What to Expect When You’re an Expecting Superhero: Spider-Woman Shifts Gears
Like the best action, the new comic Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears, Vol 1: Baby Talk starts in media res. Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) talks on the phone with her best friend Carol Danvers (AKA Captain Marvel) as they both kick some ass. Carol is off in outer space, so they catch up about Jessica’s pregnancy. Six months along, she finds it weird how polite people are, looking past her purposely-developed “resting grump face” because of her growing belly. When Carol realizes that Jessica has been fighting bad guys during this conversation, she chides her for not taking it easier. Jessica retorts, “These guys were cake. I was never in any danger. Took one of ‘em out with a can of soup.”1
I only started reading comic books fairly recently. Even as a self-identified nerdy teen, I never understood the draw of the genre, and my geek friends (I went to a college dominated by engineering and pre-med students, so I knew plenty of them) weren’t really into superheroes either. But I started reading graphic novels and comics a few years ago, often recommended by a librarian friend. With the help of my public library (I didn’t even have to enter that seemingly scary male space of the comic shop!) I started dipping my toes into the sea of woman-centered comics and I’m so glad that I did. I found so many treats to enjoy: the Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, who uses a burkini as her supercostume; Bitch Planet, about a space jail where subversive women are incarcerated; Sex Criminals, in which a couple who can stop time with their orgasms start robbing banks; and Lumberjanes, a lovely fantasy young adult series about girls at a Scout-style camp. All have been a delight. And when I heard that Spider-Woman would include pregnancy as a central plotline, I knew I had to check it out.2
Dennis Hopeless (great penname, by the way) started writing Spider-Woman in 2014. Shifting Gears is a new series (hence issues and volumes starting with #1) that focuses on Jessica as a pregnant hero. But the great thing about comics is that you don’t need to start at the beginning (and often can’t, with characters that have existed for decades). This was my first Spider-Woman book, but starting with this volume isn’t confusing.3 There is a quick “previously” blurb explaining that a childhood illness led Jessica’s scientist dad to inject her with spider venom, saving her life, but also giving her superpowers. After working as a hero with the Avengers, an agent of Hydra (Marvel’s bad guys), and a super-spy, she’s now looking for a normal life.
And that normal life comes quickly. Her pregnancy means that her friends won’t let her help with the crime-fighting, and she retires her motorcycle for the duration. Like many women, she finds her pre-birth maternity leave boring. But when she visits an intergalactic hospital to check out the obstetric facilities, a takeover by alien Skrulls means she won’t be bored for long.
This hijacking is the main arc of the volume. Though Jessica wants to fight, she knows that “With great baby comes the crushing weight of parental responsibility,” and she calls on her friend Carol to help. But when the Skrulls prevent Captain Marvel from getting there, Jessica has to organize her fellow pregnant women (all aliens) to take back the hospital. And of course her baby decides to arrive at the worst possible moment. After they’ve cleaned up the mess (because duh, the good guys win), Carol tries to apologize, but Jessica stops her: “You’re Captain Marvel. I’m Spider-Woman. Kicking ass and taking names in the face of horrible danger, this is what we do. We save the day. No matter what. And what better day to save than the one that ends with holding a baby?”
Issue #5 closes the volume with Jessica’s struggles as a single mom with a new baby (she doesn’t have a partner, and it’s not until the final pages that you finally find out who the father is). Like many new moms, she isn’t getting enough sleep, is too emotional for scary movies or sappy TV, doesn’t want to leave the baby even with trusted friends, and has no idea when she’ll be ready to get back to her private investigation job. And unlike most women, she also worries about what will happen to her in such a high-stakes, dangerous job. Can she go back to superhero crimefighting now that she has a kid to raise? But her friends help her through this period, forcing her to leave the house, helping her to ease back into work, and she realizes that the best thing she can do is set a good example for her kid and make the world a better place for him.
The story in this volume is excellent. It combines the struggles of pregnancy and early parenthood with the fun action of superheroes. Though Jessica’s problems are common ones for new mothers, it never felt cliche to me. They show how she is both an everywoman and a superwoman. The art too is impressive — artist Javier Rodriquez does especially good work with Jessica’s facial expressions. Tender looks at her belly or the new baby shift instantly to grimaces as she gets to work, and her fears in the final issue play out across her face beautifully. Rodriguez also has great ways to show movement across the page and the passing of time as stories are recounted, with phone calls — bouncing back and forth between the two callers and their environments — as one of the best examples.
If you’ve never picked up a comic, Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears may be a good place to start. It’s light on the convoluted superhero stories, which can sometimes weigh down the Marvel universe. A simple showdown between good and evil means that Hopeless and Rodriguez can focus on how parenthood changes one’s life forever. I look forward to seeing where they take Jessica Drew as she goes back to work and has the same work-life balance issues that plague all parents. Spider-Woman can currently be found in a crossover event with her spidersisters, Spider-Gwen and Silk, and Volume 2 of her story is slated to be released in trade paperback in December.
- Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez, Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears, Vol 1: Baby Talk (New York: Marvel Worldwide Inc., 2016). Return to text.
- Once again I have The Longest Shortest Time podcast to thank for this. Hillary Frank interviewed writer Dennis Hopeless and his wife Jessie about how having twins inspired this series. You can listened to it here. Return to text.
- Some context for comics newbies — comics come out in single issues of about 25-35 pages that are later compiled into trade volumes. Most volumes compile 4-6 issues; this one compiles Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears issues #1-5. If you do want some more background about the character, Marvel has you covered, as does Wikipedia. Return to text.