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).

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My nutty Thanksgiving weekend

This year my Thanksgiving weekend was crazier than usual.  Last Monday, I received a phone call from a temp agency that I registered with some time ago.  I’ve been trying to get work thru them for a while now, because it seems that they have a lot of good positions with really big companies, openings that pay well and might eventually lead to something permanent down the road.  It turned out that this temp agency wanted to send me out on an assignment, all right, but not for an office job.  No, it was a retail job at a big department store in the Herald Square area of Manhattan.  I would go in for a half day of training on Wednesday, and then return for an eight hour shift on Friday.  Yep, that’s right: Black Friday.

I’ve worked retail during the holiday season before, about a dozen years ago.  It wasn’t pretty.  Crowds of people packed in tight, scrambling to grab all the big “deals.”  I do not even like the idea of shopping on Black Friday.  So the thought of actually working on it filled me with genuine fear.  Nevertheless, I accepted the assignment because, as I said, I’ve wanted to get work from this agency for a while now, and I thought this would be a good way to get a foot in the door.

Everything went fine on Wednesday.  I showed up, did the four hours of training, and left.  Thursday I was nervous, but I tried my best to stay calm.  I went to bed early, so I’d have plenty of sleep.  Friday rolled around, and I got up around 6:15.  Made it to the store in plenty of time of the beginning of the 9 AM shift.  I get assigned to the third floor, and one of the supervisors tells me to walk around & straighten things up, because customers were leaving things in a mess.  I do this for about 45 minutes when the store manager calls me over and takes me to the back office.  I find out that there’s been a mistake made.  Of the 16 people who showed up on Wednesday for training, only 12 were supposed to actually return on Friday to work.  I was one of the four who wasn’t picked to work Friday, but somehow there’s been a miscommunication and everyone came back.  I’m told they don’t need me, and I should call the temp agency to find out what happened.

Hmmph!  After all that worry, I’m in & out the door in under an hour!  So I call up the temp agency, and they have a totally lame excuse.  According to them, everyone who the store wanted to return on Friday received a confirmation e-mail telling them to come back, and if you did not get an e-mail, you should have known not to return on Friday.  They acted like this was so blindingly obvious, and seemed to take the attitude that I made some sort of moronic mistake.  Uh huh.  If it was so obvious, why did everyone come back on Friday?  If all four people who didn’t get an e-mail were clueless that they were not supposed to be there, then it’s not so obvious, is it?  Really, it seems very apparent that the agency should have notified everyone as to whether or not they were supposed to report to work.

Anyway, since I was already in Manhattan, I decided to walk over to Midtown Comics, which was having a 25% off everything until 12 noon sale.  I purchased a handful of trade paperbacks that I’d been meaning to get for a while now, but that I’d been putting off buying for an occasion such as this.  So it wasn’t a total waste of a morning.

Back-tracking to Thursday, Thanksgiving itself was fun.  When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I used to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon each Thanksgiving morning.  I miss those.  They used to be one of the highlights of the whole day for me.  I decided to recapture some of the spirit of those days by playing a couple of MST3K episodes on the DVD.  First up was the Turkey Day edition of Night of the Blood Beast, a 1958 cheese-fest produced by schlock filmmaker Roger Corman.  The monster in this movie looks like a giant flame-broiled parakeet.  Next I watched the MST3K edition of Gamera, which was the first of the giant flying turtle movies to come out of Japan.  Strangely, while it was on, I could have sworn our pet turtle Meeshee was watching the TV from her tank.

For dinner, Michele and I met up with her parents, and we ate out.  The restaurant put together a pretty good Thanksgiving Day spread, with turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and vegetables.  I wish we could have stayed out longer, but I thought I was going to be working the next morning.  We all know how that turned out.

After the Black Friday mix-up the next day, I returned to Queens.  Michele had been invited to a party by her friend Pam, so that night we headed to Brooklyn.  It was a cool get-together.  We were there most of the night.  It’s a good thing I quit drinking a few years ago, because there was a ton of booze at the party.  If I had been imbibing, I’m sure I would have gotten totally smashed.  As it was, I ended up spending most of the night watching a Jackass marathon on television.  I’ve never actually sat down and watched Jackass before.  Damn, what an incredibly stupid show… yet at the same time, absolutely hysterical in a really sick, twisted way.  I was totally laughing my ass off.  I really had to wonder at what sort of astronomical premiums Steve-O, Johnny Knoxville, and the rest of the gang need to pay on their insurance policies.  That is, assuming any carrier would be willing to cover them.

