Monday, March 11, 2013

Derivative Ladies: Spider-Woman

Marvel Spotlight #32 (February 1977)
"Dark Destiny!"
Writer:  Archie Goodwin
Pencils:  Sal Buscema
Inks:  Jim Mooney 

Karen: Brian Michael Bendis likes Spider-Woman, so he put her in the Avengers a few years ago and she's become a popular character. But for years she lived in the under-belly of the Marvel universe, never able to really find  her place, not even when she had her own series. Her origin was revised more than once, as was her look. Today we'll go back to her very first appearance and see how it all started.

Doug:  You raise an interesting point of conversation in its own right, and I certainly don't mind if it becomes tangential to discussion of this issue's plot and art today:  does saturation of the market automatically equal a boost in popularity for a character?  Bendis after all only seemed to be continuing a trend begun by the various caretakers of Wolverine, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider.  Interesting...  For me, I was so turned off by his writing and the turtlesque speed of his plots that I would have had a hard time declaring if it was the scripts that made me angrier or the roster.  Wow -- truly a tough call.  Maybe I need to run my own personal "Face-off!" on that quandary.

Doug:  About a year and a half ago I reviewed Spider-Woman #1, which included her revised origin.  You can see that review
by clicking here and check it out side-by-side with this one.

Karen: This tale opens on a dark night somewhere in the Mediterranean. Spider-Woman silently glides down from a hidden HYDRA ship above to SHIELD regional HQ and breaks in. She's there to both rescue a HYDRA agent (who is also her lover) and to assassinate SHIELD chief Nick Fury. Via her thoughts and a brief flashback, we come to learn that she has almost no sense of her past -her memories don't extend very far. Her earliest memories were of being chased by the townspeople of a small European village. Arachne -her name, according to Archie Goodwin - couldn't even remember what she had done to incur their wrath. But she did have the peculiar ability to fire energy blasts at her attackers. Count Otto Vermis, a high ranking member of HYDRA, discovered her and took her under his wing. Using a mind probe, he uncovered the truth about her identity, but kept it a secret from everyone, including Arachne.  He saw her as a perfect weapon and had her trained to serve HYDRA. We see Arachne as a frightened and gullible young girl, willing to please the Count in order to have a place to belong. She also falls in love with the handsome Jared, another HYDRA agent. 

Doug:  The creators give us a nice tour of Spider-Woman's powers in the first few pages, very similarly to comments we made at the top of our Ms. Marvel #1 review last week.  The whole scene at the beginning of this tale, with the reader dropped smack into the middle of a fracas sometimes put me off rather than the intended effect of making me salivate for more.  I know it's a standard plot device, particularly in first issues, but I'd almost rather watch the story unfold organically.  I know that then folks complain about "wasting" an issue of action on an origin, but hey -- to each their own I suppose.  I want to make a remark on the art as we're getting rolling.  It's pretty obvious that we're looking at Sal Buscema, but Jim Mooney's inks seem really heavy to me (which in the '70's was generally what we got out of the Madman).  Sal gets buried at times.  I do, however, always like the way Mooney draws a girl's eyes.  It's his distinctive trademark.

Doug:  So what's up with Arachne's suit?  We're told it was designed to "channel and control those powers", but I don't know that it's even mentioned later in the story.  It doesn't appear from the flashback that she's anything like Cyclops or Havok, where she just explodes with energy.  And is her power of flight (or gliding) addressed?

Karen: Back in real time, Fury is starting to "interrogate" the captured HYDRA agent with his fists when Spider-Woman knocks the door off its hinges. She wipes out the other SHIELD agents with one of her "venom" blasts. A side note here: oddly enough, she has to remove her glove before she fires her blast! I thought this was really strange, and I don't think I've seen a character do it before or since. She confronts Fury and tells him she's going to kill him for hurting the man she loves. Fury manages to dodge her, and we get a nice demonstration of Spider-Woman's agility. But although he evades her, he is grabbed by Jared, Spider-Woman's lover, who hysterically shouts for her to kill Fury. But right as she's about to throw a tremendous haymaker, Fury twists out of the way and thrusts Jared into harm's way. Arachne, aghast at having injured her lover, is frozen for a moment. This gives Fury time to reach a control panel, where he hits an alarm. In anger, Spider-Woman grabs Fury by the throat and slams him against the panel, about to exact revenge, when she suddenly stops, shocked by a video that has inadvertently started when the SHIELD director was shoved against a switch. The screen shows her lover, Jared, engaged in acts of terrorism, and Spider-Woman realizes that she has been completely manipulated.

