Thursday, April 21, 2011

1987 - Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt


1987 - Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt - Fearful Symmetry
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Artists: Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod
October - November 1987

Web of Spider-Man #31-32
Amazing Spider-Man #293-294
Peter Parker Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132

I’d been avoiding this story for awhile now. Not exactly sure why, perhaps it was because I knew it was such a powerful story and I wanted to do it justice. Perhaps it was hitting close to home as I was approaching 40 years old and dealing with my own mid-life crisis.

So what’s this story all about?

From the back cover blurb:
“Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck craft the ultimate tale of revenge in this groundbreaking and legendary collection! Kraven the Hunter has stalked and killed every animal known to man. But there is one beast that has eluded him. One quarry that has mocked him at every turn: the wall-crawling web-slinger known as Spider-Man. And to prove that he is the hero's master, he will pull on his costume and become him...after he shoots and buries him six feet under!”

I’ll let artist Mike Zeck tell you a bit more (taken mikezeck.com):
“I'm lucky enough to be associated with one of the best written Spider-Man series of all time,.. KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT. Marc DeMatteis gets into Kraven's mind like no other writer before him and totally defines that character as Kraven finally achieves the capture and defeat of Spider-Man, the only man (or creature?) who has eluded him for so many years.”

Kraven the Hunter, a proud, but broken man hit a midlife crisis and his inability to best Spider-Man haunted him, chipping away at his sanity.

“I have found morality, I have found meaning -- in the hunt. But I cannot escape Time forever. Herbs and roots and potions cannot rejuvenate a dying spirit -- or heal a heart crushed by the weight of a corrupted Age.” (Web of Spider-Man #31)

DeMatteis skillfully contrasted how Peter Parker and Kraven deal with life and death. Peter Parker was struggling to deal with the death of his long-time friend, Ned Leeds, and it was forcing him to also confront his mortality.

“Yesterday, Ned Leeds, Today Joe Face. Tomorrow... Aunt May? Mary Jane? Me? Funny. I’m out there facing death every day as Spider-man -- But I never really think about it. Guess I don’t let myself. Yet so many people I love have died before their time: Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, Gwen -- now Ned... Do I think I’m somehow immune?”

That first issue, Web of Spider-Man #31, was so powerful. You can’t help but feel for Kraven as he struggled with his depressions and how we started seeing the cracks in his fragile psyche.

Kraven confronted Spider-Man on final time. And it that chilling confrontation, Kraven captured him and seems to shoot him dead. That scene, with Spider-Man caught under the net, is terribly disturbing with Kraven approaching him with a gun. Spidey’s doing his best at his witty banter to get Kraven to stop. BLAM. Wow. The pacing of the story is offset and paced by the reoccurring image of a grave digger hard at work.

That issue single-handedly and retroactively changed my perception of Kraven forever

Kraven then undertook a quest to restore his honor and took on Spider-Man’s identity with the goal of being a better Spider-Man than he was. I never really understood why they used the Vermin in the story until now. According to DeMatteis: 
“Vermin turned out to be the pivotal element, providing the contrast between Peter Parker’s vision of Spider-Man and Kraven’s distorted mirror image.”

Kraven set his sights on the Vermin who had been terrorizing the streets of New York City. As Spider-Man needed the help of Captain America to defeat the Vermin last time they had fought, Kraven took him on alone and defeated him. And in his fractured mind, that proved once and for all, he was the better man.

This story also provides a textbook example of how to write a married Spider-Man. While Joe Quesada thought that you couldn’t write good stories about a married Spider-Man, he obviously never talked to J.M. DeMatteis. You can’t help but feel for Mary Jane while Spider-Man is missing. She fears that he’s dead, much like a police wife must feel every time they go into action.

Web of Spider-Man #32’s opening was very well executed and sent shivers down my spine as Spider-Man/Peter Parker struggles emotionally as well as physically to free himself. His ultimate lifeline is Mary Jane. And you start wondering what would happen to Peter Parker emotionally without that lifeline and the help of his supporting cast.

