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Spider-Man: Reign (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Man is not Batman.

This really should be self-evident, but it doesn’t seem to be. The biggest problem with Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man was that it wasted a lot of time telling audiences an origin story they all knew and had last seen a decade earlier. The second biggest problem was that the movie seemed to want to be a Batman film. There are a variety of tropes and conventions that work much better in a Batman story than they ever will in a Spider-Man story, and vice verse.

Unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man is far from the only Spider-Man story to make this mistake. Spider-Man: Reign, written and illustrated by Kaare Andrews, is essentially an attempt to use Spider-Man to tell another version of The Dark Knight Returns. It goes about as well as you might expect. (That is: not at all.)

Swinging through the night...

Swinging through the night…

The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most important superhero comics ever published. Along with Watchmen, it turned the genre on its head. It was a massive influence on a lot of the comics that have been published in the years since, for better or for worse. It was a game-changer, echoing forward through comic book history. The industry learned a lot from The Dark Knight Returns, although not necessarily the right lessons.

It became fashionable to publish “last” stories of iconic characters, offering a closing adventure for a given hero. Marvel turned this into something of a cottage industry, publishing a rake of one-shots and miniseries under the banner The End. Stories like Daredevil: End of Days and Spider-Man: Reign are very much spiritual companion pieces. As with any other storytelling tool, these could be used wisely or unwisely. It only mattered whether the final story being told was worth telling.

A crushing defeat...

A crushing defeat…

Comics also learned some other lessons from The Dark Knight Returns. Rugged anti-heroes become more popular and acceptable; it was fair game to question the sanity of these comic book characters, and to cynically undermine the rules by which their world operated. Violence and brutality became standard instruments of the trade, mixed with creepy sexual content to assure readers that the comics the were reading were “mature.” They often weren’t, but at least they were “adult.”

And a lot of Spider-Man: Reign gets bogged down in this sort of juvenile nonsense. It reads like a pale imitation of Frank Miller’s work, set in a dystopian fascist New York City. You can see Andrews using the same tools and techniques as Miller, just with considerably less skill. The first few pages feel like an amateur imitation of a more iconic and successful comic. They feature lazy symbolism, as first a spider and then some lovely flowers are absent-mindedly trampled beneath the heel of a jackboot thug. They then feature commentary on the media and politics, but without Miller’s bite.

The man behind the mask...

The man behind the mask…

The commentary and plot beats feel familiar. “A small price to pay for freedom, Miller,” one talking head offers as the city’s mayor clamps down on civil liberties in the name of security. When Spider-Man eventually returns to action, it feels like a lame rehash of Batman’s triumphant return in The Dark Knight Returns“Thirty years since the city’s seen anything like it,” we’re told, which sounds like the kind of soundbyte Miller might have used.

To be fair to Andrews, he does go out of his way to acknowledge his influences. One of the talking heads is helpfully named “Miller Janson”, for the writer/artist and his frequent collaborator. When a third-or-lower-tier villain makes his dramatic reappearance, he does so to a homemade mix tape – “Hypno-mix ’86.” It’s a reference to the year that The Dark Knight Returns was published. And yet, this doesn’t make the end result any more satisfying.

For whom the bell tolls...

For whom the bell tolls…

Spider-Man: Reign lacks the over-the-top satirical edge that made The Dark Knight Returns so fascinating. There’s no sense that Spider-Man: Reign is aware of how monumentally absurd and ridiculous this all is. Instead, Peter Parker’s situation is treated as a genuine emotional tragedy and the comic’s political commentary is treated as profound and incisive. Never mind that we’ve heard all this before. There’s a sense that Spider-Man: Reign thinks it has something very important to tell us, and so shouts at the top of its lungs.

