Comics : Spider-Woman #39

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Filling Gaps

This review was first published on: Mar 2016.

Background...

The Claremont era is begun: Jessica ‘Spider-Woman’ Drew is now a San Francisco private investigator who moonlights as a costumed adventurer. She lives with her roommate and best friend, Lindsay McCabe, and is exploring a growing attraction to her landlord, med student David Ishima.

In Detail...

"Death Stroke"
Spider-Woman #39
Aug 1981 : SM Spin-Off
Summary: Death Stroke, Morgan le Fay
Editor:  Denny O'Neil
Writer:  Chris Claremont
Pencils:  Steve Leialoha
Inker:  Bob Wiacek
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Review
 Reprinted In: Essential Spider-Woman #2
Articles: Spider-Woman I (Drew)

We open in a strange place, as signified by the panel borders being wavy rather than straight. Jessica is in her Spider-Woman garb, brawling with two self-identified Knights of the Round Table, who seek to use their swords to execute her as a witch. With her spider-powers, it’s easy to disarm and knock the two knights on foot, as well as their companion, a mounted knight with a lance. Then she finds herself in a castle courtyard, where Lindsay is tied up on a pyre. Before Spider-Woman can react, a firebolt from nowhere ignites the kindling, and Lindsay burns up.

Even as Spider-Woman wakes from what we know understand to be a horrible dream, a vision of sorceress Morgan le Fay (sic) appears, promising that a day of reckoning is near, and that when the two meet, quarter won’t be given.

Jessica wakes, in her own bed, not in her costume but in a nightie that’s just on the verge of falling off. (My twelve-year-old daughter watches manga, and explains to me that scenes like this are shoehorned in all the time “for the boys”. She’s got that right.) Jessica is well aware that the dream she just had was more than simply a nightmare, it was a psychic attack by the true Morgan le Fay. The helpful caption box reminds us that Morgan has manifested in Jessica’s life recently, in Spider-Woman #35 and Spider-Woman #37, but your servant can go farther: feel free to trace the Morgan-Spider-Woman rivalry to its beginnings in Spider-Woman #2 and Spider-Woman #6.

Jessica is uneasy, because she’s unsure how to defend herself against Morgan’s mystical attacks. And Morgan has now indicated she’s willing to go after Jessica’s friends. What is Jessica to do?

If I was Jessica, I would want to consult with the man who was instrumental in fighting off Morgan last time, namely Magnus the Magician. He’s still Jessica’s friend, and was last seen in Spider-Woman #13, going to Las Vegas to pursue a career there. But that was 26 issues and three or four writers ago, depending on how you count, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that he’s been forgotten, by the readers, the current writer, and Jessica herself.

Jessica decides that, despite the late hour - four o’clock in the morning - she’d better check on Lindsay and make sure she’s all right. She glances through the slightly-ajar door to Lindsay’s bedroom and is shocked by what she finds, as the little surprise-lines emanating from her head inform us. Retreating to the kitchen with a smirk on her face, she reflects internally: “Ahem! That will certainly teach me where not to poke my nose in the middle of the night. Things certainly look all right, though. In fact they couldn't look much better for Lindsay if they tried. I guess I was the sole object of Morgan’s attention. Lucky me.”

It’s not what you’re thinking, though. Or rather, as far as I can tell, it is what you’re thinking, but the editor thought better of it at the last moment, and inserted a thought balloon in the panel, hastily lettered, that says “She’s sleeping like a babe!”

Yeah, I bet she is. It’s a weird sort of prudery that’s all right showing Jessica about to fall out of her lingerie, but can’t even imply that Lindsey might be sharing her bed with someone. I guess that’s pop culture in the early Reagan era for you.

Unable to sleep, Jessica changes clothes and calls on her landlord, David Ishima, who lives on the first floor, and is awake early, or so Jessica presumes from his lights being on. I think she’s jumping to conclusions, but as it happens David is indeed awake, and equally uneasy about something. “Sit tight,” he says, “I’ll build a fire.” The pair sit in comfortable silence in front of his fireplace. Before things can progress to the point where an editor might get nervous, a knock is heard at the door.

Enter Lieut. Sabrina Morrel, of SFPD Homicide. She’s there to ask David to assist in the police’s inquiries, as the British put it. Specifically, she wants David to leave his home and come with her. David agrees, and Jessica comes along too… foolishly, in my eyes. If the police ever ask you to leave your home and come with them, you should insist on having a lawyer present, or at least I would.

