Ultimate Spider-Woman: Transgender or Wasted Potential?
The Ultimate comics’ line is an alternative Marvel Universe that was meant to modernise classic characters and stories. One such story was the infamous Spider-Man Clone Saga, in which Peter Parker was cloned many times in an attempt to ruin his life. In the Ultimate version one of these clones was female and had all of Peter’s memories. That clone was the only one to really survive till the end and became the Ultimate Spider-Woman, taking on the name Jessica Drew.
OK before I get into anything else I have to talk about personal pronouns. What do we call Jessica? She’s got a female body so “she” is generally considered appropriate. But he also has the mind of Peter, a male mind, so “he” is more accurate to who he is as a person. I’ll stick with “he” for reasons I’ll elaborate on as I get into more details about his sexuality, I also believe it’ll get more people thinking about it.
Here’s some more detailed background on him before I get into character analysis. So he starts life as a cloning experiment by the CIA and the FBI: Special Projects Research and Development, and made in an “R & D facility for the CIA.” He has a genetic memory so from his point of view he was Peter till they took the DNA sample then suddenly woke up in a female body. Things go wrong and all the clones, including Jessica, escape. Even more bad things happen and the only Spider Clones left alive are him and another clone (we never see or hear about that clone again so he’s either forgotten about or dead, same thing really). So Jessica flees from SHIELD and the CIA/FBI saying how he’s done with shadowy secret organisations. He doesn’t appear again for another 24 issues in which he stops the Vulture and gets hit on by the Human Torch. This is despite the fact that Johnny Storm was there during the Clone Saga, but he’s forgotten for the sake of comedy. It was apparently a joke so good they repeated it the next time he appeared. That time however Johnny managed to corner him and the scene ends with Johnny asking him out. It then cuts to Johnny going home and proclaiming Spider-Woman is his new girlfriend and that they, “totally made out.” Given this is Johnny Storm here I very much doubt any of that happened since he is the prototypical insecure teenage boy. That never had any sort of conclusion or was ever mentioned again. That’s the last time he appeared in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic.
The big problem with his character is, quite frankly, he doesn’t really have any. All we see of him after the Clone Saga is him in costume saving people and being a punchline. No character is explored or developed at all and yet he remains a popular character that fans want to see more of. This is because of how much potential he has a character and how much you can explore with him. His sexuality is an often discussed part of the character, although the fact that he’s transsexual hardly ever comes up in those discussions. He’s got the mind of a man in the body of a woman, there’s a lot that could be done with that story potential. Seeing how he develops and deals with everyday gender concerns that he never thought of before. He could realise new things about himself and decide whether or not he thinks of himself as male or female. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this but they’re not doing anything with him. That’s why I’m using “he” instead of anything else since we haven’t had any development beyond being Peter Parker in a female body. He’s still Peter and unless they actually develop him then that’s all he’ll be.
Now there are certain things that we can infer about the character. There’s the Peter part that is the framework for him. Since he’s got a genetic memory of Peter then he’ll self identify as male. We know Peter likes girls so we can assume Jessica will like girls also. Given he was a teenage boy at the beginning he’ll forget about certain things and be confused by them, such as PMS. Since he’s a clone he has no legal identity or money for anything. So he would probably start squatting in abandoned building and possibly steal clothes so he doesn’t just have the Spider-Costume to wear. He’d also only be able to get a low paying job for cash, with no legal identity comes no bank account and no way for him to get any job that requires a background check. This limits his options till he can get enough money together to get a fake ID. He’ll also want to keep a low profile since the CIA/FBI and SHIELD should be looking for him because he’s an illegal genetic creation.
The transgender and other sexuality issues are all there and all depend on how it’s written. I’ve seen debate over this because of “biological evidence” of how they think sexual orientation works. Since everything said in the comic suggest he was made in a pod and quickly grown rather than a surrogate birth that rules out any of the “hormonal influences in the womb” theories. Given no one has made a clone and played around with their genetics so they have a different X chromosome than the original it’s impossible to say how any of this could ‘realistically’ work. There’s current data that says male and female brain chemistry is different, so it’s possible Jessica has Peter’s male brain chemistry. All of this is gender theory not scientific fact and no one knows for certain how sexuality is decided on a scientific level. There’s also the fact that this is comics here, the same comic that had Spider-Man and Wolverine swap bodies, so any plot desision can be used and backed up with “science!” So it’s up to the writer to decide what Jessica’s sexuality is and could make a good case for him identifying as female and preferring guys to girls. I’d rather that didn’t happen since we have more than enough of that already in media.
Oh and there was one comic that actually featured him more than any other, the Ultimate Doomsday trilogy. Why didn’t I mention it before? Because it performs a massive retcon, doesn’t actually go into his character, and actively ignores the big issues surrounding him. His role in the story was essentially: get angry at the “evil” Roxxon cooperation for creating him despite the fact they weren’t involved in the original story, get kidnapped in order to be saved by Spider-Man (fulfilling the contract for being a female character), and then at the end he gets offered a job at SHIELD. So the reason why they retconed the CIA/FBI away was so he wouldn’t have a reason to hate secret government organisations. Instead of trying to develop his character to a point where he’d join SHIELD they just retconed his past to fit the story. This was all done by one writer, Brian Michael Bendis, Spider-Woman’s creator. So it’s not even a case of multiple writers wanting to do different things with the character. By the way having him join SHIELD wasn’t part of any real plan for the character. He’s been put in the Ultimates (they’re the Ultimate version of the Avengers but more dickish, essentially) and hasn’t done a thing except stand in the background for 12 issues. The most they did was have him learn of the new Spider-Man, and we didn’t even see his reaction to it. He actually did more when he guest stared in the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man book where his role was to get angry at Miles Morales for trying to be Spider-Man after Peter’s death. Again no development at all, it was Nick Fury that actually had the heart-to-heart with Miles over him being Spider-Man. Not the person who actually is Peter Parker up to a certain point and should’ve had more to say on the matter beyond, “that costume’s in bad taste.” We didn’t even get to see his reaction to Peter’s death which would’ve been a pretty big deal for him, having to realise his own mortality.
Now for all this talk the obvious retort to all of it is that he’s not that popular or that Marvel doesn’t realise he’s a popular character with fans. Both are false. He’s appeared in 36 comics, and was mentioned in one video game, he has also been used on the covers of at least 13 comics, 7 of those have him either solo or front and centre.
Putting him on those covers means marketing thinks he’ll sell more comics, especially since he’s just a guest character. In two of them the Human Torch plays just as big a role as he does, possibly more so, and yet Marvel thinks Spider-Woman would sell more comics. Hell that Ultimates issue only has him appear for two pages, none of which are important to the story.
So Marvel clearly thinks he can sell comics, yet they haven’t given him his own series or mini-series. The fact that he’s been barely used and has had no character development or exploration suggests to me either Bendis or Editorial either doesn’t want any controversy over his gender issues or is scared to talk about it. They can’t have him express an interest in women because the media would go, “OMG lesbian!” and he especially can’t have any interest in men because, “OMG GAY Spider-Man clone!” Exploring his gender issues is something they’d have to address if they ever tried developing him. It would also bring up some ‘uncomfortable’ ideas for some people that will lead to the question of, “who does he want to date?” To avoid any of that they stuck the character in limbo till they wanted to throw the fans a bone.
So the thing that makes him an interesting character, being a female clone of Peter Parker, also makes him rather ‘toxic’ and unusable to Marvel marketing. There’s so much non-heteronormative stories that can be told with this character and it’s a shame they have decided that he be relegated to background fodder and fanbaiting.