There have been several heroines in Marvel Comics that have donned the mantle of Spider-Woman. But, without Jessica Drew, there would have been none (at least as far as Marvel was concerned).
|Marvel's original Spider-Woman? Valerie the Librarian from Spidey Super Stories.|
Then-publisher Stan Lee realized that the name was fair game for anyone who wanted to use it. In 1964, when Marvel debuted the character of Wonder Man in the pages of The Avengers, rival publisher DC Comics sued them due to the fact they owned Wonder Woman, resulting in that character begin dropped from the books for a time. However in 1976, DC would go on to introduce their character Power Girl while Marvel had already had a Power Man in play since 1972. Getting word that Filmation was planning on creating a “Spider Woman” cartoon (which would become Web Woman of Tarzan and the Super 7), Lee rushed production of a character of their own with the name to ensure it would belong to Marvel. Although, it should be noted that a Marvel book did feature a character called Spider-Woman in Spidey Super Stories #11 (1975). That version was a non-powered character named Valerie the Librarian (Hattie Winston) from the children’s show The Electric Company.
|Marvel Spotlight #32.|
Fleshed out by Archie Goodwin and designed by Marie Severin, the new Spider-Woman made her debut in Marvel Spotlight #32 (1977) by Goodwin, Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney, Janice Cohen and Irving Watanabe. Only intended to be a one-off, the issue sold incredibly well and Marv Wolfman was tasked with bringing the character into her own series. Goodwin had envisioned her to be an actual spider evolved into a human. Feeling that concept too implausible for 1970s audiences, Wolfman retconned Goodwin’s origin to be false memories implanted by the terrorist group Hydra. Instead, she became Jessica Drew (named after Wolfman’s daughter and the fictional detective Nancy Drew) whose scientist parents worked in a lab at Mount Wundagore with their partner, Herbert Wyndham, who would go on to become the High Evolutionary. When she was exposed to lethal doses of uranium over time, Jessica’s father injected her with a serum based on irradiated spider blood and placed her in a genetic accelerator to allow the serum proper incubation time.
|Modred the Mystic helps Jessica learn the truth about herself.|
She ended up remaining there for decades, aging at a decelerated rate, and emerged only 17-years-old with her new spider powers. Her new abilities initially included superhuman strength, speed, stamina, agility and reflexes, the ability to cling to surfaces and glide on air currents, enhanced pheromone projection that could cause a variety of effects on others, and bio-energy discharges from her hands she dubbed “venom blasts.” Wundagore had become populated by Evolutionary’s strides in genetic manipulation known as New Men; animals who were transformed into human hybrids. Ostracized for being originally human, Jessica left for the human world where she was captured and brainwashed by Hydra to be their agent, Arachne. She escaped and was recaptured by Hydra again until their brainwashing was ultimately removed by Modred the Mystic.
|Ad for Spider-Woman.|
Spider-Woman returned to comic pages in 1977’s Marvel Two-In-One #30-32 by Wolfman, John Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Ron Wilson, Sam Grainger, John Costanza, Cohen and Watanabe, before winging her way over to her own series with the first Spider-Woman #1 in 1978 by Wolfman, Carmine Infantino, Tony DeZuniga, Glynis Wein and Joe Rosen. There, her costume received a minor tweak by Carmine Infantino, opening up her enclosed mask to allow her hair to flow freely. Wolfman established a macabre theme for Jessica’s world, which writer Mark Gruenwald continued upon inheriting the book from Wolfman with issue #9. Gruenwald focused on Jessica’s struggles to assimilate into society while her fear-inducing pheromones worked against her by producing negative reactions in people she met. Gruenwald also introduced Jessica’s friend and social opposite Lindsay McCabe; an outgoing aspiring actress that would remain Jessica’s close friend for years to follow.
|Gives a new meaning to the term "sticky fingers."|
With Spider-Woman’s popularity high, Marvel decided to try their hand at making her their next animated star through DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. The series was developed by Stan Lee and took tremendous liberties with the source material. Outlined in the opening titles by narrator Dick Tufeld, Jessica Drew (Joan Van Ark) was bitten by a poisonous spider as a child and her father saved her life with an experimental serum that also granted her powers. While still possessing her comic powers, she was made closer to Spider-Man (whom she originally had no connection to beyond the similar name) by being given a clairvoyant spider-sense that allowed her to see dangers no matter where they happened (shown in an image outlined by a spider web), and the ability to produce webs from her hands or individual fingers. Her ability to glide was upgraded to actual flight (which would later make its way into the comics) and use of her venom blasts was dictated by how much strength she possessed at the time. She would gain random abilities as situations arose that required them; such as a sonic scream or the ability to communicate with spiders. Taking a cue from the then-popular Wonder Woman series, Jessica was able to instantly don her costume by spinning around.
