© John Romita Jr.
He’s a mature man now, Spider-Man – after all, he’s over half a century old already. But he keeps his youthful appearance and spirit as well as Wolverine or even better – clearly he must be a Chosen One. And he is. One of the all-time fan favorites, appealing to readers of all ages and genders, Marvel’s mascot and ultimate scapegoat – Spider-Man has never had an easy life. He started out as a nerdy, bullied teenager, for God’s sake! And that’s everything but easy. He didn’t have a chance to become someone’s sidekick, learning from the best of the best, but set out to begin his superheroic life as an angsty, pimply, awkward boy who suddenly was given (or cursed with) mysterious superpowers. He had to learn everything by himself, and paid a steep price for that knowledge. After all, the only people in Marvel universe who died and stayed dead are Parker’s uncle and his girlfriend. Even he himself died at one point, rather gruesomely at that. Clearly someone in the Marvel team has it in for him. And yet, he endures it all, and has the guts to make wisecracks about it. Arguably, he’s also the funniest Marvel character which, coupled with his unwavering, absolutely uncompromising morals, makes him a lot more convincing and likeable than Cap (yes, even after Civil War :P).
I won’t spend too much time writing about Spider-Man’s origins or his story, it’s been told many enough times before. More, there are definitely more qualified people to talk about it ;). I won’t even write about the movies (this time!) or the animated series. I just wanted to share my not-so-new but rapidly evolving interest in the Marvel comic book universe. Thanks to Hachette, who publishes a collection of Marvel leading story lines, reading and owning comics became an affordable affair. The issues are hand-picked (although I would like to have some words with whoever decides to cut an ongoing story in the middle!), in hardcover editions, on very good paper; all in all – a great investment :). My shelf is just too short for all the tomes I’d like to have…
This collection gives us several stories of Spider-Man, and I won’t review all of them – since 1) not all of them are worth mentioning and 2) I haven’t read all of them anyway ;). I’ll start with the first two The Amazing Spider-Man volumes by Michel J. Straczynski and John Romita Jr. These stories are pretty cool, playing nicely with the foundations of Spider-Man mythos. Was what made Peter Parker the Spider-Man just an accident, or was it something more? I like very much the ideas linking the radioactive spider, the root of it all, with something bigger, more divine, especially in the world where Norse and Greek gods fight arm in arm with superheroes for the well-being of U.S. citizens, and the rest of the world, sometimes :P. Many fans have been very critical of the spider-totem idea, but I found it quite fresh, even if Straczynski doesn’t play it equally well all the way. But the questions he asked were very relevant – and needed for the development of our friendly neighborhood hero.
Straczynski introduces new villains, the vampire-like Morlun and magically enhanced Shade, and that lets him introduce new supporting characters, such as Ezekiel (a Parker alter-ego of sorts, a man gifted with similar powers, who actually made good money on them) or old but rarely seen ones, such as Doctor Strange. He spins a great story of relationship between Peter and his aunt, and I appreciated the change of tone for Aunt May – she deserved it. I’ve read a lot about the sad finale of Straczynski’s run with Spider-Man – but forewarned is forearmed, so I will probably abstain from reading the last issue he authored, with the infamous, unfaithful Gwen Stacy plot ;). If you want to get a more in-depth review of Straczynski’s ideas for Spider-Man, check out this review.
Then there’s the Ultimate Spider-Man issue by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. It’s a reiteration of Spider-Man’s origins, one that works very well not only as a contemporary interpretation of Spidey’s myth, but also as an accurate social commentary. Bendis’ reimagining of Spider-Man is brash and fresh and surprisingly smart. At first I bought this particular comic book as an intended introduction to Spidey’s world for my son, but I soon realized it’s a great entry in its own right. Uncle Ben as a hippie, the threat posed by massive corporations, the globalized reality of today… The graphics are very comic book-y, and it took me a bit to get used to them – but now I can freely admit I enjoy Bagley’s work. He has a gift of creating convincing images of gangly teenagers of both sexes; plus, I really like his villains, especially Doc Ock and Green Goblin.
And finally, one of the most critically-acclaimed Spidey comic books, or graphic novels, of all time, Kraven’s Last Hunt. Last Hunt, created by John M. DeMatteis and Michael Zeck, brings out the best in the graphic novel genre from the late eighties. The angst, the self-awareness, the darkness, the intertextuality, from Dostoyevsky to Blake, and the excursions into the deep subconscious… It’s all there, and more.
It’s a really dark story, psychologically realistic, at times depressing, which invokes the mood of The Watchmen – in a more civilized, slightly more tamed and politically correct incarnation, but still. There’s a lot of anger and fear in Kraven’s Last Hunt, but there also a fullness, a finality that many other stories sorely lack. It’s a complex, complete story, one of the best not only in the Marvel universe. The tone is dark and very honest, almost devoid of trademark Spidey’s snide remarks, and most of the text comes from internal monologues. A perfect commentary is supplied by excerpts from William Blake’s poem The Tyger. The art is gritty and grim, realistic and very dark, and the readers should be prepared to devote a lot of time and more than a bit of effort if they want to truly appreciate this story.
A great graphic novel, truly, with one of the best villains ever – and Spidey has a whole slew of them, from Green Goblin and Doc Ock, through Lizard and Electro, to the more obscure Vermin, Mysterio, Chameleon or Digger. Sergei Kravinoff was originally a rather wacko character, a maniacal big game hunter who set his sights on Spider-Man as his ultimate prey. But the character created by DeMatteis is multi-dimensional, internally torn, and full of conflicting emotions. You actually end up liking that bastard, or at least pitying him a bit.
If you haven’t yet, give Spider-Man a chance. He’s worth it. And he won’t fail you, even if some of his screenwriters surely will. After all, the soul and deeds of your friendly neighborhood webslinger remain absolutely pure :).