The Spooktacular Spider-Man is a monthly column, written by Paul DeKams, exploring the Spider-Man stories that have taken Peter Parker into the darkest parts of the Marvel Universe and from the fantastic world of superheroes into the horror of the supernatural.
It’s October, which means Halloween, which means you’re getting one doozy of a Spooktacular Spider-Man!
This time around, we’re looking at a seminal Spidey-story that doesn’t veer into the ghosts and goblins of the supernatural world, but instead showcases the horrors of super-heroism, while also exploring the fears of everyday life.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” (also known as “Fearful Symmetry”), by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck (listen to our interview with JMD about this story), is pretty astounding. I had never read it prior to choosing to read it for this column. It was always one of those stories that I should have read, but never got around to. It evokes so many comparisons: You could talk about matching up the inner thoughts of Kraven the Hunter with the maniacal monologues of the protagonists of Edgar Allen Poe. The B-story featuring Vermin is something out of classic monster lore, or even Guillermo del Toro’s “Mimic.” Even Mary Jane’s tale has elements of “The Vanishing.” These creators play with so many ingredients from the horror genre and expertly blend them into the world of Spider-Man.
It’s a story is about fear. Fear of mortality.
Spider-Man is shaken up both by the death of his friend Ned Leeds and of an informant named Joey Face. Both deaths cause him to question who will die next. Aunt May? (No, never. Nothing can kill Galactus’s herald Golden Oldie!) Mary Jane? Or even, himself? This story presents a very contemplative Peter Parker. One that has stopped to mourn a minor criminal and ponder his own fate. Writers can take the “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” theme to extremes sometimes, and here its presented in a much subtler manner. He’s a man trying to deal with life rather than a hero trying to live up to impossible standards set in place by the guilt of his Uncle’s murder.
Kraven is haunted by past defeats. By a need to prove himself ‘Superior’ to Spider-Man (seriously, he says ‘Superior’ at least five times, Otto owes the guy a check). He sets out to put his fears and insecurities to rest once and for all via an elaborate plot that involves ‘killing’ Spider-Man and taking his place (wow, seriously. Royalties, Otto. Royalties).
Mary Jane is facing the fear that Peter won’t come home. She goes through the very real worry that we all go through when we don’t know what’s going on with someone, when they don’t check in, or when we can’t get ahold of them. Did something happen? Are they hurt? Did they DIE? Its a very real worry for people with spouses in high-risk jobs, and its one I can rarely think of as being explored in super hero comics.
Vermin is living in fear of the surface world, and in fear of Spider-Man. He’s a horrific character. He lives in the sewers amongst rats, eats people, and licks women that remind him of his mother. Yes, that ranks a bit more horrific than the eating people. Yet it also makes him a bit sympathetic. That and the feelings of terror we experience via DeMatteis’s narration. Vermin is completely broken. He’s a wounded animal. And that makes him extremely dangerous.
DeMatteis and Zeck expertly shift between these four characters and their fears. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is not just a wonderful Spider-Man story. It’s a spectacularly crafted thriller and an amazingly dark tale. Zeck’s panel structure adds to the overall suspense, and with the parsed, start-and-stop narration by DeMatteis, the pair do an excellent job at controlling the pace at which you experience the story.
One point hammered home again and again by this team is that this is not about the Spider. Kraven is obsessed with “The Spider.” To him, Spider-Man is the symbol of fear that Batman is. (Are we allowed to type the “B” word on this site?) But “Kraven’s Last Hunt” emphasizes the Man over the Spider (without taking a weird left turn into Man-Spider territory). But despite this book’s dark trappings, this is not about Spider-Man as Batman. It’s about Spider-Man as a man. A good, honorable man named Peter Parker who is a afraid of death. So often, you hear about fantastical characters and concepts needing to be grounded. This is a story about a crazed Russian in his 70s (yeah, Kraven is OLD) hunting a man with Spider-powers, along with a man with rat-powers(?), with the aid of a mysterious mix of herbs and potions and it is grounded as all hell. It’s a story grounded in the fear of what we know is coming: Death. And not the friendly skull-faced one that flirts with Thanos. The one that’s just a simple quiet nothing that takes away everything that we ever were.
Even if you haven’t read this story, there’s a chance that you’ve been spoiled as to the ending, and feel that you know what its about. You don’t. And you owe it to yourself as a Spider-Man fan to check out a Spidey-story as scary and complex as a David Fincher film. Especially during this month when we’re all looking for a few extra scares.
“Kraven’s Last Night” can be found in Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.