By Sara Century
Although it is often said that characters like Spider-Woman and She-Hulk were motivated more by a need to copyright a character name than a genuine interest in developing a character, Jessica Drew has always been surprisingly popular. Her initial appearances did well enough that it inspired an ongoing series, which was beyond uncommon for female heroes of the era. Sure, Spider-Woman (1978) is truly bizarre, but it ran for fifty issues and featured some of the best talent in the comics biz during its run. Despite its less-than-stable starting point, there are plenty of fun moments in this series, including the fully bonkers Spider-Woman #9.
Spider-Woman is easily one of Marvel’s strangest characters, due in no small part to repeat retcons even in her first handful of appearances and an overall lack of decisive characterization across decades. Much like the X-Men’s Lorna Dane, that indecision in and of itself has become a sort of character beat for her as new, surprising revelations about her past and powers have become very much run-of-the-mill. Still, even in her early days, Jessica Drew goes her own way regardless of how ill-advised it may be. Despite her altruistic interests, her secrecy often merits distrust even from others in the superhero community.
A man sees her on the street at one point and notes that she’s pretty but off-putting despite her not actually doing anything beyond casually passing him by. This was a recurring motif that has been explained in a number of ways over the decades, but the issue firmly sets her in the world as a strange person who fights strange villains.
Spider-Woman #9 introduces a troubling villain known as The Needle, who reappears later in creator Mark Gruenwald’s run on the West Coast Avengers on a team known as The Night Shift. We open on a disturbing scene in which he wields an enormous needle against a long-haired youth and sews former SHIELD agent (and current Spider-Woman costar) Jeffrey Hunt’s mouth closed. His backstory shows that he became unhinged after a group of young men beat him mercilessly on his way home from his job as a tailor, which is why he targets young men now. Naturally, there is plenty of subtext in this story if you care to look for it, with the implication of The Needle as an older gay man who was the victim of a hate crime and then turns his “hypnotic gaze,” representing fixation, on others that resembled them.
Even without looking that far past the surface, this is an upsetting story, tapping into horror themes that further drive home Jessica Drew’s odd demeanor and personality. This is the first issue after the previous writer Marv Wolfman left the book, but much of the awkward, disjointed tone he set remains. However, Gruenwald later makes moves during his stint with the character to build a better support system for her – and creates villains that he clearly intends to reuse later, making him a writer who ultimately clicks a little better with her. Carmine Infantino’s pencils with Al Gordon’s thick linework make for a darker cityscape than generally appears in other books of the era, setting a unique backdrop to this odd foray into the world of Marvel’s San Francisco.
Spider-Woman’s fight with The Needle is quick, but it tells us a lot about her. The issue opens on Hunt bemoaning that she’s chosen to fly home rather than depend on him for a ride, and he is immediately attacked and frozen by The Needle. Drew visits him at the hospital the next day and expresses remorse for what has happened to him, but not so much so that she regrets her choice to go her own way the night before. Fittingly, she refuses to listen to his chiding in the hospital and walks out, deciding to pursue the villain without Hunt’s help.
This is fair as Hunt is more than a little dismissive, thinking that she’s “going quirky” and even mentally referring to her as a twit at a certain point. He notes that there is a sudden tension between them, while Jessica’s inner monologue reflects only the desire to be given the space to be who she is and to do the things that she feels she needs to do. When he demands an explanation for her going off on her own, she’s completely unrepentant, saying in no uncertain terms that it’s not really any of his business.
In the end, she does indeed find and then best The Needle – as he relies on hypnotic powers that don’t work on her to win, and is stunned when she retaliates with a venom blast. Even after his depraved crimes, she refers to him as a poor wretch, saddened by the level of trauma she senses in him. He’s carted off to jail as she and Hunt look on.
This is an odd issue which shows Spider-Woman very much in the transitional state that she would mostly remain in throughout the rest of this fifty-issue run. However, Gruenwald has a better grasp of Drew’s interests than Wolfman did, and makes no bones about presenting Hunt as a person she has a deep love for but will ultimately clash with. Her acceptance of The Needle despite his horrific intentions is also something that reflects back into her character even to this day. Even in her current ongoing, Spider-Woman is compassionate before she’s anything else, and it’s fun to look back and see that was a core principle baked into her from the start.
Spider-Woman #9 “Eye of the Needle”
Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Artists: Carmine Infantino and Al Gordon
Coloured by Karen Raines
Lettered by Jim Novak
Sara Century is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, among other things. She’s the co-founder of the Queer Spec publishing company and its anthology Decoded Pride as well as being a cohost of the podcast Bitches On Comics. Check her website for more or follow her on Twitter here!
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