|Jeff Hunt, Billy and Jessica Drew on a story and in peril.|
Unlike the comics, Jessica lived a relatively normal life as the editor of Justice Magazine. Her supporting cast included photographer Jeff Hunt (Bruce Miller), a cowardly braggart who fancied himself the heroic-type, and her teenaged nephew, Billy (Bryan Scott). While not exactly following the macabre setting Wolfman established, Jessica did encounter demons including Dr. Strange villain Dormammu, ghostly Vikings, Dracula and the other Universal Monsters, and a variety of aliens. Then-Spider-Man villain Kingpin made an appearance as well, although not quite in his capacity as a kingpin of crime. Spider-Man guest-starred a couple of times on the show with Paul Soles reprising the role from his 1967 series, something which the comic series tried to avoid for as long as they could in order to allow Jessica to stand apart.
|Behind every good Spider-Man is a Spider-Woman.|
Spider-Woman debuted on ABC on September 22, 1979, becoming the first female superhero to lead her own independent animated series (the aforementioned Web Woman was always aired as a segment of the Super 7 programming block). It was written by Jeffrey Scott and Tom Swale, with music by Eric Rogers. The series only lasted a single season of 16 episodes before it was cancelled. Jessica’s comic wasn’t faring much better. The series saw a high turnover rate of writers, which raised a red flag with readers. Fans of the series were turned off when the macabre elements and various plotlines were dropped after Michael Fleisher took over writing with #20, making her a more cookie-cutter superhero. And, despite their best efforts to avoid it, Jessica was ultimately viewed as derivative of Spider-Man and dismissed as such. Jessica’s sales steadily slipped, dropping out of the top spot by the time the cartoon premiered, and her series was ultimately cancelled with her death in issue #50. Gruenwald, the book’s editor by the series’ end, came to regret that decision and had the series’ former editor and then-current Avengers writer Roger Stern resurrect Jessica in Avengers #240-241 (1984).
|Firestar decked out as Spider-Woman in Amazing Friends.|
Jessica made other appearances on television in the form of a costume worn by the fire-powered Firestar (Kathy Garver) on an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends and in a live-action cameo appearance on the short-lived comedy, Once a Hero. In the comics, she was relegated to a number of guest appearances and a status as a Wolverine supporting character in the early issues of his first ongoing series, working as a non-costumed private eye. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that Jessica returned as Spider-Woman in the pages of New Avengers that the character gained new exposure. After a short-lived 2009 revival series that later became a motion comic, Jessica returned to her own series in 2015 (complete with a new costume) spinning out of the Spider-Verse event.
|Legion of Spider-Women: Jessica with her modern costume, Julia with her Arachne costume, Mattie in one of her many costumes, Charlotte, Ultimate Jessica and her Black Widow guise, and Gwen.|
As for those other Spider-Women mentioned? While Jessica was out of the costume, several others stepped up to fill the void. The first was Julia Carpenter, who was accidentally given spider-like powers by the government when they were trying to create their own superhero. She had her own mini-series and was part of Force Works and later Omega Flight as Arachne before becoming the new version of Madame Web. Next was Mattie Franklin, the niece of J. Jonah Jameson who gained hers through a mystical ritual called The Gathering of Five. An evil version who fought Mattie, Charlotte Witter, was a fashion designer and granddaughter of Madame Web who was mutated by the female Dr. Octopus in order to destroy Spider-Man. In recent years in the alternate universe pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Woman was the female clone of Peter Parker. She took up the name Jessica Drew, but also called herself Julia Carpenter and eventually became Black Widow as part of The Ultimates, that world’s version of the Avengers. And, although initially marketed as Spider-Gwen, an alternate version of Peter’s deceased college girlfriend Gwen Stacy was bitten by the irradiated spider instead and became Spider-Woman during Spider-Verse. Eventually, in deference to Drew since she frequented her dimension, she started calling herself Ghost-Spider.
Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2023.