Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - Many Outfits & Faces of SPIDER-WOMAN

Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - SPIDER-WOMAN

Many people are familiar with Peter Parker, the self-described "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." But there have been a few women over the years who have adopted a similar moniker. And, in an interesting twist from most superhero comics, most of these women got their powers and began their costumed careers without the direct influence of the previously existing male superhero. We're talking about those ladies who have used the alias: Spider-Woman.

Please note, this focuses on people called Spider-Woman and not those characters called Spider-Girl. They'll get their own focus. Likewise, we'll be sticking with mainstream Marvel Comics reality and not delve into parallel universe or alternate timelines. 



The first true Spider-Woman character was Jessica Drew, who made her first appearance in Marvel Spotlight #32, published in 1977. Jessica had a few conflicting stories about her origins for a while (at one point she was even said to be the daughter of Morgan Le Fey, the famous nemesis of King Arthur). A recent mini-series entitled Spider-Woman: Origin presented a new definitive look at her beginnings and revealed that Jessica's parents had been researching the DNA of spiders in an effort to see if certain abilities could be transferred to a human being. Jessica's mother had, while pregnant, been exposed to an energy beam meant to imbue someone with the characteristics of different spiders.

As a result, Jessica had a host of strange abilities. Like Spider-Man, she had superhuman endurance, agility, reflexes and strength. She could cling to surfaces by sheer force of will, running up walls and across ceilings as easily as one might run across the street. Jessica didn't have Spider-Man's psychic "spider-sense" to warn her of oncoming danger nor was she as strong as him, but she did have a few abilities he didn't. She was immune to any toxin and type of radiation. Her body produced a high concentration of certain pheromones, which could cause serious attraction in some and deep-seated fear in others. Generally, this drew men and repulsed women. Later on, Jessica developed a specialized "perfume" she prayed herself with that would nullify this effect.


Another unique ability was her "venom blasts." Basically, she could focus the bio-electric energy of her own body and fire it from her hands. Depending on the charge she used, these blasts could stun an opponent or actually kill them.

When Jessica made her debut in comics, she had been recruited by the terrorist organization HYDRA (recently seen in the film Captain America: The First Avenger). As an agent of HYDRA, she initially went under the official codename of "Arachne" and operated in a red and yellow costume that covered her from head to toe, allowing only the lower half of her face to be shown. It's not a bad suit. It's sleek and has the feel of a gymnast, which is something essential to spider characters who are usually depicted as having superhuman agility. The colors here may not be the best if you wanted a stealth agent, but Jessica was meant to be a display of HYDRA's power so it makes sense she'd wear something that would draw your attention.


The black area on the cowl is a good design that frames her face well. And it has another, more subtle effect. It gives the impression of a furrowed brow and an expression of anger. When Spider-Woman first appeared, she was meant to be a scary new threat to the world, in particular to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., the special intelligence/counter-terrorist agency he led.

The web-wings resemble an element in Spider-Man's original costume that most artists don't really include these days. But whereas Spider-Man had it for decoration, Jessica has a purpose for it. These web-wings were designed by HYDRA to give Jessica the ability to glide through the air. This definitely helped her when leaping from rooftop to rooftop in major cities such as Los Angeles and New York and it gave her a means of travel that did not involve mimicking Spider-Man's mechanical web-shooters or using a grappling hook like the spider-themed character Black Widow.


Later on, Jessica realized she'd gone down the wrong path and left HYDRA. She altered her mask, dyed her hair black, and began a career as a more heroic character. Removing the black cowl piece and its angry/aggressive implication is a good move to make Spider-Woman seem more like a hero, as is letting her hair go free. The hair also helps give a sense of motion, implying action despite the fact that she is frozen in the comic book panel. The yellow triangle on the head piece is a nice little decoration that complements the design on the main bodysuit.

It's interesting that this costume is not obvious in its spider-idea. Aside from the web-wings, you might not realize this character is supposed to live up to the name Spider-Woman. The design on her body can be seen to imply the body of an arachnid or it can be seen to mimic the decorative coloring some spiders have on their bodies. This, along with the fact that she's not wearing red and blue, makes her stand out from Peter Parker. She may be Spider-Woman, but she doesn't look like Spider-Man's girlfriend or younger sister of cousin. She's her own lady.


Eventually though, Marvel Comics decided to retire Jessica. Despite having her own title for five years and a cartoon series in 1979, her numbers apparently weren't good enough. Her title was canceled and a later adventure with the Avengers resulted in her losing her special abilities. For the next several years, Jessica showed up now and then as a private investigator. Later still, she was seen operating in the fictional Eastern nation of Madripoor. In one story that took place there, Jessica was possessed by a demonic sword that forced her to fight the X-Man named Wolverine. During this adventure, she wore an incredibly dated and pretty tacky bodysuit that left little to the imagination. She later was seen in different body suits, but they just didn't have the flair of the Spider-Woman costume.

In the meantime, a new Spider-Woman had debuted... 



The new Spider-Woman first showed up during the crossover story Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars (1984), a mysterious new superhuman with extremely long red hair and no connection to Jessica Drew. The second Spider-Woman was later revealed to be named Julia Carpenter. She quickly proved her worth during the Secret Wars and her costume inspired Spider-Man to adopt a similar design (giving us the famous Venom costume). Like Peter Parker, she had the "proportionate strength, speed and agility of a spider." she could cling to surfaces and leap 30 feet in the air. She didn't have a spider-sense, venom blasts or mechanical web-shooters. But she did have the unique power of focusing psychic energy into tangible web-like forms. These "psi-webs" were incredibly strong but were a bit slower than Peter's web-shooters since Julia had to mentally weave her webs.