Doug:  Arachne pretty quickly comes to the conclusion that Fury's tapes are legit and it's HYDRA that's perpetrated the snow job here.  I guess that we can then conclude that her use of the term "manipulated" is more accurate than say "brainwashed".  Your comment about her glove and using her stings/venom/blasts goes back to my question above about the suit being a damper of sorts.  However, there are two panels later in the story when she uses her blasts with the gloves on (once using each hand).

Karen: Spider-Woman tearfully asks Jared for the truth. Apparently she punched him so hard he's dying -ouch. As he violently shakes he tells her not to touch him -that he knows what she really is! He was ordered to be her lover, so that she'd go into a rage when he let himself be captured, and she'd kill Fury. Jared collapses and Spider-Woman flips out, ready to go tear Vermis apart. Fury tries to get her to wait for him but she speeds off. These hints about Spider-Woman's 'true origin' are a bit tantalizing. 

Doug:  Yeah, I couldn't decide about how ol' Jared was going to meet his maker.  Arachne sure has a posture like she's thrown a punch, but the accompanying sound effect leads me to believe that it might have been a blast that she intended to use on Fury at point-blank range.  In the end, it's unclear.  But that would be a spine-shattering punch, I guess.  And charm?  I suppose telling a young lady friend, "D-Don't touch me...!  Least let me die without enduring that again!"  Nice guy.

Karen: We cut to an old monastery in the Carnic Alps, where Count Vermis is sitting on a stone throne and exulting about what he assumes to be the success of Spider-Woman's mission. Suddenly, his lackey warns him that their assault craft has appeared and is diving directly at them! We see Spider-Woman flying away from the ship as it crashes spectacularly into the HYDRA base. As the little green men panic, she comes flying in and chases after Vermis. She's determined to wrest the secret of her identity from him. He flees down a flight of stairs to the monastery's vaults, but Spider-Woman has anticipated him and comes tearing through the ventilation system. She's just about to smack him when they hear gunfire from above. It's SHIELD. Vermis cuts a deal with the girl: he'll tell her what she wants to know if she gets him to the jet waiting in the tunnel beyond. She does, and he carries through on his part of the bargain: he reveals to her that she was evolved by the High Evolutionary, another one of his New Men, scientifically advanced from an animal species into humanoid form. "He had a good reason for naming you "Arachne!" The stunned Spider-Woman recoils, realizing what her original species must have been. Vermis continues his story, relaying how the other New Men rejected her, and Arachne had left Wundagore. She found human company, and even love, but a prank gone wrong triggered her venom blasts, killing her lover  This was the traumatic event that wiped out her memory and set her on the run -right before Vermis found her. Arachne breaks down, crying and screaming, and Vermis uses this chance to toss a gas grenade and get in the jet and take off. She manages to shrug off the gas and fly after him. Using her great strength, she twists the tail fin, causing the jet to crash and killing Vermis. SHIELD mops up the wreckage, noting no sign of Spider-Woman. Fury mentally wishes her good luck, thinking she's going to need it. Meanwhile, our distraught heroine wanders the forest, wondering how she can go on knowing what she is.

Doug:  Who in the whole Marvel Universe is creepier than the High Evolutionary?  That dude isn't too far off from some of the whackjobs that worked for the Third Reich in regard to experimentation on sentient beings.  In regard to Arachne's spider origins, which are slightly modified in her origin seen in Spider-Woman #1, she's repulsive to other humans in both tellings.  Are the authors playing off of most people's disdain for spiders, or is there something we should perhaps know?  I'm getting the willies just thinking about it...

Doug:  There was a Thunderbird/Count  Nefaria vibe to that last battle scene, wasn't there?

Karen: This was not a bad little tale. The whole "evolved spider" angle would be dropped fairly quickly, and replaced with an origin similar to Spider-Man's, involving irradiated spider blood. This origin would also be replaced. But for the sake of this story, it's kind of an interesting way to go -she's not really human. I know Chris Claremont had considered a similar origin for Wolverine at one time. Perhaps it's best he didn't go that direction. But here, it leads to a lot of pathos.

Doug:  Yes, this story was OK.  I don't know that if reading it at the time I'd have felt compelled to actively seek out her next appearance, but it seemed to serve its purpose of adding another heroine to the MU as well as securing a copyright that may or may not have fallen away from Marvel.