Off they all go to Carillon Towers, an under-construction skyscraper downtown. David worked there, or he did: “I was fired yesterday,” he says grimly. Apparently his former supervisor fell forty-five storeys to his death, and they want David to identify the body. Really? They want David to do it and not his next-of-kin? I smell a rat, and so does Jessica, who insists that further questions need to be asked in the company of David’s attorney.

David does indeed have an attorney, or rather his elder brother has a friend who is one. We cut to the offices of John DeLuca, defense attorney extraordinaire. He’s strikingly dressed: he has pink-shaded eyeglasses, a pink jacket, a French-collared dress shirt, and a very wide olive-and-black striped tie. I guess this means we’re supposed to read him as gay? For the benefit of younger readers, I should point out that while today San Francisco makes people think of tech companies and overpriced real estate, before the Internet it was known as the USA’s gay metropolis, and I think DeLuca is a gesture in that direction. Refreshingly, it stays subtext: this is just writer Chris Claremont bringing the verisimilitude, I guess.

The facts of the case seem to be that the dead man, Tim Walsh, fired David from the job site. David says that this happened despite the fact that they were friends; while both men knew something was strange on the job, Walsh was afraid David would get hurt if he looked into matters too closely.

As cases go, this seems to me to be lighter than air. Ace attorney DeLuca doesn’t agree; he thinks that, even though “most of evidence [sic] is circumstantial”, a grand jury would still vote to indict. Most? It seems to me that all of the evidence is circumstantial and the police have no case. Well, they do have one thing in their favour, which is that David refuses to give an account of his movements the night before to anyone, even his own lawyer.

Jessica remonstrates with him, but he stands his ground. “I don’t want - or need - your help”, he says, and storms out. “Exit the proud and angry young man,” murmurs DeLuca.

Jessica doesn't know what to do, but she’s sure David’s innocent. “I intend to prove it, whether he wants me to or not. Are you with me?”

“All the way,” says DeLuca, and they shake hands on it, albeit in an odd forty-five-degree-angle fashion.

Jessica proceeds to shadow David. Jessica’s new at being a private investigator but has some experience as a bounty hunter, and some of those skills cross over, I suppose. David is also completely wrapped up in his own thoughts and hence has no situational awareness. This is as reasonable explanation as any for why Jess is able to follow David so closely, even boarding the same streetcar and rapid-transit vehicle he does. When he enters a taxi, Jessica does a lightning-quick change to mufti and continues the pursuit from above. She alights on the side of the house that is David’s ultimate destination and proceeds to eavesdrop on the conversation he has with the occupant.

“The walls of this house are so thin, I can hear practically every word said inside”, Spider-Woman thinks. Naturally!

From context, we and Spider-Woman can deduce that this woman, Cynthia, is the widow of Tim Walsh, the murder victim. David’s come to explain his innocence, his determination to catch the real killer and, er, his desire to borrow “a reserve set of blueprints and notes about the Carillon Towers project”. Looks like David wants to be private investigator himself! Me, I’d have let the police do their own investigation, but David’s a more pro-active sort.

So is Cynthia, who slaps him, calls him a killer and demands he leave. “You got plenty of problems with the law already, punk, but I`ll be happy to make ’em a whole lot worse.” As soon as David leaves, she begins talking to herself. “That mule-head - he’ll ruin everything! I’ve done too much. I’m in too deep. If he breaks this case, I’ll hang!”

One mystery solved. Agatha Christie this ain’t.

Cynthia proceeds to call someone named “Eric” to warn him that David is blundering around trying to solve the crime. From outside, Spider-Woman not only hears the incriminating soliloquy, thanks to her “super-sensitive hearing”, she also “picked up the musical tones her phone made when she [i.e., Cynthia] placed her call. As each tone corresponds to a specific digit, that means I also know the number she dialled.”

I’d make a snarky comment, but this is really no less plausible than venom blasts or pheromonal emotional manipulation, so let’s accept that Spider-Woman really is that good and move on.

In another stretching-the-bounds-of-plausibility moment, Spider-Woman leaves the side of the house, flies back to the train station, changes back into civvies, and manages to board the same train as David, whom she shadows back to downtown San Fran. This time, however, her leet skillz fail her, and David tries to elude her in the crowd. When she uses her spider-reflexes to keep up, he angrily confronts her and tells her to butt out: “I don’t want to see you following me! I don’t want to see you, period. Ever again!”

Dude, harsh.

