Friday 19 September 2014

The Spectacular Spider-Gwen

Let me preface this by saying that whilst I'm not as in love with this issue and this character as a lot of people on the internet I found it interesting and I really hope a Gwen Stacy: Spider-Woman limited series or ongoing is in the works.

Also, the problem might be me. I went into this very keen to keep my enthusiasm on a leash. I get like that when a character is as insistently marketed to me as “Spider-Gwen” was. The dialogue-free art preview of the issue on Comicbook Resources was introduced with a headline telling me I'd want a Gwen ongoing just from reading three pages of pretty pictures. So I tried not to fall under the spell.

It worked anyway, I'm under the spell, I want more of this character and here's why:

(SPOILERS ahead for Edge of Spider-Verse #2, you have been warned.)

Here's a funny thing: the interesting angle with re-interpreting most characters is to take the original and see how their essential characteristics work when they're given a new twist like updating their origin to the modern day (Ultimate Spider-Man) or being born into another culture (Superman: Red Son) or inserted into another genre (Marvel Mangaverse). You can't really do that with Gwen Stacy because under the hood of that character... well, there isn't any “there” in there. She's a poorly defined Silver Age girlfriend character that most modern fans know of primarily because of how she died and how that event defined decades of Spider-Man's character development.

It has to be admitted, up front, that the character Latour introduces is only halfway Gwen Stacy. Given how storytelling and sexual politics have changed since the 1970s creating a new take on this character basically means creating a whole new character surrounded by familiar props.

At this, Latour succeeds admirably and I flat out love his set-up. He covers the origin of Spider-Woman in two pages of single panel flashbacks covering the usual high points: spider bite, vacuous celebrity, original sin, public distrust and effective fugitive status. Bish, bash, bosh. What's really interesting is the nature of Gwen's original sin:


Peter Parker dies because of her. In this turn of events she uses her powers to save him from bullies and Peter, consumed by a sense of worthlessness, becomes the Lizard to show people how tough he can be with SCIENCE! If nothing else allying the idea of Peter with the Lizard means the Amazing Spider-Man films finally get some decent legacy in the comics, as little as they deserve them. Somehow this kills him and Spider-Woman is blamed, her father Captain George Stacy unknowingly leading the hunt for his own daughter.

Captain Stacy is actually the only part of the issue I didn't like. Now, as much as I might bash the classic Gwen, I always like her father when I read Silver Age Spidey comics. He was a great character and an interesting surrogate father for Peter, a calming emotional influence to practically everyone around him. This version is pretty much just another slightly overweight New York cop. Still, a couple of good character moments between him and Gwen give me hope he could be closer to the character I loved than he seems.

She's also a drummer in a band where Mary Jane is the lead vocalist and I really hope that was meant to be a metaphor. No one notices the drummer but they set the whole tone and rhythm of a band and here we have the character who is the very Platonic ideal of Spider-Man girlfriends being the dependable backing to the most culturally visible of Spider-Man girlfriends.

Most of all is the moment at the end when Gwen unmasks for her father, admitting that Peter's death is her fault but not in the direct fashion Captain Stacy and J. Jonah Jameson had assumed. Now, this is the big moment that took me from just liking the visual (we'll get there) to thinking this character had some real legs to her. A long-standing problem I have with Silver Age Gwen is how the narrative was fine with Peter lying to her: she never finds out or is told his identity and she even blames Spider-Man for her father's death. This is a whole mess of issues that would take a whole post or more to untangle but the bottom line is this: Peter lies to her continuously whilst fully intending to marry her and, presumably, continue to lie to her for the rest of her life.

This Gwen, at gun point incidentally, admits to her mistakes and her identity. Partly to escape, yes, but also because she wants someone she loves to understand her and stop blaming her for a crime she didn't commit, even though they don't consciously blame her. The issue ends there but she could have destroyed her own life by taking responsibility for her actions. She could now be a fugitive and her father's reaction is less than entirely positive so who knows how he'll process these revelations?

And good grief, do I like that costume: the colour combinations are unusual and very different from the classic Spider-suit; the white stands out against backgrounds while the black gives it an element of stealth but also strategically taking emphasis off Gwen's sexual characteristics; and I love the blue outlines on the web patterns. Plus, it has a hood (like Spoiler, another favourite costume) and the eye lenses seem to be outlined in red eyeliner, which is a funny signifier that is really the only design decision here based on gender tropes. Really, when was the last time you saw a female superhero costume that de-emphasised the character's breasts and hips?

She's slated for two more appearances during Spider-Verse but I really hope that isn't all the plans Marvel has for her. 

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