Karen: I'd like to also mention the costume. The full head covering isn't very sexy, and obviously somebody realized this, because soon after, Spider-Woman got a very thick mane of black hair. The rest of the costume stayed much the same. I'm not fond of the red and yellow together -red and black would make more sense to me -but it's not awful. For a character that was essentially a copyright holder, there was certainly some effort put into this story.

Doug:  Thinking of her full mask, there really aren't many female characters who wear a garb that covers the entire head, are there?  I recall my feelings about Jean Grey's costume when the first issue of X-Factor hit the stands -- it's just not an attractive look for females, yet men look a little odd whenever the mask does not cover their entire head.  Maybe it's just what we're used to.


Bruce said...

I really like the early issues of this title, when Marv Wolfman was writing it. It had some elements of horror and the supernatural that made it different from other Marvel books.

The problem with the original Spider-Woman title was that every time a new creative team came on board, they took the book in a completely new direction. Jessica changes careers, supporting cast members disappear and new ones appear. It's like the book got rebooted every year or so.

After Wolfman left the book, it lost its horror elements and became much more of a traditional superhero book (I think Mark Gruenwald was writing it then.) It was still pretty good, but I think it lost something.

david_b said...

I have never seen this story.. Very interesting, great review as well.

I recall seeing her title on the stands and, like Ms. Marvel, sort of mentally 'wrote it off' without examination, made worse by the fact they were really pushing her that year in merchandising, stickers, etc.

This story has some nice plotting, as well as the splendid Sal/Jim art. Totally agreed on Jim Mooney..: Nice inking, but a bit over-done. I seem to recall a lot of Sal's art looking like this in the '70s in post-Kirby CA&F and MTU, but would have to research whether Jim inked all those I'm thinking of. The faces all looked a bit too 'sharply drawn' and angle-y (sorry, for lack of a better term..), like it was rushed.

Nice cover with Nick Fury in the forefront, didn't see too many of those outside of occasional CA&F cover appearances. As for the full head mask.., yeah, it's never suited women well but it's interesting to see here.

All in all, I'd love to pick this issue up.

Edo Bosnar said...

I stand by my comments in that first post, and I agree with Bruce that the initial run of the title (for me, up to about issue #s 20-21) were the best. He's definitely right that this initial phase was almost more like a horror book than standard superhero fare.
In fact, I think that aspect makes Spider-woman the best of the derivative women heroes: her origin and backstory are in no way connected to her male 'counterpart,' her costume is not just a female version of Spider-man's, her powers are pretty different, and her stories were completely different. Like I noted in my previous comment, I read the series even though I really wasn't a fan of Infantino's art. Ironically, when he left the book and the art (to me, anyway) got better, I lost interest because the stories just weren't as interesting.

david_b said...

I tend to think she would have fared better with a better name, something other than starting with 'Spider-'.

On first impression, while there's a sense of 'brand recognition', the naming concept works against potential readers in actually accepting her as a new and different hero, illiciting early reader interest.

'Course one could say the same for the initial 'Captain Marvel', but that name still had some ambiguity, along with a entirely different outfit (color scheme, style, etc..) to pull it off. It didn't provide any indication of actual super-powers, such as 'spider powers' in this case, or for 'She-Hulk'.., you kinda get clued in as to what to expect.

Doc Savage said...

I liked her solo comic when she was in L.A. working as a bounty hunter. Lost interest when Asian-fetishist Claremont took over and scrapped everything to suit his obsessions.

david_b said...

Perhaps off-topic a bit, but Marvel Select did quite a nice sculpt of her with the Hydra hencemen. Not the best pic, but here it is..:

Just a fabulous line of figures. Not a Spiderwoman fan, but had to pick it up just for the Hydra base alone (works great with substituting other Legends hero figs as well..).

Inkstained Wretch said...

My reaction to the character at the time was the same as david_b's: Meh, another spinoff of an established franchise. I never bought an issue off the standards. I think the only times I even read stories involving her was when she guest-starred in Avengers Annual #10 and some X-Men issues.

Good point by Edo that she was at least only derivative in regards to her name but otherwise had no connection to the original webslinger and had different powers, costume, origin, etc.

How ironic that of Marvel's three derivative heroines the only one to have real staying power and succeed in establishing herself as a stand-alone character was the one who was the most derivative: She-Hulk.

One other thing: Was this issue really Spider-Woman's first appearance? I thought she had appeared in Marvel Two-in-One first.

Doug said...

Inkstained --

This was indeed her first appearance, cover-dated Feb. '77. Her MTIO appearance was cover-dated in July of the same year.


