The thing about crossover events in comics is that they’re a pain in the arse.
Often blatant attempts to force readers to buy more titles by making it impossible to track a character’s arc through just one, they feel money-grabbing, not only prioritizing profit over the needs of a readership – but over quality story telling. A story arc stretched over multiple different books, each inevitably with different creative teams having to work to keep intact their own style around a story being foisted upon them from on high, almost always leads to a clunky, disjointed headache of a narrative, badly paced, convoluted and confusing.
So when I heard about Marvel’s Spider Women Alpha event, crossing over Spider-Woman, Spider Gwen and Silk for a total of eight issues through April and May, I rolled my eyes and assumed that this would be the final nail in the coffin for my relationships with all three titles.
I’ve always had a soft spot for spider-titles – my last name is Webb, call it a sense of familial loyalty – and the blossoming of not one but three spider-women books over the last couple of years was something I could only have dreamed of as a teenager eyeballs deep in Spiderman titles. But while I initially enjoyed all three, the shine has come off them lately.
Spider-Woman’s recent pregnancy arc left me cold – why Jessica Drew would choose to have a kid is completely beyond me, the whole story seems an unnecessary up-ending of the character I’ve known for the last decade. Silk had a highly entertaining first run driven by Cindy Moon’s quest to find her family, but the momentum of the story slumped in its post-Secret Wars incarnation (another book suffering in the aftermath of a bloated, unnecessary crossover event). And Spider-Gwen, though a great concept with bags of potential, struggled to hold my attention from the start, because much of Gwen Stacy’s story feels like an unnecessary rehash of the same over-done Peter Parker origin story we’re all familiar with, just with slightly different players.
It was getting to the point where month by month I was taking longer and longer to remember to read those titles, and were it not for my pull list I’d probably have forgotten to pick them up from the comic book shop at all. When a comic reaches that point for me, I know it’s time to drop the monthly issues, because I read around 40 titles a month, making this an expensive hobby – I can’t afford to be buying books I don’t love. So I was on the verge of yanking all three spider women from my pull list and maybe checking back in with the trade paperbacks later in the year.
And then the first Spider Women Alpha issue was slid across the counter to me at my local shop – bless them they know me too well – and I was hooked.
The Spider-Women Alpha event tracks Jessica, Cindy and Gwen as they visit each other across different dimensions, get trapped on Gwen’s Earth, uncover a conspiracy by a supervillain version of Cindy Moon, get back to their original Earth only to see that supervillain!Cindy has beaten them to it and have to track her down and stop her. Unusually for a crossover, this story is well-paced – I found myself genuinely intrigued by each new chapter, put each new title to the top of my weekly stack so I could find out where each twist was going.
But more tellingly, it turns out really what all three spider-women needed to work was each other.
The dynamic between Jessica, Cindy and Gwen is entertaining and unusual – as a Birds of Prey fan of course all-female superhero teams are my delicious jam on toast, but the Jessica-Cindy-Gwen trio is unusual because it specifically plays on an age gap. Jessica is around ten years older than Cindy and Gwen – Jessica has also been superhero-ing for at least a decade longer than either of her compatriots. The result is a team that feels like a crotchety mother having to keep her two sarcastic teenagers on training leads the whole time, and it shouldn’t work but it absolutely does.
With two distinctly millennial superheroes being grounded by a cynical gen-x-er just trying to hold everyone together and get home, the relationships between all three women feel real in a way that none of the characters themselves have managed to be recently.
The opening to the event even convinces me of Jessica Drew’s motherhood better than the entire pregnancy arc did – the chaos of having a newborn is rendered in much more convincing detail than any of Jess’s off-kilter dimension hopping pregnancy issues were. Cindy Moon’s quest for her family is abruptly centered and emotionally significant again as Cindy seeks out her family on Gwen Stacy’s alternative earth, and Gwen herself is finally having an arc that’s not really just Peter Parker’s in disguise, comparing Cindy’s identity to her own as she considers whether the life of a vigilante is one she really wants.
Each character has been enriched for the readers through their relationships with each other, and it’s added entertainment to see Cindy and Gwen through Jessica’s eyes in Jessica’s books, Jess and Gwen through Cindy’s eyes and Cindy and Jess through Gwen’s. The perspective switching inherent to crossovers between solo titles is, for once, being used effectively to add layers to the story rather than simply convoluting the plot.
If I were able to, I’d advise Marvel to keep this crossover up long-term. Continue to keep all three characters tightly inter-connected, with Jessica once more taking an active role as Cindy’s mentor and Gwen spending more protracted periods in the central Marvel universe. Develop the reluctant sisterhood between Gwen and Cindy – give me an issue where all they do is babysit Jessica’s kid and the inevitable chaos that ensues, I would read the crap out of that. If it comes down to a situation where one or other of the books is going to wind up cancelled – and given that Spider-Gwen’s readership numbers especially have been falling fast, that seems likely – I think it would be wise to simply fold all three titles into each other, transplant Gwen Stacy into Jessica’s book, turn Spider-Woman into Spider-Women, and spin narrative out of the dynamic between them.
Loath as I would be to actually cut down the number of female solo titles currently on the shelves, I feel like rolling all three titles into one might actually be the best way to preserve all three characters in the long-term. The last thing we need is for another situation where a handful of promising female characters fail to find a long-term readership and end up benched the way Anya Corazon (Araña) has been and Jess was for several years until Spider-Woman finally got a reboot.
Of course, Marvel seems unlikely to take the radical step of cutting back so it can actually sure up the future of any character. Like all publishers, its policy at the moment seems to be pushing out as many titles at once as possible, regardless of the long-term viability of any of them, without any thought about what might be lost in the shuffle and what readers might fail to find amongst the deluge of choice. If nothing else, hopefully this crossover has done what it was no-doubt intended to do, and reinvigorated interest in the female spider-books for the time being.