The Many Lives Of Spider-Woman

The Many Lives Of Spider-Woman
Contributor: James Whitbrook

Jessica Drew has lived a long, strange life in the pages of Marvel Comics. From unlikely origins to parenthood struggles — with a secret invasion in between — Jessica’s tale as the Spider-Woman will make her an important part of Sony’s webslinging follow up to Into the Spider-Verse, where she’ll be played by Issa Rae. But this new origin is just the latest in a weird life for Jess.

Jessica Drew, Trademark Establisher

Image: Gil Kane/Marvel Comics

Introduced in the pages of Marvel Spotlight #32 in February 1977, Jessica was originally never meant to be more than a single-issue character, established as Spider-Woman so that Marvel could stop rivals from publishing a female riff on Spider-Man (not that they hadn’t gotten into those hot waters before themselves). In her original origin, Jessica is a brainwashed Hydra agent code-named Arachne, and revealed to have been a genetic experiment by the meddlesome scientist Herbert Edgar Wyndham, known by his alter ego, the High Evolutionary. Also: she’s not actually a human.

A spider, Jessica was the first female experiment by the Evolutionary, evolved into a human form with spider abilities. Shunned by her fellow New Men, who retained more of their animalistic origins, Jessica fled to live a life of her own in Wundagore, before she was abducted and brainwashed by Hydra.

Jessica Drew, Actual Woman

Image: Ron Wilson, Pablo Marcos, Francoise Mouly, and Irving Watanabe/Marvel Comics

When Spider-Woman proved popular enough to exist for more than a story however, this origin was partially retconned almost immediately. Her next appearance, in Marvel Two-In-One #33, saw Jessica express doubt over herself having never truly being human, until it’s revealed to her by Mordred the Mystic that she is a human being, her memories of being a Spider tampered with by Hydra. After she helps The Thing and the Human Torch protect Mordred from sinister magical elementals, he offers to take her under his wing to hone her powers.

Jessica Drew, Sick Kid

Image: Carmine Infantino, Tony DeZuniga, Glynis Wein, and Joe Rosen/Marvel Comics

But then all that got chucked out the window when Marvel decided to make an actual Spider-Woman ongoing comic. The High Evolutionary was still part of Jessica’s origin, but now she wasn’t so much his experiment as she was one of her father’s. A scientist specialising in arachnid research, Jessica’s father Jonathan turned to his close friend Wyndham when a young Jessica had grown deeply ill from uranium poisoning. Desperate to save her life, Jonathan injected his daughter with one of his experimental spider-DNA serums, but with the incubation period too long to help her recover, Wyndham combined it with his genetic accelerator technology, a process that gave Jessica her super abilities but also decelerated her ageing process, leaving her a teenager after a decade of treatment.

From here, her origin stayed relatively similar to what came before — Wyndham, now the High Evolutionary, experimented on his New Men, who ostracised Jessica for her human origins, and she fled to seek human civilisation before being abducted by Hydra.

Jessica Drew, Born Again

Image: Al Milgrom, Joe Sinnott, Andy Mushynsky, Christie Scheele, and Jim Novak/Marvel Comics

By the end of her first ongoing however, Jessica is actually seemingly killed off for good… until she isn’t, because superhero comics. Her physical form seemingly killed during a battle with her nemesis Morgan LeFay in the astral plane, and Jessica’s spirit requests the sorceror Magnus to cast a spell that removes memory of her from the world, but it doesn’t quite work. After Tigra and The Shroud find her physical body, they seek help from Doctor Strange and the Avengers to free Jessica’s spirit and stop Morgan from hijacking her physical form. Doing so resurrects Jessica, but at the cost of her powers, some of which start slowly returning to her over time as she leaves superheroics behind to become a private investigator.

Jessica Drew, Genetic Experiment

Image: Joshua Luna, Jonathan Luna, and Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

Jessica’s origins got tweaked again decades later in 2006’s Spider-Woman: Origin, removing the High Evolutionary entirely. This time around, her father accidentally blasted Jessica with genetic traits from a Wundagore Widow spider while in her mother’s womb. Jessica’s powers would eventually manifest as a young child, when she discovered that her father had connections to Hydra (and was also an abusive husband, to boot), and years later she herself is recruited into the organisation under false pretences by her father’s old associate, General Wyndham — unrelated to the High Evolutionary. Implanted with false memories of her past origin stories by Mentallo to hide her brainwashing, from there Jessica’s origin is largely as it was before: a Hydra assassin who breaks free of her former masters to become a hero.

Jessica Drew, Clone

Image: Mark Bagley, Drew Hennessy, Studio F, and Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

New universe, new Jessica, new origin! Not our Jessica, but the Spider-Woman of the Ultimate Marvel universe was once again given her own origin story. Unlike her prime universe counterpart, Ultimate Jessica — who was both Spider-Woman and Black Widow in the Ultimate universe, after Ultimate Natasha Romanoff’s betrayal and death — was straight up a clone of Peter Parker, taking on all of his own Spider-abilities rather after being developed by Otto Octavius for the CIA. She broke free however, and helped Peter defeat Octavius before deciding to live her own life away from her “sibling”. After Ultimate Peter’s death and Miles Morales took on the Spider-Man mantle, Jessica became a longtime ally of the young boy and one of his closest heroic confidantes.

Jessica Drew, Skrull

Image: Jim Cheung, John Dell, Justin Ponsor, Richard Starkings, and Albert Deschesne/Marvel Comics

OK, not really a new origin, but Jessica actually played a small but major role in heralding the arrival of Marvel’s Secret Invasion event in the comics, which is being turned into a Samuel L. Jackson vehicle in the MCU for Disney+. One of the first Marvel heroes replaced by the shapeshifting alien Skrulls, Jessica is purportedly hit up by Hydra with an offer to act as a double agent… an offer she relays to Nick Fury, because she’s not an idiot, who tells her to take it so he can offer her limited SHIELD info to leak to Hydra while SHIELD works to uncover the cell.

Alas, it’s not really Hydra at all, but a Skrull vanguard masquerading as Hydra. Jessica is captured and replaced by Skrull Queen Veranke, who at this point is now like, a quadruple agent, and masquerades as Jessica — a Hydra Double Agent, a SHIELD double agent, and a New Avenger — throughout the events of House of M *and* Civil War before exposed in the events of Secret Invasion.

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