Around three in the morning a bunch of us headed out to a local bar, the Cobra Club.  With a name like that, you would think it would be a douchebag type of place, but turned out to be really cool.  While we were there, I ran into this guy Alex who I knew from way back when I was living in London, England for six months.  I’d bumped into him in NYC a couple of times since, but it had been years since I’d last seen him.  That was cool.  Back around 2004 he was in this local industrial metal band Still Life Decay whose work I liked.

Shortly before last call, the DJ played “Imagination” by Xymox.  I had not heard that song in years and years.  It was so long, in fact, that I’d forgotten who recorded it.  I ended up downloading it off of Amazon the next day.  It’s always cool to re-discover old music like that.

The rest of the weekend was pretty low key.  I was mostly relaxing and reading comic books.  Sunday night I popped another MST3K episode into the DVD player.  Warrior of the Lost World is one of my all time favorite episodes of that series.  I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.  Suffice to say, I was laughing non-stop as Joel, Tom Servo, and Crow went to town on it.  It was a fun way to end the holiday weekend.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #1

Archie Comics is, of course, very well known for publishing the fun, comedic adventures of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale.  What is probably not as well known is that throughout their 73 year history is that they have, from time to time, dabbled in superhero comic books.

I first became aware of characters such as the Shield, the Fly, and the Comet back in the early 1990s.  DC Comics had licensed the Archie superheroes and created new interpretations of them under an imprint titled Impact Comics (or !mpact Comics with an exclamation point).  Impact only lasted about two years before being canceled due to low sales, but I tremendously enjoyed those books they put out during that brief time.  And I discovered a few of the earlier Archie-published comics in the back issue bins, including an issue of Mighty Crusaders from the early 1980s featuring artwork by comic book legends Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, Tony DeZuniga, and Rudy Nebres.

A few years ago there was apparently a second, more recent attempt by DC to license the Archie superheroes, this time to integrate them directly into DC continuity, but for one reason or another this didn’t work out, and the properties are now back with their owners.  Archie has revived their old Red Circle Comics imprint and are publishing New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes.  The series actually made its debut in an online digital format a few months ago, but this past week it came out in print format with the release of New Crusaders #1 in comic book shops.

Yesterday, Midtown Comics did a signing featuring several of the creators involved with New Crusaders: writer Ian Flynn, cover artist Ryan Jampole, and artist Alitha Martinez, who takes over drawing the series with issue #3.  Since I was such a fan of the Impact incarnations of these characters, I went to the signing to purchase New Crusaders #1.  I had the chance to talk to Ian Flynn for a few minutes, and he seems to have a lot of enthusiasm and ideas for the series.  He mentioned doing a quite a bit of research into the various past incarnations of the Archie heroes in preparation for chronicling their new adventures.

New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole
New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole

New Crusaders #1 opens with a reunion of the members of the superhero team the Mighty Crusaders, who are now all retired to the town of Red Circle, living incognito and raising families, their arch-foes defeated years before under unrevealed circumstances.  Unfortunately, the aging heroes are attacked by a menace from the past that crashes the reunion.  While the majority of the adults try to hold back their old enemy, the Shield takes their teenage children to safety.

Flynn appears to be establishing a scenario wherein the children of the Mighty Crusaders have to step into the void left by their defeated parents, with the Shield serving as mentor to the new team.  The first issue of New Crusaders serves as a set-up for this by introducing the young cast and showing the fall of the original heroes.  It is always the hallmark of a good comic book that when you get to the end of the issue you cannot wait for the next to come out to see what happens next.  That was certainly the case here, and I am eagerly anticipating next month’s issue.

Writing for an all-ages audience is not an easy task.  A lot of the time, there is an awful temptation to talk down to children, to make things overly simple or safe.  It’s all too easy to underestimate younger readers.  But I guess I am young enough that I can still remember what it was like to be a kid and encounter material that felt like it was being condescending to me or underestimating me as a reader.  Flynn does not make that mistake here.  He writes a story that is truly appropriate for all ages, one that both children and adults can appreciate.  I have to give him major recognition for that and, as I said before, I am looking forward to what he does with this series next.

As to the artwork, Ben Bates & Gary Martin do a very lovely job, with an animated style.  I was very much reminded of the work of the late Mike Parobeck (who, incidentally, drew The Fly for Impact Comics).  I’m a big fan of that style, and it works perfectly here.  I think that it has a deceptively simple look to it, but that drawing in such a style can actually be much more difficult.  The artist cannot hide behind over-rendering, crosshatching, or any other embellishments, instead having to rely on good, solid storytelling.  Certainly the penciling by Bates is very good in this respect, very clear & concise.  The inking by Martin has a very neat, solid line to it, as well.

