Spidiversity is an ongoing feature that explores a diverse range of issues in Spider-Man media, including gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. It is published on the second Wednesday of every month by Jaleh Najafali and the fourth Monday of the month by Alex Nader.
There are two extremely different versions of Jessica Drew currently seen in Marvel’s multiverse. The original Spider-Woman, the first Jessica Drew, who was supposedly created in the late 1970s to reserve the name—if Wikipedia and Stan Lee’s stories are to be believed—and the Jessica Drew present in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Both, consequently, revived in the 2000s by Brian Michael Bendis. Ultimate Jessica Drew is a very different character than her predecessor—she is a clone of Peter Parker. This Jessica has the potential to be a very interesting take on gender identity (and cloning, for that matter) in comics, yet these issues have not been raised in the depth required for such sensitive material.
The Ultimate Marvel Universe used to have a lot going for it. When it started, with the introduction of Ultimate Spider-Man in 2000, it was a fresh take on the Marvel Universe; a revision that was seemingly more in touch with consumer demands. Peter Parker was able to develop in a way that reflected the character’s cultural standing in a modern setting. Unfortunately, the potential of the Ultimate Universe was frequently squandered in the retelling of Marvel stories, rather than the potential introduction of new material. While Ultimate Spider-Man is still well-regarded, many of its contemporaries have aged very poorly. However, writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan managed to retrofit classic storylines into creative opportunities. Case in point: the “Clone Saga.” The original “Clone Saga” from the 1990s—in the regular Marvel Continuity—is a much-maligned storyline that took many years and convoluted arcs to complete. The Ultimate Clone Saga thankfully had a defined structure and conclusion. It featured the introduction of many clones (obviously) of Spider-Man, including an aged clone that posed as Parker’s father and most importantly a female clone of Spider-Man, Jessica Drew. Of the clones, she was the only to emerge from the crossover unscathed and would go on to become a supporting character in Ultimate events and most recently Ultimate Spider-Man (with Miles Morales) and All-New Ultimates.
Jessica Drew was cloned from Peter Parker’s DNA; created in an effort to make a spy with Spider-Man’s abilities and intended to have the fabricated Jessica Drew identity. She however retained fractured memories of Peter Parker’s life and a very confused outlook on her own. As a supporting character, she has unfortunately not seen the page time necessarily for her writers—primarily Bendis—to effectively engage the issue of the character’s identity. Jessica’s sexuality and gender identity are understandably confused due to her memories of Peter Parker’s life and likely horrible realization that comes with being a clone. There has been some discourse on her identity, but reserved to conversations with Spider-Man or other associates.
While some of these aforementioned subjects have been broached, there lies a wealth of critical issue engagement with the character that has unfortunately been untapped. Superhero comics have a long tradition of applying real-world issues to supernatural, fantastic versions—see the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Cyborg of the Teen Titans, etc. The concept of a female clone of a male character could potentially lead to discussions on gender identity of characters. With Jessica Drew—how does she identify her gender? Perhaps she could continue to identify as a man, following her implanted memories, or choose not to identify. The result, though still in progress, is that she has become a character more clearly related to her 616 counterpart.
Ultimate Jessica Drew adopted her creator-intended identity and made it her own, becoming an agent of SHIELD. Recently she has modified her superhero identity as well, becoming Black Widow, despite the negative connotations that may have in the Ultimate Universe. This was Bendis’s (and later Michael Fiffe’s) storytelling choice(s) and it’s his direction for the story going forward.
Bendis initially addressed Jessica’s sexuality in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #9 when she teamed up with Johnny Storm. The two flirted through their battle with Bombshell and her mother and later Johnny tries to make advances on her. She brushes him off but in an alley they get closer, after he watches her unmask. Johnny later recounts to Peter that they “made out,” much to Peter’s disgust, she is a clone of him afterall. The story was never followed up on but it offered an interesting viewpoint into the development of the character.
Fiffe has incorporated elements of Jessica’s–now Black Widow’s–fragmented identity in issues of All-New Ultimates, developing on hanging threads from her prior appearances. All-New Ultimates #4 featured a conversation on the topic which approaches Jessica’s unique process of creation and identity sensitively. The scene essentially reveals that because Jessica retains Peter’s memories, she remains attracted to women. The strange twist on this is that Jessica reveals she is attracted to Jewish women, clearly referring to her memories of when Peter dated Kitty who happens to be sitting nearby. Fiffe’s careful approach of the subject indicates the possibilities inherent with examining identity through comic book characters. Unfortunately, All-New Ultimates is not long for this world (perhaps the Ultimate Universe will end as a whole; it remains to be seen) and with that lies the potential removal of an important character from Marvel’s line.
Jessica’s “coming out” sequence raises a lot of potential questions about the character’s gender identity as well. While Jessica is a woman in all physical measurements, her entire memory is constructed around being a young man. If her sexual interest in women remains, perhaps she would still identify as a male in terms of gender. In this sense, Jessica could be a wonderful representation of a transgender character in comics.
Despite the potential end of the Ultimate Universe (how many times has this happened?) Jessica is set to play a part in the upcoming “Spider-Verse” crossover—perhaps signifying future importance for her and possibilities to utilize her character in the pursuit of promoting diversity and acceptance of diverse characters, as Marvel (and particularly Spider-Man) has for years. Jessica Drew could be very important to Marvel and representation of underrepresented people in comic books, and hopefully her future appearances will be able to reflect that need.