It's a solid design. Definitely sleek and the monochromatic nature is off-set by the color of her hair. Blue was used for shading, but depending on the artist it could be seen as a blue and white costume rather than black and white. If it has a weakness it's that it might be a bit too obvious. "Well, she has a mask that has big eyes like Spider-Man's and she has a big spider on her torso, I guess she's Spider-Woman." The thigh-high boots and near-shoulder length gloves very much mark this as a 1980s superhero costume and makes it just a tiny bit dated. Still, it works.

Julia had several adventures as Spider-Woman ("Spi" to her friends) and even joined the Avengers West Coast branch before we finally learned her origins. A natural athlete, Julia had agreed to be the subject of a specialized program funded by a group called the Commission. These folks the injected Julia with an experimental serum, telling her it was an accidental mix-up, that granted her abilities. She then became their field agent, asking for the codename "Arachne" but instead getting saddled with "Spider-Woman." Eventually, she left behind the corrupt Commission and continued as a full-time superhero. When the Avengers West Coast disbanded, she joined the new team that took its place: Force Works. When they disbanded, Julia decided to focus on her role as a single mother and only donned the costume again when the Avengers occasionally needed to call in reserve members to help out. 



It's not my fault if things get complicated here, I didn't write the stories.

In 1998, Spider-Man's arch-enemy Norman Osborn (AKA the original Green Goblin) got together with some other corrupt people in an effort to harness supernatural forces and gain incredible power. A teenage girl named Martha "Mattie" Franklin found out about this clandestine ceremony and (bizarrely) decided to participate. Mattie wound up getting the power Norman had intended for himself. Mattie wound up with abilities similar to Spider-Man, her hero. Around this time, Peter Parker temporarily retired from his Spider-Man identity (not the first or last time this has happened). So Mattie wore a padded outfit and began operating as a new Spider-Man. Eventually, Peter returned to the costumed champion career and Mattie decided that she was now the new Spider-Woman.

Mattie got to star in her own title and was the biggest example of how indecisive teenagers can be. In her first dozen issues or so, she constantly changed her costume. Almost none of them that interesting or inspired. Most, honestly, just looked like swimsuits with a small spider-design stamped on. Her original Spider-Woman costume was perhaps the laziest of all, as it was just Spider-Man's costume without the web-lines. So really, she just looked like Spider-Man's kid sister wearing a costume that had lost its webs in the wash. And adding a very thin, long ponytail isn't interesting enough as a design element nor does it carry the same sense of action that Jessica and Julia's hair could achieve.


Eventually, Mattie did decide on a design and it actually was pretty good. Solid and sleek with bold colors and nice spider design that unifies the whole outfit. with web-wings that recalled Spider-Man and the original Spider-Woman but didn't make her look like a junior version of either one. But Mattie didn't wear this suit for long before her book was canceled. Recently, she was reintroduced and subsequently killed by one of Spider-Man's enemies.


Oh, while we're on the topic, one of Mattie's biggest enemies? A villain who called herself: Spider-Woman. Yes, apparently this lady Charlotte Witter. decided she would be the one, true Spider-Woman by stealing powers from all the heroes who had used that name. So why bother coming up with your own name when it's easier to confuse readers by just calling yourself Spider-Woman too, right?

And her costume? Incredibly lazy. That mask design is just bizarre, the way it extends to her shoulders but doesn't connect to anything else. The rest is just gloves, boots and a work-out leotard with webbing seemingly added as an afterthought. About as creative as naming a spider-themed character Charlotte.

Moving on...



Julia Carpenter showed up again later, now calling herself Arachne and sporting a costume that my dear friend Tim Gunn (Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne, Inc.) has referred to as "the Lady Gaga Spider-Costume." This is basically an updated version of her original look from the 1980s. But now it's not as obvious with the spider-design and we've lost the dated boots and gloves. It's still clearly a spider-woman but the way the spider legs move over the limbs is very clever, drawing your eyes across her body and highlighting the agile moves she makes in battle. The way the legs move up around the neck and down the thighs are also, frankly, pretty sexy.

The one element I question is the shoulder pads. I just don't think they need to be there. Depending on the angle, they can even be distracting.


Later on, an adventure led to Julia gaining the psychic abilities (and blindness) of the mysterious woman Madame Web. As such, Julia has left behind her superheroic career and has taken up a new role. Right now, that seems to involve guiding Spider-Man to what she sees as his destiny. After becoming the new Madame Web, Julia handed her Arachne costume to Anya Corazon, a young girl who has taken up the name Spider-Girl.

Now, why did Julia call herself Arachne when she returned to the life of a costumed hero? Partly because she always preferred that name and partly because the name Spider-Woman had been taken again. Jessica Drew started showing up in comics again in 2004, back in her classic red and yellow threads. We had seen her in the pages of Mattie Franklin's series, with her powers seemingly returning but in a very unstable way. We eventually found out that a later experimental procedure brought back her full abilities and stabilized them in the process. She also now had the ability to fly rather than having to rely on her costume to help her glide on air currents.


Sadly, Jessica was almost immediately captured and replaced by the Skrull Queen, ruler of a race of shape-shifting warriors that have repeatedly tried to subjugate Earth. After this deception was discovered, Jessica returned to Earth and since then has been an active member of the Avengers and an agent of S.W.O.R.D., an organization that polices alien activity on Earth and acts as an early defense against any invasion efforts. Through all these adventures, Jessica has sported her classic costume, proving again that you don't need to show a lot of skin to be sexy and have fans in a superhero world.

And that brings us to a close. As for those heroes called Spider-Girl, we'll speak of them soon enough. But you can see Spider-Girl, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man and many other spider-powered characters in the new Spider-Island storyline happening right now in the pages of Marvel Comics. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!


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