Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

05 February 2016

Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted?

Collects: Edge of Spider-Verse #2, Spider-Gwen #1-5 (2014, 2015)

Released: December 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785197737

What is this?: In a world in which the radioactive spider bit Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker, Peter is dead from his own stupidity and Gwen is Spider-Woman.

The culprits: Writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez

When Gwen Stacy first appeared as Spider-Woman in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, I admit I had trouble seeing the appeal. Like the rest of Spider-Verse, a series that traded more on novelty and combinatorix than ideas, Spider-Gwen seemed like a product of trying endless combinations of characters and shades of Peter Parker to see which fit roughly in the ol’ Spider-Shaped Hole.

After a little thought, I did understand why Spider-Gwen might have caught on. Gwen Stacy has been dead so long she feels like a new character; a Gwen designed for the 21st century is far different than the hip / mod woman who died more than 40 years before. She is also the most prominent girlfriend killed to create a plot point or give character development to her boyfriend; flipping the script, so that she is the hero in a world where Peter Parker has died because of Gwen’s heroic identity, is novel, if not the most complex idea. Also, the Gwen Stacy in Spider-Verse wasn’t sexualized in any way. She was a hero who happened to be female — refreshing and sadly unusual.

Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted? coverSo despite my skepticism, I decided to give Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted? a try. My specific reservations may have been misplaced, but I wasn’t wrong to be uncertain about the ongoing title.

Still, the book delivers on distinguishing itself from most mainstream comics. The cast is more gender diverse than most Marvel (or DC) comics; that should be a given in a female-led book, but I suppose nothing’s a given when it comes to women in comics. The book has more racial diversity than most, although Glory Grant, Hobie Brown, and Randy Robertson don’t have many lines. The book also returns other long-dead characters from the grave: Gwen’s father, George Stacy, plus Det. Jean DeWolff and Ben Parker.

The Spectacular Spider-Ham also shows up, as a hallucination offering Gwen advice after a concussion. It’s is a nice callback to the Spider-Verse crossover, but I didn’t particularly care for that storyline. More objectively, although Spider-Ham is amusing, his silliness is completely at odds with the rest of the story and with the seriousness a traumatic brain injury.

The art, though … I may be in the extreme minority on this, but the art makes this book hard to read. Much of this can be traced to the color palette, courtesy of colorist Rico Renzi Pinks and purples and greens and yellows don’t go together, and they give entire pages a nauseating / bruised look. Is the goal to make readers unsettled all the time? The narration doesn’t support this. Plus, green and purple are Marvel’s go-to villain colors. Are we supposed to interpret Spider-Gwen’s dimension as a villainous or anomalous timeline?

Spider-Woman carries some of that purple / pinkish in her costume, which artist Robbi Rodriguez seems to have designed by picking up design elements other heroes have been mocked for, then adding boat shoes. Her hoodie isn’t any better today than Ben Reilly’s was when he was mocked for it during the Clone Saga two decades ago. (Still, you can buy Gwen’s hoodie if you want. I’m not saying you should … and for those who object, saying Ben’s costume had a sleeveless hoodie, well, you can buy a sleeveless Gwen hoodie at the same site.) A character who swings through the night shouldn’t wear white, and Gwen’s choice of that color is just as ridiculous as Moon Knight’s is. Plus, those pink / purple highlights are worse, in their way. I refuse to believe any hero should wear slip-on shoes. The bustier outline on her chest adds a feminine touch to a costume without feminine signifiers, but why would Gwen want to do that? It seems a strange addition to an otherwise progressive title.

But maybe my evaluation of Gwen’s fashion decision-making process is wrong. If so, it’s from lack of evidence: Writer Jason Latour doesn’t give readers much information about Gwen when she’s not wearing her costume. Her father mentions in passing that she’s in college in Edge of Spider-Verse, but we never see that. Most of her free time seems to be taken up not playing drums for Mary Jane Watson’s band, agonizing about being able to be a hero and a drummer at the same time. What does she do with the rest of her time? She visits Ben and May Parker in #4, but it’s clear she hasn’t done that in a while. Does she spend all her time as Spider-Woman? If so, why isn’t she burnt out?

It’s a shame so much time is spent on having Spider-Woman fight all the time; the best part of the book is Gwen relating to the Parkers, who obviously have a great deal of affection for Gwen. May explaining her feelings about Spider-Woman and Ben acting jollily paternal while Gwen wrestles with her guilt is a nuanced moment the book could use a more of. But Gwen doesn’t interact with her supporting cast much — the occasional discussion with Glory and Mary Jane about whether she’s in the band, a conversation or two with her father about her superheroics.

I’m not sure Rodriguez’s art fits the new Spider-Woman. It’s a great fit for rock drummer Gwen Stacy: slightly loose and jangly, slightly disheveled. The rough edges work for the violent police scenes as well. But it doesn’t seem to fit a superheroic story the same way, especially one so brightly (gaudily) colored. Also, Rodriguez’s art sometimes doesn’t quite convey all the information it should. On the nitpicky end, when Spider-Woman fights the Vulture in a hallucinogenic fog during #4, Latour’s dialogue indicates she sees three Vultures, but only two show up on the page. More concerningly, Rodriguez makes all blondes look similar: Gwen, her mother (in pictures), a female graffiti artist. And I’m still not sure what happens to Felicia Hardy at the end of #5; Spider-Woman knocked her out, but did the ninjas who had been attacking her take advantage of that? If they didn’t, why not?

I will admit I thought making the Bodega Bandit, a common thief, look like Hamburgler was amusing without distracting from the story.

Latour leaves most of the background of Gwen’s dimension undetailed, which leaves readers with questions. However, not all the questions are mysteries readers should expect to be patient about; the questions that come to my mind are ones that assume Latour hasn’t thought of the implications of his choices. For instance, in a world without Daredevil and the Fantastic Four (or maybe just without a Thing — Ben Grimm’s a cop), why isn’t a flying guy spewing hallucinogenic gas a bigger deal? What is the connection between Felicia Hardy and the women in the Mary Janes? It doesn’t seem like a French thief / beggar should come into contact with a group of girls from Forest Hills. Why does Spider-Woman think the Vulture believed he is “owed” and “entitled”? His dialogue indicates he wanted respect, although after being ripped off and stepped on by Norman Osborn for years, he is probably entitled to recognition, money, and a fair amount of retribution on Osborn.

And why do Latour and Rodriguez insult Steve Ditko? When Gwen runs across a thinly veiled Ditko’s Mr. A comic in the Vulture’s apartment, she uses graffiti to tell the Vulture, “You read turrible comics.” Why insult another creator’s works — especially when that creator co-created the character you’re writing? It seems incredibly petty. I can see having criticisms of Mr. A’s ideology, but many of Ditko’s creations have lasted more than a half century and might last a half century more. Will Spider-Gwen last that long? Will any of Latour or Rodriguez’s creations? Maybe … but I wouldn’t put a great deal of money on it.

Since part of my criticisms of Spider-Gwen is based on not learning enough about Gwen’s world and character, I’ll give her another chance, partially because popular and critical opinion runs so strongly against me. Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power will be out in May, and I’ve pre-ordered it. I can’t guarantee an open mind, though; that color scheme has an unsettling effect on my brain.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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