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The untold truth of Spider-Woman

Spider-Man isn't the only web-slinger in the Marvel universe. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced a plethora of spider-folks to a mass audience, including a Spider-Woman. But even though Gwen Stacy claims the moniker in that film, she's not the first Spider-Woman to swing onto the scene. Marvel characters including Madame Web, Charlotte Witter, Mattie Franklin, and Julia Carpenter have all been known, at some point, as Spider-Woman. There are also alternate universe Spider-Women, including Peter Parker's daughter, May Parker, and Cindy Moon, AKA Silk, who can produce organic webbing. 

With this many Spider-Women swinging around, it can be hard for a fan to know where to start with the character. Luckily, the original (and still primary) Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, provides a great starting point. Drew was introduced in 1977's Marvel Spotlight #32. Since then, she's had her own animated series (now on Disney+), been an agent of Hydra, S.H.I.E.L.D., and S.W.O.R.D., and worked as an Avenger, a bounty hunter, a private eye, and a mom. Let's unspool the backstory of this complex and absorbing character, one web at a time.

A finely-spun debut

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the original wall-crawling web-slinger in Spider-Man, but the creative credit for Spider-Woman goes to Archie Goodwin and Marie Severin. Lee had an influence, though, mainly for copyright reasons: "I suddenly realized that some other company may quickly put out a book like that and claim they have the right to use the name, and I thought we'd better do it real fast," he told The Comics Journal in 1978.

Spider-Woman's debut in Marvel Spotlight #32 casts her as a villainous, brainwashed Hydra agent, sent to kill S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury. Illustrators Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney drew the yellow and red costume she'd wear for years, but tucked her hair inside her mask. "She glides from the clouds on finely spun wings of glistening filament," reads the opening page. "Her mind is clear. She has few memories; her past is largely a dark void. But her anger is strong and urgent ... "

A scientist's daughter

Spider-Woman returned as a hero with her own series from 1978 to 1983. While on her mission to take out Nick Fury, Jessica learns the true nature of Hydra, and rejects the organization — and her previous codename, Arachne. She takes on the name Spider-Woman instead, and lives in London, later moving to the West Coast.

Unlike Spider-Man, Jessica didn't get her powers from the bite of a radioactive spider, though radiation nevertheless played a role. Her father, Jonathan Drew, conducted genetic research with Dr. Herbert Wyndham, later known as the High Evolutionary. Because of her father's work, Jessica contracted uranium poisoning at the age of seven. To save her life, her father and Wyndham injected her with a special serum, made from the blood of rare spiders — Dad was fascinated with their regenerative and immunological properties. The two scientists placed Jessica in a hibernation chamber, which slowed her aging and educated her through recordings. 

Jessica awoke as a teenager to discover she had little life experience, and faced a lot of mistrust from other people, due to her powers. These include enhanced endurance, speed, reflexes, strength, muscular density, and the ability to stick to surfaces with her hands and feet.

Super-speed, strength, wall-crawling, and ... pheromones?

Jessica Drew boasts a pretty full deck of superpowers. In addition to the wall-crawling, strength, and other expected spider-powers, she is also a highly skilled sharpshooter and hand-to-hand combatant. Furthermore, much like Miles Morales, she produces bioelectricity, which she channels into "venom blasts" for attacks. These have a radius of at least 25 feet. She also has a heightened sense of hearing that enables her to detect sounds across considerable distances at virtually any frequency.

Her most impressive power, however, might just be her most subtle. Spider-Woman can generate pheromones that manipulate others around her, similar to the DC villain Poison Ivy. Early on, these caused pleasurable feelings in men while triggering revulsion or fear in women, but as of the 2004 run of New Avengers, the general effect makes people, as Jess puts it, "all mushed up and dizzy."  As she details, "Anything around me kind of feels attracted to me. Towards me. Just a chemical thing," Her teammates are, to put it lightly, perturbed.

Hydra brainwashing

Part of Jessica Drew's journey as a hero involves overcoming emotional abuse. When she wakes from the hibernation that her dad and research partner engineered to save her life, Jessica is ostracized because of her abilities. She runs away, trying to start a new life, but she knows little about controlling her powers. Tragically, she ends up accidentally killing someone with one of her bioelectric blasts. 

An angry mob chases Jessica, accusing her of witchcraft. Enter Otto Vermis, head of a Hydra splinter group in Europe. Vermis spots an opportunity in Jessica, and trains her in martial arts and espionage. He also subjects her to brainwashing, where he convinces her that she isn't a real woman, but actually a highly evolved spider. Jessica shakes loose of his control and his lies on her first mission as a Hydra assassin, sent to kill Nick Fury. But that part of her past still crops up from time to time: Octavia Vermis, Otto's daughter, is an enemy of Jessica's in the latest run of the Spider-Woman comic, launched in 2020. 

A period of powerlessness

Like so many long-running comics characters, Jessica has spent some time completely stripped of her superpowers. It all starts after Jessica leaves Hydra and moves to the United States. She quickly learns that her father has been murdered, and that a company called Pyro-Technics Inc. is involved. Meanwhile, with the help of her friends Magnus, a sorcerer in disguise, and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jerry Hunt, Jessica foils the plans of sorceress Morgan le Fay. Talk about multi-tasking.

