Ultimate Spider-Woman: Definitely Wasted Potential

Last year I wrote about the Ultimate Comics version of Spider-Woman, how he had excellent potential to be a great high-profile transgender character in the world of comics and that he was so under used he didn’t even really have a character to speak of. Well in the most recent issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man there was an answer to that question I asked a year ago, is Spider-Woman was transgender or just wasted potential. Sadly it was the latter.

Just to recap this Spider-Woman, also known as Jessica Drew, is a clone of Peter Parker who had all of his memories and experiences, and with that clearly it should just as if Peter’s brain was in a female body. Which should lead to an obvious, if a bit heavy handed, allegory for a transgendered man being in woman’s body. Now of course that didn’t happen, Spider-Woman barely appeared and when he did all it did was re-establish he had no real character beyond being a clone and that no one knew what to do with him. Some retcons happened; he then ended up joining the Ultimates (Avengers-lite) which didn’t actually lead to anything other than him being a background character in that book and confirming no one had a clue what to do with the character.

Then he started appearing intermittently in the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man comic with Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, where he spent most of those appearances being annoyed at Miles for no established reason, and dodging questions about who he is. Then in issue 25 he finally sits down with Miles to chat about everything. So finally, seven years since his first appearance and forty odd appearances after that, we get something other than him hating the company that was retconned into making him and him running away from Johnny Storm flirting with him. This is what we got:


And from now on I’ll be using the female personal pronouns for her. Those pages feel more like a check list of things fans have said online about her as they then tried to address them in ways that feel a little artificial. Specificity stating that she’s “not a boy” to get rid of the gender identity dysphoria, that she’s “not Peter Parker” and that “all Peter’s memories are gone and faded” to explain why, as a clone, she was nowhere to be seen in the aftermath of Peter’s death and comforting with her/Peter’s family. Why she didn’t have a story about confronting her own mortality when Peter/her DNA donor died. But now she’s not Peter, doesn’t even think she’s a person, and it’s just a way to distance her from Spider-Man for no real reason.

What has now happened is Jessica saying she’s not a real person because she doesn’t “have a mother or father” and having some sort of identity crisis. Which is a little late to be doing so since the character’s been around for seven years, long enough for her to have figured things out. That would also be true for any gender identity stories, which is the problem with not doing anything with her for so long. Realistically any identity issues wouldn’t be as prominent with that much time passed. Even if we don’t know exactly how much time has gone by because it’s the comic where Peter was in the same high school year for over 150 issues. I’d say Jessica has been around for two to three years in universe, they also just did a one year time skip along with some other time skips so I’m not just making up a number here. And after all those years she’s just now gone “I’m not a real person” or she’s held onto that thought for three years, accept whichever is least believable.

Sad thing is that the “I don’t have a mom or dad” characterisation is the most character she’s ever had in her forty odd appearances. That’s how bad this is, they got rid of all her potential but at least something was done with her. There’s no real clone dynamic anymore, that’s being replaced with a Frankenstein’s Monster dynamic of all things, and nothing tying her to Peter other than feeling like she’s living under his shadow. So they did all of this wiping the slate clean just so she’d have more in common with the new male lead of the book. That’s just speculation and I’m not accusing them of intentionally wiping away a potentially transgender female character just to make her better fit in with the male lead. But that’s what’s happened regardless of intent.

This is not just about the lose of potential but also why the character was unlikely to actually be transgendered anyway. I still maintain my theory that after she was created someone actually thought about what it would mean to have a character deal with being a different gender. So they did the bare minimum with her for the longest time, possibly to not offend anyone with any story they could tell with her. Though the “Johnny’s making the moves on her not realising she’s a clone of his best friend” is a bit clichéd and comes close to the offensive ‘trap’ stereotype of transgendered individuals, so thankfully nothing came of that joke story. That’s why this is important, because transgendered people have very little representation in the media and a positive one, even if it is more fantastical than realistic, would be good. They could’ve delved into what it’s like to know and feel like your gender is wrong regardless of what other people say.

Sadly it’s unlikely Marvel would ever do anything like that right now with a Spider-character. It’s a little too high profile and if they screw up anything in a way that could be deemed offensive then it’ll blowback in their faces. Given the media attention Miles Morales got, and the rather racist comments that popped up, it’d be a risk for them on a character they weren’t confident about or didn’t know what to do with. So they’re not going to do anything like this with an accidentally.

