Radioactive Spider-Gwen #5 is not a great jumping-on point. The lead character is mostly absent, the guest artist’s style is a major break from the norm, there are a lot of characters and developments to keep track of, and the tone is dark and intense.
I say that because it shows a lot of confidence in handing over an entire issue to the supporting cast. At eleven issues in, we’re well past the point where they can be dismissed as variations on their 616 (sorry, Marvel Prime) counterparts. They’re now unique characters in their own right and the series is richer for it.
Last time, I’d mentioned feeling a little overwhelmed by the pacing and the number of various plot ideas in play. Fortunately, things slow down a little bit here for some conversations that brings things into better focus.
As Rodriguez’s cover suggests, issue #5 is very much about George standing up for his daughter. His confrontation with Murdock is at the heart of story, as (Not) The Kingpin plays on his fears in the hopes of taking Gwen on as an apprentice. George is pushed into a dilemma that I now appreciate as a parent: Wanting to protect your child versus having faith in them to take care of themselves. Murdock’s offer is both twisted and tempting; even though we trust George, it was more believable to see him consider something that wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut decision.
That said, the heavy stuff is balanced by quirky humor seeded throughout the story. In this issue we learn about Tony Stark’s other business venture and see a great twist on an iconic image from Mark Waid’s Daredevil. The charming scene with Falcon and Betty helped elevate some third-tier characters, and Captain America and DeWolff continue to become more likable as they trade facts in a ridiculous yet wholly believable meet-up location. Their scene also goes a long way to tie the story threads of the Lizard mystery closer together.
When we spoke with Rodriguez for Ultimate Spin last year, he’d mentioned taking a little time off and seeking out artists to fill in for him. Chris Visions is the first guest artist for the main series, and while I briefly found his thicker linework and slightly softer take on the character designs to be slightly jarring, I really enjoyed seeing him make it his own thing while serving the story well. You get to see his style translate across an interesting emotional range in this issue – from the sinister depiction of Murdock to the wounded yet brutish Castle to the lighthearted charm of Sam-13 getting distracted from his own investigation.
There’s an element of risk in bringing someone else in for a jam session (especially when their style is significantly different), but Spider-Gwen has never been about playing it safe. To paraphrase Mike the Bartender, “It doesn’t kill ya to try something new.” Visions is an excellent fill-in choice and his work is superbly anchored by Rico Renzi’s moody colors – playing heavily on intense reds and menacing purples, as George stands up to Murdock, and breaking for warmer colors for the lighter scenes. I was particularly taken with the eerie beautiful night shot of the George Washington Bridge. It’s an iconic part of Gwen Stacy’s story, and it was unnerving to see it quietly conquered — that panel was right out of a Marvel Netflix show.
I also loved seeing Visions push the panel layout into fresh territory – notably the blaring Valkyries’ album “shaping” the scene in Betty’s apartment and Murdock (who is MOST DEFINITELY NOT THE KINGPIN) using his cane at one point to literally and figuratively keep George in the frame. The one thing that didn’t work for me was his brief depiction of Gwen unmasked, as the shape of her eyes suggested more 1960s glamour Gwen than Earth-65 punk Gwen.
Radioactive Spider-Gwen #5 isn’t all conversation. I felt like Visions’ heavier approach also worked particularly well for Frank’s fight sequence, which was more about brawling than finesse and fight choreography.
Speaking of Frank, he’s the focus of this month’s bio. As always, this section is a great bonus that offers a combination of series recap, flashback character development, and offbeat humor. Frank is a favorite with us at Ultimate Spin, and I enjoyed seeing comedy mined from such an otherwise single-minded no-nonsense character. Visions’ surreal choice for Frank’s eyes before the ninja battle was laugh-out-loud hilarious, as was Frank’s inspired choice of “expletive” at its conclusion.
Radioactive Spider-Gwen (and the volume that preceded it) continues to be unlike any other Spider book out there. It can be both silly and intense, exciting, odd, challenging, and best of all, unpredictable and fun. You may need to go back and re-read to keep track of everything (and I’ll be the first to admit to feeling overwhelmed sometimes), but with ambitious storytelling, bold new takes on familiar characters, and high energy artwork…that action is its own reward.