Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Spider-Gwen 1, originally released February 25th, 2015.
Patrick: If you had to name the most important quality for a superhero story to nail, what would it be? Action? Adventure? Humor? Relatability? Kind of depends on the character, doesn’t it? What I think ends up being most important across publishers and mediums is the story’s ability to express the fundamental nature of the character. If you’re telling a Batman story, it better be dark, grimey, and morally ambiguous. If you’re telling a Spider-Man story, it better be humorous, optimistic and dutiful. So how on earth would anyone write a Spider-Gwen story? The character barely exists beyond a small roll in the recent Spider-Verse event. Fans latched on to the character for a number of reasons (everyone misses Gwen Stacy), but the clearest virtue of the character is that she looks amazing. In lieu of a letter’s page, editor Nick Lowe thanks fans for worshiping the incredible design of Gwen’s costume, celebrating it through fan-art and cos-play. This obsession with image becomes the fundamental nature of stories in Gwen’s world, as Spider-Gwen turns the superficial into the substantial.
The issue starts off with a crime already in progress. Rather than that crime being a jewelry store robbery or a mugging or something like that, a couple of kids are tagging a billboard aimed at stopping Spider-Woman. (Oh, and yes, that is confusing: look, in this world we’re just going to have to call her Spider-Woman because that’s what she is. We’ll all try not to confuse her with Jessica Drew.) From the very first panel, there are multiple layers of people being concerned with image, specifically of Gwen’s image. First there’s whoever put up that billboard, marking her as a menace. Second there are the kids, eager to leave their mark, and all self-tagged as members of the Yancy Street Gang. And then there’s Gwen’s implied concern over the narrative that billboard suggests.
We don’t actually see Gwen until a couple pages later, when she’s checking out news stories about herself on her phone as she foils a robbery. Now, this is what we’re talking about, right? Returning a cash register to a knocked-over bodega is kind of the golden ideal of fighting crime on the street level. Gwen ends up being disappointed when it turns out there wasn’t much cash in the register, and the shopkeeper blows off Spider-Woman’s heroics entirely. Gwen’s not disappointed that she failed, she’s disappointed that it looks bad.
Within this story, value is dictated by appearance. How do you stop the Vulture? Simple: you spray paint some shit about him all over the city, making him look bad. How do you capitalize on the success of your hit single? Make sure you have the exact same line-up you did when you recorded that song. In this way, whenever artist Robbi Rodriguez and colorist Rico Renzi make Spider-Woman look cool — which is, like, every panel — they’re not just delivering on superhero spectacle in a predictable way: they’re reinforcing the theme of the whole issue.
Rodriguez is also excellent using the space on the page to suggest motion, and in turn direct the reader’s eye. There’s a very simple scene in the middle of the issue where Gwen checks out the Vulture’s apartment, which could have easily been a cookie-cutter infiltration sequence, but Rodriguez’ gift for storytelling makes it a thousand times more dynamic.
First, there’s that neat little trick in the first panel, where’s it’s actually kinda two-panels-in-one with Gwen’s hand and phone transposed over the view of the billboard. The second panel is long, and every line suggests quick motion to the right. Those third and fourth panels, reinforce the idea that the goal is right there, just to the right of our character, first by showing us the window, and then Spider-Woman passing through it. It’s an invitation to turn the page, and Gwen actually beats us to the goal — she gets to go through the window before we get to turn the page. Once we finally catch up with her and join the detective’s perspective, we follow Gwen’s eye-line down to the photograph on the table, all the way down to the floor. Our eyes follow the same path as Gwen’s. Then she looks up, back to the billboard, at which point our eyes have to go back up too — we may have made it to the bottom of the page, but we have to travel about halfway back up to read those last two panels.
If this whole series is going to be a celebration of style-as-substance, then brother, count me in. I’m also fascinated by the fact that Jason Latour appears to have been given free rein to use and re-invent whatever Marvel characters he wants in for the Gwen-iverse. I particularly liked seeing an un-Thinged Ben Grimm but the Foggy Nelson cameo also just got my head spinning with alternate universe possibilities. I realize that might be a foolish hope, what with Battleworld on the horizon, but I’d love to see all the Marvel heroes with this kind of image-centric make-over. What’d you think Spencer?