They still probably won’t use her for much anyway even with the controversial parts removed. The Ultimate Universe has a number of characters that were important parts of big storylines but haven’t showed up since then. So she’ll probably appear in some more Spider-Man comics and then not show up again till they feel like doing another small guest spot, like all her other appearances. Not that I care anymore when she appears next, or even if Marvel makes a spin-off book for her, since everything unique and interesting has been excised. I’m sure they could do some good stories with the character, but right now all she has is a ‘clones aren’t people’ complex. Not really broaching the story potential of a gender opposite clone who remembers being a boy, at all.

Now I’m not really mad about this, a year ago I might’ve been, but not now. After everything Marvel and DC has done over the years I can’t get angry anymore about a character that was barely in any comics and had little real character. I’m sad, but not angry, and with DC messing around with fan favourite characters like they have some vendetta against them, not to mention how they’re treating the creators, and then there’s Marvel making great movies but terrible TV shows like they only have one bit of quality control that can only be used for the movies. It’s hard to muster up anything other than disappointment most of the time right now. So it’s just sad a potentially great transgender character wasn’t used in any decent way. It’s a shame every interesting thing they could explore was taken away in a few pages. It seems like with every appearance they’ve made the character less interesting.

The Ultimate Comics line might be ending soon, though I’d bet they’d keep Spider-Man around because it’s the only one that sells, and I can’t think of anything other than Miles Morales that would be missed. A big shame for such wasted potential.

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About Reaf

I'm Reaf. I run the Reaf Debrief. I'm from England so I spell things with a U and a sarcastic sense of humour.

Posted on August 4, 2013, in Comics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Spot on with the analysis and disappointment.

    Seconding Bendis (And let’s be honest here, this is mostly a Bendis thing) forgetting plot-lines, characters and so on (still no Scorpion Clone as far as the eye can see).

    Although not entirely out of left field with the identity thing. If I recall correctly, Bendis had that streak in her original departure from the clone saga where she states she’s gonna make her own character and “embraces” being Jessica Drew (…despite not having any actual papers and being hunted by SHIELD and probably the CIA, as you wrote last time. Hey, that would have been a great mini-series/introduction! Whelp!)

    It’s just that we never actually got any of that character development organically and instead had her suddenly shuffled into the Ultimates where she did nothing but get punched out that time the helicarrier got busted (With… hawkeye?).

    And now the predictable “mentor” aspect to Miles (I think I’ve counted at least 3 times where she mentions how awesome and better he is during some minor fight) , and the conclusion Roxxon-storyline (Which started with the original Spider-man…). I know characters with fewer appearances that’s done and been developed more than Spider-Woman has.

    Cataclysm 01 had a little thing where she mentions one interesting thing, for a joke setup with Captain America and Iron Man. She lays out being a genetic experiment thing, which apparently Captain America had no idea about, because he thought she was bitten by a spider [laugh-track] and then she mentions that she is a clone of the original. Which apparently is classified information that Captain A didn’t know about.

    Iron Man: “You’re Peter Parker?”
    SW: “I’m not. I was built from his genetic codes. I’m my own person. And I have lady parts.”
    Iron Man finds that “Fascinating!” and SW that it’s an affront to science.

    Which is all probably more real interaction and back n forth she’s ever had with the Ultimates. No mention of the memory aspect though.

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    • Thank you.

      “Although not entirely out of left field with the identity thing. If I recall correctly, Bendis had that streak in her original departure from the clone saga where she states she’s gonna make her own character and “embraces” being Jessica Drew ”

      I took that as her wanting to find her own identity, not that she spent a day as a girl and went “yup, I like this.” But that’s another part that makes me think Bendis didn’t think of the implications of the character till after the Clone Saga was written. Someone must have slid up to him and said “So if Jessica is perfectly fine being a girl then what does that say about Peter?” then he quietly decided to not let any of those implications happen.

      “Which is all probably more real interaction and back n forth she’s ever had with the Ultimates. No mention of the memory aspect though.”

      That’s just sad. I have no idea why they bothered to put her in the Ultimates in the first place. She’s not done anything in those books and it just makes me wonder what the plan was here. Also they’re just casually sweeping the memory thing under the rug. They don’t want that in there when they made such a big deal of killing Peter, they don’t want “Peter with boobs” being around because that’ll undercut Miles’ story.

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  2. Oh yeah, I agree on the identity thing (What other choice was there? Hang around his house? (that’s another set-up entirely squandered while Bendis faffed around for like 40 issues).

