By Jean Brigid-Prehn
Ultimate Jessica Drew was Brian Michael Bendis’ answer to the question: “how do you pull off an interesting spin on The Clone Saga?”
His answer was to have one of the “clones” of Peter Parker be a – record scratch – girl? But in this case, with the character who became Ultimate Jessica Drew, this wasn’t just an X-23/Wolverine situation. Instead, the story introduced someone who had all of Peter Parker’s memories… lasting right up until she woke up in a cloning tube. That twist was a pretty novel one, especially as Bendis’ extensive previous work with the Jessica Drew character had stayed as far away from the Peter Parker milieu as possible. Ultimate Jessica would become a semi-regular cast member in Ultimate Peter Parker’s life, usually dropping by to deliver a grave portent or SHIELD info.
And from her first appearance, a quick trans-reading of Jessica Drew basically writes itself. While not at all a one-to-one representation of the trans experience, the idea of a character who was treated as a boy for 16 years of memories before waking up as a girl is one that struck a chord of recognition in me and, anecdotally, several other trans comic readers. The fact that it wasn’t just any boy but Peter Parker wrung some added pathos to the character — how could she live up to the experience of being a teen superhero? What would it be like to watch that kid succeeding while you, almost-but-never-him-again were forced to operate in the shadows? Ultimate Jessica Drew had the makings of a fascinating character, with a queer reading in potentia waiting on the sidelines.
But the galling thing is that while Jessica Drew as presented in Ultimate Spider-Man had enough going on to strike a cord of recognition in a young Jean, her characterization left a lot to be desired. The worst of this comes out when Johnny Storm makes out with her… and then realizes that she is a genetic clone of his best (guy) friend. Hijinks ensue, and the plot is left as a one off joke.
Which is to say, for most of her existence in the 1610, Jessica Drew was defined by her relationship to Peter Parker and, to a lesser extent, Miles Morales. That Bendis didn’t know exactly what to do with Jessica Drew, yet again, was understandable. Ultimate Spider-Man’s supporting cast was reaching a critical mass in its later issues, with Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake joining the Parker household after the breakup of their respective teams, as well as the reintroduction of both Gwen Stacy and Kitty Pryde as major secondary characters. And so Jessica became a SHIELD agent, like her 616 counterpart, but her adventures were by and large relegated to showing up in Miles’ book to alternatively encourage or discourage him. Even her brief appearance in Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates run is a quick scene of her watching Miles fight Kangaroo on a laptop, essentially a teaser which led into her first meeting with Miles in his solo series.
Jessica would then show up occasionally throughout Miles Morales’ tenure as the Ultimate Spider-Man, working for SHIELD and acting essentially as a mentor for the young superhero. Jess’ main characterization during this period concerns her identity issues: especially her inability to extricate herself from Peter Parker’s memories as well as her survivor’s guilt following his death.
During the ‘United We Fall’ arc, for example, while they are deployed to fight Hydra as the evil organization marches across the mid-west, Jessica repeatedly urges Miles to go home, terrified of the thought of risking the life of another Spider-Man. When they both return, Jessica finally reveals her secret origin to Miles and gives a big, character defining speech… which once again returns to her relationship to Peter Parker’s legacy. Jessica had a bright future of being a peripheral character defined entirely by her relationship to that alliterative arachnid hero forever…
… and then, fortunately, came writer Michel Fiffe, and the All-New Ultimates. The series, spinning out of the Cataclysm event – which I guarantee you only just thought about for the first time in five years – focused on a newer, fresher superteam stepping up to fill the void left by the recently disassembled Ultimates. Jessica, with her SHIELD remit, became the de facto leader of a team consisting of Miles Morales, Bombshell, Cloak, Dagger, and Kitty Pryde. The run worked as essentially a continuation of Bendis’ most recent Ultimate Spider-Man run, which had ended with the teens confronting Roxxon, the company which had a hand in creating them all, and promising to continue shutting down their experiments.
And the book is, honestly, one of the better young heroes books of the last decade, playing off the variety of relationships between the characters, as well as their varying interests in superheroing full time. In particular, Fiffe’s handling of Jessica is one of the most fascinating parts of his run.
Jessica emerges as the leader of the New Ultimates almost by default, both due to her experience and her position as the only member to have officially been an Ultimate prior to Cataclysm. As introduced, Jess is struggling to have a life outside of her SHIELD career for the first time (barring that disastrous Human Torch date storyline). Fiffe feels like the first author – and Amilcar Pinna is certainly one of the few artists – who really engages with the fact that, even with her SHIELD career, Ultimate Jess is only around 17.
