Sunday Slugfest - Spider-Woman: Origin #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Jason Sacks, Adam Volk
Kelvin Green

Really, I don’t mind Spider-Woman as a character. I’m not entirely sure what she brings to the Not Avengers that someone like Warbird or Captain Marvel/Photon/Pulsar/Whatever doesn’t, and I find Bendis’s obsession with her to be somewhat creepy, but on the whole, she’s one of those C-list Marvel characters that’s so bland and generic that, while I’m not exactly excited by her return to the limelight, I’m hardly offended by it either. So, from that perspective, a revised origin story might in fact be a good idea. It gives Bendis a chance to convince his audience of Spider-Woman’s worth, to fully articulate why he’s so enamoured of the character.

Assuming that you’re on the side of The Great Bendis Hackery Debate that all intelligent and sensible people are, you won’t be surprised to learn that chance is wasted. You’ll learn nothing here that you couldn’t from any of Spider-Woman’s internet biography pages, or from the Essential Spider-Woman collection Marvel have released in conjunction with this comic. Well, actually that’s not entirely true, because here you will learn that Spider-Woman’s nanny Bova was not a genetically engineered cow after all, and that Spider-Woman didn’t gain her powers as a result of her loving father experimenting on her to save her life, but rather because he was an abusive individual who cared more for science than people and experimented on her because he thought she’d die soon anyway. Now I’m no continuity cop, especially when it comes to C-listers I care little for, but I fail to see how Spider-Woman’s origin story is significantly improved by these “additions.” Perhaps the original origin (ho ho!) of her powers was considered too twee for modern audiences, but there’s absolutely no depth to Jonathan Drew’s Hank Pym makeover, and it merely comes across as a cheap grab for shock value in order to give Spider-Woman more of an “edge.” As for Bova, I can understand that a woman/cow hybrid might be too silly for today’s sophisticated comics readers, in a way that a woman/spider hybrid so obviously isn’t, and it’s really only a tiny change that only affects the backstories of such minor characters as Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, the High Evolutionary and Magneto, so it’s not like anything important gets messed up by the retcon.

To be fair, the dialogue is largely free of annoying tics, and the comic as a whole moves along at a fair clip, so Reed does provide something of a positive influence over Bendis’s usual excesses, but the depth-free characterisation and general lack of actual occurrences in the story still leak through.

I gather that these Luna brothers are something of a major steal for Marvel, having worked up some critical acclaim and popularity over at Image. Frankly, I find their artwork to be somewhat disappointing; the colours are washed-out and indistinct, and the figures have a plastic artificiality and stiffness to them, all of which combines to give a bland look to the comic, as if someone has put together a visual narrative based on a paint chart from a DIY superstore. There’s also something rather amateurish about the depiction of anatomy and detail is lacking throughout; I sincerely hope that their acclaim is based on better work than this.

This is the very definition of a pointless revamp; it adds nothing to the original and is in many ways very much worse. Of course, Marvel get to fleece the Bendisites for a bit more cash, but if you have any interest in Spider-Woman, I’d personally feel better pointing you to the Essential collection (which will end up cheaper) than this rubbish.

Shawn Hill

Plot: Once there was a little girl. And her parents were scientists. And even though she was only a bubble in the womb, she was injured by their work. And when she was older, she found she wasn’t like the other little girls. And spiders really liked her.

Comments: There. Does that capture the wistful grim fairy-tale spirit of this first issue? Little Jessica Drew is one of those poor wayward souls whose troubles start before her birth, and only get worse as time goes on. Taking his cue from the reprints chosen for Giant-Size Spider-Woman, Bendis sets about piecing together a seamless fabric out of all the disparate parts that made up Spider-Woman (who so defiantly was anything BUT a Spider-Man clone from the start).

Well, one hopes it will be seamless. It may not be, but given that this is perhaps one of the few Marvel characters where Bendis has actually followed her storied past, this one has a better chance than some of his other more crude and unwelcome retcons. In fact, this issue is anything but crude, as young Jessica is the victim of slowly worsening circumstances that are far out of her control, but impart an air of creeping dread. Surely part of that credit goes to co-writer Reed, whom I assume is scripting the very non-Bendis-clone dialogue. These people actually talk like people. Not very honest or communicative people, but still.

Her father’s cold calculation as he realizes that she is the one part of his experiment that is fulfilling expectations comes from desperation, as does his estrangement from and violence towards her mother. This doesn’t excuse him, but it gives a pretty solid sci-fi noir tone to the proceedings. This is the old story where the wife realizes too late what the husband’s up to, but it’s not really that old as far as comic books go. It feels like an old 70s B-movie, but that’s not inappropriate given Jessica’s actual conception. However, in the 70s, they didn’t always bother with this level of detail, especially not focusing on the emotional resonances of such an uncertain world seen mostly through a child’s eyes.

The Luna Bros. are an exciting new find from the Philippines, and their restraint and low-key cartoonishness is thankfully non-manga. It’s more like somewhere between the indie comic talents of Cliff Chiang and the atypical super-heroics of Adrian Alphona.

The mounting sense of calamity leads to a pretty abrupt cliffhanger, but it’s a good one that gives me hope that this six issue series, though stylishly decompressed, will do the job of covering all the ground of a heroine who had several guest-appearances and a 50-issue series before her first death (of the many revivals since, this is the big one).

Jason Sacks

What an awful Christmas gift for Marvel to give its fans. Spider-Woman: Origin #1 is an ineptly-written, badly drawn mess of a comic book. The plot moves painfully slowly, there is little attention to detail in the story, the main character is brutalized throughout the comic, and the art is washed out and dull.

