Excaliber and Morgan le Fey are convincing villains, even if Excaliber's fashion choices leave quite a bit to be desired. There's a good mix of action and character development. All in all, a good outing. If only they could all be like this.

Overall Rating...

A solid issue. All the story elements we like, and Carmine Infantino's art is still well-executed. Three webs for the story. Add half a web for the art, but deduct that bonus immediately for the sexual come-ons in the early pages and the truly ludicrous Excaliber character design, both of which were apparently Infantino's responsibility. I'd wager that it was his corny costume that kept Excaliber from making a comeback-- this issue was his only appearance-- and that's too bad, as he was an interesting and effective opponent.

Footnote...

In the last panel's hype box, we find a pitch for issue #3. "Next: A macabre new villain: Brother Grimm!" Prepare to have your senses shattered... and your intelligence insulted.