Is Spider-Gwen the most important new comic of 2015?
Posted by Seb Patrick at 20:30 on 27 Feb 2015
This is, of course, the very nature of media publicity in general - but there just seems to be something particularly acute about it in comics. Genuine, industry-shattering hits are rare - and ones that break through into the wider consciousness all the rarer - and so for that reason, the publishers seem determined to make sure that they, and not the readers, are the ones to identify which ones they'll be, so that they can be accordingly prepared to deal with them.
Sometimes, this works out fine for all concerned - Saga was always going to be a smash the moment it was announced, so it was pleasing when it turned out to be as good as the advance hype made out. But equally, this publisher-led prescriptivism can lead to what I'd term "ghost hits" - comics that are big enough to sell more copies than most, but only really seem to do so because everyone assumed in advance that they would, rather than for any reasons intrinsically related to their content. Justice League, for example, has been a consistent top-ten comic pretty much entirely since the launch of the New 52 in 2011 - yet the last time I saw anyone talk about anything that was happening in its pages was the Superman/Wonder Woman romance issue two and a half years ago. It's a comic that is basically a top-seller almost by default: because it's ostensibly the flagship book of DC's new era, because it's by Geoff Johns and (sometimes) Jim Lee, so of course it'd be (aside from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman, which is a hit for far more of the right kind of reasons) their top-seller.
Marvel's Spider-Gwen #1, the big launch title of this week - heck, of this month, really - is undoubtedly a comic that we've been told by all and sundry is going to be a hit. But it's a rarer kind of hit (especially in the superhero market): its one whose success has come about, if not by complete accident (there's always been a slight sense of canny planning in how Marvel have brought this thing to bear), then certainly to a far more organic sense of growth.
In short, it's a book that the comics-reading public at large decided almost independently that it really wanted to see; and Marvel were only too happy to oblige.
It all started innocuously enough, with an alternate-universe version of Gwen Stacy appearing in the second issue of Edge of Spider-Verse - that is, the second (not the first) issue of a miniseries designed to spotlight assorted characters that were thought up (apart from Spider-Man Noir) solely to provide background fodder for a massive crossover story. Her issue wasn't even initially the most-hyped one: that honour fell to issue #5, which gained the title thanks to being written by Gerard Way (and it was very good, as it goes, but seems to have been entirely forgotten post-Gwen).
But there was something about this Gwen book from the beginning. The buzz around it on the comics web wires started to build - and while most sites of note have tended to push the new trend for inclusive comics as being A Good Thing, their readerships haven't always followed suit. In this case, however, there seemed to be a genuine sense of anticipation around the issue from press and readers alike - so it was hugely pleasant upon publication to see that faith justified with such an enjoyable comic.
It's true that perhaps the rest of the issue didn't quite live up to that absolutely superb, two-page "Previously in Spider-Woman" recap (a beautifully succinct way of establishing the differences in this timeline, with a particularly clever twist in terms of the role of Peter Parker). But it didn't matter. Here was a comic that was fresh, inventive and downright cool, with a character that people immediately wanted to read more about.
And from there, things just snowballed. The book went to several printings (it's now on its fifth), and even the second print - never mind the first - already changes hands for far, far above cover price. Almost as quickly, Marvel announced a new ongoing title featuring the character, with an almost bewildering array of collectable variant covers - and the organic nature of her success was emphasised still further by the fact that the book's title was not Gwen Stacy: Spider-Woman (as the original subtitle had been), but instead the immediate fan-coined moniker Spider-Gwen.
But why did Spider-Gwen strike home in such a way? It's true that there's been a building audience for this kind of thing (fun, exciting, colourful and contemporary books with female lead characters) - and the most obvious existing point of comparison in terms of style (as well as certain plot elements) is DC's Batgirl, whose sales have dropped slightly after a strong start but which continues to be a top 30 book. The hugely impressive sales figures of Thor and Harley Quinn in recent months demonstrate the demand for female-led titles, and even Ms Marvel is still holding above the 30,000 mark (which isn't spectacular, but still comfortably above what would usually be thought of as a cancellation threshold). This is why the push for diversity is growing: because it's had proven results.
