Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Abdanm and Keerma’s adventures at TerrifiCon

Last weekend Michele and I went to the TerrifiCon comic book convention held at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.  TerrifiCon is a really great show, in that it is good-sized, has lots of guests, and its primary focus is actually on comic books.  I had fun at the show last year, and so Michele came with me this time.

Accompanying us was our family of Friendly Demon Dolls.  Two of them were given to me as presents.  Their names are Abdanm and Keerma.  They both had a lot of fun at the show.

Abdanm and Keerma Action Comics 1

Abdanm is the blue, black & grey fellow, and Keerma is the tiny green guy.  Here they are at TerrifiCon in front of a giant reproduction of the iconic cover of Action Comics #1.

Even though the bus ride from the Port Authority to the Mohegan Sun was long, and the ride back to NYC was worse, we still had a lot of fun that day.  I met several comic book creators, got some books signed, picked up a few books, and got to spend some time with Michele.  The boys also had fun.  Here are some more photos of them at the show…

Abdanm and Keerma Thanos

Here we are meeting Thanos.  Abdanm and Keerma were impressed by him, but they said he shouldn’t be so mean.  They told Thanos that he should try being more friendly like they are, and then maybe he’d have more friends.

Abdanm and Keerma Artist Alley

Abdanm and Keerma had a good time exploring Artist Alley, seeing the work of all of the talented creators who were at the convention.  Among the many talented comic book pros we saw were Bob Almond, Buzz, Ron Frenz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Kupperberg, Bob McLeod, Kevin Nolan, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern and Roy Thomas.  We also saw actress Pom Klementieff, who portrayed Mantis in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

Abdanm and Keerma John Trumbull

It was great to finally meet my online pal John Trumbull, who was also at the show.  John has written a number of excellent articles for Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows.  He compiled the incredibly informative oral history of Batman: The Animated Series that was featured in Back Issue #99.  Abdanm and Keerma were thrilled to meet John, and hung out with him for a bit in Artist Alley.

Abdanm and Keerma TerrifiCon buys

Back at home Abdanm and Keerma looked over my acquisitions from the show.  I picked up the very enlightening book Inking Before and After by the talented Bob McLeod, Blue Baron #1 from penciler Ron Frenz, the Proton comic & sketchbook from Jerry Ordway, Super Gorillas Vs. The All-American Victory League by the late Alan Kupperberg, assembled & published by his brother Paul, and Superman Annual #7 from 1995, which I got autographed by its writer, the incredible Roger Stern.

TerrifiCon is an amazing show.  Hopefully we can go again next year.  We just need to find a better way to get there than the Greyhound bus!

For info on Friendly Demon Dolls please check out their website. Thank you 🙂

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)
X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

As a long-time comic book reader, I have come to recognize that one of the most important aspects of the creation of comic artwork is inking.  It is also, unfortunately, one of the least understood.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that all inking is the same, that it is little more than going over the penciler’s work with a pen (I sometimes think that Kevin Smith should be dunked in a giant vat of India Ink for that line he wrote about “tracers” from his movie Chasing Amy).  But the reality is that no two inkers are the same.  The difference between one inker and another is often the difference between a very polished finish and a rough, gritty mood.  Therefore, it is important to recognize the vital role that inkers have in the crafting of the final, finished look of a comic book story.

I think that the major reason why inkers often do not receive their due credit is that is usually difficult for the casual reader to recognize what, precisely, the inker has brought to the finished artwork.  True, there are certain inkers with easily spotted styles, among them Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, and Tom Palmer.  But the majority of inkers have work that is of a more subtle sort.  John Beatty, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Josef Rubinstein, and Bob Wiacek are all excellent inkers.  But when looking at their work, to my unfortunately untrained eye, there isn’t often an occasion where a particular stylistic signature leaps out at me so that I can readily identify them at a casual glance.

Certainly, when a reader only sees the finished, inked work, it can be difficult to discern who did what.  And unfortunately most of the time if the reader sees something he really likes in the artwork he is more than likely to ascribe this to the penciler.  You really need to be able to view a “before and after” piece, with the raw, uninked pencils side by side with the finished, inked work, in order to fully appreciate who did what.

Bob McLeod is an extremely talented artist, both as a penciler and an inker.  He is often at the forefront of the voices rightfully proclaiming that inkers do not receive the credit due them.  To that end, on his Facebook page he has posted scans of a number of before and after examples of his inks over other artists’ pencils.  Below, reproduced with his kind permission, is one of these (click to enlarge).

This is a page from Spider-Man #34, cover dated May 1993.  Lee Weeks provided the pencil layouts on this page, and McLeod the inks / finishes.  As you can clearly see by viewing these two pages side-by-side, while Weeks is responsible for the storytelling & pacing, the majority of the important details found in the finished artwork are courtesy of McLeod’s inking.

