With the news of the Spider-Man reboot being bandied about and the rumour that they were “darker and edgier” with the character, I thought I’d best check out what “dark and edgy” Spider-Man looks like. Here’s a hint: it isn’t Spider-Man III. I picked up Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. For those not-too-versed in comic book lore, Marvel Knights was basically the “mature” branding for Marvel properties, like Vertigo is over at DC (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was published at Vertigo, for example). Basically, Marvel attempted to publish several books under this header – including Spider-Man and Kevin Smith’s relaunch of Daredevil – the idea being to offer more “grown up” versions of the familiar superheroes. While it’s entirely unfair to take the fact that the series was rebranded within three years as evidence of it’s quality, it failed to convince me that Spider-Man really needs to be made “darker and edgier”.
That isn’t necessarily a criticism of the story, which is relatively well written, just that the collection doesn’t really seem that much more mature than regular Spider-Man books. Sure, there’s just a hint more violence and bloodshed than there normally is, but certainly nothing that hints at the brutallity of other adult-aimed books like Kick-Ass, for example. But even then, does the inclusion of more violence immediately make a work mature? There are references to prostitution and a bit more menace from certain foes, but nothing that seems exceptionally over-the-top. There’s no real mature themes or exploration of the characters involved. Indeed, most the “mature content” that I’ve flagged here occurs within the first arc – Down Among The Dead Men – and it seems that maybe the strength of the content was intentionally diluted as it went on.
In fairness, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mature themes in Daredevil, for example, suit that character. You may argue that the grim and grittiness surrounding Batman complements that character as well. On the other hand, I can’t hear the name Spider-Man with starting to sing “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…” inside my head, and I doubt I’m the only one. In fact, without being cheeky, I suspect that the author here – Mark Millar – feels somewhat the same way about the iconic teenage creation and the herald of what might be termed “the Marvel age” of comic books.
Mark Millar is known as a very deconstructionist author. When granted control of the continuity-free Ultimate X-Men comic – having not really read the original comics – he basically made the team into a bunch of anti-heroic sociopaths. The Ultimates gave us a severely deconstructed examination of the Avengers, complete with unrepentent alcoholic Tony Stark, man-of-the-forties Captain America and wife-beating Hank Pym. It gets worse in his own line of publishing, where Wanted (which is significantly different than the film) offers a world of ridiculously violent supervillains and Kick-Ass which is, in his own words, a modernised Spider-Man complete with bloody fight scenes. In contrast, it seems like he’s handling Spider-Man with kid gloves, like a child finally getting that toy he always wanted.
As noted above, that isn’t a criticism. Millar crafts a fairly grand twelve-issue storyline (broken into three sections – Down Among the Dead Men, Venomous and Last Stand) and it’s clear that he has a handle on Peter Parker’s voice – the narration is never too angsty or aloof, but feels just right. The afterword to the collection is provided by his elder brother, Robert Millar, who sums up this collection as Mark writing “for his favourite character”. There’s a lot of affection for the original material here, and that shines through.
I remember that there were rumours that Kevin Smith was supposed to originally write the introductory few arcs for Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, just as he had written Guardian Devil to welcome Daredevil to the twenty-first century. Part of me wonders what that might have looked like (this is where I make a cheapshot about how it would have been delayed), but I do think that Millar was perhaps the smarter choice.
On to the “darker and edgier” content. Villains are made more menacing and just a bit rougher. There’s the suggestion that some are far more manipulative than they had been in earlier incarnations, using the webslinger’s good nature against him. There’s suggestions that the web of costumed organised crime is like the vampire squid, an illegitimate enterprise with tendrils everywhere, masked by public confrontation. Electro alludes to “the stuff we do that super heroes never even hear about”. At one point, a villain remarks that Parker has “raised the ante”, as if to say that the gloves are coming off for his rogues gallery.
