The fun of Heroes Reborn thus far has been its unique mix of parody and social commentary — with more than a few WTF moments spliced in to keep things interesting.
This is a series that can craft an interesting critique of Christian nationalism on one page and have Ego the Living Planet get lassoed with a giant chain on the next.
Some issues have leaned into the alternate reality madness of a world without the Avengers (in which Mephisto is God). Others have taken a more political approach or riffed on the absurdity of DC’s heroes in a Marvel context.
With Heroes Reborn: Night-Gwen #1, writer Vita Ayala and artist Farid Karami opt for something that splits the difference, taking several classic Marvel characters and turning them loose in a Gotham City-inspired milieu.
Batman is a series that, at its best, explores hard questions about rehabilitation and the limits of vigilante justice. For someone like me, the central questions that even great Batman comics struggle to answer is: 1) why Batman won’t just kill the Joker and 2) why it is more preferable for a billionaire to fight criminals with expensive gadgets instead of — I don’t know — eliminating poverty in Gotham City?
These questions hover over Ayala’s central character, an alternate version of Gwen Stacy, who in this world is a psychiatrist by day and vigilante by night. Instead of beating criminals to a pulp out of some misplaced, thrill-seeking vengeance like Batman-analogue Nighthawk, she uses her job at Ravencroft Asylum as a good-faith effort to rehabilitate them.
Ayala imbues their version of Gwen with shades of Barbara Gordon and Leslie Thompkins, but wisely structures the plot around aspects of Gwen’s history in Amazing Spider-Man.
I cannot get into too much detail (because these advance reviews have to be spoiler free) but the Jackal plays a key role. Longtime Spidey fans will remember how the Jackal, formerly a college professor named Miles Warren, became obsessed with Gwen, leading to his villainous transformation and — eventually — the byzantine Clone Saga.
Ayala’s use of him here works especially well because it centers Gwen’s experience — and voice — in a way those older stories did not. While tracking a murder investigation, Gwen realizes the Jackal has returned.
A typical tie-in story would have to rush to the denouement, but Ayala finds time for some delightful character work with Gwen and Misty Knight, depicted here as a detective who shares Gwen’s interest in rehabilitation, but detests vigilantes.
Their conversations — like most dialogue in a Vita Ayala comic — sound like real words spoken by real people. Even a simple scene of Gwen and Misty having dinner works so well because they don’t speak in quippy soundbites or Shakespearean monologues. They speak like people who care about each other and are doing their best — flaws and all — to show empathy. (Misty maneuvering things to make sure she pays for the meal is the kind of detail that other writers would not find time for, but Ayala always does.)
A casualty of the story’s condensed length is Ayala’s need to use quite a bit of exposition to push the plot toward its conclusion. What helps is the expectation that most readers will be familiar with the characters who populate Gwen’s past like the Jackal and Flash Thompson. Ayala also ensures the story’s flashbacks are useful for more than an info dump. They also show how behavior — even when presented as protective and helpful—can be especially toxic.
What Ayala and Karami accomplish here is something different. They have created a story that could easily stand on its own as an interesting meditation on whether it is even possible (or worthwhile) to rehabilitate criminals in a zany, hyperreal city not unlike Gotham. But their interest extends beyond Batman allusions to Gwen, a character often given the spotlight but not this kind of agency. Gwen Stacy has been extremely visible in this era since the dawn of Spider-Gwen, but I’m not sure she has ever felt this seen.
Some other, scattered (spoiler-free) thoughts on the issue:
- “Night-Gwen,” which I assume is a play on the Marvel character “Night Nurse,” is a strange title, though of a piece with other alternate Gwens like Spider-Gwen.
- Karami and colorist Erick Arciniega strike the right tone for a Gotham-inspired book. I especially love how much detail Karami packs into Gwen’s equivalent of the Batcave, which in true Batman fashion, is stocked with computer screens and gadgets.
- Ayala hints at Gwen and Nighthawk being crimefighting partners (and her name certainly suggests as much). It would be interesting to have gotten a better sense of how Gwen deals with his more violent and despotic way of capturing criminals, especially given her commitment to rehabilitation.
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