Jessica later discovers that Congressman James Wyatt, a company head of Pyro-Technics Inc., killed her father. At loose ends, she seeks professional help, and ends up leaving the hero business behind to become a bounty hunter, and then a private eye. But Morgan le Fay and her colleagues have long memories. After Magnus enlists Jessica's help in fighting the sorceress back in the sixth century, Jessica finds that she can't return to her own body, due to a spell cast by le Fay. Doctor Strange is able to help bring Jessica fully back to life, but it takes a while before her powers return.

A Skrull impostor

During Marvel's 2010 Secret Invasion storyline, both Jessica and her colleagues face betrayal when the Skrull queen Veranke poses as Spider-Woman, while acting as a double agent for both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. The seeds for this plotline sprout after Doctor Strange helps Jessica return to the land of the living, and she begins the long road of regaining her powers. When said powers prove unstable and endanger herself and others, Hydra reaches out to the depressed Jessica, in the hopes of luring back their high-powered operative to work as a double agent. Jessica discusses the situation with Nick Fury, who gives her the go-ahead. What Jessica doesn't realize is that Hydra has been infiltrated by the shape-shifting Skrulls, an alien race bent on invading Earth.

Hydra does help restore stability to Jessica's powers ... and then imprisons her on a Skrull ship while replacing her with the Skrull queen. The heroes prevail and the Skrulls are defeated, but the impostor within their ranks leaves Jessica, the Avengers, and S.H.I.E.L.D. with plenty of psychological baggage.

Carol Danvers is her best friend

Carol Danvers is never without close female friendship. Recall Maria Rambeau, her best friend in the 2019 feature film, Captain Marvel. But on the page, Carol has plenty of other BFFS — one of the most prominent being Jessica Drew. Their longtime friendship begins in 1981's Avengers Annual #10, after Jessica saves Carol from death during her encounter with Rogue, who absorbs Carol's powers and memories. Being especially sympathetic to this because of her own trauma, Jessica investigates what happened to Carol and supports her as she puts her life back together.

Their friendship really takes off during the Spider-Woman run of 2015-2017, after Jessica joins S.W.O.R.D., also known as the Sentient World Observation and Response Department — think of it as S.H.I.E.L.D. in space. Although the women team up to fight villains, they also help each other battle insecurities through plenty of emotional moments, including Jessica's pregnancy and the birth of her son. As SyFy Wire notes, "They're just two super-powered besties who love each other from Galactus and back."

Her time as a Kree Accuser

Being Captain Marvel's BFF sometimes takes Jess to strange places. In Marvel's huge Empyre crossover event of 2020, the Kree and Skrull empires decide to set their differences aside as part of a larger plot involving the Cotati, a race that evolved on the planet Hala. Although initially pacifistic, the Cotati in Empyre want to strike back against the Kree and Skrulls, as well as the Earth itself.

A side plot related to the invasion involves Carol being named the "Supreme Accuser" of the Kree Empire and tasked with bringing a woman to justice who just so happens to be Carol's newly discovered sister. Carol hopes to exonerate her sister and asks Jess to use her detecting skills, with the help of Carol's Universal Weapon. Carol also enlists War Machine and Hazmat to help find the true culprit, turning all of their costumes a Kree shade of green.

She's a Spider-Mom -- and her son has her powers

In the 2015-2017 run of Spider-Woman, Jess juggles being a private investigator with her superhero duties — and changing diapers. Part of a Marvel relaunch that year, the first issue features a pregnant Spider-Woman on the cover, and the story within shows how annoyed she is with anyone who asks her who the father is. Carol whisks Jess off to one of the greatest maternity hospitals in the galaxy, teasing that the dad might be an alien character that readers had met during Jessica's tenure with S.W.O.R.D. Of course, not even a super mom-to-be gets much rest here. A small army of Skrulls takes over the hospital, leaving Jess to handle matters after delivering her son via an emergency C-section.

The baby boy, Gerry, seems "perfectly human," and Jess confides to Carol that the father is a donor. "Motherhood isn't something that happened to me. It's a decision I made," she says. "I decided to raise that child by myself." Little Gerry does wind up having superpowers, making motherhood all the more challenging for his super-mom.

She's gone darker

Marvel launched a new Spider-Woman title in 2020, with writer Karla Pacheco and artist Pere Perez at the helm. The series opens with Jess taking a private security job to pay the bills, sporting a sleek new costume. This isn't the first departure from her signature yellow and red outfit: Marvel revamped her look previously in the 2014-2015 run, giving her yellow goggles instead of a mask, black pants, gloves, and a top with black sleeves, a red torso, and her logo. But her new suit is "a little darker," because "everything's darker," Pacheco said on a Marvel video. Fans could still expect some attitude, though. "Jess uses humor as a coping mechanism, and I do a lot of that," Pacheco remarked. She hedged on spoiling other plot twists, but did share that little Gerry is safely out of harm's way. "I sent him to a farm upstate. He's fine," she said

When asked whether being a mom to a super-powered baby is harder than being an Avenger, Pacheco didn't hesitate: "I definitely think the baby is a bigger issue." We're sure that Elastigirl of The Incredibles can relate. Good thing Jessica has her hard-won pragmatism, empathy, and optimism to rely on — and the occasional intergalactic intervention from her BFF, Carol Danvers.