A few months ago Marvel Comics published the epic “Spider-Verse” crossover masterminded by writer Dan Slott, which featured appearances by pretty much every single alternate reality version of Spider-Man ever conceived, as well as introducing numerous new incarnations. The breakout star of “Spider-Verse” was Gwen Stacy as a new Spider-Woman, who fans took to calling “Spider-Gwen.”
Making her debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, this parallel universe revision of Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman was quickly given an ongoing title once “Spider-Verse” wrapped up. Spider-Gwen #1 hit the shelves a mere five months after Edge of Spider-Verse #2, and so far is selling at a brisk pace.
I think there is a very basic reason why Spider-Gwen is such a success, and it ties in with the history of the original version of the character. Gwen Stacy first appeared in 1965 in Amazing Spider-Man #31 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee. Gwen was originally something of a haughty ice queen. After Ditko departed the series, Lee and new penciler John Romita gradually transformed Gwen into a warmer, caring figure. She became involved in a long-term relationship with Peter Parker. All these years later many long-time readers regard Gwen as Spider-Man’s first true love.
Fast forward to 1973 and the tragic events of Amazing Spider-Man #121. In a story by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane & John Romita, Gwen Stacy was brutally murdered by Spider-Man’s arch-enemy the Green Goblin, thrown from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. In hindsight, Gwen’s death is probably the first prominent example of what two decades later would be referred to by Gail Simone as “women in refrigerators” syndrome.
Ever since then the character of Gwen Stacy has been defined primarily by her death, by the fact that she was killed by Norman Osborn in order to make Spider-Man suffer. A version of Gwen introduced in Ultimate Spider-Man was eventually murdered by Carnage. Gwen appeared in the two recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, played by actress Emma Stone. And, yep, at the end of the second one, she gets killed by the Green Goblin. No matter what reality Gwen popped up in she seemed to have a target painted on her back, and fans were left holding their breaths waiting for someone to inevitably pull the trigger.
So by introducing an alternate reality version of Gwen Stacy who is Spider-Woman, this horrible trend is finally turned completely around. Instead of being a victim, Gwen is now a hero.
Of course, it’s not just the concept but the execution. As I understand it, Slott initially thought up the idea of giving a parallel universe version of Gwen the spider-powers. The actual development of the character fell to writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez, the latter of whom designed Spider-Woman’s distinctive costume.
I have to admit, when I first read Spider-Gwen #1-4 I was a bit lost. I felt like I had come in on the second act. So I went and finally purchased Edge of Spider-Verse #2, now on its fifth printing (I told you the character was hot). Reading that and then re-reading those issues of Spider-Gwen, things did make more sense.
Admittedly the story in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 drops the readers right into the middle of things. I imagine that when Latour wrote it he didn’t have any idea that Spider-Woman would be an instant hit. So he set out to give readers a crash course on Gwen’s origin via a quick two-page flashback before showing us what she was up to, and then ending the issue with a hook leading into the rest of the “Spider-Verse” crossover.
In the Spider-Gwen reality of Earth-65 it was Gwen Stacy and not Peter Parker who got bit by a radioactive spider and gained super-powers. Much like Peter did waaaay back in Amazing Fantasy #15, Gwen adopted a costumed identity in order to seek fame & fortune.
Peter, who was as much of a socially awkward nerd in this reality as he was on “mainstream” Earth-616, became a huge fan of Spider-Woman. Tired of being bullied by his high school classmates, Peter decided he also wanted to be famous. He developed what appeared to be a serum similar to the one that turned Curt Connors into the Lizard. Transforming into a monster, Peter fought Spider-Woman, and during the battle was fatally wounded. The dying Peter told Spider-Woman “I just… just… wanted to be special… like you.” This left Gwen completely devastated, as she and Peter had been close friends.
The J. Jonah Jameson of this world, who much like his 616 counterpart never met a spider-themed vigilante who he didn’t hate, immediately began blaming Spider-Woman for Peter’s death. His editorials in The Daily Bugle convinced the general public and the NYPD that Spider-Woman is a criminal.
In a crowning piece of irony, Jameson is the one who declares “Spider-Woman and those like her must learn that with their great power comes an even greater responsibility!” It is an admonishment that Gwen takes to heart. She sets aside her frivolous goals and vows to use her powers to help others, even if most people believe her to be a murderer.
