Reevaluating Spider-Gwen: Part One

Spider-Gwen is a book that fascinates me. Usually, when reading a book, it’s fairly easy to tell if I enjoy or hate it. But this book has me thoroughly confounded. I judged it to be an awful wreck of a book reading it on a month-by-month basis, and I gave its first five issues a scathing review in Spider-Gwen: Overrated. However, most other reviewers, including those of another highly-respectable Spider-Man website, Superior Spider-Talk, have been positive towards the book. Plus, it still sells well with a devoted fan base.

So, I decided to step back and ask myself a few questions: Am I missing something? Am I too biased against Spider-Gwen? Have I truly given writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez a chance with this book?

With my latest attempt to understand this phenomenon, I decided to reread everything involving Gwen written by Latour, starting from Edge of Spider-Verse #2. This time, I tried to be subjective, looking for positives as much as negatives. Considering the latter category for the early phase of Spider-Gwen, I still mostly agree with my past opinions. The “Most Wanted?” arc is sloppy with poor overall storytelling. The plot feels like retreads of other stories, many characters are one-dimensional caricatures, the world-building for Earth-65 is poor, and Rodriguez’s art is usually amateurish in a bad way.

Despite these negatives that really drag down the opening arc, I failed to really consider the elements that did work here and the possibilities for the characters and her universe. There is great potential for her dad, Captain Stacy. While Peter’s mentor died as soon as he began acting like a hero, Gwen’s inspiration is still alive, and this book is about Captain Stacy as much as it is about Gwen. His struggle of duty vs. family parallels Gwen’s own lessons about power and responsibility. Even in these six issues, Stacy is a likable character for readers to root for, sometimes even more so than Gwen. Another interesting character is Matt Murdock, the Kingpin of Crime in this reality. His few appearances paint him as a typical “planning and conniving crime boss” type, but Latour writes the archetype well and he is the only villain that truly poses a threat. It’s clear he has a larger plan with Murdock.

Another element of “Most Wanted?” that I neglected to mention earlier is that Latour and Rodriguez have something truly thought-provoking to say. If Latour was simply writing Spider-Gwen to cash a paycheck, he would be unthinkingly churning out a stupid, surface-level humor book. He doesn’t though. He has some truly interesting ruminations to express about the themes of power and responsibility, and both Gwen and her father must confront their duties and shortcomings. The central plot of this arc follows Gwen as she copes with feelings of guilt over Peter’s death. She hides behind a mask and avoids her personal life, ignoring the responsibility to friends and family. Her response to the traumatic event is realistic, and her character arc is interesting. Although I still find her quips behind the mask to be obnoxious, at least they fit with the depiction of the Spider-Gwen persona as a form of escapism.

The main problem with Latour’s plotting in this arc is he doesn’t know have a grasp on basic storytelling elements. He fails to successfully center his plot around Gwen’s character development. Her battles with the Vulture and Frank Castle in the first three issues are mostly distractions, as Latour doesn’t connect the conflicts with Gwen’s character arc (although he does manage to do so later with Castle). There are other amateur mistakes and plot holes I mentioned in my earlier review as well. Setting up scenes and bringing characters together in an organic way are major problems in the first arc.

Further, when Latour gets to the big turning point, where Gwen decides to stop running from problems and returns to her normal life, he drops the ball. Spider-Gwen #4 centers around Gwen’s conversation with Peter’s Aunt May, during which she faces the consequences of her actions as Spider-Woman and gains a semblance of forgiveness. The majority of their conversation is great, character-driven dialogue, but at the end, May’s statements become too heavy-handed. She says, “Maybe she’s [Spider-Gwen’s] trapped in her skull, too. Maybe it’s just easier to be someone else behind that mask.” Then, she tells Gwen to stop hiding and carry on living, as if she knows Gwen is Spider-Woman, which she doesn’t. Somehow, Peter’s aunt gets to the core of Spider-Gwen’s character struggle just from reading newspaper articles about her heroics. With these lines, Latour expresses his point too obviously and turns May from a realistic character to a robot spouting his plot points. This scene proves Latour has a direction for the character, but he has problems getting from Point A to Point B organically.

The crux of Latour’s problem is he lacks experience. Before suddenly striking gold with Edge of Spider-Verse #2, he had no runs exceeding a year, and Marvel editorial is too occupied launching unnecessary books to really guide their writers in the basics of comic book storytelling. What Latour needed was experience writing comics. We must remember that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko stumbled a bit in their early Amazing Spider-Man issues and took time to really hit their stride. This is even more true with Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. In the 60s, they had time to improve their stories and develop before the books were truly phenomenal. That is not the case in the rapidly-moving industry today. Due to the oversaturation of the market, every series needs a bombastic, ground-breaking opening arc or it will go unnoticed and fade into oblivion. If Spider-Gwen didn’t have such intense hype by the time her first series was published, this arc could have been the nail in the coffin for Latour and Rodriguez. This misstep of an opening arc might have killed a less-popular character.

The issue that displays the potential of a Latour/Rodriguez Spider-Gwen title is the final issue in volume one, in which Gwen and the Mary Janes are caught in a conflict between Matt Murdock and Felicia Hardy. This one-shot story is utter chaos, but it’s chaos in a good way. Cat-themed bodyguards fight ninjas while Gwen is just trying to survive. Latour’s frantic pacing works well to give Felicia enough of a backstory to make her battle with Murdock authentic. While Rodriguez’s art looks horrible in Gwen’s close battles with Frank Castle and the Vulture, his wild, messy style actually complements Latour’s script of chaotic fun and action here. If there is any indication that this creative team can produce something great later on, this issue is it. The energetic and amateurish style works in this one-shot story, but the question remains: can this team channel their energy into a successful multi-part story arc?

In retrospect, it makes sense that Latour and Rodriguez just needed time to figure out how to work in their medium and tell quality stories. Maybe they required a learning curve just like Lee, Kirby, and Ditko did (although those creators were industry veterans at the time, just doing a different quality of work). Things take time, and like Amazing Fantasy #15 did earlier, Edge of Spider-Verse #2 attracted enough attention to warrant an ongoing with enough fan attention for the creators to slowly find their way. The big question is: Do Latour and Rodriguez ever actually find their way? Well, they must do something right later on for me to bring up the learning curve. But, at what point do they hit their stride, if any yet?

To keep this rave from being too long and intimidating, I must postpone the answer for a week or a month or whenever I have free time to write again. But I hope you see that I’m giving Spider-Gwen a chance. I never want to hate a book, especially one that the creators seem to care so much about. This has been one of the most challenging titles for me as a reader, but it’s challenging in a good way. Watch out for my next Gwen rave, in which I continue coming to terms with my former irrational hatred of a teenage hero who just wants to eat corn dogs and make the world a better place.