Marie Severin had a long and brilliant career as one of the great and most versatile artists Marvel ever knew, but she is perhaps best known as the co-creator of Spider-Woman. Severin’s work on Spider-Woman was sadly limited mostly to covers, so we didn’t get much of that stellar Severin artwork on the page. However, Spider-Woman’s costume design is very much indicative of Severin’s style, and once the decision was made slightly thereafter to lose the cap and let her long hair fly loose, the uniform became one of Marvel’s most recognizable. The premise might have been just "a female Spider-Man," but in truth, Severin and co-creator Archie Goodwin really broke the mold in some ways with Spider-Woman.
Spider-Woman took on a life of her own after Severin’s initial design work, going on to be the star of one of Marvel’s first and most successful-to-date female-led solo series. It took some time for the character to fully find her way, but she was still a trailblazer, and there are some great stories in Jessica Drew’s 40+ year history.
Marvel Spotlight #32
The first appearance of Spider-Woman! This story is pretty darn weird, but the gist of it is that Jessica was born in A Small European Village, and was hated by the locals for being “different.” This might not seem very unique, but this story does take some left turns, so bear with us. A random Hydra agent named Otto Vermis took her in and trained her. Jessica fell in love with the blandest guy you’ve ever seen, Jared, who she accidentally apparently kills in pursuit of Nick Fury. Jessica is urged to feel that this can be blamed on Fury, so she vows to kill him.
Fury realizes that Drew is being lied to, and so he shows her footage of Jared being a terrible person, and Hydra being, well, Hydra. She recalls her secret past with the High Evolutionary, and the original theory at play here is that she was actually a highly evolved spider. That origin didn’t stick around for long, but wow — Marvel in the ‘70s was some A+ storytelling sometimes. In the end, Jessica chooses to help Fury, Vermis is killed, and the story concludes.
This issue is strange, and convoluted even by Marvel standards, and the whole thing is later retconned in Spider-Woman: Origin, but Jessica and Nick Fury’s interactions are always a lot of fun, and they’re one of the dynamic duos of S.H.I.E.L.D. we really don’t see enough of. Besides all this, the last page, featuring a lost and lonely Jessica Drew wandering away from the wreckage of her old life, would go on to define the character for decades.
Spider-Woman Vol. 1 #20
Looking back at the original Spider-Woman series, it was... a mess. The first several issues were written and edited by Marv Wolfman, who was writing a whole lot of other things at the time and never seemed to really have much interest in the character. Female-led superhero books have often been tasked to unenthusiastic creative teams, a bad look which has curbed somewhat in recent years due to a great deal of pressure from fans and creators who genuinely love the characters. While penciler Carmine Infantino stayed with the series for the first 20 issues and did some of his best work, the scripts didn't always hold up, and Drew's rogues' gallery was uninspired, including a character that has a racial slur in her code name (named after an actual breed of moth, but still). Likewise, follow-up creators such as Chris Claremont were on multiple books at the time and never seemed to give Spider-Woman their full attention, leading to a meandering series that relied and focused too heavily on a male mentor and a disturbingly obsessive boyfriend.
Wolfman had made it a point to keep Spider-Woman from interacting with the greater Marvel universe to “make her unique,” but that proved to be another significant strike against the series. Her origin story featured a great deal of interaction with Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D., and it seemed odd not to allow her to crossover in stories where she would have been an interesting and timely addition. As said, it was kind of a mess, and there were a lot of missed opportunities.
Jessica Drew was Spider-Woman for a full 19 issues plus guest appearances in Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Two-in-One without ever knowing that there was a Spider-Man before her. The reasoning behind this was that she was in LA and he was in NYC so they just never saw each other, although that seems pretty unbelievable. Yet the sheer hilarity of an annoyed Spider-Woman insisting that Spider-Man is copying her and needs to go away is worth the price of admission, and it really was a relief to see the series at least acknowledge that Jessica Drew did, in fact, exist within the Marvel Universe.
Spider-Woman Vol. 1 #47-50
Ann Nocenti, known for her work on the X-books and a long and underrated run on Daredevil in the ‘80s, showed up on the last four issues of Spider-Woman, although the book was by then doomed to cancelation, and really turned the whole thing around. It's a huge bummer because it would have been awesome if Nocenti had gotten a full run rather than just sort of leading the book to its final resting place. Although Jessica Drew does die at the end of the series, readers were outraged, Nocenti expressed regret over the choice, and she was brought back in the Avengers not long after.