    As for why she’s in the Ultimates, it’s because 616 Spider-Woman is in the Avengers and is like Bendis pet character (not that she does anything there either) so she gotta be in the biggest most important group for lots of page “time”. I’ve no doubt that Bendis likes this Spider-woman character too (he made her so… ) but he seems dead-set on turning her into just another 616 Spider-Woman (but younger, and without the somewhat interesting HYDRA background). Maybe his hands are tied by Disney-Marvel, what do I know.

    As for not undercutting Miles, probably why it took awhile for her to show up, but because Miles doesn’t/didn’t have much of a supporting crew of his own outside the family/that one friend or much of a villain roster she eventually shows up… a lot.
    Now she’s in like every issue, mostly to Worf it and get beat up by whatever (lame) new villain shows up and then go “Man Miles, you are amazing at this shit” / “I-was-totally-wrong-to-be-mad-at-you-about-the-spider-man-thing-did-I-mention-how-awesome-and-worthy-you-are? Hail to the heir” when he turns it around and wins (mostly through his power-set, which is pretty overpowered).

    It’s a shame, because this Spider-Woman was the closest Marvel’s been to hitting a relevant modern social issue, like back in the day when they came up with the X-Men. All that’s taken backseat to BIG HOLLYWOOD EVENT OF THE SUMMER though.

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  3. Oh, another thought that was touched upon, but it isn’t just the gender-thing that’s a squandered opportunity here.

    Without a ID, home and hunted by the law she’d be a decent tool to explore the issue of Illegal aliens, immigration, NSA (SHIELD has been shown several times to be the “realistic” super-spy organisation that it is… ) and maybe even the war on drugs (Well, law-enforcement in general) from “the inside”/”criminal” perspective, as much as that is possible for a white-character / audience stand-in.
    Which is a little ironic, what with Miles being half black-hispanic yet basically being quarantined from all that with his special exclusive school setting and moderately wealthy family background.
    Instead she’s shuttled to the nigh-fascist (granted, not as much when Bendis turns them into the Avengers) Ultimates and it’s just another super-hero beatdown on crime-thing (so she basically ends up serving *exactly* the purpose she was made for, if for another but-similar organisation, so much for finding her own character).

    Probably way too risky for Marvel though.

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  4. There are some good points here. The one thing I would say is that if they ever dig deeper into the character, Jessica could end up as a sort of representative of a trans woman’s experience.

    You make a good point about how she has Peter’s memories and such but doesn’t think of herself as male, and wonder what it says about Peter. But I’d like to float an alternate idea: scientifically, we don’t know exactly what explains why cis people and trans people can be born with the same chromosomes and the same body parts, but different internal senses of their own gender. That being said, there’s evidence that there are brain differences related to that.

    So what if part of the failed cloning process led to Jessica developing a “female brain” despite her (i.e. Peter’s) memories of being male, and that’s what explains her identifying as a woman? The cloning process allowed her to avoid the difficult parts of a gender transition, but there are definitely parts of the trans woman experience that are represented in that. And the fact that her memories as Peter are of actually being a boy at the time (we have no reason to think Peter was a trans woman, obviously) makes her different from many trans women’s experiences of having been a girl all along or of struggling with male gender performance before transitioning, but many post-transition experiences — those that stem from being read as a woman despite a head full of memories of being treated differently, as well as those of learning to perform the female gender belatedly — are part of her experience.

    Obviously nobody’s done this with her yet, but at least on this model, there’s hope for better writing in the future to flesh out her character. This could easily have been part of her history all along that just wasn’t told at the time, and could be explored as backstory informing new stories.

    Of course, it’s probably too much to hope for, but it would be awesome enough that I’ll hold out a tiny bit of hope for the future.

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    • Thank you for the kind words. You make a lot of excellent points, though representing the trans experience as part of a “failed” experiment has some unfortunate implications that ‘she was just made wrong’ rather than it being natural. Not what you meant but it’s a subject matter that needs to be tackled delicately or else it’ll turn out badly.

      On the plus side in All New Ultimates #4, a series where Jessica is allowed to do stuff, she said she’s into girls and not so subtle hints that she likes Kitty Pryde. They didn’t go into the trans issue, but it seemed a little more open to these issues than before. I think the lack of Bendis writing her has helped a lot. When I can get scans I might add a short addendum to this post.

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  5. Lately I’ve been thinking the focus for Jessica Drew should be about how we are able to deal with great change while her issues as an LGBT character are relegated to a secondary, but still important, issue.

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