Cool Channel Commentaries: Spider Chronicles: The Death of Jean DeWolff Posted by J.D. Dunn on 05.13.2009
Peter David's prima opus redefines comic book writing for the 80s.
Writer's Note: This is a reprint from a blog review I wrote in 2006. I thought I'd repost it as an article and see if there's an appetite for more of this kind of thing.
The Death of Jean DeWolff
Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-man #107, #108, #109, #110 (Oct. 1985-Jan. 1986) Written by:Peter David Penciled by:Rick Buckler Editor-in-Chief:Tom DeFalco
It's hard to believe it's been over twenty years since Peter David first burst onto the scene with this gem of a storyline. Hardly a traditional Spidey tale, "The Death of Jean DeWolff" plays more like a 1970's detective drama á la Death Wish or Dirty Harry. The big fight scenes don't even take place between Spider-man and the villain but between Spidey and guest star Daredevil.
David manages to squeeze in a lot of philosophy to the story that is still relevant today — if heroes can do anything they want in the name of their own personal view of heroism, what really separates them from the villain? It's a series of questions we're still dealing with at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Do you follow your own moral code when deciding an enemy's fate, or stick with a pre-determined set of societal laws? What if that system of laws fails? Who are you to decide, unilaterally, that someone should live or die?
Complex stuff for a book that is supposed to be targeted toward "semi-literate adults and children."
David opens the story with a brief look back at the life of Jean DeWolff. DeWolff was a rare police ally for Spidey, and there was always a hint of sexual chemistry between them. We see in the flashbacks through her life, though, why nothing ever became of it. Jean DeWolff was a driven woman — driven by her own desire (and that of her stepfather) to become the first female police commissioner. In order to do that, she felt she had to play things close to the cuff the way a man would, masking her emotions.
It's amazing what a skilled writer and artist can do in just two short pages.
The real story opens with police kicking down the door to Jean's apartment and finding her slumped backward in bed, her insides blown out by a shotgun blast at close range. Her murder sends ripples throughout NYC. The police department wants revenge for their popular captain. The citizens are frightened by the thought that no one is safe, and innocents are often caught in the path of the well-meaning but overbearing police force. In the media, J. Jonah Jameson has to balance his conservative "law & order" values against his general dislike for DeWolf. "Hitler deserved to die," Jonah tells Robbie Robertson in a nice private conversation. "And so do assassins and cop killers. Scum like that. Whatever else he is, Spider-man is *not* one of those." It's little moments like this where characters are forced to reevaluate their world view that elevates this above your standard fare.
Spider-man, of course, is devastated. This is post-Gwen Stacy and pre-marriage for Peter Parker, so when one of his closest allies dies, it hits that much closer to home. In a rare (and some would say out-of-character) moment for Spider-man, he decides to work as closely with the police as possible, risking his own identity to catch Jean's killer. That leads him to Stan Carter, a dedicated-but-wry cop assigned to the case. Carter tells Spidey that he'll let him in on the case because Jean always spoke so highly of him.
Meanwhile, quite by happenstance, Spidey crosses paths with guest star Daredevil — or, I suppose I should say Peter Parker crosses paths with Matt Murdock. Murdock successfully defends three hoodlums who assaulted Aunt May's boyfriend Ernie Popchik. Because Spidey apprehended them in the act and therefore knows they're guilty, Pete is outraged at this miscarriage of justice and confronts Murdock about it.
The whole scene sets the stage for the philosophical theme of the book. Pete, whose own father-figure was killed by a random act of violence, has always taken the responsibility on himself to see that justice was done. Matt Murdock, on the other hand, whose father was killed by an organized hit, sees everything as a system, and the system, no matter how imperfect, must be preserved at all costs.
When the so-called "Sin Eater" kills Murdock's mentor, Judge Rosenthal, it draws both heroes into the case. Sin Eater escapes Spidey's clutches, sending Pete into yet another spiral of shame and responsibility. "If he kills someone else, it'll be my fault," he tells Stan Carter. It's not long before ballistics confirms that the same gun killed Jean and Judge Rosenthal, and Spidey notes that he saw the Sin Eater carrying Jean's badge like a trophy.
Stan and Spidey bond over memories of Jean, and Stan mentions that he's no normal flatfoot; he was actually an agent of SHIELD. He also mentions that some thugs killed his partner six months ago, and even though he caught them, he can still empathize with Spidey's sense of guilt.
Meanwhile, the list of victims and suspects begins to add up. We see an unknown man confessing to the killings at a Catholic church before the priest himself winds up getting blown away by the Sin Eater. An angry southern reverend stirs up anger toward the police at the Daily Bugle and in the public. And, in a most interesting portrayal, Ernie Popchik becomes a trigger-happy subway vigilante after his attack by those thugs. Plus, we have the usual suspects like J. Jonah Jameson himself who has always had a stiff, conservative law-and-order streak in him and always seems to pop up in speculation when a new masked meanie appears.
Daredevil and Spidey continue to investigate in their own separate manners. Spidey extorts a drug dealer for info, smashes up a local bar, and attacks the Kingpin's henchmen, none of which sits well with Daredevil who prefers to work within the system.
When the Sin Eater storms the Daily Bugle looking for Jonah Jameson, Pete manages to take him down without spoiling his secret identity. The meek little man the police bring in tells them that he heard voices at night telling him who, when and where the people were going to die.
However, Daredevil has to be a spoilsport with news that the man they caught isn't the real Sin Eater but a copycat, which he can tell by the differences in their heartbeats. Spidey, who was ready to hang Gregg, agrees to humor Daredevil and search Gregg's apartment. That's when they make a disturbing discovery: Gregg has been living next to Stan Carter…the real Sin Eater! Our heroes find the Sin Eater costume and a recorded journal in Stan's apartment. Daredevil theorizes that Gregg, who was already mentally unstable, heard Stan's journal through the thin walls and convinced himself the voices were talking to him.
