Spidiversity is an ongoing feature that explores a diverse range of issues in Spider-Man media, including gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. It is published on the second Wednesday of every month by Jaleh Najafali and the fourth Monday of the month by Alex Nader.
If you had asked me to name my four favorite superheroes as a kid, I would have most likely said Spider-Man, Cyclops, The Flash, and Superman. With the exception of Superman, I liked these guys because I found them relatable. I could see myself becoming Peter Parker or Scott Summers when I grew up, and I now find it very telling that no women would have cracked my list back then.
One woman who wouldn’t have crossed my mind would have been Jessica Drew. At nine or ten years old, I had never even heard of her. She just wasn’t the Spider-Woman that Marvel was focusing on in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Even though I eventually came across her in passing as I started reading more comics, she wasn’t someone I decided to concentrate on until the new Spider-Woman series was announced a few months ago.
In preparation for this upcoming title, I spent a nice chunk of September and October perusing the comics from the 70s and 80s that initially introduced the world to the original Spider-Woman. Throughout my reading, I could see the desire to fashion an independent woman trying to find her place in the world, but with a revolving door of writers and artists, Spider-Woman becomes an incoherent caricature of a female superhero. By the end of Spider-Woman #50, I have no idea who Jessica Drew is nor do I understand the point of her journey to find herself when it seems so unfulfilled.
One particularly telling aspect of Spider-Woman’s otherness as a female hero is the language that runs throughout her comic. While she occasionally is modified by words such as ‘spectacular,’ she is described with words that highlight her gender more often. In any given issue of Spider-Woman, Jessica could be called a ‘raven-tressed arachnid adventuress,’ a ‘dark angel’ or an ‘alluring arachnid.’ These types of descriptions aren’t inherently bad, but writers rarely refer to male superheroes as chocolate-tressed or as a brooding gift from the heavens. The number of sensual and physical descriptions also creates a wall between Spider-Woman and the readers who may look up to her. She always reads like a female first and a person second. Instead of endowing her with agency, they establish her as someone defined by her physicality before anything else.
A bigger issue that runs throughout Spider-Woman is that this superhero is rarely allowed to stand alone. For a woman who is supposedly isolated due to her pheromone secretion, she sure does spend a lot of time working with men.The lack of stories that just focus on her certainly prevent anyone from truly getting to know Jessica. Though everyone needs help and support, I would have appreciated either more solo stories for Drew or empowering team-ups featuring other women.
Throughout her fifty issue run, Spider-Woman works with Nick Fury, a wizard named Magnus, Jerry Hunt, the Shroud, Spider-Man, Werewolf by Night, and a host of other males. However, besides a quick run in with X-Men such as Storm and a friendship with Lindsay McCabe, Jessica’s interactions with admirable females are almost nonexistent. There’s a dearth of females enabling one another in positive ways that really undermines the progressive message I think the comic wants to send about strong women.
Not only does the lack of positive females weaken the story, but the males that litter the pages also diminish its quality. With the quantity of featured men I listed above, Jessica’s personality often takes a back seat to her relationships with many of them. By the end of issue #6, she and Jerry Hunt declare their love for each other and a number of cloying scenes follow. The writers force this relationship, so when the two lovers part ways in #13, one would hope for the focus to shift back to Spider-Woman’s journey. Before the issue is even over though, Spider-Woman meets the Shroud, launching a quick run where the two are drawn to one another and pass the time by flirting. This is just the beginning of seemingly endless issues where Jessica meets a new man, spends some time with him, and then parts ways with him before starting it all over again. It’s exhausting and detracts from her original desire to discover who she is and what it means to be both a woman and a super-being.
For all the problems caused by Jessica always being attached to a man, the writers only seem willing to involve Spider-Woman in violent acts when she is pitted against another woman, which often holds her back. In issue #48, she is fighting against men, but it’s a woman who attacks and drugs her, and that is just one example of a time where it’s a female presenting the biggest threat to Jessica. Her most brutal encounter occurs in Spider-Woman #16, where she ends up a bloody and bruised mess after her very physical fight with Nekra. Her eye is swollen shut and she is even in the hospital for a bit, which is something that never happens when a male is involved.
There are no instances where the same level of aggression is reached with a male villain and there is an editorial hesitance to have them get really physical with Jessica. This might not be meant to be misogynistic, but it does enforce the idea that female and male heroes are not equal. There’s also a spark that is missing from a majority of her fights with males because of this. This overly restrained attitude makes many of her battles contrived and boring. The fights with females are some of the strongest moments of the series’ run and should be appreciated; however, there could have been so much more to Spider-Woman if she was allowed to develop on her own without the writers forcing her in to or out of many situations.
Though Spider-Woman is besieged with glitches, it is not all bad, and that is what allows me to be excited for this new series. In issue #31, as well as several others, Spider-Woman calls out a man for his chauvinism and insists that she is no damsel in distress. She is strong and capable of taking care of herself. Her actions may not always back up her words, but there is a foundation there, no matter how weak it may be. This comic consistently feels as if the writers are trying to create a venerable female and instead fashioned a jumbled mess. Jessica is never allowed to become her own person, but the potential for her to become a resilient, confident, relatable female is not lost.
The Jessica Drew that first appears in Marvel Spotlight #32 is a poor product of unenthused writing and unknown direction, but with the upcoming launch of Spider-Woman #1, I’m anticipating a superhero with much more personality. None of the hiccups that run throughout Spider-Woman are intended to lessen Jessica, but that doesn’t change the fact that she never quite becomes the person she could be before her death in issue #50. A lot happens to Jessica after Spider-Woman #50, and I anticipate an upwards trajectory for this Spidey. If Jessica is allowed to organically grow and isn’t increasingly sexualized, she could easily be a complex character that could give Peter a run for his money.