Spencer: You actually raise an interesting question, Patrick: where are the other heroes? Ben Grimm and Frank Castle are cops and Matt Murdock seems to be working for the Kingpin; is Spider-Woman the only superhero in the Gwen-iverse? With nobody to confide in Gwen must be incredibly lonely, especially after losing Peter, and I think it’s notable that the only people she actually interacts with in this issue are thugs, that shopkeeper, and the Vulture — characters she has no connection with whatsoever — all while ducking her father’s phone calls and spying on her former bandmates without ever interacting with them. Is Gwen avoiding personal connections because she’s still hurting from losing Peter, or because she wants to fix the Spider-Woman half of her life before fixing the Gwen Stacy half? If the latter, is that because fixing Spider-Woman’s reputation just seems easier, or because the public has no reason for hating Spider-Woman, while her friends may actually have a reason to be ticked at Gwen Stacy?
It’s not like Gwen needs a reason to be so upset about being declared a supervillain — being hated sucks no matter how many people you have in your corner — but her recent adventures in “Spider-Verse” do seem to play at least some part in her efforts to be accepted.
It’s likely that meeting her various alternate-universe counterparts gave Gwen some feeling of community she now misses, but it also seemed to have left her with a bit of an inferiority complex. Gwen’s under the impression that all her counterparts are successful and beloved, but she couldn’t be any more wrong — as anyone familiar with Earth-616’s Spider-Man can attest to. In the introduction to this article Patrick mentioned the qualities that define a Spider-Man story, and as far as I’m concerned, “being misunderstood and unappreciated by the public” is at the top of that list. Gwen’s in good company, even if she doesn’t realize it quite yet.
Patrick, I appreciate the way you’ve tackled the theme of appearances, and I’d agree that it’s the driving force behind Spider-Gwen 1, but there’s a few other ideas bubbling beneath its surface as well, revolving most explicitly around Latour’s interpretation of the Vulture.
Vulture is literally an old white man who feels entitled and owed attention, with Gwen’s discovery of pills in Toome’s apartment painting his crime spree as one last dying grasp for relevance in a world that’s long since left him behind. Do I really need to say more? The subtext is practically beating me over the head. It’s interesting to me that Spider-Woman’s gender is never really addressed in this issue — unlike, say, the new Thor, whose author Jason Aaron has been addressing similar themes — even when she’s coming under attack from her detractors. Still, the parallel is clear: in-universe, Spider-Woman is all the news can talk about, putting people like Toomes on edge, and likewise, in the real world, Spider-Gwen was an instant sensation, immediately scoring an ongoing series based almost solely on a fervent, and largely female, fan-base.
I actually haven’t heard too much opposition to Spider-Gwen yet — probably because I hang around the right kind of websites — but this is the kind of book that often intimidates purists who are resistant to any change in their comics. The fact that Spider-Gwen exists at all — and especially that it’s such a success — is a sign that the industry, perhaps even the world, is changing, and I’m eager to see how Latour addresses this in the story itself. Will Gwen’s New York ever come to embrace her the way her readership has, or are the crusty old men — the Vultures of her world — still holding all the power?
Like Patrick, I too was charmed by the issue’s many cameos. Half the fun of stories set in alternate universes is seeing familiar characters and events interpreted in new ways, and even the simplest of cameos can send readers down a rabbit-hole of deeper and deeper cuts. For example, the showdown between Grimm and the kids on the billboard is yet another match between Ben Grimm and the Yancy Street Gang — a regular occurrence on Earth-616 — but it’s also significant that one of the Yancy Street kids is Hobie Brown, who on Earth-616 was a villain-turned-hero known as Prowler, but who Spider-Verse fans will better recognize as the anarchic Spider-Punk of Earth-138!
Fortunately, these cameos exist without being obtrusive to the story; instead, they provide more depth for those familiar with the characters. This may sound callous, but it’s much easier to get upset about the near-death of Ben Grimm than it would be for some random police officer. Then there’s Matt Murdock; in most situations “Kingpin’s lawyer” would be a bland stock role, but making that character a man who, in another universe, is not only a superhero, but the greatest thorn in Kingpin’s side? There’s a story in that, and it’s one I hope we get to see sometime.
Honestly, it’s not hard to see why Gwen’s introduction in Edge of Spider-Verse 2 caught on so fast, and Spider-Gwen 1 doesn’t miss a beat in following it up. Its got stylish, dynamic art and some offbeat but surprisingly effective coloring from Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi. Its got all the fun of an alternate-universe story mixed with the many trials of a traditional Spider-Man story. Perhaps most importantly, it has Spider-Gwen herself, and I dare not overlook how essential she is to the success of this title. Gwen’s smart, witty, and talented, but sarcastic and easily frustrated; she’s flawed and imperfect yet still immensely likable; in other words, she’s an ideal protagonist. Yup, Spider-Gwen‘s got style and substance — that makes it a winner in my book.
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