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The untold truth of Spider-Gwen

In superhero comics, alternate universes — and alternate versions of your favorite characters — are a dime a dozen, whether it's an older Superman who retired due to chronic grumpiness over these kids today, a cool teen future version of Batman, or a whole team of Avengers in shining armor who protect a medieval Manhattan as a sort of ersatz Camelot. With so many different takes on those classic ideas, it takes a truly special character to stick out, and over the past few years, no one has been rocketed to fame as fast as the Spider-Woman of Earth-65, also known as Spider-Gwen.

Her biggest claim to fame came as one of the stars of 2018's dimension-shattering Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but that's just the tip of the hard-rocking, web-swinging iceberg that is the multiverse's favorite version of Gwen Stacy. From the tragic origins of her main-line counterpart to the twists and turns that put a truly new spin on a classic superhero idea, here's the truth behind Spider-Gwen.

Gwen and the Goblin

One of the biggest reasons Spider-Gwen made such an impact when she burst onto the page in 2014 was the lasting importance of her counterpart on Earth-616 — the fancy interdimensional designation of the regular, mainstream Marvel Comics Universe. As you probably already know, the Gwen Stacy who debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #31 back in 1965 was the first great love of Peter Parker's life, a go-go dancing science major who fell for Peter while they were both in college.

Sadly, she would also be at the center of one of the greatest tragedies of Spider-Man's life. After discovering Peter Parker's secret identity, the Green Goblin abducted Gwen in an effort to hurt Peter as badly as he could. After luring Spider-Man into action, the Goblin tossed Gwen off the top of Manhattan's George Washington Bridge, and while Peter snagged her ankle with a web-line before she hit the surface of the Hudson River, the sudden stop snapped her neck. For readers who were used to seeing heroes triumph against seemingly impossible odds, Gwen's death was an incredible shock — partly because the title of Amazing Spider-Man #121, "The Night Gwen Stacy Died," wasn't revealed until the issue's final page.

As one of the first major instances of an established character being killed by a supervillain, Gwen's death marked a turning point, not just for Spider-Man's life, but for superhero comics as a whole. It became ingrained in the very idea of Spider-Man's history, with Gwen herself becoming a symbol of both an idealized past to which Peter could never return, and the cost of his dual life as Spider-Man. As a result, she was one of the few characters whose death was actually permanent. There were a few fakeouts — and a regrettable handful of clones — over the years, but unlike virtually everyone else who has ever died in the pages of a superhero comic, Gwen never came back.

In that universe, at least.

Spider-Verse, Take One

Spider-Man has been Marvel's flagship character since about five minutes after his first appearance. He's the guy they put on the letterhead and the paychecks, the one who met Superman in the first big inter-company crossover — he's the character who starred in every issue of Marvel Team-Up, which didn't even have his name in the title because nobody else is more "Marvel" than Peter Parker. As a result, there are more alternate universe takes on Spidey than any other character on the House of Ideas' considerable roster.

In 2014, that prominence was used as the basis for an event called Spider-Verse. The big idea at the center of the story — and get ready, because this is one of the most comic-booky premises of all time — was that a family of interdimensional energy vampires were hunting down the Spider-Men of various universes to satisfy their craving for animal-themed superheroes. As a result, all the surviving Spider-Folks joined together in a multiversal team-up to stop them.

Spider-Verse didn't just stop with the deep bench of established versions, tough. Along with established versions like the plodding Spidey of the newspaper strip and Takuya Yamashiro — the Spider-Man of the live-action Japanese TV show from the '70s who had a giant robot named Leopardon and announced himself as "The Emissary of Hell" — there were plenty of new takes. Peni Parker and her robot SP//DR debuted in that story, as did the punk-rock Spider-Man whose costume made it into the 2018 PS4 game. The one that seemed to catch everyone's eye, however, swung into action in Edge of Spider-Verse #2. Her official codename was Spider-Woman, but when she proved popular enough to launch a solo series after the crossover, it had a more familiar title that explained just who was under the mask: Spider-Gwen.

Spiders and Hornets

It's no exaggeration to say that the biggest factor behind Spider-Gwen's initial appeal was probably that she had one of the best new costumes of the decade. Even in that stretch of the mid-2010s when a handful of heroines were getting new costumes with more updated, modern sensibilities — including new designs for Batgirl and the main-continuity Spider-Woman — Gwen's was probably the best.

