With MS. MARVEL entering into its second year of publication, a first time feat for a super hero book with a female lead, Marvel Comics launched a second book with a super heroine at the helm: SPIDER-WOMAN. As both MS. MARVEL #16 and SPIDER-WOMAN #1 hit newsstands in the spring of 1978, multiple comic books carried the torch for representation.
Spider-Woman got her start in a rather matter of fact manner a year earlier with the publication of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #32 in February 1977. Faced with concern that other comic book companies would stretch copyright laws by creating characters with names similar to their A-Listers, Marvel quickly brought Spider-Woman into existence. Marie Severin created the character's now iconic look based on a description from writer Archie Goodwin; the writer would go on to give the new creation her big debut in the MARVEL SPOTLIGHT anthology series alongside artists Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney. While she may have been created to stake a claim for copyright, Spider-Woman's big debut proved to be a hit with audiences. It also proved that Spider-Woman would bear little resemblance to Spider-Man.
"That’s what’s so cool about her," writer Brian Michael Bendis explains. "She defies expectation. Initially you think she must be Spider-Man’s little sister or something, but she’s so much more. I like that her origin is so immersed in the Marvel Universe, yet has absolutely nothing to do with the large mythos of Spider-Man."
Goodwin's opening narration in Spider-Woman's debut draws readers in, teasing the dark and dramatic action waiting on the following pages. While Spider-Woman glides towards a S.H.I.E.L.D. base in the Riviera, the captions describe her: "She has few memories; her past is largely a dark void. But her anger is strong and urgent." The mystery figure, codenamed Agent Arachne by the terrorist HYDRA group, makes quick work of a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and fights her way to Nick Fury himself—her intended target. The comic then flashes back to reveal the arachnid assassin's traumatic past, one that begins with amnesia and a mob of angry villagers. The terrorist group HYDRA rescued Jessica Drew and recruited her into their ranks under false pretenses, molding and manipulating her into a weapon. She fell in love with a HYDRA member named Jared—an agent she learns has been captured and hurt by Nick Fury.
But Spider-Woman's motivation for murder doesn't hold up to scrutiny; a quick flash of video on a S.H.I.E.L.D. monitor reveals Jared to be a merciless villain, one merely posing as Drew's lover. She immediately spurned Jared and disavowed HYDRA—by crashing her personal jet fighter right through HYDRA's front door! With her past allegiances burning all around her, her evil former father figure revealed her true origin. The High Evolutionary had created Jessica Drew from the DNA of a spider. "Finally, I know who—and what—I am!" says Spider-Woman as she escapes into the night. "The only thing I don't know now…is if there's any way I can live or survive with that knowledge!"
The surprise success of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #32 allowed Spider-Woman to evolve from a one-off character to a potential lead. But before she could receive her own ongoing series, writer Marv Wolfman felt Jessica's origin needed an overhaul to win over readers. Wolfman put that retcon into motion with Spider-Woman's next appearances in 1977's MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #29-33. Alongside the Fantastic Four's Thing, Spider-Woman learned the truth about the "truth" of her origin. Her memories of a human spider had been a HYDRA trick; in reality, Jessica's father had been studying ways to transplant arachnid resilience into human DNA alongside his partner, the man who would become the High Evolutionary. When Jessica Drew fell deathly ill as a child, her father used his experimental spider radiation to cure her, thus giving her powers. With a new origin intact, SPIDER-WOMAN #1 arrived in the spring of 1978.
Just as Wolfman reworked Jessica's origin, artist Carmine Infantino tweaked Spider-Woman's design ever so slightly. After a run-in with an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Jerry that recognized her both in and out of costume, Drew dyed her hair jet black and modified her mask slightly to let her hair flow freely. This slight redesign has stuck with the character ever since.
SPIDER-WOMAN #1 finds the heroine alone and secluded from society as she tries to survive in London. "Maybe my past's been destroyed," Drew thinks to herself, "but I won't ruin my future as well." She's a woman confronting her past and taking responsibility for her actions instead of passing them off to HYDRA or the High Evolutionary. While she may have very little in common with Spider-Man, she does share the original wall-crawler's sense of burden and responsibility. As she narrates in the first issue, "I may look and feel human, but I've the blood of a spider coursing through my veins. I'm a Spider-Woman and wherever I go, I take that deadly curse with me."
This new series showcases a different type of hero—one uncertain of her own humanity, and one willing to plunge herself fully into darkness by fighting mystical villains like Morgan le Fay. Whether as a bounty hunter, private investigator, or full-blown super hero, Spider-Woman never shied away from exploring Marvel's darkly mysterious underworld.
"There was something more haunting about her [series]," says Bendis. "Something almost dreamlike, and very gritty. There’s this ad that ran in just about every comic I was buying when I was a kid, and the headline was: 'ain’t she sweet?' And it’s Jessica punching a guy off his feet. Just the ad filled my head with the kind of stories you could tell with a character like this."
Unlike Black Widow and Ms. Marvel before her, Spider-Woman's popularity briefly translated into Saturday morning success with a weekly cartoon series. "Spider-Woman" ran for one season on ABC beginning in September 1979, wherein the heroine fought Dormammu, the Kingpin, and a rotating cast of monsters. The cartoon altered Jessica Drew's origin to be similar to Spider-Man's, and they made her the editor of "Justice" magazine—an interesting coincidence considering the occupation held down by Ms. Marvel at that time.
While the cartoon series never made it past 16 episodes, SPIDER-WOMAN lasted for a remarkable 50 issues. Her solo series' five year run pushed Jessica Drew's popularity well into the 1980s, placing her alongside that generation's leading ladies: She-Hulk and Dazzler. Writer Ann Nocenti and editor Mark Gruenwald saw fit to end SPIDER-WOMAN with the titular heroine sacrificing her life in a battle against Morgan le Fay, but readers didn't take to kindly to Jessica Drew being killed off. Her resurrection story came swiftly a year later in AVENGERS #240.
Even though fans cried out for Spider-Woman's return, her appearances post-resurrection became less and less frequent. The character began to fade out of popularity in favor of a new Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, who appeared in AVENGERS WEST COAST. The original Spider-Woman spent the majority of the 1990s languishing in limbo.
Bendis, a big fan of the character from her '70s heyday, changed all that by making Drew a supporting character in his mature readers series ALIAS. Following her surprise return in ALIAS #19, Bendis added the character to his NEW AVENGERS roster.
"The original pitch for NEW AVENGERS was 'the coolest characters in the Marvel Universe,'" explained Bendis, "And it was my opinion that Jessica Drew was one of the coolest characters in the Marvel Universe. It was also my impression that I wasn’t alone in this feeling."
Her time in NEW AVENGERS expanded on her history as a secret agent and placed her at the center of the mega event SECRET INVASION. Another solo series followed, as has a permanent position in the Avengers comics.
Through radiation, retcons, revisions, and resurrections, Spider-Woman has proved to be a survivor.
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