As I said when I wrote about Matt Fraction and Mike Allred’s underrated FF series in 2013, I spend so much time examining the problematics of both broad themes and granular specificities of superhero comics, that when I find something I like that seems to be getting things right for the most part, I try and use whatever little influence this blog has on its readers to persuade them to give it a try.
I happened upon Marvel’s newest Spider-Woman series quite inadvertently. I saw a review of Spider-Woman #6 (2015) on the Chasing Amazing blog and decided to give it a shot after paging through issues #5 & 6 at the comic shop. I’m not aware of having ever read anything by Dennis Hopeless before, but Javier Rodriguez’s art (he is doing both penciling and coloring) was an immediate eye-catcher for me. The fact that the comic seemed to have a more intimate focus on the life of Jessica Drew, Bronze Age sensibility in terms of story pacing and action, and Whedonesque patter were also draws. The first arc, however, ended up being a lot better than I would have dared hoped for.
Not only is the comic’s protagonist a woman, but this first story takes on the cause of a community of women superhero comics tends to ignore—the wives and girlfriends (both current and ex-) of supervillains and how the male-dominated cultural and political traditions of the superhero/supervillain struggle leaves them and their children vulnerable.Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew herself is the victim of a disastrously convoluted backstory that has been re-imagined and ret-conned, exacerbated by periods of inactivity and other women taking on her moniker. This being the case, another re-thinking of her character is not so much disruptive as it is necessary. Her most recent re-birth was at the hands of Brian Michael Bendis, who seemed most interested in her as form of nostalgia for his pubescent fixation on her shapely body. All you need do is go back to her appearances in early issues of the first volume of New Avengers to see evidence of this (along with interviews with Bendis in which she comes up). As such, beginning this new series with Jessica quitting the Avengers and SHIELD, shifting to a more “street level” focus and getting a new costume that feels more modern and less exploitative (even if the new costume seems to be kind of rip-off of the re-imagined Batgirl costume) are steps in the right direction.
Hopeless writes Spider-Woman with a self-aware tone, that while it may never reach She-Hulk levels of breaking the fourth wall, certainly comments on Spider-Woman’s meta-concerns. In her narration she refers to her re-aligning of her priorities to “street-level” crime, echoing the language of comic fans and creators when discussing relative powers and spheres of influence of superheroes. At one point she even refers to “shame googling ‘Spider-Woman butt,’” which certainly has to be a reference to not only the controversial Milo Manera variant cover, but how she was drawn in the Bendis series.
This new series uses its first real arc (the first four issues of the series were part of the Spider-verse crossover event, so I didn’t bother with them) to set the tone for and hopefully demonstrate the concerns of the stories to come. Disconnected from the day-to-day issues of her community because of her many years addressing global and cosmic threats with the Avengers, we see Spider-Woman struggling to correctly interpret events and mete out the correct response to the level of threats she is dealing with. She even ends up in the lock-up overnight for disrupting a police training exercise she took for an actual crime. Later, we hear of her taking two subways cars out of service in her capture of a lone purse-snatcher. Ultra-competent Batman she is not—but that is okay because to have her have to struggle and re-learn and develop a more nuanced approach to her superheroing humanizes her.
To this end she teams up with Ben Urich (who must be missing Daredevil like crazy ever since Matt Murdoch moved to San Francisco—which, by the way is where the first Spider-Woman series from the 70s and 80s was set), who has a file cabinet full of notes for reportage on “normal” people who need help, and who hips her to the disappearance of the wives, girlfriends, and children of a bunch of D-list supervillains. You know the kind—usually animal-themed and using equipment that must cost more to maintain than whatever little amount they manage to squirrel away between beatings by Spider-Man and stays in Rikers.
The story makes room for voices that usually go unheard and people who go unmentioned in the world created by superhero comics. Spider-Woman discovers a community of women tired of suffering for the choices made by their boyfriends and husbands. Victims of neglect at best and physical and mental abuse at worst, they arranged their own disappearances with the help of Cat, the wife of a supervillain who designed a construction-themed exo-suit with a drill-bit on one arm and a back-hoe claw on the other. Abused by her husband, the flashback that tells us Cat’s story strongly suggests she did him in with his own suit, but rather than simply go on her way, she decided to seek out and help others who were in her predicament. She helps them retreat to a small upstate New York town, and then blackmails the husbands/boyfriends of other women in her position as a way of trying to fulfill the promise of easy prosperity that is at the heart of most comic book super-villainy.
The flashback scene develops empathy for Cat, as it depicts the unreasonable demands her husband put on her and she is wearing the outcome of domestic abuse on her face. In fact, one of the things I love about Rodriguez’s art is that he actually depicts the consequences of violence. After a tough fight with Lady Earthmover (Cat never calls herself that, but the comic does) Jessica Drew has a black eye, a swollen face. If the comic had not done this, the theme of abuse would be undercut by representing violence with no possible lasting marks, no sign of pain. Even violence with the best of intentions leads to terrible consequences.