Spider-Man pulled himself together and confronted Kraven who had robbed him of two weeks of his life. However, Kraven didn’t want to engage him. That was a tough part of the story as you’re looking for the typical superhero, knock-down, drag ‘em out fight to resolve the situation physically, to redeem the hero and have him show his superiority.

Kraven then released the Vermin and Spider-Man was forced to fight him. Spider-Man for a few moments had lost control and took out his frustration and anger on the Vermin, but his humanity prevailed. But, Kraven was in charge and in control and freed the Vermin which he knew it would prompt Spider-Man to set off in pursuit.

The scene in which Kraven watches Spider-Man leave, knowing that it is the last time that he’ll see his honourable foe, was heartbreaking. Again, DeMatteis and Zeck both tug at your heartstrings as they depict this broken man who has collected what’s left of his pride.

And Kraven then proceeded to kill himself.

Wow. And his suicide happened at the end of part #5, leaving a full issue to deal with the repercussions of everything that had happened. Peter Parker, who was still traumatized by what had happened, had to struggle emotionally to get it together so he could recapture the Vermin.

The final few scenes highlight that fearful symmetry, showing Spider-Man going home to the warm embrace of Mary Jane while Kraven was laid to rest in the cold embrace of the grave and death. Life is difficult and often a struggle. This story highlights that very fact and reminds us that there are things worth fighting for, struggling for and also reminds us what happens when a mental illness strips away those things and leaves you feeling that there’s nothing worth living for anymore.

Keep in mind that suicide was something unseen of in comic books at that time. DeMatteis boldy tried to confront issues like mental illness and depression. Ultimately, it’s left up to you as the reader to judge Kraven’s actions, what it an act of honour, cowardice, or mental illness?

DeMatteis had originally pitched the story idea several times and had been rejected. At Marvel with Wonder-Man and Grim Reaper. Then with Batman and Joker to DC Comics and Len Wein, editor of the Batman titles, rejected it. And a third time it was rejected by Denny O’Neil.
  
From DeMatteis’ introduction in the Marvel Premiere Classic Edition:

“ I was frustrated, to say the least, by all the doors slamming in my face, but this seed of an idea—well, by this time it had pushed up through the soil and was sprouting branches and leaves—just kept growing, unfolding at its own pace, in its own time.  It knew, even if I clearly didn’t, that it would soon find the form, and, most important, the characters, it had been seeking all along.
  
Autumn, 1986.  I was visiting the Marvel office one day when Jim Owsley, editor of the Spider-Man line, and Tom DeFalco (what?  Him again?) invited me out to lunch.  They wanted me to pick up the writing duties on Spectacular Spider-Man but I was reluctant to commit to another monthly book.  Owsley and DeFalco were insistent.  I weakened.  They pushed harder.  I agreed.
  
Peter Parker is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any super-hero universe.  Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read—and write—about him:  the quintessential Everyman.  And that Everyman’s love for his new wife, for the new life they were building together, was the emotional fuel that ignited the story.  It was Mary Jane’s presence, her heart and soul, that reached down into the deeps of Peter’s heart and soul, forcing him up out of that coffin, out of the grave, into the light.
  
And that’s how Kraven’s Last Hunt was born.”
  
And why Kraven the Hunter?  Let’s be honest, Kraven has always been a bit of a joke, one of those b-villain of Spidey's rogues gallery.

“Please understand that I had no interest whatsoever in Kraven.  In fact, I always thought he was one of the most generic, uninteresting villains in the Spider-Man gallery.  Couldn’t hold a candle to Doc Ock or the Green Goblin.
  
But buried in this Marvel Universe entry was one intriguing fact:  Kraven—was Russian.  (To this day I don’t know if this was something that had been established in continuity or if the writer of that particular entry tossed it in on a whim.)
  
Russian?  Russian!
  
Why should that excite me so?  One word:  Dostoyevsky.  When I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov in high school, they seeped in through my brain, wormed their way down into my nervous system...and ripped me to shreds.  No other novelist has ever explored the staggering duality of existence, illuminated the mystical heights and the despicable depths of the human heart, with the brilliance of Dostoyevsky.  The Russian soul, as exposed in his novels, was really the Universal Soul.  It was my soul.
  