According to writer Jason Latour, also an accomplished comics artist in his own right with work in Wolverine and Image's Southern Bastards, the design was a collaborative process between himself, artist Robbi Rodriguez, and colorist Rico Renzi. Rather than just making a cool suit, which they did, they also ensured that every aspect of it was driven by character. The full mask, similar to the main continuity Spider-Man's, was an indication that Gwen had been branded as a criminal, with the added bonus of allowing readers to imagine themselves underneath it, something that would become a theme in the Spider-Verse movie. The spraypaint-style eyes and Chuck Taylor-esque design of her shoes were meant to evoke the DIY attitude of a hero whose day job was playing drums in a rock band. The stark contrast of the white spider silhouette against the black suit— one so subtle that plenty of readers didn't even notice that's what it was — made her pop on the page, especially as a contrast to the predominantly red and blue costumes of the other Spideys. Also, Rodriguez, like many Spider-Artists who have suffered from cramped hands thanks to Steve Ditko's design sense, wanted to draw as few webs as possible.

There was, however, one other element of the design that had more to do with the people behind the scenes. While Gwen herself is a New York City gal through and through, two of her three creators — Latour and Renzi — are from Charlotte, North Carolina. Rodriguez designed the blue and purple accents of the costume with the same colors as the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. Sadly, we've yet to see Spider-Gwen taking a villain to the court to literally dunk on them, but it stands to reason that she'd be pretty good at it.

Secret Origins

One of the most interesting thing about Spider-Gwen's first appearance is that we join her story already in progress. Instead of explaining who she is and how she came to be, her entire origin story was covered in a two-page spread with a grand total of nine panels.

The starting point was exactly the one you might expect: Gwen was bitten by a radioactive spider, got super-powers, and initially used them to pursue fame and fortune. The first big deviation comes in the tragedy that defines her career. Instead of a parental figure dying — her father, police captain George Stacy, is very much alive and a big part of her story — it was a classmate. After a life of being picked on, Gwen's best friend, Peter Parker, wanted super-powers just like Spider-Woman using his own scientific genius. Unfortunately, the formula he concocted had the unforeseen effect of turning him into a hulking monster called the Lizard. It also killed him, and his last words to Spider-Woman were that he did it because he wanted to be like her.

Spider-Woman was blamed for Peter's death, with the crusade against her as a bad influence led, of course, by Earth-65's J. Jonah Jameson. Despite becoming a wanted criminal, Gwen vowed to start using her powers, well, responsibly, driven to fight crime by her guilt over Peter's death. Not a bad setup for two pages.

The Mary Janes

On our familiar Earth-616, Peter Parker's usual source of income as a young college student came from the very millennial job of selling his selfies to an old man — as a freelance photographer for J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle, that is. Over on Earth-65, Gwen Stacy has taken a significantly different career path: drums!

When she's not moonlighting as Spider-Woman, Gwen plays drums for the Mary Janes, a four-piece rock band made up of familiar faces from the Spider-Man comics — and she's also usually doing the former when she's supposed to be doing the latter, because superhero lives are complicated. The lead singer and lead guitarist, of course, was Mary Jane "Em Jay" Watson, with Betty Brant on rhythm guitar and Glory Grant on keyboard. Before they struck out on their own, though, this quartet had one more member: they were originally known as Black Cat and the Mary Janes, before former lead singer Felicia Hardy ditched them in a successful pursuit of solo success.

The most notable thing about the Mary Janes is that they've also crossed dimensions. They don't just exist in Gwen's world, they exist in ours... sort of. As "The Mary Janes," indie rock band Married With Sea Monsters put out their version of the band's signature song from the comics, "Face It Tiger," which is named for MJ's iconic opening line in her first (Earth-616) appearance.

Earth-65

The most obvious difference between Earth-65 and the core Marvel Universe comes, of course, from Spider-Gwen herself. She's far from the only change, though, and over the course of 40 issues of her own comic, readers learned plenty of things about just how different that universe really was.

You might expect those changes to be confined to established characters pulled from the main-line Spider-Man saga, like Peter Parker becoming the Lizard and Mary Jane Watson rocking out with her own band. It didn't stop there, though. On Gwen's Earth, the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, was in prison, leaving his criminal empire to be run by his disturbingly amoral lawyer/consigliere, Matt Murdock. Rather than turning away from arms dealing, the Tony Stark of Earth-65 would go all-in, forming a private military company called War Machine, which would go on to recruit a scowling and exceptionally brutal former marine named Frank Castle before he quit to take a job with the NYPD.

Thor and the Fantastic Four don't seem to be a big part of that world — although Reed Richards is a young genius and Ben Grimm is a beat cop who patrols Yancy Street — but they do have a Captain America. Her name is Samantha Wilson, and after Steve Rogers was killed by saboteurs, she volunteered for Project: Rebirth, getting the Super Soldier Serum and fighting in World War II before being lost in the time stream for 75 years.

As for why Gwen's home dimension is called "Earth-65," there are a couple of reasons. Most of Marvel's alternate realities are named for the real-world dates of their first appearances, and Gwen Stacy debuted in 1965. There is, however, an added bonus: the way the comics are lettered, the number 65 bears a striking resemblance to Gwen Stacy's initials.

