Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s first serious girlfriend who was famously killed off decades ago, is perhaps the original “fridged” character. For those among you reading this who aren’t familiar with the term, the idea of fridging, coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, is when storytellers, usually in genre fiction, take a male character’s interesting female love interest and kill her off just to give drama and angst to said male protagonist. (The word “fridge” was used because ’90s Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend was killed early in his superhero career and stuffed into his refrigerator by a villain, only to give him proper motivation as a hero.) We’ve seen it many times since then, but Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy’s death remains the first and most well known time that trope was used. Which is why it’s almost surreal (in a good way) that here we are, in 2015, with a comic featuring Gwen Stacy as a superhero in Marvel’s new ongoing series Spider-Gwen.
Here’s the thing about the original Gwen Stacy: she wasn’t really all that interesting. She was sweet and nice and pretty, but always written as not having much in the way of personality. She was really just a trophy girlfriend for Peter Parker. Mary Jane Watson on the other hand was a much more interesting character, which is probably why the writers thought killing Gwen off was the only way for Peter Parker to end up with MJ. It was only in later, non-regular Marvel continuity stories like Ultimate Spider-Man and the animated Spectacular Spider-Man that Gwen was given a richer, more interesting personality. The most recent example of this is The Amazing Spider-Man films, where Emma Stone’s portrayal of Gwen was among the bright spots of those films. When she died at the end of the Amazing Spider-Man 2, it felt like a waste of a character, merely done to give Spider-Man something to cry about and then “man up” and get over. Who really wanted an Amazing Spider-Man 3 when the best thing about those movies was gone?
Which is why the recent creation of Spider-Gwen is so special, and why fans have rallied around her in the mere few months since she was created. From the moment she was introduced, fans embraced the character, because just the idea of an empowered Gwen Stacy symbolizes so many things comics fans (especially female comics fans) are hungry for. Plus, and this can’t be stressed enough, her costume design was perfect, and a good, solid look is 50% of what makes a superhero popular, no matter what anyone might tell you. Just look at the amount of Spider-Gwen cosplay that’s been produced since she was introduced last fall.
Spider-Gwen #1 is set on Earth-65, where it’s Gwen Stacy, not Peter Parker, who is the one bitten by the radioactive spider that fateful day, and becomes a superhero who goes by the name of Spider-Woman. She was also a member of a band fronted by her universe’s Mary Jane Watson, called the Mary Janes (I guess Earth-65’s MJ is way more egotistical). Shortly after Gwen begins fighting crime, her version of Peter Parker attempts to exact revenge on those who bullied him, and ends up becoming this universe’s version of the Lizard. Gwen manages to defeat him, but Peter dies towards the end of the battle due to the chemical he used. Spider-Woman is blamed for his death by the public, causing an outcry for her arrest, led by J. Jonah Jameson (some things are always the same). Her father, still the police chief in this world, begins a hunt for her, although he eventually finds out the truth about her. And that’s pretty much the story so far as the first issue opens.
The opening of Spider-Gwen’s first issue recaps much of these events in the first page, but it’s all a bit jumbled and way too hurried, and if you haven’t been reading Spider-Verse, it would be a very confusing way to introduce this character and her circumstances. Spider-Woman (she’s never referred to as “Spider-Gwen” except for the title, for obvious reasons) is public enemy #1 in New York City as the story starts, and she’s just returned to her home dimension after the Spider-Verse adventure. (There are some funny references to her meet a spider-person who’s a pig, better known as “Spider-Ham”, and that his city loves him, all while her city is trying to bring her down.) Like any good alternate universe worth its salt, this one has familiar faces in different roles, like police officer Ben Grimm and Frank Castle as the new captain of the police task force whose job it is to hunt down Gwen.
This version of Gwen is very much in the classic Peter Parker mold — sarcastic, quippy, overall likable, and saddled with tons of personal problems. She quit the Mary Janes just before they became popular, and the band knows they need her back because they’ve failed to find a decent replacement. Her father is trying to come to terms with what he knows about his daughter, but she keeps avoiding his calls. In the midst of all this we’re introduced to Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture, who is pretty much the same character he is in the regular Marvel universe. Gwen knows that stopping this new villain might be the first step in redeeming her reputation as a “super villain” in the media. But she underestimates the Vulture, and for much of this issue he gives Gwen a run for her money, leaving in her in a fairly classic superhero comic cliffhanger at the end.
Spider-Gwen is a book I wanted to love, but ultimately just kinda liked. The writing from Jason Latour is fun and fast paced, and the tone is appropriately quippy for a book about a Spider-person. Gwen Stacy is an instantly likable character, whether you’ve read any of her appearances before now or not. And I like the art by Robbi Rodriguez quite a bit as well. His style is a bit reminiscent of Ben Caldwell, with a loose, cartoony pencilling style that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s right up my alley. In a refreshing change of pace for a book with a female lead, she’s not overly sexualized anywhere , nor or any of the women in this book really, although I wish Rodriguez would draw everyone with better posture. Why does everyone slouch so much?
I guess I just wish that with a book as important as this one, I wanted it to feel a little bit weightier. I wanted to feel a need to come back for issue #2 because the story is so compelling, but instead the story is just good enough. The last thing I want to feel when reading any first issue is “I can wait for the trade,” and there’s a little bit of that for me here. But at the end of the day, I’m so behind the concept of a Spider-Gwen ongoing comic that I’m intrigued enough to keep reading. And if you’re at all curious about this character, by all means, check out Spider-Gwen #1. Just know to keep your expectations in check.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos