For all of its many faults, one of the best things this spring’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had going for it was Emma Stone in the role of Gwen Stacy.
The film’s script, unfortunately, didn’t really do her any favors, up to and including—here’s your spoiler warning—her death at the end of the film. Purists might disagree; they’d cite the fact that the film stays true to the comic-book source material and that it was a watershed moment for comics. They’d be right about those things: That’s what Gwen Stacy does. She dies. But with each passing year, it seems less like necessary canon and more like missed opportunity—as a new comic book released this week shows.
On Wednesday, the second issue of the five-part miniseries Edge of Spider-Verse was released. Each issue is a self-contained story by a different creative team about an alternate version of Spider-Man set in its own respective universe. This week’s issue, by Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez with colors by Rico Renzi, is about a world where Gwen Stacy is bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker.
Alternate universes are old-hat in comic books, especially in 2014 when the biggest stories at both Marvel and DC (Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run and Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, respectively) deal heavily with threats to multiple universes. They’re often used as an excuse for telling a story that doesn’t fit within the constraints of a book’s ongoing narrative—so if you wanted to have Superman raised by Soviets instead of farmers from Kansas, you could just set that story in an alternate universe and have at it without inviting the ire of everyone else trying to tell or enjoy in-continuity stories. (If you’d like to read that story, it’s called Superman: Red Son, and it’s pretty good.)
Edge of Spider-Verse #2 feels different. Not just because Marvel promises that Spider-Gwen (as fans have dubbed her) will play a big part in this Fall’s big Spider-Verse event—which may very well be terrible, as event comics are always a mixed bag—but because it finds a way to riff on Spider-Man’s core themes in a way that’s organic and fresh. All the aspects of what makes Spider-Man endure as a character (and also serve as the template for countless other superheroes) are there, but Edge #2 comes at them sideways, making them resonate and feel new again.
It also helps that the comic isn’t an origin story, even though this is the first time this particular version of Gwen Stacy has shown up in comics. Instead, readers are introduced to Gwen sometime after the spider bite. In an efficient two-page spread, the reader is caught up to speed: Like the original Spider-Man, Gwen gets bitten and uses her powers to become famous as Spider-Woman. Her classmate, Peter Parker, is brilliant but bullied—and inspired by seeing Spider-Woman on television, he experiments on himself in the hopes of becoming similarly superhuman and getting the better of the bullies that mock him. It backfires, and he turns into The Lizard. What then happens is left intentionally unclear, but Peter’s transformation and the havoc that ensues results in his death. The public, unaware that The Lizard was in fact Peter, makes a martyr out of him and blames Spider-Woman.
But that’s page two. Page one is much more important. It’s about Gwen’s rock band.
As a side note, more comics should have rock bands in them. But let’s talk about this one for a bit, because it’s both important to the plot and an interesting creative decision. In the plot of Edge of Spider-Verse #2, Gwen’s plays drums for The Mary Janes. (Guess where that name comes from.) She’s distracted, though; still reeling from the fallout of Peter’s death, she’s off her game behind the kit and frustrated by the police’s relentless pursuit of Spider-Woman. It’s classic teen hero stuff, but it doesn’t feel tired. (A big reason for this is simply because secret identities work so much better for teen characters. It’s a way of externalizing how they interact with the world. You’re still figuring out who you are, and so there’s a performative nature to how you act outwardly—there’s always a distinction between that outward behavior and “the real me,” and that will always resonate, because that never really goes away.)
What makes The Mary Janes so fascinating, however, even as a plot device—the story’s climax occurs at a concert—are the young women in it. Gwen and Mary Jane are joined by Glory Grant and an unnamed bassist who we can safely assume is Betty Brant. With the exception of Glory, all of these characters are women who have been mostly defined by their relationship with Peter. At one point or another in the mainstream Marvel Universe, Betty, Gwen, and Mary Jane were involved in a relationship with the superhero’s alter-ego. In building a world where Peter has died and never learned to make friends with anyone, having all the young women who are traditionally defined by their relationships to him in a band together immediately places them in a radically different context—in which their own personalities could potentially come to the fore.
While there’s no room to actually delve into it within the confines of a single issue (remember that Betty isn’t even named, but there’s few other characters she could actually be), the fact that they’re all in a band together suggests so much about characters who are primarily thought of in relation to Peter. Girls in a band would have ambitions, they would have creative differences, they would have things to say about the world and arguments about the way to say it. They could have their own romantic exploits in which they’re active participants and not passive objects. It signifies a world you’d want to spend time in. The punk-rock exploits of Gwen and The Mary Janes have the potential to be just as interesting as Spider-Woman’s adventures, both visually and narratively—Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi establish a look that is fun and fluid, and the design for Spider-Gwen’s outfit is solidly in the upper echelon of great superhero costumes.
While stories set in alternate universes can be refreshing, a safe place for creators to try out wild and crazy ideas, they often end up being either (a) only of interest to uberfans, telling stories that sound like they were lifted from conversations overheard in comic shops (‘What if The Punisher just killed EVERYONE IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE?) or (b) completely disregarded by fans who are only looking for stories that “count” towards the greater continuity. Some alternate universes do gain traction in comics, like Marvel’s Ultimate universe—but many times these stories just ask “What if?” very loudly without bothering to say anything meaningful. Yes, it would be cool if the sky were green and the grass were blue, but that doesn’t make it compelling. Spider-Gwen succeeds because it isn’t a superficial inversion, but an examination of what makes Spider-Man an important character.
In what may be the issue’s most brilliant touch, the Spider-Man mantra–with great power comes great responsibility—isn’t used as a word of advice from a father figure, but as a reprimand from editor J. Jonah Jameson, calling for Spider-Woman’s arrest. But Gwen doesn’t pay him any mind—he’s a pundit, out for blood. Instead, Gwen decides to be responsible. She decides to take on this burden, because she’s seen the kind of influence that her power gives her, and she’s seen the harm that can come from using it selfishly. She decides that the world needs Spider-Woman.
However, there is an elephant in the room here, and it’s this: with the exception of assistant editor Ellie Pyle, everyone who put in the hard work to make Edge of Spider-Verse #2 is male. This isn’t meant to detract from the great book that’s on the stands, but it is necessary to point out. Creator diversity is just as important as character diversity, and while Marvel is making inroads on the latter, it’s still very much lacking in the former. While we know the publisher intends to use the character in its big Spider-Verse blockbuster, Spider-Gwen and her world have the beginnings of a really interesting, female-centric spin on a beloved universe, one that may have legs. One that could also be a great showcase for female creators.