I can’t pretend to be comic-book-fluent. In fact, part of what has kept me away from comics is my fear of being irrevocably behind in the years-spanning series, the multiple universes and iterations, the story arcs that have spawned and re-spawned. But even though I haven’t delved much into the comic books themselves, I’ve always had a soft spot for Spider-Man. My younger brother and I watched Spider-Man television shows, played Spider-Man video games, and bought Spider-Man action figures. The 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire was a staple of our childhood (I know, I know, I’m young–if it helps, I don’t feel it). I watched many versions of Peter Parker’s origin story and became acquainted with the cast of heroes and villains around him, from Norman Osborn to Black Cat to Venom. I was thrilled when I was able to adventure with Spider-Man in a simulator attraction at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. At the risk of attracting the ire of Internet gate-keepers, I consider myself a Spider-Man fan.
So, when I heard the buzz about the Spider-Gwen comic books, I was completely intrigued. Gwen Stacy is a beloved Spider-Man character who, to put it lightly, gets a pretty bad break in the original story. The Spider-Gwen arc follows an alternate Spider-Man universe in which Gwen Stacy, rather than Peter Parker, is bitten by the radioactive spider and gets the spider powers. In this universe, Peter Parker becomes the Lizard (a villain of the original Spider-Man universe). The chemicals that Peter uses to transform himself end up killing him in a battle with Gwen, and the public blames her for his death. The Spider-Gwen comics pick up from there: Gwen is trying to restore her reputation and use her powers for good, but is struggling with guilt over Peter’s death. Both villains and the police are after the Spider-Woman, but Gwen is having enough trouble figuring out how to be herself again after everything she’s been through.
The most striking thing about this series is the art style. In a note at the end of the first issue, the editor Nick Lowe credits artist Robbi Rodriguez for the “Lion’s share” of Spider-Gwen’s popularity, noting in particular “the killer costume design that he did that resonated so incredibly with all of you.” This was certainly one of the things that drew me in. Pictures of Spider-Gwen’s unique costume flooded my Instagram page upon the release of these issues, and the striking minimalism, unexpected pops of color, and hoodie-style mask were hard to ignore. The whole comic feels infused with a sort of punk-girl pastiche. Gwen is a drummer in a band with Mary Jane Watson (Felicia Hardy also makes a fun appearance in the music scene, in a great interpretation of the Black Cat character). The art style matches Gwen’s attitude. She’s a bit of a reluctant hero, often snappy and sarcastic, often slouchy and exhausted. There are echoes of the original puns and quips that Spider-Man is known for, and seeing the Spider-Man character interpreted in this original way was such a joy.
Of course, despite my hopes, I did feel a bit lost throughout. The backstory of Gwen that I provided above came not from the issues themselves, but from Wikipedia, since Spider-Gwen first appears as a side-character in the The Edge of Spider-Verse #2, a story arc in which multiple versions of Spider-Man (from their respective multiple universes) appear together. Sometimes, my lack of grounding in this multiverse left me a little reeling in the plot points. (At one point, Gwen hallucinates the presence of the only version of Peter Parker that doesn’t leave her wracked with guilt–the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham from a parody version of the Spider-Man story. While I’m all for having fun with these characters, the appearance of Peter Porker [his real name] was perhaps a bit jarring.) In addition, the story, which ends at issue 5, isn’t as conclusive as I was expecting. Spider-Gwen’s saga continues in Secret Wars, another multiverse arc that brings together parallel-universe versions of a variety of Marvel characters, including the Spider-Man multiverse. If your head’s spinning a little from so much “-verse,” rest assured you’re not alone.
But at the end of the day, truth be completely told, I didn’t care. As I was reading these issues, I was reminded of the childhood I spent with the Spider-Man characters. Specifically, I remembered being a girl with a brother, the two of us equally enamored with the story of underdog Peter Parker, a young kid whose persona is as much about sacrifice and love as it is about heroics and humor. I remembered the both of us trying to enjoy Spider-Man together, and I remember the only action figure I’d ever found of a girl character was one of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane from the 2002 Spider-Man movie. This action figure came with a balcony that collapsed underneath her: literally, the only girl action figure I had in the Spider-Man universe existed only to be rescued. And today I got to read about smart, savvy, punk-rock Gwen Stacy, navigating through the same themes I have always admired about the Spider-Man mythos–the sacrifice and heroism and love, and the discovery of self amidst it all.
And sure, you can say I was always permitted to see myself in Spider-Man, to pick up any of the male character action figures and jump in–and believe me, I did both. But to be able to dismiss the value of seeing this re-invented character is to be lucky enough to have never experienced a Mary-Jane-action-figure disaster for yourself, to have always seen, on the screen and the page, myriad possibilities for yourself as the main character of the story, the hero. The lack of female childhood action heroes had a genuine impact on me. It’s the same reason I smiled so broadly and uncontrollably while watching the slow-motion fight sequences of the new Ghostbusters movie (which I completely adored, by the way): the experience was new for me, and so, so wonderful. It may seem superficial, and it’s hard to really articulate the tear-jerking, gut-wrenching reality of it, but trust me: representation matters. Spider-Gwen matters. And I’m so glad it’s here.