He’s angry but still not situationally aware, so when he leaves the subway and takes to the streets, he doesn’t even look behind to see that Jessica is still following him. “Sorry, David,” she thinks, “but I care for you too much to leave you to your fate. For as long as you’re in danger, I’m your guardian angel, and if that bothers you, tough.”

From the opposite street corner, Jessica sees David encounter Lieutenant Morrell, and the two have a shouting match. Spider-Woman’s “super-sensitive hearing” is remarkably selective, because she can’t hear what either says because of street noise, though she does pick up the word Yakuza. When David stops to eat, Jessica uses a convenient pay phone - ah, the 1980s - to call DeLuca, who tells him that there’s a warrant out for David and he should surrender himself.

So why didn’t Morrell arrest David when she saw him just now? Neither Jessica nor DeLuca can figure that out, but no time for the matter: Jessica is kidnapped right off the street by two men with long-barrelled pistols! She’s muscled into a waiting car, or rather, permits herself to be so muscled, so she can figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, her captors have tight lips and she can’t get anything from them. Moments later, the car stops and it’s David’s turn to be captured. As night falls over San Francisco, the duranced duo is taken to the Carillon Towers work site, and taken by elevator to the top floor, a platform open to the air, studded with exposed girders.

Back in 1981, superhero comics couldn’t feature simple toughs or legbreakers. One of the bad guys had to be in costume, even when it didn’t add anything to the story. To wit: the chief of these gunsels, a guy in a red body stocking with a blue vest. “I am Death Stroke!” he says. “The men you see about you are my Terminators.”

Yes, you read that right. It’s Death Stroke and his Terminators, a band of mercenaries. Not to be confused with Deathstroke the Terminator, noted mercenary, who debuted less than a year before in New Teen Titans #2 (December 1980). I’m not sure if this is a homage to the work of a former Spider-Woman writer - Marv Wolfman had left Marvel at this point to write for DC - or whether Claremont needed a one-off, throwaway bad guy, and borrowed inspiration from the Distinguished Competition. There’s little point in exploring the matter, as Death Stroke’s character is as thin as the paper he’s printed on. So let’s move on!

Death Stroke, like all hard-bitten professional mercenaries out to fulfill an assassination contract, takes the time to explain his motives at length to his prospective victims, because “there seems no harm in telling you”. It seems that Carillon Towers is intended by its owner and developer to be the “headquarters for our employer, the new crime czar of San Francisco”. Tim Walsh found about the secret and illegal rooms to be built in the structure, and informed the authorities; when Death Stroke’s boss found about this, he had Walsh assassinated, by Death Stroke. Now Death Stroke has to finish the job: while Walsh had fired Ishima to put him out of danger, Ishima’s efforts to clear his own name might lead to the Carillon’s secrets coming to light, so Ishima has to go too.

Jessica has heard enough. She uses her venom-blast powers creatively, to create a funky but harmless light show, distracting Death Stroke and his men. While they’re looking elsewhere, she kicks backwards off the exposed ledge and falls into space, shrieking. As she falls, she uses her spider-strength to snap her handcuffs and slips out of her sweater, exposing her costume. (Neat trick, doing that in mid-air.) She glides up, but too late: Death Stroke has already thrown David off the building too.

I know this is a dramatic scene, but I have to pause here to point out how stupid Death Stroke’s plan is. Having David die at the Carillon Towers by means of a long fall? That’s easily read as suicide, a murderer’s way to express remorse and evade judgment for the impassioned killing of the boss who fired him from that job site. If that was Death Stroke’s plan, it would have been a good one… if that’s what he intended. He never says, so I’m guessing.

But he throws David off the building while he’s handcuffed from behind. No way can that be read as a suicide. David’s murder is only going to attract more police attention to the job site, especially since the Federal authorities have already been tipped off by Walsh that something hinky is going on.

I’m going to be kind and assume that it’s Death Stroke who’s stupid, and not Claremont.

Back to the action! Jessica glides up, catches David, and - since she can’t glide while carrying him, or so she says - she uses her spider-strength to catch a protruding girder and catapult the two of them into an open-air lower floor of the building. She’s bruised and her jeans are ruined, but David is fine. David is happy to be alive, of course, and also happy that Spider-Woman saved Jessica Drew. “Thank heaven. When she went over the edge, I wanted to die.”

“My, oh my! He cares about me!” Spider-Woman thinks.