If the women of this community were simply starting new lives free of their abusive partners and exes there’d be no story, but since Lady Earthmover had them extorting ransom from those supervillain partners through a scheme where “the kidnapper” had the villains commit crimes or else risk harm to their loved ones, there is a potential for collateral damage that must be stopped. Hopeless crafts a great story that makes use of the genuine concern that even these abusive men might have for their families that demonstrates how “genuine concern” does not equate “healthy relationships” or the ability to see how their own behavior endangers the people they claim to love.
At the beginning of the four-issue arc, Jessica Drew tells Ben Urich that perhaps these missing women don’t want to be found, “that this is what happens when a person claws their way out of a relationship with a violent criminal…sometimes people disappear on purpose.” However, once she stumbles on the blackmail scheme she investigates, though her original instinct is right.
In the end Spider-Woman is able to defeat Lady Earthmover—who takes her desire to keep her community a secret so far as to perpetrate violence herself—with the help of the other women of the community who feel their leader has gone too far. During the fracas, when she is being badly beaten and is close to losing, Spider-Woman thinks to herself that the superhero trope of having to suffer a beating at the hands of your foe before regrouping and coming out victorious is a lot harder to pull off “when working solo.” But she is not really working solo, because when the other women come to her aid and give her that moment to catch her breath the story is highlighting the possibilities of solidarity and community to both support and censure us as needed. In that moment they know their leader was in the wrong, and acting no different from the men they all sought to escape, even if her motives were not the same. And yet, once Lady Earthmover is defeated and vulnerable, they move to defend her from Spider-Woman as well.
The story’s conclusion doubles down on possibilities of mercy and generosity, when realizing that Cat/Lady Earthmover is no less a victim than any of the other women, Spider-Woman decides to forget the beating she just took and not tell anyone about what she’s discovered as long as the blackmail stops. She understands the need to make a clean break and start a new life (this new series echoes that for Drew herself). She understands how these women had to create their own support system as both the toxic elements of their own lives and the supposed forces of justice do not prioritize their needs. To turn these women in to the authorities would make them double-victims, exposing them both to a merciless criminal justice system and the dangers of their criminal husbands who may want revenge for being duped.
What is brilliant about this story is that Hopeless manages to evoke the complexity of reactions to victimization, such that these women are not simply plot devices, but also depict the possibility of their positive agency, and indicate the existence of more unheard from voices that creative comic creators who are willing to break out of the superhero genre’s hypermasculine hyperviolent expectations can find if they go in search of those stories. Not only are there countless stories that can upset those expectations in large and small ways and still fit within the larger superhero milieu of heroism and action and drama, but those stories can help to reshape our understanding of the genre and make use of its inexhaustible elasticity.
Best of all, since the series is well-written it manages to provide the pleasure of recognizing references to obscure characters and other Easter eggs for long time comics readers, while remaining accessible to reader less familiar with continuity either through a different level of engagement or merely being new to comics.
It is also worth noting that there was no reference to or sign of Spider-Woman’s “pheromone” power to charm men in the four issues I’ve read. I wonder if this was a choice by Hopeless, or if simply this particular plot just made power pointless—though there is a problematic essentialist assumption about gender in how those powers are supposed to work, so I would not be sad to see them re-imagined or simply gotten rid of.
I know I am going out on a limb by advocating for increased and continued support for this title after just one arc, but I want to encourage people to check it out. Skip the first four issues and Marvel’s clueless penchant to start new series as part of convoluted crossover events that are inaccessible to new readers. Start with Spider-Woman #5. If, like me, you want more comics to move in new directions, often by exploring and commenting on the inertia of old directions, then buy this book every month, and hope that Hopeless and Rodriguez don’t make me regret my advocacy.
So far, the new Spider-Woman is evidence that you can have a smart and progressive comic that does not sacrifice action, pace, and humor.
Developing stories about (all kinds of) women in superhero comics does not require a total abandonment of tradition. Just the opposite, those traditions must be addressed and responded to both inside and outside of comic narratives, to allow, for instance for women to matter even when they don’t serve the primary purpose of eye candy for assumed straight male readers, but whose concerns drive the story as they would for any character. And while it shouldn’t require stating, there are as diverse a range of stories about women and their lives as can be told about men and theirs. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel is evidence of this as is G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and Ryan North’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. All of these comics have different tones, setting and pacing, and they are among the best and most interesting comics Marvel is putting out now, and they all feature women protagonists. This is not because superhero comics featuring women protagonists are necessary the best by their very essence, but rather because a range of possibilities means success or failure of comics that feature women does not all rely on one title. We could be in a renaissance of good superhero comics reinvigorated by new stories featuring women and by women. Let’s spread the word.