A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I knew nothing about Spider-Woman. I had a vague idea that there was one, but such is the multiplicity of the Marvel universe, there could also be a Spider-Dog and Spider-Cat for all I know. Especially now that Marvel is rebooting itself gleefully on the back of the hugely successful Spiderman, Hulk, Thor, Avengers, and Iron Man films. There are no limits to the extension of this universe, except, perhaps, in the matter of pregnant superheroes. A brief browse online suggests that that subject is considered a bit of a joke, which shows you who the assumed readers are (adolescent males who don’t know much about children). However, when I saw this graphic novel staring at me from the top shelf of the Plan 9 comic shop in Aberdeen, it grabbed me by the wallet and took me home.
Spider-Woman is Jessica Drew. In June 2015 reviews starting coming out that pregnancy had come to the Spiderworld. Baby Talk is a fine and intelligent foray into how a superhero operates when she’s very, very pregnant. The story is by Dennis Hopeless and the artists are mostly male as well, led by Javier Rodriguez, though at the beginning of each issue in the book guest cover art is featured, often by a woman. Rodriguez is Spanish, but one of the reasons I was so drawn to the book is that his art is so close to that of the Hernandez brothers, specifically on Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics, from 1981). I adore Love and Rockets, and am very taken with Rodriguez’s work on Spider-Woman. But the story’s the thing. Let’s see what Mr Hopeless has done.
The opening sequence cuts between a conversation Jessica is having on the phone with her friend Carol. Jessica is walking home carrying two bags of shopping, and grumbling ruefully about everyone trying to help her as if pregnancy is disabling. ‘It seems to make people physically ill to watch a pregnant woman exert herself in any way. I can’t even step off a curb without attracting three human shields.’ Carol is sympathetic, and teases her, while getting on with her job of being Captain Marvel, vanquishing alien evildoers in space, tying them up and bringing them into custody, in a skin-tight navy and red uniform and a smashing blonde crewcut. Jessica is wearing regular summer clothes, perhaps a little skimpy and skin-tight, but in the world of the superhero, everyone wears spandex and curves. She nudges her front door open with her foot (hang on: isn’t it locked?), and confronts three alarming spandexed and masked intruders in her living room. Carrying on her discussion with Carol about her fears about giving birth, Jessica fights the three villains at once with her shopping, and has them all knocked out before she lies down for a breather. Carol ticks her off for overdoing it. ‘Come on! Not you too? These guys were cake. I was never in any danger. Took one of ‘em out with a can of soup.’
And this sets the tone. Jessica wants to carry on doing her job (crime-fighting investigator) despite her increasing bulk, but she reluctantly goes on maternity leave once her replacement has been trained up reasonably well for her usual street security and evildoer vanquishing duties. This world is simply full of futuristic villains in Lycra and slightly startled alien onlookers, such a refreshing change from the faux-1950s that traditional Marvel comics deploy. I’m all for the intergalactic dimension, because it makes the backdrops so much more interesting. I’m also very keen on the Marvel universe characters having parties, because it brings about the delicious situation of Carol egging on Tony Stark to ask Jessica who the father of her baby is (no-one knows, and everyone is curious). Being a cocky jerk, Iron Man asks Jessica if she knows who the father is, which is a bit different. He gets a plate of cocktail sausages in his face. As Jessica says, she showed restraint.
Jessica goes to a specialist maternity unit in an intergalactic hospital that Captain Marvel recommends, and that’s where the fun begins. Skrulls invade, looking for their invalid crown prince who’s under medical care, and Jessica has to fight them off, rescue the prince (aged 11 or thereabouts) and find a working surgical theatre before her baby fights its own way out. The scene where she is up and battling Skrull forces minutes – no, SECONDS – after having a successful C-section is the one that I really baulked at. I can accept cheerfully alien inhabitants in an all-species obstetrics waiting room, the breakage of all laws of physics by Captain Marvel, and the clever satire on hospital administration procedures, but I cringed at superheroics immediately after the removal of a baby. Alien surgery may be brilliant, but sliced-open human musculature needs more than stitches before the mother can even stand up, let alone do riotous physical battle in space wearing a tastefully ripped theatre gown. No doubt alien pain relief has a lot we can learn from.
I loved Spider-Woman for the artwork, for the perfect dialogue, for the excellent storytelling and for the absolutely splendid world creation. All characters are likeable and intriguing, and Jessica’s experience of pregnancy, early motherhood and the agonies of working out how and should she go back to work, are impressively realistic. Apart from the Skrulls.
Dennis Hopeless & Javier Rodriguez, Spider-Woman: Baby Talk (Marvel Comics 2016, material originally printed in Spider-Woman # 1-5 and The Amazing Spiderman # 1, 2015), ISBN 978 0 7851 9622 8, £ 11.99.