Heart overflowing, Spider-Woman and David, who conveniently lost his cuffs when he landed, spring into action, and easily take down, ninja-style, the Terminators. This is as ludicrous as it sounds, because even as we see Spider-Woman and David sneaking up on them one at a time and knocking them out, the caption box describes them as “a cadre of former military commandos known and feared throughout the city’s underworld. They've never been beaten. Never failed in a mission.” That description would have been more effective if it had been given to us before we see them get punked by an angry med student with no combat training.

“Hey, web-lady, we make a good team!” he chortles.

“David, please don’t call me that. Ever. That nickname has… painful memories.”

For us readers too. The less time we spend thinking about Scotty McDowell, the better.

A few more pages of action follow. David is captured by a ninja, who tries to use him as a bargaining chip to get Spider-Woman to stand down, but she simply incapacitates both of them with a venom blast. Death Stroke is pwned as easily as his men: Jessica simply grabs him and tosses him out of the building. While in free fall, she glides over, decks him unconscious, and glides him to the ground in a scissor hold. I'm not sure why she couldn't do the same with David earlier, but let’s not quibble. In the space of five panels, Death Stroke, the Terminators, and David himself are turned over to the police, the wheels of justice spin, and a San Francisco court dismisses all charges against him.

In an epilogue, we clear up one bit of business. What did Morrell speak to David about on the street, and why didn’t she arrest him? That’s left a mystery, but it has something to do with the Yakuza. “I also hate to see good talent go to waste,” she says to David. “The offer I made a week ago still stands.” So it only took a week for the courts to clear David? Either that’s a handwave by the writer to retain narrative momentum, or the US justice system was much faster in 1981 than it is today. In any case, David rejects the offer, leaving a concerned Jessica to wonder if the Yakuza are interested in David… in which case, he’ll still need someone to watch over him.

The story ends with Jessica and David at an Italian restaurant, sitting in a booth, indulging in “the private moment… they've been building towards for quite a while. It proves well worth the wait.”

I’ll say: Jessica has moved around the booth into David’s lap, and is French kissing him hard. Sure looks like, as the editor might put it, the two of them will soon be sleeping like babes.

In General...

This is a strange issue, with few dramatic unities. You might think from the opening that this issue is about the threat of Morgan LeFay, but that thread is abandoned immediately in favour of the mystery of ‘Who killed Walsh and why is David so uncooperative in his own defense?’ That latter thread is abandoned too. I trust both of them will reappear in future issues, but the way they’re handled here is unsatisfying: a reader would expect Morgan, as a subplot, to be introduced in mid-issue, not as the opening, and David’s truculence to be addressed more openly by the people trying to defend him. So we don’t have unity of plot.

We don’t have unity of time, either, with the strange one-week gap at the end. Nor do we have unity of space, with the story moving back and forth from Jessica’s apartment to the Carillon Towers to suburban San Francisco to downtown San Francisco and back to the Carillon Towers again. It’s hard to see any issue as a classic when it’s this unfocused.

The mystery itself is pretty lame too, with Spider-Woman solving it the first time she pulls on a lead. It’s also handled pretty weakly by a writer as interested in detail and verisimilitude as Claremont: Cynthia just confesses her guilt in a spoken-aloud soliloquy in her apartment? Just who is the “Walter” that calls to warn about David? Do either of these folks meet justice? And how are they involved in the shady development deal anyway? Spider-Woman emphasizes that she was able to pick out Walter’s phone number and it will be easy to trace - does anything come of this plot point? All of this sloppiness is hard to forgive.

Finally, the antagonist of the issue is not only derivative, he’s only around for a bit over five pages, and never once comes off as menacing or in control of the situation. Even as we readers recognize what a turkey he is, the comic lamely tries to insist that he’s a badass. He’s deservedly forgettable.

Overall Rating...

Claremont is doing the right things - setting up plot points for future issues, grounding the character in street-level crime while keeping up connections to the broader, weirder Marvel Universe - but his heart wasn’t in it this time. Two webs.

Footnote...

Former Spider-Woman writer Mark Gruenwald, who loved to use floating bits of continuity almost as much as he loved keeping the Marvel Universe neat, tidy, and free of lame supervillains, brought back Death Stroke for one more appearance in Captain America #395, where he applied for a job with the Red Skull. The Red Skull, much like the Joker of Nolan's The Dark Knight film, recruited people by holding death matches and hiring the survivors. Death Stroke fought the Mangler and Cutthroat, two equally forgettable villains, and died at Cutthroat’s hands. Cue the sad trombone.