But the advance orders for Spider-Gwen's first issue outstrip even those of announced-on-US-daytime-television's Thor, having reputedly hit the 200,000 mark. That's remarkable enough for a female solo lead comic - and even moreso for one that is, essentially (although admittedly not entirely) a brand new character. So there's got to be something else.
It can't just be the Spider-Man connection, either. If that were the case, then Alpha, and Scarlet Spider, and poor old Anya Corazon, would have had launches that at least got vaguely near this, rather than sinking without trace. Spider-Verse was, admittedly, a far bigger event than any of those characters or series launched out of - but still, we're here talking about Spider-Gwen, and not Spider-UK or Spider-Punk or SP//dr.
I think it's very interesting, though, to look at the specific identity of the character behind the mask. Gwen Stacy has a certain mythical status among so-called "secondary" comics characters that very few others (your Lois Lanes, your Alfreds) can match. Key to this, of course, is the fact that she died - and in such a dramatic way, and in such a significant comic. But it's more than that. Gwen's death mattered - and hurt - not just because "Spider-Man's girlfriend" died, but because she was a pretty great character. She might have been a bit of an "idealised cool girlfriend" kind of character at times, but she was well defined as an independent, interesting character over a long period of time even before becoming Peter's full-on love interest. Retrospective stories that have filled in more about her have helped with this, too, but there's a surprising amount there even in the Lee/Ditko/Romita material.
So it's always seemed slightly unfair that she's been stuck as "the dead former girlfriend" for so long - something that was only exacerbated by stories like "Sins Past" being seen as a flat out betrayal of the character. Brian Michael Bendis' fresh interpretation of Gwen in Ultimate Spider-Man took her in an interesting new stylistic direction but still owed much to her original personality - and while that book played with the possibility of killing her off, ultimately reversed the decision and made her an even more integral part of its supporting cast (indeed, she continues to this day to be the main link between both the Peter and Miles incarnations of the book).
And then, of course, you've got the movies. The Amazing Spider-Man films may have got a lot of things wrong, but their take on Gwen wasn't one of them. It's hard not to see Emma Stone in Gwen on the comics page now, so effortlessly did she portray that smart, charming, slightly enigmatic, good-hearted personality. And I think the fact that that version of Gwen is fresh in our minds (and that so many of us have got a sense of injustice over the films following through with, once again, killing her) only strengthens the interest in getting to see her continued adventures in another form.
And yet obviously, Gwen isn't the only factor either: otherwise, there would have been a successful book about her before now, surely. There's just something about the confluence and timing of everything coming together to make this a success: from a costume design that's been the latest in a growing trend for social media adoption in fan art and cosplay, to an art and storytelling style that's perfectly in line with the younger, hipper type of book that both DC and Marvel have started to push more and more lately. It just turns out that this was a character and a comic that a pretty big audience was crying out for, but didn't even know it until it existed.
But the point is this: Spider-Gwen is a comic that simply would not exist without an outpouring of fandom love for it. And that's something that doesn't happen too often. Comics get created by publishers predicting what they think people will love all the time - but this time, they actually paid some attention to what was going on outside their own offices. They listened. And they took a punt. And like Ms Marvel, they found something that has immediate cultural value far beyond simple sales figures - although naturally, in this instance those sales figures help too.
It's hard to tell, of course, if that level of interest will be sustained for long (it certainly won't be at anything like 200,000 copies an issue every month). But it would be lovely if it did. Because more comics like Spider-Gwen - and hell, more comics that are nothing like it in style, but which exist because of the sheer joy they bring to people by existing - would be quite the thing.
And yes, we'll happily take a movie starring Emma Stone as soon as you can make one, please.