And Kraven was Russian.
  
In an instant, I understood Sergei Kravinov.  In an instant, the entire story changed focus.  In an instant, I called Owsley, told him to forget The New Villain.  This was a Kraven the Hunter story.”

Enough can’t be said about the artwork in this story and how well it helped tell the story. Bob McLeod did an amazing job finishing Zeck's pencilled art, adding a clean, fresh feel to the end product.

And about Zeck’s art from DeMatteis:
“I can think of a handful of super-hero artists as good as Zeck, but I can’t think of a single one who’s better.  Mike’s drawing is fluid, energetic, deeply emotional...and he tells a story with such apparent effortlessness that scripting from his pages feels equally effortless.  Mike left the Cap series (to draw the original Secret Wars) just as we were hitting our collaborative stride—and I was thrilled by the chance to pick up where we’d left off.”

Interestingly, at that time, DeMatteis was suffering a mid-life crisis of his own, which ties nicely into what I was saying earlier about how tough life can be at times.
  
“I’ll spare you the sordid details:  Let’s just say I was in a period of my life where each day was a Herculean struggle.  I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker; as much a dweller in the depths as Vermin; as lost, as desperate, as shattered as Sergei Kravinov.
  
In short, it was a miserable time to be me—but the perfect time to write the story.  Had I created a version of Last Hunt a few years before, or a few years after (when my life had healed itself in miraculous ways), it wouldn’t have been the same.  My own personal struggles, mirrored in the struggles of our three main characters, were, I think, what gave the writing such urgency and emotional honesty”
  
In Back Issue #35, DeMatteis admitted that "Kraven's death was an outgrowth of the story.

“I wasn't thinking that I was getting to kill off a major character. I was thinking, ‘Where is this story taking me? Where is it headed?’”

And to follow that up, artist Mike Zeck added:

"It was a totally fitting exit for the character that Marc DeMatteis had written, and it came with a sense of triumph rather than despair or cowardice. I was secretly happy that his death meant that no one else was going to get a chance to take that character and potentially dumb him down again. In my opinion, the definitive story had now been written and Kraven was exiting the Marvel Universe with style. So lights out, close the curtain, let him rest in peace and let's all rejoice in his final triumph."

Trivia bits:
  • Kraven’s Last Hunt wasn’t DeMatteis’ title for his story; he called it Fearful Symmetry to honour William Blake
  • First time a story had run through all three Spider-books.
  • The book received several complaints from fans that they were glorifying suicide.
  • A one-shot sequel, entitled "Soul of the Hunter" was published in 1992.
  • Reprinted in 1989 as a hardcover and in 1991 and 2008 as a trade paperback. Also, the story was reprinted as a Marvel Premiere Classic HC in 2006. This edition featured a wonderful set of extras including several pages displaying Mike Zeck’s breathtaking pencils.
  • You can follow J.M. DeMatteis' blog at: http://www.jmdematteis.com/

4 comments:

  1. thanks for this in-depth look at one of my favorite spidey stories. i was unfamiliar with the background, so this made for interesting reading, particularly in regards to dematteis' inspirations. i must respectfully disagree with mike zeck though, i don't think suicide should ever be considered "exiting in style".

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  2. Always been one of my favorite Spidey stories. The sequel, SOUL OF THE HUNTER, is pretty lame, IMO. Kinda of a non-story that reads like an apology for the earlier story's suicide. The art by Zeck is good but it doesn't have McLeod's slick inks and just can't compare to the earlier work.

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  3. Probably one of my favorite Spidey's arcs from my childhood. Of course Marvel had to undo some of this by resurrecting Kraven during the "Gauntlet" arc a few months ago. Still, that Web of Spider-Man cover where Spidey is emerging from the grave may be the most visually chilling cover for any Spidey book.

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  4. Great review! I've actually never read the series but heard so much about it... Time to buy the trade!

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