Spider-Gwen: Portrait of an Isolated Vigilante

Like everyone else in the world, I fell in love with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when I saw it.  Miles Morales’ story began when I wasn’t reading comic books and, when I returned, it was one of the things I couldn’t wait to explore.  In fact, for the first year of my return to comic reading, it was his Spider-Man exploits alone I followed, wary of jumping back into Peter Parker’s world after having missed out on so much.  To see Miles take center stage in this movie was exciting!  But it wasn’t just Miles in the film.  My excitement to see his story unfold on the big screen was matched by my intrigue at seeing Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman.  I wasn’t halfway through my first viewing of the film before I knew I had to start reading Spider-Gwen for myself.

Haliee Steinfeld’s turn as Gwen Stacy was my first proper experience with Spider-Gwen in a starring role.  I fell in love with her character’s confident control of every situation.  While Into the Spider-Verse was clearly Miles’ story and while Peter was obviously the most senior member of their li’l Spider-Team, it was easily Gwen who was the most competent Spider-Person around and, as such, their defacto leader.   Before seeing this film, I’d read about Gwen as Spider-Woman in Dan Slott’s epic “Spider-Verse” crossover.  I’d also read her universe-hopping team-up with Miles in Jason Latour and Brian Michael Bendis’ “Sitting In A Tree” and Slott’s “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy.”  But I’d never read her solo title.  After seeing Into the Spider-Verse, I had to rectify this grievous oversight.  Thankfully Christmas was coming up right after Into the Spider-Verse :).  Hellooooo gift idea.  Yippee!

Gwen Stacy 11

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The tone of the comic was darker than I expected, given what I’d seen and read of Gwen before diving into her solo books.  But that’s not to say it isn’t brilliant!  Writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez have taken the traditional idea of a superhero and inverted it in such a way where, wall-crawling and spider-sense aside, it feels far more realistic than your average comic book.  This isn’t the story of a celebrated hometown hero – everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood wallcrawler.  This is the story of a true vigilante, isolated by her actions and operating outside the law – a neo-noir tale of shadowy crime and personal vendettas, all rendered beautifully in art so unique it feels otherworldly.  This story isn’t without great humor, heart, and quips but Gwen most often stands alone in the face of darkness and the public fears this mysterious masked vigilante.

In the multiverse of comics, the traditional Marvel stories take place on Earth-616.  On Earth-65 however, it was Gwen Stacy who was bitten by a radioactive spider at that fateful science demonstration.  Granted the proportional speed, strength, and agility of a spider, along with a precognitive early warning spider-sense, Gwen takes up the mantle of Spider-Woman to fight for those who cannot protect themselves.  In a tragic attempt to be “special” too, her best friend Peter Parker’s love of the Spider-Woman caused him to mutate himself into a Lizard monster.  Peter ultimately dies in a confrontation with Spider-Woman, giving birth to her driving sense of guilt and responsibility which will shape Gwen’s life and mission.

Gwen Stacy 13

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Earth-65 isn’t filled with superheroes and villains like Earth-616.  Yes, they have a Captain America and there’s a version of the Vulture and the Green Goblin and the Rhino, but those characters are on the margins of societal awareness if they are there at all (save Cap of course), mutations and mistakes born in the dark corners of laboratories roaming even darker corners of life.  By and large, Spider-Woman as a powered individual is alone and finds herself battling muggers and thieves and the world of organized crime.

Following in the footsteps of her father George Stacy, captain of the NYPD, Gwen is more detective than outright superhero and her adventures read like street-level mysteries.  She is a costumed character who stalks the shadows seeking truth and justice while the people of New York mistrust her (at best) or hate her (at worst).  The police department, under the direction of her father, are unrelenting in their quest to arrest the Spider-Woman for her part in the death of Peter Parker.

Gwen Stacy 6

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Hunted is the word that best describes how Gwen’s life feels reading these stories.  While Peter was always described as a “threat” and a “menace” in our classic Spidey stories from Earth-616, it rarely ever felt that anyone outside of J. Jonah Jameson really felt that way.  The public, by and large, liked him and most cops, while they may be unsure how to approach a costumed vigilante, recognized what he did and looked the other way.  This is far from the case for Gwen.  Even when the papers print stories of her saving people from burning buildings or stopping runaway trains, her motives are questioned.