The problem is that none of this stuff is particularly shocking. It’s the kind of thing that populates, as mentioned above, Batman and Daredevil books, where villains are allowed be a more vicious and manipulative bunch. In fairness to Millar as a writer, it doesn’t feel wrong to have Peter Parker face these increasingly aggressive and underhanded foes (not that they had been played for laughs before, but there’s a definite attempt to make them more menacing here), it just maybe feels a tad unnecessary, given how there are dozens of other heroes out there who do face these same sort of gloves-off sociopaths.
And, again, in fairness to Millar, the plot works. It isn’t a masterpiece or a quintessential Spider-Man story for the ages, but his work is solid enough to justify the darkening of the tone. Technically it is three four-part stories, but they all form one over-arching plot. The structure is somewhat typical of the “run the guantlet” school of super-hero storytelling, where you have a character face their villains one-after-another in quick succession. In particular, the story bears comparison with the Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Hush storyline, which similarly followed a vigilante whose secret identity had been figured out by one of his villains and faced his enemies who were acting increasingly erratically, their buttons being pushed by an unseen mastermind. Both arcs ran for a year and featured a major redesign of the title character’s selection of villains. Though Jim Lee’s work on Hush might surpass the work of Terry Dodson found here, both sagas are arguably blockbusters of comic storytelling, and work best if the reader receives them as such.
Millar hints at big ideas in his run. There’s the recurring theme of disconnect between the “real” world and the world of these costumed freaks - heroes and villains fret over each other’s secret identities, even though they don’t matter to each other outside the costumes. At one point, the Vulture (one of the best redesigns of the series, might I add), pulls the bandages off Peter Parker’s face to reveal his secret identity and… acts surprised when he doesn’t recognise him (“All these years getting beaten by a nobody”). The Scorpion seems insulted when Parker doesn’t recognise him without the ridiculous green suit, even though Parker knows the nerdy son of a mob boss, Angelo Fortunanto, much better than one of his recurring foes. Hell, Peter Parker can swing through New York without his costume on and nobody recognises him… because it’s a huge city with millions of inhabitants. They arguably seem to matter to each other only when wearing their silly costumes.
The other idea which Millar explores, admittedly with mixed results, is the notion of the supervillain. The question of why they do that sort of ridiculously colourful crime rather than committing offenses under the radar, as it were, and how the hell there are so many of them. Millar suggests a reason why the industry has become so “self-perpetuating”, offering the example of the selling of the Venom symbiont to the highest bidder. His notion of an underground cabal deciding to keep costumed heroes occupied is certainly original, but it also seems a little bit forced, as if it is too consciously attempting to be a meta-origin, explaining the origin of comic book supervillain as a whole. Accepting the emergence of individual supervillains in such numbers does take a degree of suspension of disbelief, but it’s one that goes with the genre. On the other hand, this new theory Millar proposes, while intriguing, actually provides an even greater strain on the suspension of disbelief, as in “nobody mentioned this before, ever?”
Ultimately, the conclusion of the saga (and the revelation of who the “mystery villain” is) proves how straight-forward a story Mark Millar’s Spider-Man is at its core. That isn’t a critique, it’s just an observation. It’s a well-told example of a straight-forward superhero saga, but it’s stright-forward nonetheless. There’s no reason it really needed to be branded Marvel Knights and it isn’t exceptionally dark even as mainstream superhero stories go. Taken as it is, it’s a solid and affectionate Spider-Man story told by an author who knows what he’s doing. Nothing more, nothing less.
It doesn’t condemn the notion of a “darker and edgier” Spider-Man, but it doesn’t justify it, either. There’s nothing more grown up about the character here than anywhere else (indeed, one of my favourite sequences from the book has Spider-Man swinging to the rescue… only to be asked to help change a tire – “You think this ever happens to Captain America?”). Sure, there’s a bit more violence and a bit of blood here or there, but – were those stylistic attributes removed – there’s really no need for this to be a Marvel Knights title.
It’s just a good Spider-Man story.