Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'Essential Spider-Woman' features
top-notch horror-tinged superhero tales


Essential Spider-Woman Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)

Writers: Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald, Michael Fleisher, and Archie Goodwin
Artists: Carmine infantino, Al Gordon, Tony DeZuniga, Ron Wilson, Frank Springer, Trevor von Eedon, Mike Esposito, Steve Leialoha, et.al.
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Jessica Drew is Spider-Woman, a young woman with super-strength, the ability to climb and cling to the smoothest walls and ceilings, and the ability to shoot venom-blasts of varying lethality. She comes from a background that even she herself doesn't fully understand, and after being manipulated into serving as an agent of the international fascist movement Hydra, she ventures into the world to find a place for herself.

"Essential Spider-Woman" is a massive collection of Marvel Comics from the late 70s. It features some of the niftiest supernatural- and horror-tinged superhero comics ever put into print, created by some of the best writers and artists who were active in the 70s and 80s. With allies like Mordred and Magnus (immortal, one-time students of sorceress Morgan LeFay), Jack Russell (Werewolf by Night), the Shroud (mystery-man with the ability to summon darkness with a thought), and several agents of SHIELD, Jessica Drew's friends are as odd as her enemies--Morgan LeFey, the Needle, the Brothers Grimm, the Moth, Nekra, and various demons and spirits and monstrous servants of Hydra.

The tales reprinted from "Spider-Woman" 1-20, penned by Wolfman and Gruenwald, are particularly excellent, as Jessica Drew struggles to find a place in the world and come to terms with the blessings and curses that her past has left her with. The threads of strangeness and Jessica's loneliness make these stories really stand out among the comics of that period, and the fantastic art by Infantino (with perfectly complimentary inks by DeZuniga and Gordon, primarily) really makes the stories shine.


Not everything in the book is perfect. The story-arc where Spider-Woman clashes with the Hangman and eventually meets Jack Russell and battles Morgan LeFey is such a mess plotwise that it feels like the writer must have been replaced mid-stream, yet the credits list only Wolfman. Neither the Hangman nor Jack Russell really serve any purpose in the story, and the Hangman just drops out of it without any resolution.

Also, when Fleisher comes onboard as the writer at the very end of the collection, pretty much all the supernatural and horror elements of the series vanish, and Spider-Woman becomes a typical costumed superhero, existing somewhere between Batman and Catwoman. It's a surprising change, given the DC work of Fleisher--foremost among that being the Jonah Hex series and "Wrath of the Spectre" for Adventure Comics--that Spider-Woman should take such a turn towards the mundane when guided by his pen. The first Fleisher stories also represent the lowpoint of the book artwise, with the Springer pencils and Esposito inks giving them a look more suitable for a 1960s era romance comic than a superhero thriller like "Spider-Woman." But the art quality shoots back up with the final, Leialoha illustrated, tale in the book.

I loved the Jessica Drew character, from her appearances in Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Two-in-One, and through all the other stories in this book and well beyond them. Although I had stopped following the character, I was sad to hear when Marvel ruined her by removing her powers because her title got cancelled.

When I saw "Essential Spider-Woman," I snatched it up, and the good stories are every bit as good as I thought they were as a kid (unlike "Essential Ghostrider," where the reprinted content was no where near as good as I remembered it). The bad ones...well, either my tastes have grown more refined, or I those faded completely from memory. I recommend this volume to lovers of quirky superhero titles, and I encourage those of you who might find Infantino's unusual art style a bit offputting to let him grow on you. He's one of my all-time favorite artists, but I know that for some he can be an acquired taste.



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