As I began my journey reading Spider-Gwen, I couldn’t help but think of a mind-blowing thought experiment posed by Chuck Klosterman in his essay “Easier than Typing,” from his 2013 collection of essays I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).  As someone who has loved superheroes his whole life, this forever changed the way I look at them.  Spider-Gwen embodies this vision with striking success and, in so doing, inverts everything we’re used to in superhero stories.  I quote Klosterman’s mental puzzle in full:

Gwen Stacy 6

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“Let’s pretend Batman is real.  Let’s pretend Gotham City is the real New York, and someone is suddenly skulking the streets at night, inexplicably dressed as a winged mammal.  (For the sake of argument, we’re also assuming this is happening in a universe where the preexisting Batman character has never been invented by DC comics, so no one is presuming this is a person impersonating Batman – this is an original Batman, within a world where he’s never been previously imagined.  It’s also happening within our current reality so supervillains don’t exist.)  He has an amazing car, a willingness to engage in street violence, and no affiliations with any traditional authority.  He is, however, driven by the same interior motives as the conventional comic book character:  Having seen his parents murdered, a super-rich orphan decides to dedicate himself to crime fighting.  But you, of course, don’t know these dark details.  This scenario has just emerged from the ether.  There’s no preexisting backstory.  No one knows anything about who this Bat Person is or what he hopes to accomplish.  We are all learning about Batman in real time; every detail about his life is presented as new information.

“You first hear about Batman anecdotally.  At a dinner party someone tells a story he heard from someone at his office:  A young woman was being gang-raped in the Bronx, but a costumed stranger swooped in and beat the criminals senseless.  Or maybe you heard the same story in a different way; maybe you hear about a mother whose teenage son ended up in the hospital after a man dressed as a winged mammal broke his jaw.  (In this version of the confrontation, the hospitalized teen was innocently hanging out with his friends and flirting with a promiscuous girl they all knew from school.)  A few weeks later, you hear another story from a more trustworthy acquaintance you are inclined to believe – he claims he was walking home from a tavern in Brooklyn when he saw a man in a cape jumping between the roofs of two tall buildings.  Soon after, everyone in the city seems to be obsessing over this unknown Bat Person, sometimes gravely but often ironically.  He is constantly trending on Twitter.

Gwen Stacy 5

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“While taking a train uptown, you see subway graffiti spouting obtuse slogans like BATMAN DESTROYS.  There’s a local TV news report in which policemen are interviewed about the rumor of a man dressed like a bat protecting the ghettos; the cops insist that vigilantism is wrong and that this person is dangerous (if he even exists, which remains unproven).  The New York Post published the first mainstream story about Batman:  They love him (an editorial half-jokingly urges him to become more violent).  The Village Voice responds to the Post’s depiction, satirizing Batman as a homoerotic cross between Mike Tyson and Rudy Giuliani.  The New York Times publishes a short online story that strongly implies Batman is an urban myth.  The New York Daily News presents a series of detailed, semi-gratuitous examples of how the buzz around Batman is changing crime patters in the metro area.  Eventually, an irrefutable video of Batman is captured on someone’s iPhone and streamed on numerous websites.  Soon after, the New York Times concedes that Batman is real; it labels him as “a criminal outlier.”  A Fox News pundit nationalizes the story, arguing that the existence of a Batman proves that Democratic leadership is failing the American people.  Conspiracy theories suggest Batman was created by the CIA to undermine the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Media bloggers are convinced this is all an advertising campaign for a yet-to-be-released sports drink.  The New York Observer examines his role as a burgeoning fashion icon.  Soon after, Batman murders an unarmed man in public, seemingly at random; when authorities search the victim’s apartment, they find evidence linking the dead man to a ring of child pornographers.  Public opinion continues to splinter.  Because he wears a ridiculous costume and cannot be captured, most informed citizens come to a collection of related conclusions:  This so-called ‘Batman’ – whoever he is and whatever he hopes to achieve – is brilliant, brutal, insane, capricious, unwilling to compromise, and obsessed with the criminal underworld.

Gwen Stacy 8

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“But here again…this is all you know.

“The only things you know about Batman are what you’ve heard through gossip or gleaned from the media (so you really don’t know anything).  Divorce yourself from the fact that you already believe Batman is a heroic figure.  Don’t think about Adam West or Michael Keaton.  Don’t imagine yourself a citizen of Christopher Nolan’s Gotham; imagine yourself as yourself.  Try to pretend that all you know about this figure is what you’ve just read in the previous three paragraphs.  You don’t know that he’s secretly a millionaire.  You don’t know what his motives are.  All you know is what you read in the papers.

“Do you root for this person, or do you want him arrested?”[1]

BOOM.  Right?  Right?!?  I can’t believe this!!!  I have never, ever thought of superheroes in this light before!  I have read this and reread this and I have meditated on it intentionally and casually when it randomly pops into my head.  And each time I reach the same conclusion – realistically, if I honestly put myself in the situation Klosterman describes, there is no way I can imagine not wanting this person arrested.

