Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Woman

(or "Five Authors in Search of a Character")

The general trend when discussing these storytelling engines assumes, on the whole, that the writer is starting with a concept or character that they think can sustain multiple stories, and works from there to add a status quo around them that helps to generate more. Today, though, we'll be looking at an exception to that rule in 'Spider-Woman', a title that started with the concept, "We need a comic called 'Spider-Woman', and we need it now!"

Essentially, 'Spider-Woman' started as an effort to establish a trademark and copyright for the name (supposedly in response to a Filmation cartoon called "Web Woman"), and it shows. The character starts out in 'Marvel Spotlight' as a super-evolved spider fighting the forces of HYDRA (after being brainwashed by them to kill Nick Fury), but by the time she gets her own book, her origin has changed (she's now Jessica Drew, a woman with spider-powers that HYDRA brainwashed into thinking she was a super-evolved spider), HYDRA has dropped out of the picture and her main nemesis is the ancient sorceress Morgan le Fay, she's changed locales from London to Los Angeles, and she's picked up a mentor (Magnus, a student of le Fay's) and a love interest (Jerry Hunt, agent of SHIELD.) It might not surprise you to know that there's also a different writer involved.

The title changes writers again around issue #7, and suddenly Morgan le Fay is defeated, Magnus returns to London, Jerry and Jessica break up, and now she's got a secret identity as a receptionist at the Hatros Institute, where she meets new "friend" Lindsay McCabe and her boss turns out to be new nemesis Nekra. (I put "friend" in quotes because the lesbian subtext is so obvious that it has to be intentional--men are attracted to Jessica, we're told, and women repelled by her, due to arachnid pheremones she's been unintentionally releasing. But Lindsay seems to have the reverse reaction to the pheremones, invites Jessica back to her apartment, and Jessica winds up spending the night there. Again, the subtext doesn't seem accidental.)

A new creative team comes on board with issue #21, and Jessica, who's been fired from her receptionist job (not surprising, given that she beat her boss into a coma) suddenly becomes a bounty hunter, complete with a warehouse full of disguises and a wheelchair-bound sidekick who acts as her criminologist. So abrupt is the change that we're told we'll learn how she found the disguises and sidekick in a later issue (unfortunately, said issue is outside the confines of the collection, if it exists.) Still later, and unfortunately after the collection ends, a new writer comes on board and Jessica ditches the sidekick and bounty hunter gig to become a private eye in San Francisco with Lindsay McCabe as her "room-mate". (Again, I have to put this in quotes. San Francisco, people. It's staring you right in the face.)

So, what can we take away from this dizzying blur of backgrounds, supporting casts, origins, and modus operandi? Only that every writer working on the title knew how important a status quo was to the character. Every one of them tried to establish more to the adventures of Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman, than "bad guy shows up, Spider-Woman hits it", giving her other elements of her life that could help to generate stories. But just as importantly, because there was so little to the fundamental concept of Spider-Woman, each writer felt free to try to establish their own status quo, and so many changes in so short a time definitely hurt the character's popularity. Indeed, Jessica Drew was basically a footnote to Marvel continuity for two decades, outside of a few appearances in Chris Claremont's mutant titles--he was the last writer to work on the series, and remained fond of her--and it's only within the last few years that she's been visible as Spider-Woman again.

Oh, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that the first thing new writer Brian Michael Bendis did was revise her origin.


Arturo said...

I just wanted to say that I'm really enjoying this series; just in case you were worried about the lack of comments. I just don't think I have anything intelligent to add.

John Seavey said...

I've actually gotten pretty used to the fact that I don't get comments (to the point where seeing one actually surprised me.) I know at least a few people read and enjoy this blog, that's enough to keep me posting. While comments are always welcome, lack of them doesn't make me feel bad.

Really. *sniff* Really.

Brooklyn Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
exNavyMike said...

I just discovered your blog by a search for Spider-Woman. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting, and please keep writing...


P.S. I accidentally signed in under an old account as BrooklynMike and then deleted comment to repost here... Sorry...

Trent said...

Hi John, your article was a great read and it had me chuckling. Also, I'm glad I'm not the only person who spotted the obvious subtext regarding Jessica and her "best friend & roommate" Lindsay. LOL It so happens that I'm working on a Spider-Woman site, and believe me, it will come up.

Okay yeah, I know the article is a year old, but I still enjoyed it.

RichardAK said...

I actually thought that, of all Spider-Woman's origins and stati quo, Archie Goodwin's was by far the best. Consider: Goodwin's story established Hydra as a natural enemy for Spider-Woman, and as long as Hydra was around hatching evil plots, which is to say, forever, there would have been evil plots for Spider-Woman to foil and bad guys for her to fight. Also, as long as a hyper-evolved spider (Latrodectus sapiens?) has trouble finding a place for herself within human society, they would always have been able to tell stories about Spider-Woman's struggle to find a way to belong. Of course, Marv Wolfman almost immediately removed Hydra as an enemy (because clearly, Morgana le Fay makes much more sense as an enemy for Spider-Woman) and altered Spider-Woman's origin to remove much of the alienation that the character would have been expected to feel. I think Wolfman screwed the pooch on this one, and the character never really recovered.

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Cecil said...

Jessica and Lindsay were totally HOT and I can only imagine what it could've been outside a corporate setting. No, really! I'm not talking about slash fictions.

The point about the elements constantly added to her life for generating the engine sticks out in my mind as I work on my own stuff. I actually like the non-corporate idea of an Evolving status quo based on changes as part of character development.

The status quo DID change every time! Ann Nocenti actually wrote the last issues. I like the Bendis take for making her unique, but most of what I have are the Claremont issues you don't have!
Too bad you don't live closer or I'd bring you a trapper keeper folder full of them...which is of course the all time best way to receive comics, as I recall.