Gwenom

While they took some very different twists and turns, Spider-Gwen's adventures occasionally drew on existing Spider-Man stories for their inspiration. Naturally, it wasn't long before Gwen found herself confronting her world's version of one of Spider-Man's greatest foes: Venom.

In Gwen's case, her Venom wasn't an alien life form brought back from the Secret Wars. Instead, it was the product of experiment designed to give her back her powers after she'd lost them in a battle with a villain. The formula that turned Peter Parker into the Lizard was exposed to the same radioactive isotopes that had given her her powers, and it formed a new symbiotic organism. You can guess its name.

When Gwen bonded with it — as "Gwenom," because you have to take the opportunity to drop a pun like that when you can — she was going through a particularly rough time in her life. Just as it did to Peter Parker on Earth-616, Gwen's symbiote amplified her aggression and drove her to becoming a much more violent vigilante. It also came with a redesign for her costume, giving her hood a jagged edge and red interior to mimic Venom's traditional huge, pointy-toothed mouth, complete with a tongue-like scarf. Or maybe a scarf-like tongue. Sometimes, it's hard to tell.

The Bodega Bandit

As Spider-Woman, Gwen has no shortage of villains to deal with. Kraven the Hunter. Aleksei Systevich, the Rhino. Matt Murdock, the Kingpin of Crime. Doctorangutan, the doctor who is also an orangutan. Even with all of those sinister foes, there's one that stands above them, one who can truly claim to be Spider-Woman's most determined arch-nemesis: The Bodega Bandit.

Okay, so he's more of an arch-nemesis by virtue of persistence rather than by presenting an actual threat, but still, it counts. The Bodega Bandit. He... robs bodegas, usually the Dollar Dog, where Gwen likes to get tasty and budget-friendly corndogs. It's pretty simple.

Or is it? Whenever he's (frequently) stopped by Gwen and turned over to the police, he's quickly back out on the streets,m which is pretty weird even for a universe that thrives on recurring arch-villains. According to an Official Handbook-style profile in Spider-Gwen #33, there's a lot of in-universe suspicion that he's the son of "a rich and influential New Yorker" who pays off the bodega clerks and the cops, since the Bandit is more or less harmless. The profile also suggests that this particular rich and influential New Yorker is J. Jonah Jameson, which would mean that the Bodega Bandit is actually Earth-65's version of John Jameson. Considering that the Earth-616 version is an astronaut werewolf space god who's friends with Captain America, Gwen's version is downright normal by comparison.

Spider-Verse, Take 2

While she was popular enough to spring out of a comic and into multiple solo titles — not to mention being brought onto a handful of TV shows and various video games — Spider-Gwen's biggest claim to fame came in the 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in which she was one of the main characters.

Generally speaking, the movie changed very little about the character, aside from swapping out her Chucks for ballet flats to emphasize a more dance-inspired fighting style. There's a good reason for that, too: while the movie was being made, Latour, Rodriguez and Renzi — and Sara Pichelli, who co-created Miles Morales — were brought in as visual consultants. As a result, the sequence of Gwen's origin story, in addition to being done with the same speed that it had in the comics, has the authentic look of the comics, right down to the hot pink highlights.

Ghost-Spider

In her own universe, Gwen initially went by the codename "Spider-Woman," which makes a lot of sense. In the real world, though, that presented something of a problem. Marvel has had several characters in the main universe who have used that name over the years — and a Spider-Girl who had 100 issues about her adventures on Earth-982 — including Jessica Drew. She's the original and current Spider-Woman, who was starring in her own solo series at the exact same time that Gwen was starring in hers.

As a result, Gwen's comic was, of course, called Spider-Gwen, which makes sense for readers who know about Gwen Stacy and her connection with the Spider-Mythos, but also means that nobody in the actual comic can call her by the name on the cover of her comic. By the time the book came to an end, though, Gwen's identity had been revealed revealed to the public, and everyone started calling her "Spider-Gwen" on that world, too, which ended up being pretty annoying. It might be better than saying "Gwen Stacy, the Spider-Woman of Earth-65" every time you want to talk about her, but still. It's a weird thing to call a superhero — at least in a world where we've all gotten used to calling people "Spider-Man" and "Captain America" like those are normal names for a person to have.

In 2019, Gwen decided to attend college on Earth-616 to get away from a world where everyone knew her identity, and since that universe already has four Spider-Women, she elected for a new codename instead. She settled on "Ghost-Spider," a name that appeared on stuff like toys before it made it into the comics. It's not the best codename, and invites confusion with the guy who rides around on a motorcycle with his head on fire, but for now, it works. It distinguishes her from the others, allows her to have a comic with her codename in the title — even though the comic was initially given the somewhat confusing title Spider-Gwen: Ghost-Spider — and perhaps most importantly, it hints at the identity that makes her so interesting by having the same initials as "Gwen Stacy." Oh, and also she picked that name after helping Spider-Man fight a Nazi dinosaur made of bees. No, really.