The Promise of Spider-Gwen’s World Building

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

It’s important to have a good hook, and in that regard few developments in comics last year were better received than Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman. It was meant as build-up to the recently concluded Spider-Verse event, but at this point there’s no denying that Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez’s take on the character, from its rock and roll opening to her brilliant costume, has far and away overshadowed her crossover roots. For a sense of how much, just try snagging a copy of the first printing of her debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 on eBay and weep.

spider-gwenNaturally a series of her own was soon to follow, and sure enough Spider-Gwen #1 outsold everything from Star Wars to Batman when it hit the stands at the end of February. Its initial success, however, was never really in question. What matters now is whether Spider-Gwen can hold interest, which depends on a lot more than just her visceral appeal.

It becomes a question of whether her world can sustain fresh stories worthy of that first stroke of genius, and that’s going to require a reimagining of the sandbox that is Marvel’s New York in a way that walks the delicate balance between the welcoming sense of the familiar and the excitement of the new.

It’s still early, but it seems Latour and Rodriguez are off to a compelling start. They’ve recognized right off the bat that replacing Peter Parker with Gwen Stacy is about much more than a palette swap. On the most basic level, yes, they’ve traded Peter’s guilt over the death of Uncle Ben and later Gwen herself for her guilt over Peter’s death, which ensures he won’t be around to steal the spotlight. It’s a simple but effective change made that extra bit cleverer by recasting Peter as the Lizard.

But beyond that we have Gwen’s main familial influence, Captain George Stacy, who brings with him the clear dramatic stakes that come from a police officer forced to choose between his job and his daughter. It’s easy to see some combination of the Batman/Commissioner Gordon and Keith/Veronica Mars relationship developing from here as the two negotiate the myriad complications that come from a mutual pursuit of justice while confined to opposing sides of the law.

And where Peter has his troubled love life, Gwen is rocking out with Mary Jane and Glory Grant, and if you don’t immediately think that’s cool, then hey, this might not be the series for you.

Yet as grounded as those core dynamics are, the peripheral changes to the world have the potential to be just as interesting. First of all we get the sense that this is a smaller Marvel Universe from meeting Ben Grimm, not as the Thing, but as an NYPD beat cop. Unless there’s a very different Fantastic Four out there, the implication is that the superhero antics in this reality have stayed mostly confined to the street level, which means Gwen and her adventures will always be the most important thing in her world.

Especially since that street level has also been revamped in some crucial ways, specifically in regards to Marvel’s two other most famous New York vigilantes. Here we see a Frank Castle who never lost his family (or at least, not all of them) to gangsters, so instead of becoming the Punisher he’s kept his crusade against criminals to within the confines of the law. As a police captain he’s set up to provide a counterpoint to Gwen’s father and a huge spanner in the works for Gwen herself.

Then, best of all, we have a straight-up evil version of Matt Murdock, now the lawyer for his standard archenemy the Kingpin. He’s made a strong impression so far (he’s got a sword cane, for crying out loud) and whether or not he ever dresses up as some variation on Daredevil, the fact that he’s retained his super sensory powers pretty much guarantees he’ll be a big threat going forward.

By taking Gwen’s would-be vigilante allies and repositioning them as obstacles, Latour and Rodriguez have stacked the odds against her in the best way possible. It’s clear this is a slice of the Marvel multiverse with just one story to tell, that of Gwen Stacy against the world. And if little Easter eggs like posters for rival band “Felicia Hardy and the Black Cats” are anything to go by, the surprises are far from over.

This is promising stuff. With Gwen Stacy herself as such an incredible draw it might have been easy to sit back and call it a day, but Latour and Rodriguez understand it’s the world and the stories that are going to prove whether Spider-Gwen ends up as just a cool, one-off gimmick or as a lasting incarnation of a beloved character.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it looks like they’ve hit the jackpot.

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