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

18 June 2016

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Responsibility

Collects: Spider-Gwen v. 2 #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199595

What is this?: Gwen fights Lizards and learns what has happened to Peter’s Lizard serum; ol’ pal Harry Osborn returns, seeking revenge for Peter’s death.

The culprits: Writer Jason Latour and artists Robbi Rodriguez and Chris Visions

I didn’t like the first Spider-Gwen book, Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted?, but I wanted to give the next book a chance to see if the series improved. Unfortunately, Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power isn’t an improvement.

Given how well received the series is, though, I had to figure out: what is it that made me dislike the series so much?

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power coverThe easy answer is still the color palette. I find Spider-Gwen a series that’s physically hard to look at: the pinks, purples, and greens that dominate the book are unpleasant on the eyes. I’m not sure what colorist Rico Renzi is going for in the book. Is he using the colors usually associated with villains to show us this is a world gone wrong? Is he trying to undermine Gwen’s heroism with villain colors? Or is this a battered world, and the shades of bruised flesh are the only hues that can properly portray it?

The story itself doesn’t give an indication of which of those is correct. Instead, writer Jason Latour gives us a world and a hero who are enigmas.

And that’s my main problem. The hook for Spider-Gwen is a classic What If? hook: What if the radioactive spider had bitten Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker? What would be different then? Apparently, the answer is, “The world would have a Spider-Woman instead of a Spider-Man.” Not much else changes, and I understand how for some people this is enough. The reasons may vary from un-refrigerating Gwen Stacy to increasing the presence of women heroes in comics to merely wanting a beginning-of-career Spider-Man-type book or something else I haven’t thought of and could never think of, because liking is a much more complicated and yet simple (private) emotion that we generally believe.

And that’s fine. It’s more than fine, in fact. I hope Spider-Gwen lasts as long as its fans want it to. But what I’ve seen in two trade paperbacks (covering about twelve issues) is not enough to retain my interest.

Everything feels like a mere reshuffling of continuity; the elements of Spider-Man are just redealt, with Peter and Gwen switching spots. Spider-Woman is a vigilante hero whose secret identity jeopardizes her only guardian, whom she leans on for moral guidance and emotional support. She runs into the same villains Spider-Man did: the Vulture, Kingpin, and Frank Castle in the previous book, the Lizard and Green Goblin in this one. Harry Osborn’s grief leads him to become the Green Goblin. Jean DeWolff and George Stacy are still cops. (Ben Grimm is one as well, which … sure, OK, that’s a little different.) Even the trade’s title is there to remind readers of Spider-Man.

Sure, Gwen has her drumming, although she doesn’t do that in this book; that sets her apart from Peter, who was too busy for hobbies. But that raises questions about what she’s doing with her time. She’s not in school, and her job lasts a negative amount of time.

What has changed in Spider-Woman’s world? Not much. Tony Stark never gave up his warmongering, and he has a coffee franchise called Starkbucks, which is not a good name at all. (It just emphasizes the company is a rich man getting richer, whereas the coffee company was at least named for the chief mate who tried to avert the Pequod’s disastrous end in Moby Dick.) Frank Castle is a cop instead of the Punisher. Captain America is a black woman, but she still gained her powers during World War II, missed most of the intervening time, and reports to a one-eyed spymaster she served with during World War II. The Kingpin is Matt Murdock instead of Wilson Fisk, although that might be because Fisk is in prison. (In #5, Latour and artist Chris Vision even refer to the recent Mark Waid / Chris Samnee run by giving Murdock a “I’m not the Kingpin” shirt, which recalls Murdock’s “I’m not Daredevil” shirt in Waid / Samnee’s run. I’m not against references to other stories; hell, I love them, and celebrate them. But the story making the allusions has to differentiate itself from those stories somehow.)

The only new character is Bodega Bandit, a hold-up man who looks like the Hamburglar. Well, I suppose Gwen traversing universes to talk to her mentor, the main Marvel Universe’s Spider-Woman, is different as well, but I try to block out anything that refers to Spider-Verse, a crossover I hated. Also, “dimensional travel” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of Spider-Gwen, which is a book about a street-level crimefighter who plays in a band and hangs out with friends when she’s not web-slinging.

The new Captain America has the most worrying implications. I admit: a black, female Captain America is a nice twist, and it can work. But we never see the world around this character change. Would America have accepted a black, female supersoldier during World War II? I have my doubts. I also doubt an African-American woman would have been allowed to be a candidate for the role of Captain America, given that neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to serve with white men. I have even more doubts that a newsreel narrator would use the phrase “ready to fight for freedom at home, abroad” while describing her; the line is too close to the Double V campaign (“Double Victory — at Home, Abroad”) used by African-Americans during World War II. (The campaign wasn’t exactly popular among white folks, as you might imagine.) So this world must be different than ours — different, and at least in one facet, better. But we never see any evidence that it’s different in the book; most of the characters are still white. This is the same ol’ world.

The best parts of book are the mere glimpses of Gwen, Peter, and Harry before Peter dies. The dynamic is something we haven’t seen before, and Peter’s bitterness, his desire to be more than he is, is heartbreaking. Harry’s acceptance of who he is is encouraging, even if it’s undermined by his future actions. But those interactions take up less than four of the book’s 136 pages.

What is the timeline for this book, anyway? The Spider-Woman task force is geared up to search for Spider-Woman because of Peter’s death, which seems to be a recent event. But Harry Osborn, who was there the night of Peter’s death, has been gone for two years. I’m beginning to think George Stacy was replaced as head of the task force because he’s not very good at his job. And whether it’s been weeks or years, Gwen has been completely unable to protect her secret identity, which means someone should be ending up dead or arrested soon.

I haven’t talked about the plot of Greater Power, which mostly involves further use of the serum that turned Peter into the Lizard, or the art, which is by Robbi Rodriguez (#1-4 and 6) and Chris Visions (#5). I didn't like either of them, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that after two trades, it’s clear Spider-Gwen has the legs of the average What If? story: entertaining (at least for a while) if you buy into the continuity tweak, but quickly becoming dull if you don’t have an attachment to that change. Like Mutant X, for those of you who remember it, but with more coherence.

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

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Blogger Kris Shaw said...

Comics like this are, to me, a waste of time and energy. Like you said, it is a reshuffling of the continuity deck chairs to try and make something "new" or "accessible". It might work for a young reader who didn't grow up with comics, but then the differences wouldn't mean anything to this mythical reader and thus be pointless to them.

Advances in opportunities for women and minorities aside, a black female as Captain America in WWII would have never happened unless this continuity was so radically different that slavery never occurred and society was different as a whole at that point in time. Now that would be a fascinating story. This story, as it stands, comes off as too close to PC pandering as it is.

I do not understand fandom's fascination with this character, as the entire concept is, as you said,a What If...? concept at best. It's a retread, regurgitating continuity for equally uninformed readers.

6:26 AM  

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