The book is co-written by Brian Michael Bendis, which is no surprise. He was the driving force behind bringing Spider-Woman in as a member of the New Avengers. Bendis is, of course, probably the most popular writer in comics at the moment, which seems to have brought out the worst in him. He’s never been the best writer at paying attention to small details or moving a plot along quickly, but here, in collaboration with Brian Reed, his worst habits seem to emerge to center stage. Spider-Woman’s parents, Miriam and Jonathan Drew, are at the forefront of the story, but never come to life at all. They’re complete cardboard cutouts. Miriam is the supportive wife who becomes ever more horrified at her husband’s experiments, while Jonathan becomes ever more obsessed with his work. We’ve seen this setup a million times before, but for some reason Bendis and Drew milk that relationship over an agonizingly dull first two-thirds of the comic.

Worse than that, though, is the very odd focus of the story elements. Do readers really need two pages of Miriam finding a spider for Jonathan, or a full page spread for the birth of Jessica? Where is the explanation for the strange project that Jonathan undertakes? Who is General Wyndham and who does he work for? Is this work funded by Hydra? Or did a government fund it? If a government, which government? And what is Wundagore Mountain where all this takes place? I vaguely remember from my Marvel history that it’s filled with great mutated creatures, but why is there only one character other than the family that lives there? And wasn’t she some sort of a creature and not a normal-looking human being?

I also found it frustrating reading how badly Jessica is brutalized in this comic. I realize that Bendis is leading up to exploring this in later issues, but in this issue she has nothing but suffering. Jessica is treated as a lab rat, given injections of god-knows-what (that point is never explained), sees her father try to kill her mother, and has a mysterious power that knocks her out when she attacks her father. Can’t this poor girl have a little happiness? (And what does she do for fun in such an isolated place, anyway?)

Jonathan Luna’s flat and dull art is equally as awful as the story. The story takes place on a mountain, so one might expect some striking scenery to distract and give pleasure to the eye. Instead, Wundagore Mountain seems like a foothill, full of rolling plains. It looks stultifying dull rather than beautiful and remote. Luna is also bad at drawing people. Peoples’ faces look flat, emotions are poorly conveyed, and his characters have no life to them.

By the time a nude teenage Jessica confronts Hydra guards at the end of the book, I was desperate for this comic to end. This is a terrible comic book on every level.

Adam Volk

Plot: Long before her days as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative and New Avenger, Jessica Drew was a young girl struggling to make sense of the world around her. Now, for the first time her origin is revealed in full. From the experiment gone awry which granted her incredible powers, to her run-in with the deadly organization known only as HYDRA, the true story of Spider-Woman begins…

Comments: Reading a superhero origin story is a little like playing craps in Vegas…you definitely take your chances. Some origin comics can end up stinking worse than last week’s tuna casserole, while others offer the kind of story that draws readers into the hallowed halls of comic book geekdom in the first place.

Spider-Woman: Origin #1 isn’t likely to end up in the same category as Peter Parker’s fateful run-in with a radioactive Spider, or Hal Jordan’s encounter with a dying alien, but it still comes across as a sharp, engaging and entertaining opening issue and origin story.

The series is written by Marvel’s long time golden boy Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed, and as the story title suggests, is indeed an in-depth retelling of the origin of Jessica Drew—everyone’s favorite curvaceous, spandex clad New Avenger. As such, one would expect it to follow the often formulaic elements inherent to most comic book origin stories (the mad scientist, the experiment gone awry and the birth of an uber-powered hero), and while it does indeed fall back on the familiar comic book themes which gave birth to Spider-Woman in the first place, Bendis and Reed have also created a rather poignant and character driven story.

The issue itself follows the exploits of Jonathan Drew, who at first glance fits the bill for the standard obsessive scientist and whose government sponsored genetic research has taken he and his pregnant wife Miriam, into the remote Wundagore Mountain region. During a critical research demonstration however, Miriam is subjected to an experimental device which has some unexpected side-effects on their unborn daughter Jessica, who after her birth begins to exhibit strange powers.

If the story seems overly familiar to many readers, it is, but Bendis and Reed also cleverly breathe new life into a super hero origin by introducing some all too human elements into the tale. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that the issue is not so much about Jessica Drew and her evolving powers, but rather an examination of a family tearing itself apart. From Jessica’s obsessed father who is willing to sacrifice his own daughter and wife to further his research, to the strained marriage between Miriam and Jonathan, Bendis and Reed take the traditional super-hero origin and breathe new life into it by adding dark, and all too human, interactions and emotions into the story. It’s a surprisingly grim tone and it works perfectly, setting the stage for what looks to be a well developed and thoughtful series. It also fits the bill in that it’s entertaining and accessible to new readers who don’t know their ass from a venom blast when it comes to Jessica Drew, as well as veteran fanboys who still have polybagged Spider-Woman back issues stashed under their mattresses.

Most impressive however, is that the story moves at an ideal pace, and it’s clear that Bendis and Reed are taking their time here, developing a character and a history that will truly define who Jessica Drew will later become. It’s far more satisfying than bombarding the reader with mindless super hero slug fests, or a hurried action driven narrative, and if Bendis and Reed can stay the course, then the series should pay off in the long term. In the meantime, from the tense opening pages of the issue, to the cliff hanger ending, Bendis and Reed have managed to deliver a script with action, tension and drama, providing just enough to whet the reader’s appetite for more.

Fortunately, the artwork by Jonathan Luna (half of the critically acclaimed Luna Brothers of Ultra and Girls fame) is absolutely stunning. Luna’s sharp pencils and succinct coloring suits the story perfectly, coming across with an almost animated intensity.

It’s still too early to tell whether Spider-Woman: Origin will deliver the goods as a super hero origin story, but if the rest of the series is anything like the opening issue, then it looks like readers are in for a hell of a ride.

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