It can be even more informative when one is able to see how the same penciled piece is inked by several different individuals.  I remember that in the early 1990s DC Comics on one of their editorial pages had reproduced a panel of pencil art from a then-recent Batman story.  They had three different artists re-ink this panel.  Looking at these next to one another, it was readily apparent how each inker brought a very different mood & sensibility to their work, resulting in several very different pieces of art.  I really wish I could find that so I could post an image here.  It was extremely enlightening, and must have been one of the very first occasions when I realized the importance of the inker.

UPDATE: Here is a scan of that DC Universe piece “What exactly does an inker do?”  Thanks to Steve Bird for locating a pic of this and passing along a link in the comments section below.

Batman inking examples

This clearly demonstrates that Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez and Jed Hotchkiss have their own individual styles, and utilized different approaches to when it came to inking Jim Balent’s pencils.  This has resulted in three distinctive finished images.

Another earlier example of this sort is equally useful.  This was posted on Facebook in January 2013.  Originally published in Comics Scene #5 in 1982, a Mike Zeck pencil drawing of the Hulk was inked by four different artists.

As is readily apparent from the images below, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, and Josef Rubinstein each bring something very different to the final look of the artwork.  (My personal favorite is the one by Rubinstein.)  If you were an editor who was going to hire Zeck to pencil a story, and if you had any common sense, you would not just randomly pick a name out of a hat to choose who was going to ink it.  Hopefully, if you were doing your job and knew the styles of the various inkers in your rolodex, you’d give some consideration as to which one would be the best match-up for Zeck’s style, and would bring the desired finished look to the story that you were seeking.

Hulk inking examples

Bob Almond, a very talented inker, is responsible for setting up the Inkwell Awards, which recognize excellence in inking.  One of the great things about the Inkwells is that they have helped to demonstrate the importance of inking by putting out various examples of both “before and after” pieces and penciled artwork that have been inked by different artists to demonstrate what each illustrator brings to the table.  I encourage everyone to look through their website and Facebook page.  There’s a great deal of beautiful artwork on display that really puts the spotlight on the crucial role inking plays.

One last indication of the importance of inking is the rise in prevalence over the last decade of comic books that have been printed from uninked pencil artwork.  I first noticed this in 2001 when Marvel began publishing X-Treme X-Men, featuring the art of Salvador Larroca.  The book was shot directly from Larroca’s extremely tight, finished pencils.  I was never a huge fan of this, because however detailed the penciling may have been it still seemed to be missing something, and the printed comics just looked rather faint and, well, blurry.  It’s a bit difficult to describe.  But I would have much preferred it if there had been an inker on the book.

Art wise, I felt X-Treme X-Men was much improved in its third year, when the art team of penciler Igor Kordey & inker Scott Hanna came on board.  And, again, that also demonstrated the importance of an inker.  Anyone who is familiar with Kordey’s work will probably know that when he inks his own pencils, it has a rough, gritty style a bit reminiscent of Joe Kubert. In contract, when he was inked by Hanna, the result is a more polished, slick look. Kordey is usually his own best inker, but he and Hanna definitely did make a very good art team.

In any case, as far as the practice of printing from uninked pencils goes, one of the main publishers to use this is Dynamite Entertainment.  They have many talented artists working for them, but the uninked art has its drawbacks, the same I cited concerning Larroca’s work.  This especially stood out for me when Mike Lilly was working at Dynamite.  I love Lilly’s art, and he did nice stuff for Dynamite.  But it would have been even stronger if he had been paired up an inker.  Someone like Bob Almond, who had worked very well with Lilly in the past, would have given it a very polished heft, making it more substantive.  The lack of inkers on so many of Dynamite’s titles is the major reason why I do not purchase more of their books.

In conclusion, inkers play an extremely vital part of the creative process in the production of comic books.  I hope that this blog entry has helped to shed a little bit of light on the role that they play, and leads to a greater appreciation for their talents & efforts.

Comic book reviews: Spider-Man “Kraven’s Last Hunt”

Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume.  This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.   It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod.  Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).

Kraven1

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter.  It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.

As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age.  Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him.  He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917.  And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man.  Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland.  Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.

Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl.  In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him.  Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York.  When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test.  Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop.  If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.

Kraven2

Spider-Man is, of course, not dead.  Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive.  Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations.  Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.

J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story.  It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.

“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup.  Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story.  Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.

As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category.  It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens.  And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself.  Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife.  As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.

Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice.  Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter.  Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.

Kraven4

DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven.  As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories.  As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.

DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential.  The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity.  In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.

The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent.  I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer.  “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.

I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker.  Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking.  I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration.  Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.

Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan.  Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare.  Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension.  Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.

(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup.  He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)

My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod.  That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through.  It was an extremely good story.  Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.

Kraven3

Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?!  Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team.  If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition.  It is well worth a look.