Jess struggles to let her guard down early on in the series, but eventually she drops her super heroic identity, and during the course of the series, adopts the name of “Black Widow” rather than “Spider-Woman”. Jess’ new outfit adopted a black and white color scheme and added a red leather jacket, following in similar footsteps as the outfit her 616 counterpart had shortly beforehand adopted. She cut her hair into the classic “I’m-comfortable-with-myself-to-see-what-it-looks-like-when-I-don’t-grow-this-out” bob. Jess’ visual progression showed a character playing with her identity, and artist Amilcar Pinna allowed her to do so over the course of the series.
Whether in the book or in external material, Fiffe doesn’t explicitly call attention to the trans resonances of Jess’ character. His careful treatment of the character, however, is worth calling attention to. Fiffe doesn’t reinscribe Jess Drew from the ground up as an explicitly trans character. What he does do throughout the series, however, is create a space for interesting coding to exist. This plays out in its most interesting form in All-New Ultimates #4.
To put it into context, this issue came out around a little over a year after Alyssia Yeoh came out in Batgirl 19, and around the same time that Tong would come out in FF #6. Trans characters weren’t around in cape comics at the time. Characters such as the Runaway’s Xavin or Mystique would provide opportunities for trans readings (to various degrees of success), but nothing as close to naturalistic as what Fiffe and Amilcar portray here. While it lacks the force of outright representation, the sci-fi premise behind Jess’ allows the story to approach these awkward discussions in a way that outright trans characters in cape comics — such as they are — rarely get the chance to.
There’s an ease and a confidence in most trans characters in superhero comics that can seem to skip over the awkward conversations and figuring things out stage. These characters also rarely get the chance to express the way that transness interacts with their sexuality on panel – Alyssia, for example, seems to have come to terms with her sexuality by the time of her first appearance.
Jess’ fantastical situation is used by Fiffe in a way that evokes a kind of trans angst which explicitly trans characters are rarely given the chance to. Her articulation of her queer attraction in issue 4 is one of the more grounded monologues I’ve seen in a comic. The scene takes place at a beach issue – sidenote, what was the last Marvel comic to have a beach issue? Vita Ayala’s New Mutants comes to mind, but before then? – and the beat is short, just two pages of the girls of the team hanging on the beach, talking about their crushes. Yet Fiffe makes sure to give room to Jess’ winding (one could say Bendis-y) dialogue as she works her way around her thoughts.
Speaking to Dagger, Kitty, and Bombshell, Jess explains her difficulty understanding her own attraction as she finally starts to become a person in her own right, rather than just a clone of some guy. Jess’ attempt to untangle how her previous memories of attraction – the memories of her “past” as Peter Parker – are different from her current attraction to women is a beat which strikes a chord with my own experience as a young trans girl who likes girls. The dialogue meanders around the actual confession, conveying the anxiety that Jess feels coming forward with this, tagging it with a half-joke-half-admission of crush by noting with a look at Kitty that she “kinda has a thing for Jewish girls too.”
Realizing that this is a queer attraction, something different both to her as a person and to society at large than it would be for your Peter Parker, Jess is thrown on her back foot for the first time in the comic. Pinna sells this by having Jess carefully avoid eye contact, either with a faux-disaffected eyeroll or by sliding her glasses down from her forehead. This character acting builds until the final panels, where a sunglassed Jess is a little more comfortable – smiling, but still anxious.
The beat is really affecting, an aspect which genuinely surprised me the first time I read the comic, even having seen Fiffe’s commitment to an emotional realism for his character throughout the prior issues. And in fact, the beat could have been a turning point for queer representation in Marvel work, moving from something that was dominated by big dramatic beats designed for USA Today into a wider and more agile range of articulations. The beat could have been a point where the Ultimate Universe finally stepped out of the dated-at-best-shock-value-at-worst shadow of its earliest efforts and into being a line which advanced bolder; more risky characterizations.
All-New Ultimates was potentially a stepping stone, an enabling beat in Jess’ character’s arc which would allow for new and exciting stories…
But, unfortunately, most of the comics which have used Jess Drew of Earth 1610 have had her in a bit part, without the space to explore the little garden that Fiffe opened up. She’s appeared in Bendis’ work again – in both Ultimate End and Spider-Men II – which were appearances which disappointingly reverted her costume and haircut back to how they initially appeared. It was a disappointment which may have been lessened if she’d been given some actual lines. By this point, frankly, I’d be more frustrated in Jess’ near total disappearance from the comics had she not been one of dozens of queer and queer coded characters who’ve been lost in the flotsam of colliding universes, publishing initiatives, and editorial caveat.
There would be no flowers for Jess Drew, as there were for other characters who were explicitly trans, but Jess’ awkward attempts to express herself, her clumsy working up to embracing an identity were woven into a super heroic narrative that felt genuine and affecting.
All-New Ultimates #4 “Drug Buddy”
Writer: Michel Fiffe
Artist: Amilcar Pinna
Colourist: Nolan Woodard
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Jean Brigid-Prehn is a writer & reader. She can be found on twitter here.
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