Unlike many of her heroic Marvel counterparts, Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman, doesn’t have the kind of origin story one can summarize in just a few sentences. Her backstory is, to put it mildly, somewhat complicated. She plays a big part in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, so as we celebrate Jessica Drew’s animated cinematic debut, and wait for her to make her grand cinematic live-action entrance, let’s take a deep dive into her bizarre backstory. For Jessica, it began with 1977’s Marvel Spotlight #32, which gave us Spider-Woman’s complicated origin story. Or, at least, the first version of her origin story.
Contradicting Marvel Comics Origin Stories for Spider-Woman
Jessica Drew is actually way older than any Marvel hero not named Steve Rogers. She was born in 1924 to scientist Jonathan Drew and his wife Miriam. As a very young child, Jessica Drew traveled with her parents to Mount Wundagore, in the small Balkan nation of Transia. This locale was also central to the comic book origins of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Her father conducted genetics research at Mount Wundagore with Dr. Herbert Wyndham, who would later become the villainous High Evolutionary.
At the age of seven, Jessica contracted a deadly case of uranium poisoning after exposure to her father’s experiments. In an effort to save her life, her father and Dr. Wyndham injected her with an experimental spider-derived serum, one which would only work with years of hibernation in a genetic accelerator. After spending decades in a slow-growing form of hibernation, the soon-to-be Spider-Woman received subliminal education through specially designed recordings. She finally woke up decades later, fully cured, but now physically a teenager. She also had superpowers, thanks to the spider-serum and the effects of her stasis.
However, that might not be the origin of Spider-Woman’s powers. Later Marvel comics from the 2000s, like Brian Michael Bendis’ Spider-Woman: Origin reveal that Jessica received her powers differently. In the Bendis retcon, Jessica gained her powers when a laser beam hits her pregnant mother Miriam in the torso. This beam contained the DNA traits of several different species of spiders, thus altering the fetus’ DNA. It’s unclear which version of the origin of Spider-Woman’s powers is officially the current Marvel canon.
A Different Set of Powers than Peter Parker
Regardless of how she got her powers, Spider-Woman’s power set has remained consistent over the years. Jessica has super strength, superhuman speed, stamina, agility, and reflexes. She doesn’t have a healing factor like her good friend Wolverine per se, but she does heal more rapidly than a normal human. Spider-Woman also emits bio-electrical “venom blasts” and releases pheromones that can both attract and repel people. Like her male counterpart, Spider-Man, she can attach herself to surfaces and climb on walls. So they have that in common, at least.
Spider-Woman’s Life as a Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. Double Agent
With no family and now living in a strange time, Jessica Drew left Wundagore and tried to have a normal life. But after accidentally killing her boyfriend with her new powers, she fell under the sway of Count Otto Vermis, a high-ranking member of Hydra. Vermis brainwashed Jessica into believing she wasn’t human, but a spider evolved into a human form. He trained her to be Hydra’s most skilled assassin and gave her the name Arachne. Spider-Woman trained in hand-to-hand combat by none other than the Taskmaster.
One of her first missions was to kill S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. While attempting to kill him, the super-spy informed Jessica Drew of the truth: Hydra was a terrorist organization, and they had brainwashed her in a vulnerable state to become their tool of destruction. They even lied to her about accidentally killing a man. Devastated upon learning the truth, Jessica Drew abandoned Hydra and joined Fury as an agent of S.H.I.E.LD. Eventually, Spider-Woman decided to leave the life of being a secret agent behind to become a full-time superhero.
Spider-Woman, Marvel’s Globetrotting Heroine
Spider-Woman then moved around the globe for years. First, she worked out of London, where she partnered with a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Scotland Yard detective named Jerry Hunt. When that romantic and working partnership dissolved, she moved to Los Angeles. There, Spider-Woman became a super-powered bounty hunter in the Marvel universe. Later, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a private investigator. After a battle with the ancient witch Morgan le Fay, Jessica Drew lost her Spider-Woman powers. She continued to lead the life of a P.I., only this time in the dangerous island nation of Madripoor.
Things start to somehow get more complicated for Jessica Drew at this point. She is approached by Hydra agents who offer her a chance to restore her powers. But only if she rejoins them and infiltrates S.H.I.E.L.D. as a double agent. She goes to Nick Fury, informing him that she is taking the offer but will secretly be loyal to him. Unbeknownst to either of them, these Hydra agents are actually Skrulls. The alien shapeshifters then place Spider-Woman in stasis, and the Skrull Queen Veranke replaces Jessica Drew to the world at large. She joins the Avengers and infiltrates the superhero community from within.
Juggling Avengering and Motherhood
After the events of Secret Invasion, the Skrulls are defeated, and the real Jessica Drew returns. Feeling she has nowhere left to go, Spider-Woman joins the Avengers for real. She has adventures with several different iterations of the Avengers, establishing herself as a stalwart member of the team. Spider-Woman also gets pulled into several Marvel adventures with Spider-Man and other arachnid-powered heroes, forging a bond with them as well. More recently, Jessica Drew became a single mom, giving birth to a son named Gerry. Little Gerry Drew inherited all of his mother’s powers, and now Spider-Woman has to contend with a toddler who can crawl on walls and has super strength.
Spider-Woman in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
In Across the Spider-Verse, Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) goes by “Jess Drew.” She’s one of the many Spider-People who work out of the interdimensional hub known as the Spider-Society. Like her later incarnations in the comics, Spider-Woman still fights the good fight while pregnant in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. She mentions a dad, but we never learn who her partner is. Maybe in Beyond the Spider-Verse, we’ll find out more about Spider-Woman and her family.
Spider-Woman also rides a cool motorcycle to boot. Her costume is all-new for the Spider-Verse movie, but it has some recognizable elements to it from Marvel’s comics. Her powers seem more in line with Spider-Man’s than 616 Jessica Drew. But it’s possible Sony is waiting for the third film to unleash her venom blasts. In Across the Spider-Verse, Spider-Woman is one of the Spider-folk who Miguel O’Hara sends after Miles Morales.
Meanwhile, if the Olivia Wilde-directed Spider-Woman film is set in the MCU, as rumors suggest, then maybe we will see the ties between Hydra and Nick Fury explored more. When it comes to Spider-Woman, her different connections to the Marvel Universe are all primed to provide cinematic fodder for years. And her animated incarnation hopefully has a bright future as well.
Originally published on June 9, 2021