Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for October 22, 2006


Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt

coverre-issued: 2006

Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Pencils by Mike Zeck. Inked by Bob MacLeod. <
Colours: Janet Jackson. Letters: Rick Parker. Editor: Jim Salicrup.

Reprinting: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, The Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #293-294, Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (1st series) #131-132  (1987)

Published by Marvel Comics

140 pages

Cover price: $19.99 USA

Originally collected in a TPB in 1994, this has recently been re-released in a prestigious hardcover version.

Spider-Man recurring foe, Kraven, The Hunter, feels his life is nearing its end -- physically and, more to the point, spiritually. Before he can shake off his mortal coil, though, he figures he's got something to prove to the world and, more importantly, to himself: that he can whup Spider-Man.

And that rather flippant synopsis doesn't really describe Kraven's Last Hunt, one of the most atmospheric and critically regarded Spider-Man stories in, well, Spidey's history, and which brought the curtain down on Kraven. Originally published over two months as a story crossing over into all the Spider-Man titles then being published, Kraven's Last Hunt (which originally looked as though it meant to carry the title: "Fearful Symmetry") is an unusually dark, brooding, intense saga.

Kraven captures Spider-Man and buries him alive, in order that he may adopt Spider-Man's identity, to prove he's a better Spider-Man than Spidey is. Caught up in this kind of danse macabre between the two old foes is Mary Jane, Spidey's wife, left home to brood and wonder when Spidey doesn't come home, and another Spider-Man foe, the both pathetic and horrific sewer-dwelling killer, Vermin.

There's nary a quip or wisecrack in sight. The piece is heavily character driven, the scenes filtered through Karven, Spidey, Mary Jane and Vermin. It's also minimalist. Other characters make very occasional appearances (Joe Robertson in one scene as Mary Jane seeks out someone to talk to when Peter is overdue), but basically there are only four characters in this drama. And there's a touch of dreamlike surrealism. The story takes place over two weeks, but the rain never stops (until the end) and almost all the scenes take place at night. The result is a sense that this all happens during one endless, melancholy night, as if a bubble of timelessness has wrapped itself around the four players and won't let go until the drama plays itself out.

This is decidedly more than just a super-villain seeks revenge story of the kind that you can probably read in almost every second comic you pick up in any given month. Though there's plenty of action scenes, this is much more a psychological study of both Kraven and Spider-Man.

To Kraven, Spider-Man has come to represent so much more than just the guy who kicks his butt periodically. A White Russian, a self-styled aristocrat and man of honour, lost in contemporary urban society, to Kraven Spider-Man personifies the modern world, and its iniquities that he feels have dogged him all his life, robbing him of his mother, of the life he would have liked to lead. In a way, of course, he's right. Spider-Man remains one of comicdoms most grounded super heroes, the one that seems most like a person who just happens to have funny powers, a figure rooted in the real world. In that sense, "The Spider" (as Kraven sees him) is everything Kraven fears. On the other hand, Kraven has clearly lost his marbles.

The story starts out seeming about mortality, with both Kraven and Spider-Man separately ruminating on death. As the piece evolves, though, it becomes more about fear. Kraven doesn't fear Spider-Man -- his foe, the guy to go a few rounds with -- he fears "The Spider", the embodiment of a world that frightens him. In conquering Spider-Man, Kraven hopes to conquer his personal fears. Likewise, Vermin is both a source of terror to his victims, and a victim of terror, frightened, like Kraven, of the world and its protector. The irony is that Vermin, a deranged man living in fetid sewers, the product of sinister experiments, more closely represents what Kraven fears than does Spider-Man: the breakdown of Western civilization.

At the same time, De Matteis throws in another quirk, hinting at a certain homoeroticism, suggesting that Kraven, much as he hates and fears Spidey, may also harbour other feelings.

Spider-Man, meanwhile, fears death, fears losing Mary Jane, and in the climax struggles with the vestigal fears of his premature burial. Perhaps most fundamentally, though, he fears becoming precisely the figure of terror Kraven and Vermin perceive him as. It could be argued that Kraven, in his attempt to conquer Spider-Man, ultimately fails to conquer his fear, because "The Spider" is a false symbol. While Spider-Man succeeds in conquering his fear, simply by not allowing it to change him, to rule him, the way Kraven and Vermin were, ultimately, ruled by their fears.

It's also interesting to note that writer J.M. DeMatteis gives Spidey a source of empowerment in his love for Mary Jane. Kraven and Vermin have nothing but their fears and hates, while Spidey is strengthened by love and compassion.

There's more than a sense DeMatteis (and his editors) were thinking of Batman when concocting this, particularly in the overall darkness of the tale, emotionally and visually (this was also at the time when Spidey was wearing a black costume). In its portrait of a villain losing himself in his arch foe's identity, there's a whiff of Bat-foe Hugo Strange (see such Batman TPBs as Strange Apparitions and Prey). And in the way Spider-Man is expressed as a dichotomy -- of Peter Parker and "The Spider" essence -- there are definite echoes of Frank Miller's take on Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The cross-pollinization may go both ways, though. In its story of a familiar foe going over the top in an effort to "prove" something, it anticipated the graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke. I was never a big fan of The Killing Joke, so it probably doesn't mean much when I say this seems the superior of the two. DeMatteis would even later echo himself with a not dissimilar Batman-Joker story -- "Going Sane" -- in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68 (a very good, though neglected, story -- maybe even a better one).

The art is overall quite effective. I'm generally ambivalent about Mike Zeck's art, an artist whose style can change radically from project to project, but Bob MacLeod is one of those inkers who tends to embellish and flesh-out an artist's pencils. Between the two, the art chores are handled quite effectively, aiding and abetting the sombre mood while keeping the face and figurework decidedly in the "realist" style.

Like any "psychological" piece, there's a fine line between insightful and nonsensical, and it could be argued that all the undercurrents aren't brought to their full fruition. DeMatteis's use of parallel voice overs, as if depicting two levels to a character's consciousess, can seem over done in spots, as if he fell in love with his own stylistics. It's arguably a bit too dark and violent in spots. (Though, vis-a-vis the violence: I realize, dunderhead that I am, that the "violent" scene near the beginning, of Kraven tearing apart some animals...is actually Kraven tearing apart some already stuffed and mounted animals!)

There's also some interesting insight into gender politics. Kraven's bare backside is depicted in this Comics Code Approved story, but I doubt it would've received the same O.K. if, instead, it had been Mary Jane flashing her bottom for the kiddies.

Whatever its shortcomings, Kraven's Last Hunt is an atmospheric, haunting odyssey. Though dark and brooding, it remains, like the better Spider-Man stories, awash in empathy and humanity. A few years later, DeMatteis, Zeck and MacLeod did a follow up one-shot graphic novel called Spider-Man: The Soul of the Hunter. Interestingly enough, I believe Kraven has stayed dead...although Marvel has simply resurrected the character concept by having Kraven's look-a-like son adopt his costume!

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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