Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young rock band and their animal mascot head into an abandoned carnival one night, only to be hounded by a mysterious creep in a costume. Hijinx ensue, but more than horror homages abound in Spider-Gwen #13; the other Mary Janes step into the spotlight for a Halloween special so heartfelt, I’m surprised no one used the word “spooktacular”.
While Gwen is still reeling from her Pyrrhic victory against the Punisher last issue, the rest of the Mary Janes enlist her for some Halloween-night mischief in the abandoned Cursed Carnival of Mysterio. Naturally, the Carnival isn’t quite so abandoned, but may well be Cursed, and without her power-ups on hand to help her out of this mess, Gwen will have to depend on her friends to get through the night alive.
Considering how prominent her membership in the Mary Janes was in the original promotional pitches for the Edge of the Spider-Verse issue that Spider-Gwen spun out of, I was surprised to realize how little I actually knew about the other band members as individuals. We usually see them reacting to Gwen’s exploits, and while this isn’t the first time the girls have pulled a preoccupied Gwen out to socialize, their actions haven’t been the driving force of an issue. Here, each one of them has a moment to shine as they progress through an adventure that’s equal parts Hanna Barbera and Wes Craven.
Against this backdrop, we get to see how the girls function as a team, and how each plays off the others. Em Jay (never ‘MJ’), is assertive and more than a little full of herself, but that facade hides deeper insecurities. In one scene that’s equal parts hilarious and discomforting, she’s led by Mysterio’s illusions to believe that if she doesn’t keep performing, she’ll lose her soul, a more macabre take on the original character’s party girl persona. Glory is blunt, vivacious, and used to managing the more extreme personalities in the group, keeping Em Jay and Gwen grounded and Betty focused. Meanwhile, Betty…Betty is just crazy.
Don’t mess with Betty.
Gwen is morose and passive through the first two acts of this issue, and it’s a testament to the atmosphere of the story that this doesn’t become frustrating for the reader. What does become a bit frustrating, and is ultimately the only nit I pick with the issue, is how deep into self-loathing these events drive her. In the context of this single issue, it’s not overdone. However, coming on the heels of all of Gwen’s soul-searching in the last arc, and knowing that she still has to climb her way out of the pit she’s found herself in, I fear that her insecurities may become overwrought. True, Spider-characters swing on a pendulum between sunny optimism and soap-operatic pessimism, but I always get a bit disengaged when they stay on one side of the fence too long.
However, just because Gwen’s self-image is being devoured by her inner demons (and let’s all thank Mysterio for making that a literal statement), doesn’t mean this issue is a bummer. To the contrary, writer Jason Latour decorates the skeletal plot with enough seasonal bombast and genre references to keep the atmosphere spooky and fun from start to finish. To use a situation-appropriate simile, it’s a bit like “Evil Dead II”: the situation is horrific for the characters, but the story itself is having a blast.
Part of the fun is seeing all of the references to pop culture horror Latour is able to pack into twenty pages. Aside from the obvious “Scooby Doo” riff, I counted shout-outs to “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Shining”, “Thriller”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, and even more recent films like “28 Days Later” and “Zombieland”. Heck, Latour even works in a gag from Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” ride! What’s more impressive than the jokes, however, is how organically these nods are woven into the story; with the exception of Betty doing the full Jack Nicholson, (because it’s Betty so of course she does), it never feels like the book is drawing attention to the works it’s honoring. With that many winks and nudges towards the horror genre, this restraint is no small feat.
Artist Robbi Rodriguez blows it out of the water this issue. In the past, I’ve occasionally gotten lost in his frenetic action scenes, having some difficulty following the progression of a sequence. Here, that breakneck pace combines with Rico Renzi’s psychedelic colors to enhance the nightmarish aspect of the story, making the Mary Janes’ race through the carnival read less like a classic super villain death trap and more like a fever dream. And considering what we learn, and what we explicitly don’t learn about Mysterio at the climax, that may be a telling comparison.
(And really, the issue was worth the price of admission just to get Rodriguez’s designs of the band’s Halloween costumes. Dios de los Muertos Ghost Rider is brilliant in its simplicity, and I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before now.)
Ultimately, Spider-Gwen #13 is serving three masters: it wants to provide a cool down period from last issue’s blow-out battle, it wants to bring the other members of the Mary Janes into focus, and it wants to be a love-letter to everything about Halloween. This issue could have easily been a piece of holiday fluff, but it achieves all three goals admirably. I may be ready to see Gwen like herself a bit more, but it speaks to the work of the creative team that I’m invested enough in the character that her self-loathing brings me down. Dim the lights, grab a fun-sized Snickers, and make this book part of your Halloween reading.
And seriously, don’t mess with Betty. Girl is cray-cray.