Spidey remembers that Gregg said he intentionally went to the Bugle hoping to get caught. The voices actually told him to go to Jameson's home later that night. True enough, Sin Eater shows up at Jameson's house, but Jameson is in Florida and Betty Leeds is staying with Jameson's wife. The last images we see in issue three of the story are Betty Leeds' frightened eyes and the Sin Eater's shotgun blast blowing a hole in her chair.
Thankfully, Betty was able to duck out of the way, and the Sin Eater explains to her that he "killed the priest because he opposed capital punishment," "killed the judge because he coddled criminals," and killed Jean DeWolff "because he felt like it." Spider-man arrives on the scene and brutalizes Stan Carter while a horrified Betty Leeds looks on. Daredevil realizes Spidey is fully capable of killing Carter and makes Spidey turn his aggressions on him instead of the Sin Eater. Spidey is so enraged that Daredevil is able to subdue him (It's a rarity to see a hero defeated in his own title.).
The aftermath of Stan's capture is no less harrowing. The public, who already had a strong mistrust of the police force, is outraged that a cop was the killer all along. It doesn't help matters when a SHIELD agent shows up to explain that Stan will probably be found incompetent to stand trial because he was a SHIELD guinea pig during a time when they were experimenting with PCP. His mind is fried from the drugs.
An angry mob storms the police station to tear Carter apart, a prospect that Spidey doesn't think is so bad. Daredevil begs Spider-man for help and is finally forced to reveal that he knows Spidey's real identity. That revelation makes Spidey realize that while he might be able to live with allowing Stan Carter's death, Peter Parker definitely could not. "Much as it hurts…I'm supposed to be one of the good guys," he tells Jean's stepfather as he saves Carter's life.
In the end, Daredevil reveals his own secret identity to Spider-man, and the two manage to reconcile their disagreements. "We have to have our system, Peter," Murdock sums up over tea. "We don't just ignore it."
And, of course, with great power comes great responsibility.
Justice vs. Vigilantism: This one isn't even hidden in subtext. Daredevil represents "the system" and Spidey represents the free-floating anger in society when the system doesn't work. I don't know if you can cleanly boil it down to "liberal vs. conservative," but it comes pretty darn close. It's a question that gets replayed over and over in science fiction and comics (Buffy vs. Faith, Kirk vs. Spock, Batman vs. Superman).
The argument is played out again and again throughout the four issues between Spidey and Daredevil and between Peter Parker and Matt Murdock. Writer Peter David, in his first major arc, always lets Daredevil win the argument. One could argue that's because Murdock is a lawyer and able to verbally outwit Peter, but given the outcome of the story and Pete's reconciliation of his beliefs, it's pretty clear where David stands himself.
No matter which side you're on, the argument seems to come down to two epithetical defenses. Each side is either a "fascist" or an "appeaser." Watch "Hannity & Colmes" some night while they're debating the treatment of detainees or the use of wiretapping. (Unless Ann Coulter's on, then it will be "treasonous appeaser" followed by an eyeroll and a hair toss.)
I won't pretend that you'll find solutions to the question in a book that used to have ads for "X-ray goggles that really work!" I only bring it up to show that this is a serious question that we've been debating for years.
Interestingly enough, the same dynamic would play out with Spider-man and the Punisher, only with the Punisher making Spidey look like Gandhi by comparison.
News & Pop Culture
I don't think anyone has brought more of a feel of "meta-fiction" to comics as Peter David has, and it's evident right away here. Although previous writers have brought current events into the Spidey series (Harry Osborn's battles with LSD spring immediately to mind), none have involved them in quite the same way as David does.
The "Reverend Jackson Tolliver" is a thinly veiled ode to Jesse Jackson, right down to a passing mention of him making national news in the slayings of children of Atlanta. At the time this was written, Jackson was seen as a rising star of the Democratic Party, making runs at the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. If the story is any indication, Peter David doesn't have much love for Jackson, portraying Jackson Tolliver as a reactionary rabble rouser who causes more harm than good.
Ernie Popchik's B-story was taken from the real-life Bernie Goetz subway shootings. Goetz had been mugged at least twice before on the train and frightened off two more attempts by brandishing his gun. But in 1984, a group of four young men accosted Goetz asking him for money. The incident was a benchmark moment in the criminal system because it showed just how bad the crime rate in New York had gotten. Although at the time, there was some argument over whether the young men were just panhandling and Goetz overreacted or if they truly meant to rob him, one of the boys later confessed that their intent that day was to rob him. The case is also notable for Goetz firing another bullet into 19 year-old Darrel Cabey's stomach after the man had already been felled by a shot. Many viewed this as sadistic overkill on Goetz's part.
Even Charles Bronson makes a non-speaking cameo, and if that doesn't give you enough of an idea of the style of this story, nothing will. In fact, the whole story serves as a snapshot of New York in the 1980s with Reaganomics and Cuomonomics pushing against one another and creating a bizarre air of economic, political and societal mistrust. At this point, the classes were virtually at each other's throats (yes, even more so than now), and it manifested itself in anger at authority, anger at the government, and anger at other races. All of this plays out in some form in the story.
The trade paperback reprint has a transposition of pages 91 and 92, interrupting the continuity of a key fight scene.
The 411: One of the shining achievements of comic book writing. It doesn't focus on any of the usual Spider-man villains (Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, or Venom), but it instead focuses on who Peter Parker is and what he thinks about the world going on around him. It also raises questions of what it truly means to be a hero. An important first step for a writer that would eventually establish himself as a comic book legend. A