Anonymous said...

I like Spider Woman in general, even though the writing wasn't always the greatest at times. I think I first got interested because I assumed she was related (literally!) to Spider-Man.

I like Bendis's take on her, but his "Spider Woman: Origins" mini-series seemed to muddle her past more than clear it up; I'm STILL not sure what's "canon" and what isn't as far as Jessica's past goes, but I do like her being a little more edgy and fits with her terrorist/espionage past.

Mike W.

Doug said...

You know, I meant to make a comment in the text and on a quick re-read I guess I forgot.

In one of the issue-long dialogues in New Avengers, wasn't it discussed that when Jessica was under the influence of Hydra, it was not only her powers that were "augmented" -- if you know what I mean?


David said...

I read this story as part of a black and white paperback from the early 1980s that collected all of Spider-Woman's early appearances. The panels were chopped up to fit the smaller page size, but the story was still compelling enough to get me hooked. Does anyone else remember those paperbacks? (I had set of similar paperbacks featuring DC characters as well.)

Edo Bosnar said...

David, yes, I had several of DC's black-and-white pocketbooks: one that I liked in particular collected a few of the O'Neil/Adams Batman stories from the early '70s, and another featured the Legion of Super-heroes.
And speaking of pocketbooks, back then I had (and have again now) the Spider-Woman color pocketbook that reprinted this story plus the first 8 issues of the regular series - david_b, if you don't mind the smaller format, this is a good way to get a bunch of SW's early stories. I think it's still possible to find inexpensive used copies on eBay or at Abebooks or
As for what's canon or not - yeesh, who cares anymore? The origin(s) from the 1970s worked well enough for me, so that's canon as far as I'm concerned.

Bruce said...

Doug, stories like reinforce why this Marvel Zombie almost never buys their current product. (Although they still get plenty of my money from reprint collections!) Emma Frost made a similar comment a while back about being "enhanced." Who comes up with this stuff?

I actually didn't read Spider-Woman until a few years back. But the complete run is available in two Essentials trades, and I'd recommend them, particularly volume one.

humanbelly said...

Ooh-ooh! Blatant No-Prize attempt! Up on one of the pages above, The High E claims that Arachne is his first female creation, BUT. . .

. . . CLEARLY the ever-bountiful Bova had to have been produced decades before this point! A-ha! A-HAAA!

HB the Shameless

Fred W. Hill said...

Funny, on one level I really hated the idea of derivative characters, one of the reasons I preferred Marvel to DC as a wee lad at the dawn of the '70s as I made my 4-color cavalcade oath of loyalty to the Marvel brand. But still I got this mag when I came across it in the Navy Exchange comics racks. At least, I consoled myself, the only thing she really had in common with Spider-Man was a similar name -- in costume and origin she was entirely her own character, in sharp contrast to Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. Of course, this was a rather bizarre origin story and I did greatly prefer the revised origin of her seires. Oh, and I also preferred the free-flowing long black hair to the skull-enclosing mask.

dbutler16 said...

Spider-Woman was one of the derivative ladies I could never get into, for some reason.
I agree with Doug about Bendis’ glacial pacing. His stories are sooo boring!
I didn’t know about Spider-Woman’s beginnings, so finding out she was a Hydra agent is surprising, but it makes her more interesting to me.
Also, I agree with Doug that I don’t like the overuse of flashbacks - both in comics and in movies.
Wow, that’s quite a bit of manipulation by Hydra – allowing Jared to be captured and beaten to enrage Spidey into killing Nick.
Wow, I didn’t know Spidey was ac project of the High Evolutionary, evolved from a spider! I was wondering if this had ever been retconned, then Karen answered my question, though I did seem to recall that she’d gotten her powers from a blood transfusion from the other Spidey, so I wasn’t surprised. I actually prefer the evolved spider origin. As Karen says, it involved more pathos, plus the blood transfusion route’s already been done (She-Hulk, anyone?). Also very interesting that she killed the bad guy. This intentional killing by a superhero just did not happen back at that time.
Interesting comparison of the High Evolutionary to a Nazi “scientist” Doug. That hadn’t occurred to me before, though I’ve noticed that sometimes he is portrayed as more or less good, and sometimes not so nice, in a Machiavellian way.
Yes, the no-hair look isn’t very sexy, and even though I think red and yellow is a great color combination, so some reason, I never loved her costume, so maybe Karen’s suggestion of red & black would be an improvement. Also, yes, I do like it when the man’s costume covers the whole head, so I guess it’s what we’re used to.

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