Thursday, 10 September 2009

Jessica Drew

Jessica Drew, like Firestar and X-23, was created for television outside of the Marvel Universe proper. Apparently a rival company began developing a cartoon series called Spider-Woman, obviously derived from Spider-MAN. So Marvel rushed into action and created a Spider-Woman of their own, hastily copyrighting the moniker to put a halt to the rival. And so Jessica Drew, the first official Spider-Woman was born.

I've had a long standing affection for Jessica, and was beside myself when i began collecting again a few years ago to find that Bendis was steadily feeding her back to the world. She was big in the seventies and had her own series then which ran for about fifty issues I think, which is pretty good going. BMB brought her back to the forefront of the collective Marvel mind, much as he did with Ms. Marvel in House of M, and has made her one of the most intriguing characters in the MU today.

Its so heartening to recognize this resurrection. Its one of the things that really excites me about comics and there rolling continuity. A character can seem throwaway and unimportant in their first incarnation, and all it takes is a talented writer to remember them and endorse their relevance with retroactive continuity. A fantastic example of this is the issue of The Sandman which deals with Element Girl. A female analogue of Metamorpho who I had never heard of before reading this series with the ability to transform her body into the various constituent elements of creation. Magnesium, hydrogen, she is an elective shapeshifter whose transmutable body can survive discorporation and dissection, and who is immune to poisons and radiation. Which is a wonderful power, virtual immortality. She comments that she fears she could even survive ground zero. If you want to die, however, you have a problem. This story by Gaiman brings Urania Blackwell out of the obscurity typically bestowed upon female counterparts of established male heroes and tells a heartbreaking story about depression and suicidality. It's a great metaphor, it doesn't necessarily take immortality to render you incapable of self harm. Our human instinct for self-preservation can sometimes be a glorious default but at times a painful obstacle. 

I didn't realize that Element Girl had a wealth of comic appearances in more mainstream adventures before this story. And it was exciting to discover that superheroes fuck up and find themselves fucked up. All those times when your memory deludes you that you USED to be this or USED to be that; but are no longer, the pining for the person you were once and things you could have done before is mirrored in Element Girl. She USED to be a heavy hitter and now she hides agoraphobically in the haven of her apartment waiting for the girl with black hair to arrive. Its the bittersweet illumination that people are only human. The two Dark Knight series by Frank Miller show an ageing and disagreeable cast of superheroes, fractured Supermen, Women of Wonder and BatMen. The grizzly bear of Bruce Wayne gurns and bitches his way in a changed world and adapts by using bigger guns and enforcing a zero tolerance mantra. 

And of course, The Dark Knight film brought to the world of cynics a seedier more hopeless version of the Caped Crusader, a man who has everything to lose and is in fact, just a man. The formerly comically naughty Joker is now replaced with a man suffering psycho/sociopathic mental illness. 

This doesn't need to be a depressing phenomenon though. Quite opposite in tone is the moment in Alias when Spider-Woman, formerly freewheeling darling of seventies California visits private eye Jessica Jones apartment, shocks her with a venom blast and states: "Listen up, bitchcakes. I'm Jessica Drew and what you just got a faceful of was my spider-bite. Where the fuck is Mattie Franklin?" GOD! such a FINE moment. Not that cursing denotes maturity or an evolution of the character necessarily, but it suggests a significant departure from her earlier personality. I was ecstatic! It singled Drew out as a grown up superhero, full of the tics and fractures we familiarize with as human beings. She says 'fuck', she probably fucks even, she probably smokes and has anxiety attacks. Its amazing to marry this to the character i grew up loving. 

And it just grows from there. Bendis allied her with the Avengers, albeit a New Avengers, grittier and darker and, consequently; far more relevant than the traditional Avengers. From there he forced her through the humiliation of being revealed as a double or triple agent, the ostracism this caused in the Civil War and finally the revelation that all these things happened to an imposter. Thats right; The Jessica Drew we have been speaking of since those immortal curses in Jones' apartment (presumably, the actual diary of events remains unclear) was not Jessica Drew. 

Veranke was a Skrull queen, the skrulls being familiar shapeshifting antagonists in the Marvel Universe since the early sixties. The Skrulls are  again party to stark and modernist revisions, casting them as a serious equivalent to real life terrorists rather than the comical rubberfaces they were in earlier issues. Jessica Drew was replaced by Veranke at some point in history and it turns out that under this guise Veranke has led a secret invasion of the earth, resulting in a huge catastrophic showdown in New York where she announces her plans to colonize earth. The earth doesn't see Veranke though, they see a demented Spider-Woman announcing invasion. 

From the end of the invasion Drew is in exile. The world doesn't trust her and she is returned to an earth she too cannot trust. And I couldn't be happier. As her solo series begins anew, we are going to be met with a Spider-Woman who is vicious and angry and raped and bitter. A Lady Snowblood on a Tarantino-esque mission of vengeance. Its like Tom snapping and pulling a knife on Jerry or submitting him to electro shock therapy. The status quo is rocked and everything is changing. Which is exactly how I like it!

I don't think the medium of comics is credited with enough importance, whats sad is when people associate seminal works with the Beano or other frivolous publications. Watchmen was listed as one of the top fifty novels of the 20th century by Time Magazine, Maus won the Pulitzer. These are two seperate worlds. And some of the comics coming out at the moment are so rich in characterization and social comment, some of the things I read are as important to my mind as great works of literature. I challenge you to remain unchilled by the Generation M miniseries, or flaccid before the blood spatter of X-Force. 

I can talk about comics forever, I wrote my dissertation at University on the subject, and I think I'll probably write a lot more about them in the future.


Liko said...

Great piece. Honest and concise. I found this just as I was about to toss t the garbage bin an old SANDMAN comic that someone gave to me and I dismissed it because of the art (and me not being a Sandman enthusiast...yet)and it was a reprint of Sandman #20 featuring Urania Blackwell. Thank you for making me reconsider. By the way I am in love with current Spider-woman and the way she has been handled these days. Thanks again.

Liko said...
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