The story mostly serves to tie up loose ends that the series had either not addressed or that it hadn’t had time to explain. In #50, Spider-Woman is captured and put into prison with several of the villains of the short Nocenti run, ultimately freeing herself but realizing that there isn’t much of a place for her when her boyfriend breaks up with her, insisting he preferred her when he believed she was just a “regular” woman and not Spider-Woman. The whole run is strange, surreal, and features many characters hallucinating or misperceiving situations, a trademark of Nocenti’s work. At one point, Tigra yells at a young man just to make him cry so he’ll lose control of his powers and thus free them from the jail.
The fight scenes in the last few issues of the original series are excellent, and Brian Postman on pencils, Sam DeLaRosa on inks, and Andy Yanchus on colors is a dream team. The style fits within the realm of Marvel, but there are some interesting panel layouts and the strange coloring choices in the last pages of the series really stand out as inventive, especially for the time. Steranko had capitalized on Steve Ditko strangeness and incorporated a contemporary pop art feel to comics with his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the way that influenced the greater Marvel style was overall positive. On these last issues of Spider-Woman, the art team manages to capture the inventiveness of the era without leaning on their influences too heavily, and the result is fantastic.
Brian Michael Bendis wound up basically being the person responsible for Jessica Drew’s return as Spider-Woman, as he introduced her to his New Avengers series and went on to write not just this, her retconned origin story, but also a short-lived solo series a couple years after. Although his characterization of Drew reads a bit too similar to his take on Jessica Jones for our tastes, one must admit that they are two characters with a great deal in common.
Reaching back to her early days, manipulated by Hydra, we learn a few new things about Jessica. Her powers come from being hit by radiation when she was still in the womb, and her origin via the High Evolutionary appears to have gone by the wayside, although she was raised by Bova, the cow-human hybrid that also raised the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.
Origin has its flaws, but after years of convoluted storytelling, it was nice to finally have a solid reference for where exactly Jessica Drew came from. Despite its dark tone, it did set her up to have a happier and more stable future going forward, although it took a few years for her to get there.
Spider-Woman Vol. 6 #1-5
Overall, Jessica Drew had a few rough decades in comics. Beyond her apparent death, her return as a depowered “normal woman,” her stint in comic book limbo, her return in New Avengers before the reveal that she'd been a Skrull all along, then her actual return after Secret Invasion as she attempted to earn back the trust of people she'd had no part in alienating, it wasn't an easy life for JD. Even after all that, when she started to find a foothold again with a new creative team, Volume 5 of her series had even been interrupted by cancellation in the crossover Secret War, so it was after months that suddenly the book returned to the shelves featuring a pregnant Drew.
Dennis Hopeless’ take on Spider-Woman let a lot of her past lie and brought the character peace and confidence that she had really never known. The whole run is worth your time, but it is perhaps most important due to its portrayal of Jessica going through pregnancy and childbirth in the first five issues of Volume 6. In comics, even in art in general, women's bodies are often used for titillation or loosely defined inspiration, but so seldom is there any focus on motherhood. (Spider-Woman specifically had known controversy recently when Milo Manara drew an overly-sexualized cover featuring an anatomically improbable Jessica Drew.) Focusing on her personality, toning down the male-gaze sexiness her original look had taken on over recent years, and examining what motherhood would look like for a superhero were all great improvements on a character that had been floundering since her first appearances.
The story is packed into a superhero narrative so it's not exactly a day-by-day account of what mothers go through, but it deals well with Jessica’s agitation at being forced to take a maternity leave, allowing other heroes to do the heavy lifting for her and grudgingly taking advice for the good of her child. Her friendship with Captain Marvel comes into focus as Carol Danvers insists she visit Alpha Flight’s maternity ward and inadvertently leads to Jessica being kidnapped by Skrulls and giving birth in a black hole as Carol scrambles to rescue her. In the end, Carol holds the baby in her arms, and Jessica looks at Carol with emotion and says, “maybe I can give him normal.” They are both quiet for a moment, then burst into laughter. “No way in hell,” says Carol. “He's totally screwed,” Jessica agrees.