Gwen’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that the police officer leading the manhunt for her is none other than her father, Captain George Stacy. This ends up placing Stacy in the crosshairs of the Kingpin, who has his own plans for Spider-Woman. An assassin is dispatched to murder the police captain. Spider-Woman saves her father’s life, but Stacy immediately turns around and tries to arrest her. This forces Gwen to unmask, much to her father’s shock. She attempts to explain her actions to her father:
“You’re a good cop, Dad. You put on that badge and carry that gun because you know if you don’t, someone who shouldn’t will.
“When I put this mask on, I only did it because it freed me from responsibility. I thought I was special. And Peter Parker died because he tried to follow my example. I have to take responsibility for that. To make his death mean something.
“This mask is my badge now. If I don’t define what it means, monsters like this will. This is where I’m needed most.”
I’m glad that Latour got the reveal of Gwen’s identity to her father out of the way early on. He avoided having the clichéd set-up of an authority figure on a misguided mission to hunt down a misunderstood vigilante, not knowing that their target is a loved one. That type of thing has been played out too many times in the past.
The Spider-Gwen series is very much concerned with Gwen’s efforts to make things right. Beneath the flippant attitude and corny quips of Spider-Woman, she is in turmoil, still haunted by feelings of guilt over Peter’s death. Her relationship with her father is severely strained, as she has forced him to choose between his responsibilities as a parent and his duty as a police officer. She is very much the novice crime-fighter, making a number of serious mistakes. Gwen also struggles to balance her two identities, to find a way to be both an ordinary teen and a super-hero. Her friendships with the members of the band the Mary Janes is on the skids since she keeps flaking out on them due to her activities as Spider-Woman.
It’s interesting how similar yet how different the Spider-Gwen universe is from the “regular” Marvel universe. The Kingpin and the Vulture are much like their 616 selves. Matt Murdock is not Daredevil but he is still blind and possesses heightened senses. However in this reality he works as the Kingpin’s lawyer and is totally corrupt. Frank Castle is also a regular fixture, not as the Punisher, but as a member of the NYPD, albeit one who is nearly as ruthless as his vigilante counterpart. Castle’s idea of “interrogating” a suspect is to beat him within an inch of his life.
Despite the often somber tone, Latour features a lot of humor in his stories. Spider-Woman draws the Vulture out of hiding by spray painting insulting graffiti all about the city such as “Your nest is a hot mess” and “Death from a butt.” In the second issue, after sustaining a concussion during her battle with the Vulture, Gwen begins hallucinating that her one-time ally Spider-Ham is following her around making smartass comments.
I did feel that these issues went by a bit too quickly. At $3.99 each, it would be nice if they were somewhat more substantial reads. But that’s hardly a complaint that I would direct solely at Latour. It seems endemic of a good portion of the comic book biz: the more expensive single issues become, the shorter the time it takes to read them, or so it seems.
The artwork by Rodriguez on Spider-Gwen is amazing. He gives this series a unique look and atmosphere. Rodriguez’s illustration of the action sequences is dynamic, with extremely effective layouts & storytelling. Likewise, he does solid work with the quieter character moments, as in issue #4 when May Parker talks to Gwen about what happened to Peter, and about her feelings concerning Spider-Woman.
Rico Renzi’s coloring on these issues certainly stands out. He utilizes unusual, distinctive hues to create a palpable sense of atmosphere. Renzi’s coloring very much complements Rodriguez’s artwork.
The design sense that Rodriguez demonstrates on his covers for Spider-Gwen is striking. He creates very eye-catching, abstract compositions on each of them.
As with so many other comic books nowadays, Spider-Gwen is being released with numerous variant covers by a number of different artists. For issue #4 I decided to mix things up a bit and buy one of those, the regularly-priced variant by Mark Brooks. His portrait of Spider-Woman hanging out on the side of the George Washington Bridge is done a much more photo-realistic style than Rodriguez’s work. I’ve recently seen Brooks’ work on a number of covers for Marvel titles. He’s done quality work on these.
While I was somewhat undecided after reading the first couple of issues of Spider-Gwen, the next two hooked my interest. For the time being I think I’ll keep following this book and see where Latour & Rodriguez are going.
At the very least, with all the action taking place on “Earth-65” I hopefully won’t have to worry about Spider-Woman getting tied up in all the Secret Wars shenanigans currently occupying most of Marvel’s publishing line. Ideally Gwen will be given the time to feature in several stories in her own reality, to stand on her own two feet, before once again crossing over into other realities.
Having said that, if and when Spider-Gwen does pay a visit to Earth-616, hopefully we will get to see her toss Norman Osborn off a bridge!