As I understand it, Alitha Martinez will be coming onboard with New Crusaders #3, working over Bates’ pencil layouts, before then taking over full art chores with the subsequent issue.  In the past, she’s done nice work on Iron Man and Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four.  Recently, she penciled a couple of fill-in issues of Batgirl that were stunning.  The previews of her work for New Crusaders #3 that I’ve seen online look very promising.

For those who have lamented that both DC and Marvel’s recent “renovations” or “reboots” of their superhero comic book lines were not reader friendly, I would recommend checking out New Crusaders, either in the comic shops, or on the Red Circle website.  If the first issue is any indication, it’s a very promising title, one that hopefully will bring in a lot of younger readers.  As for myself, I’m 36 years old, but I fully intend to see where it goes.

Blackhawks Down(town) at Midtown Comics

Yesterday evening I went to the Midtown Comics located on Fulton Street (which would technically make it “Downtown Comics,” I guess) for the latest of their comic book creator signing events.  Midtown was having two artists from Madrid, Spain at the store to autograph copies of the latest issue of Blackhawks, one of the “New 52” titles from from DC Comics.  CAFU (short for Carlos Alberto Fernandez Urbano) and Bit became the art team on Blackhawks with issue #5.

To be honest, previously I had not been following Blackhawks, or really most any of the other New 52 series from DC.  The only two I’ve been reading month after month beginning with the first issue were Wonder Woman and Justice League International.  And even there, I’ve been seeing how each series has been from one issue to the next, sort of half-committed.  So Blackhawks definitely fell under the radar along with the rest of the New 52.  But when I heard that CAFU and Bit would be in town to sign issue #7, I picked up the previous two issues, which they also illustrated.

The event at Midtown was, in a certain respect, a bit of a disappointment.  The store had promoted it by announcing that each person who purchased a copy of Blackhawks #7 would be able to get a free sketch from both CAFU and Bit.  Unfortunately, the artists were only able to sign and sketch for one hour, from 6:00 to 7:00 PM, and they turned out to be drawing more slowly than the store probably thought they would be.  I think only the first six or seven people in line got a sketch.  I was not one of them.

Truth be told, I did not especially mind.  Yes, it was disappointing, but I shrugged it off because I was able to meet a couple of talented artists who only visit the States maybe once or twice a year.  I got several books autographed, including two issues of Marvel Adventures: Avengers that CAFU penciled in 2007.

Listening to some of the other people on line, though, I was amused at how big a deal it seemed to them.  Some people were of the attitude that they wasted their money (three whole dollars) and weren’t getting anything in return, that the book was no good, that Midtown was just doing this to drum up some sales on a title which is scheduled to be canceled in another month.  I think the lesson here is that if you are going to a comic book store signing, it should be for book that you are potentially interested in, or by a creator whose work you like.  That way, if you do not end up with a sketch, at least you will have still gotten an autographed book that will mean something to you.

I want to add that this is the first time I remember anything like this ever happening at Midtown Comics.  In the past, if they have promoted a signing to include sketches from artists, I don’t recall anyone walking away empty-handed.  So I just view this as a one-time occurrence.

Of course, maybe I am feeling charitable because at last year’s Spanish Inq signing event, when Bit was in NYC with Pere Perez, he drew a very nice sketch of Wonder Woman for me.  So I already had something by him in my sketchbook.

In any case, what do I actually think of the Blackhawks series?  CAFU and Bit’s artwork is stunning.  But, more to the point, I am impressed by Mike Costa’s writing.  It is not especially groundbreaking or revolutionary, but there is a fun and intelligence to it.  I like the idea of an international “black ops” type group of normal humans tasked with facing down technological menaces within the DC universe.  Judging solely by the three issues I have read, I feel the concept by Costa is sound and full of a great deal of potential, but perhaps the execution is lacking.  There is also an absence of details explaining who these characters are, and what exactly had taken place within the first story arc, which did not make them “new reader friendly.”  Having said that, I am intrigued enough that I am currently searching for copies of those initial four issues, to see what happened in them.

Blackhawks is being canceled with issue #8.  This is something of a pity.  As I said before, the concept holds much promise.  I like the characters, and if they survive the finale of the series it would be cool to see them resurface in some of DC’s other titles.  The art team of CAFU and Bit is really outstanding, and I look forward to seeing them receive another series to illustrate, hopefully soon.