"Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." Picks Up the Wrong End of the Blade
Taking a comic book and putting it up on the TV screen where the pictures can move is kind of a no-brainer. Heck, they’ve been doing that since the Marvel cartoons of the 1960s. It worked then, and now Marvel Knights Animation is busting out with DVDs that transform recent comic books into motion comics. It’s a great idea in concept, as movement and sound can really enhance the comic book experience. But what works in theory may suffer from a problematic execution. See Spider-Woman: Agents of S.W.O.R.D., for instance.
Brian Michael Bendis is a hot commodity at Marvel Comics and has been for some time now. Marvel throws their major characters and events at him, but he’s also not without his pet characters. Spider-Woman is one of them. While I feel most of the events he’s written aren’t spectacular, when Bendis latches onto a character he really likes, he’s at his best. Partnered with Alex Maleev, whom he once worked with for an outstanding run on Daredevil, Bendis wrote the 2009 seven-issue Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. limited series hot off the heels of Marvel’s alien epic Secret Invasion.
There’s probably only a very small market for the story, as Spider-Woman isn’t hugely popular outside of comics. (Yes, she had a cartoon in the 1970s, but she’s not one of the dozens and dozens of characters you can see in a live-action Marvel movie.) It also gives off a “Fans Only” vibe that may scare off the average customer, and average customers may be confused by the story even if they do pick it up. There’s good exposition about Jessica Drew’s powers and origins, but the plot itself spins out of a major Marvel event, and understanding that is fairly important to understanding what’s happening.
On the other hand, something big and expansive like the Marvel Universe has characters weaving in and out of titles all the time, and this mini-series is no different. It gives us Spider-Man, The Thunderbolts, The Avengers, and, for some reason, the wraparound narration that begins and ends the series seems like more of a statement about who Wolverine is than about Spider-Woman. Not that cross-promotion is a bad thing (and those not incredibly familiar with Marvel would probably appreciate seeing characters they recognize), but taking the focus off Spider-Woman doesn’t do her any favors.
Which is a shame because the parts with Jessica Drew are great. Bendis has a knack for showing characterization through voice-over narration, and Nicolette Reed delivers Jessica’s lines with subtlety and emotion. Jessica uses her powers in different and inventive ways, but I can’t help but feel the title is a bit misleading. Due to her being out of costume so much, they may as well have called this Jessica Drew: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.
Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil run derived its strength from character and took a good look at Matt Murdock without constantly showing him in the middle of super-powered battles. They take the same approach with Spider-Woman. Maleev’s talents lie in being able to create a dark and moody atmosphere, taking a more grounded look at the superhero genre. There’s a big, bright superhero world out there, but it’s contrasted with the tortured recesses of Jessica’s mind. It’s fine for a comic book and works wonders with the right character, but it doesn’t make for a great motion comic. When you’ve got groups of super powered individuals like The Thunderbolts and The Avengers battling aliens, you expect more movement and action.
Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. also comes with a number of extras. In a “behind the scenes of Marvel Knights Animation” feature, we see what goes into creating a motion comic and get glimpses of an Astonishing X-Men motion comic that looks better than what we’re given in Spider-Woman. A Visual History of Spider-Woman feature lays out Spider-Woman’s origin in page-by-page comic book form, and there’s an Alex Maleev gallery of artwork. Plus there’s the Spider-Woman music video “Watch Your Step” set to scenes from the motion comic, which is pretty fun.
Although Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. may not be the best outing in terms of motion comics, there’s a lot of merit to the idea, and the Spider-Woman mini-series, taken on its own, is a good story that plays to the talents of both writer and artist, even if it is a bit muddied by comic book continuity. As a result, a lot of the better moments are the character bits that benefit from the voiceovers than from anything that moves on screen.