Writers: Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Reed
Artists: The Luna Brothers
Publisher: Marvel Comics
In this issue Brians Bendis and Reed build towards the climax of their new take on Spider-Woman’s story, and they continue to provide a fairly dense espionage plot with a few twists and turns and some exciting action sequences as they delve further into her origins. After last issue’s conversation between Jessica and Nick Fury revealed that Mr. and Mrs. Drew are still very much alive, this issue sees our hero attempt to track down her parents in an effort to make peace with who she really is - and to understand why her life has turned out to be as complicated and eventful as it has turned out to be. Bendis gets to indulge his penchant for C-list villains again – this time, it’s Whiplash who makes an appearance - and as Jessica comes face to face with her father and mother, the intrigue deepens as the present-day continuation of the science behind the accident which first gave Jess her powers comes to light via the mysterious Athena project. For fans of superhero espionage and S.H.I.E.L.D.-based stories there’s a lot to like here, and the book moves along at a fair pace considering the writing pedigree - but others may still find that this book fails to satisfy on some level, despite doing quite a good job with the unenviable task of reconciling the various origin stories which have been attributed to the central character.
One of the problems with this book is that, despite four issues of fleshing out Spider-Woman’s backstory, I’m not sure I’ve really gained much insight into who Jessica Drew really is. One thing that Bendis and Reed do make clear is that she’s a victim – of circumstance, of Hydra’s manipulation, and of her own father’s obsession with his work - and it has led to her being driven by an angry form of righteous indignation, at the same time as her own sense of self-worth has taken a nosedive. It’s this latter aspect which bugs me most about this take on the character, because although it’s a necessity if we’re to appreciate the strength of character that Drew shows in her triumph over all the influences which have made her early years so difficult, it seems as though for every victory she has, there’s a self-hating aspect to Jessica’s personality which pushes her to subsequently do things which only degrade her further. It’s a mildly disturbing character trait for a hero who is so overtly sexualised, both in the artwork (obligatory skin-tight costume, et al) and through the writing, and an encounter with Count Otto Vermis this issue provides yet another opportunity for the issue’s male writers to concentrate on sexually-based means as this superheroine’s weapon of choice, at the expense of all the other options which are open to her. It’s reminiscent of Bendis’s own “I’m a cheap slut” misfire of an opening line in his Giant Size Spider-Woman #1, and it displays something of a lack of imagination on the part of the writer to keep coming back to the use of sex as a weapon instead of the many other possibilities which are available for someone who has been trained by Hydra to be a perfect spy. It’s no coincidence that Bendis originally wanted to use her as the subject of his Alias series, but since he has his own Jessica - Jones - to play with now, I’m not really sure that simply emulating her story with Spider-Woman is really a worthwhile development. That said, I will reserve judgement on this mini-series until it wraps up next issue, as it may well be that Jessica will come out of the book as a much more well-adjusted character than this issue suggests.
Bendis and Reed have had a difficult task in reconciling all of the Spider-Woman’s disparate origin threads with this series, and in doing so, it seems that they’ve decided to sideline the more fantastical elements of the character’s history in favour of a straighter espionage story with super-hero elements. Whilst this approach definitely works for the character, and is in keeping with Marvel’s more grounded attitude to superheroics of late, allusions to some of the weirder ideas from past Spider-Woman origin stories still persist in the form of single-frame hallucinatory images (such as the cow’s head which appears this issue, or the dreamlike image of the High Evolutionary which we saw earlier in the series). It gives the book quite a trippy undertone, and I’ll be interested to see whether the title chooses to acknowledge these sections and tie them into the story explicitly next issue, to simply leave them as “easter egg” concessions to fans who wanted to see these elements included in this new origin, or to use them to imply that those parts of Jessica’s origin have simply been imagined by Jessica, never really happened, and that this is the “definitive” take. Either way, I’ll be keen to see how Spider-Woman’s origin story resolves itself next issue, and what kind of groundwork it provides for her appearances in New Avengers and her own ongoing series.
The artwork by the Luna brothers has a flat and cartoonish style to it, which is colourful, consistent and surprisingly captivating considering its simplicity and flatness. As has been noted elsewhere, their panels look very much like still frames from a Saturday morning cartoon - and whilst that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I do find them to be an odd choice for this miniseries considering the adult tone and fairly mature subject matter (especially this issue, which includes scenes such as Jessica’s discovery of the mutilated dead body of her mother, or the revelation that she has been forced to sleep with one of the villains to obtain information - who then rubs the fact in her face in order to degrade her further). That said, certain scenes do work well visually – the opening confrontation with Nick Fury out in the open was well-staged, and the final page cliffhanger is a suitably moody and foreboding image – even if the characterisation does fall foul of the weaknesses of samey character design and a seemingly limited range of facial expressions which have dogged the artwork throughout the series. The Luna brothers have clearly won a lot of fans with their distinctive style, and books such as Image’s Girls show that it hasn’t stopped them using it to explore adult themes in the past, but it’s not massively to my tastes. I can’t deny that I’m eager to see how the tone of Spider-Woman’s adventures changes when Alex Maleev takes over art chores for the character’s forthcoming solo series, as I’m sure that his style will mesh more smoothly with the kind of story Bendis is looking to tell here.
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