Gwen Stacy 14

Frank Castle confronts Gwen. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Klosterman, while discussing the cognitive dissonance surrounding our acceptance of someone like the Batman as opposed to a real-life person who takes the law into their own hands like Bernie Goetz, makes the point, “And this dissonance illustrates a central paradox of the human mind:  When considering the vigilante, the way we think about fiction contradicts how we feel about reality.  Which should not be unanticipated or confusing, yet somehow always is.”[2] So we can absolutely love the vigilantes in our fiction – cheering them on all the way – while acknowledging we’d never be comfortable with someone acting like this in real life.

This very realistic, very splintered reaction to a mysterious masked individual moving through the shadows of New York City, playing judge and jury and dispensing justice through street violence is exactly what Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez present in Spider-Gwen.  While I have yet to reach the end of their run (only just beginning the “Gwenom” storyline now), I have to say I’m impressed at how they’ve continued to develop this tension and division in ways both realistic and nuanced.  More than any other comic, I think Spider-Gwen gives us a picture of how we’d really react to a mysterious superpowered vigilante arriving in our world.

We wouldn’t praise them.  We wouldn’t love them.  We’d be wary of them, if not outright fear them.

Gwen Stacy 15

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Gwen’s actions are all the more honorable and tragic when seen through this lens.  Most comic books have a general public who sees the heroes, to one degree or another, the way the reader does.  They are heroes.  That’s not the case with Spider-Woman.  This realism makes the story compelling in a way most superhero comics aren’t.

Her foes too are cut from a more realistic cloth (if not completely realistic (we are still in a world of watches that let you jump through the multiverse and encounter talking pigs)).  Gwen is hounded by the rogue police officer Frank Castle, obsessed with bringing Spider-Woman to justice and willing to go to any lengths to do so.  She is also constantly being manipulated by Earth-65’s Kingpin of Crime, Matt Murdock.  As opposed to Sinister Sixes or the Superior Foes of Spider-Woman, Gwen is dogged by a broken police system and organized crime.  She fights a corrupt system more than she does superpowered foes – even if that system occasionally employs the ninjas of the Hand and bounty hunters with adamantium-laced skeletons.

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The Kingpin and the Spider-Woman. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I’d heard praise for Spider-Gwen for years but it wasn’t until I fell in love with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that I had to start reading this comic for myself.  Just as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko once turned the world of superheroes on its head by making the protagonist of their amazing story a teenage outcast, so too have Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez broken new ground with Gwen Stacy as the truly feared and mistrusted vigilante Spider-Woman.  It took me awhile to get find this comic for myself, but now that I’m here, I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave.

 

If you’re interested in checking out Gwen’s adventures too, I’d recommend starting at the beginning – Spider-Gwen Vol. 0: Most Wanted? by Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez.  There’s not too much by way of history to make starting at the beginning overly intimidating and some of her more recent stories (like the “Gwenom” one I’m in the middle of now) could be confusing without reading what came before.  Here’s a link to find the comic shop nearest you or Spider-Gwen is also available digitally on Marvel Unlimited, if that’s your sort of thing.

______________________________________________________________

[1] Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), (New York: Scribner, 2013), 59-61.

[2] Ibid., 66.

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3 thoughts on “Spider-Gwen: Portrait of an Isolated Vigilante

  1. I would definitely want him arrested in the thought experiment, too. I feel like I tend to be conservative on these issues. I’m convinced I would have been a Loyalist during the American Revolution just because I can’t really imagine myself rooting for something against the norm. Vigilante “heroes” are definitely out for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your Loyalist analogy because I NEVER see the Revolutionary War invoked like this! While I’m comfortable with protests and civil disobedience (even, in theory, going to jail in the name of a just cause (although I’ve never been in the spot to test my mettle there)) I’m not sure how I’d react to the American Revolution. But I’m obviously with you on being uncomfortable with vigilante heroes. That’s why I was Team Iron Man in ‘Captain America: Civil War.’ I think of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and I just worry that we, as a people, can’t be trusted to take the law into our own hands.

      Like

  2. Hi Micheal,

    Another great one, brother. Yes, I loved her character in the movie. That was a great foray for opening up the Spiderverse. Hope all is great.

    Gary

    On Sat, Feb 23, 2019 at 12:08 PM My Comic Relief wrote:

    > Michael J. Miller posted: “Like everyone else in the world, I fell in love > with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when I saw it. Miles Morales’ story > began when I wasn’t reading comic books and, when I returned, it was one of > the things I couldn’t wait to explore. In fact, for th” >

    Like

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