And so the scenes that are supposed to be heart-warming feel cynical and cliché. “You just let them take him?” a small child accuses an ineffective Peter Parker. “How could you?” The scene would be trite enough on its own. However, it directly follows a scene of Parker trying to help and getting beaten up for the effort. It might be legitimate to criticise his effectiveness or usefulness, but the scene doesn’t do that. It tries to convince us that Peter has stopped caring. Which he clearly hasn’t.

Kiss me, deadly...

Kiss me, deadly…

So we get angsty nonsense like that throughout the comic. “There’s no one out there to help us,” the adorable helpless little child explains. “No one to save us. No one.” J. Jonah Jameson finds himself playing the voice of reason to an insane New York, doling out clichés. “You want safety?” he asks his audience. “You want security? You don’t look for someone else. You look inside.” Of course, this line of logic would condemn Spider-Man as much as the jackboot fascist thugs controlling New York, but the comic book glosses over this.

Unlike the return of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns, Spider-Man’s triumphant return is treated as an unequivocal good. Which effectively turns Spider-Man: Reign into an unqualified endorsement of its hero – suggesting that his absence led to this dystopia and his return heralds the end of it. There’s no ambiguity to any of this, which immediately undercuts the decision to frame this in the mould of The Dark Knight Returns.

The day the disco died...

The day the disco died…

Miller’s piece acknowledged that Bruce Wayne’s unrelenting urge to bend the world to his will was its own form of tyranny, while Andrews treats it as the exact opposite. Indeed, Jameson  and New York seem to completely and unquestionably endorse Spider-Man at the end of the comic. More than that, Spider-Man: Reign seems to buy into Peter Parker’s pity party, with none of the skepticism or cynicism that Miller used when examining Bruce Wayne.

This sort of idealism simply doesn’t fit within the world that Andrews is trying to build here. The comic’s big moment sees Spider-Man breaking out of his own grave wearing his iconic red-and-blue uniform. It’s meant to be a literal resurrection – a return of the good-old-fashioned hero. And yet the comic itself doesn’t become any less cynical after it makes a point to put Spider-Man back in his classic costume.

Such anger and venom...

Such anger and venom…

In fact, Spider-Man is just as bloodthirsty and reckless after he puts on the classic costume as he was when he was trying to get his groove back. “Almost feel sorry for the guy,” he muses, after throwing the Scorpion to his death. “Almost.” If you are going to herald the return of a classic hero as an unequivocal good, you should probably try to make him seem like a good guy – or at least hue close to his classic characterisation.

This is a comic that treats Peter Parker as a hero after he turns the “Sinner Six” into unwitting suicide bombs. There is a bit of a disconnect there, and there’s a sense that Spider-Man: Reign is desperately trying to be taken seriously – that it wants to prove how adult and edgy it is. That’s fine, but it requires a bit more thought and a bit more care to really work. Unfortunately, the comic book is nowhere near as smart as it thinks that it is.

It hasn't got a leg to stand on...

It hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

This desire to be taken seriously plays out in the worst possible way when we discover how Mary Jane died. It turned out that Spider-Man killed her, because his… ahem… “fluids” were radioactive:

“The doctors didn’t understand how it happened! How you had been poisoned with radioactivity! How your body slowly became riddled with cancer! I did. I was… I am filled with radioactive blood. And not just blood. Every fluid. Touching me… Loving me… Loving me killed you! Like a spider, crawling up inside your body and laying a thousand eggs of cancer… I killed you.”

Ignoring the cheesy and unnecessarily tacky imagery (spiders; eggs), this is an absolutely abysmal idea. It essentially punishes Mary Jane for sleeping with the hero.

You won't have Spider-Man to kick around any more...

You won’t have Spider-Man to kick around any more…

It’s the worst sort of comic book sexism – the idea that the hero must be punished through his lover, and that women should be punished for having sex. Mary Jane serves no purpose in Spider-Man: Reign except to motivate Peter. Her death “breaks” him, and it’s only after he comes to terms with that that he can put the uniform back on. She’s not a character, she’s an object – a totem who doesn’t exist beyond what she represents to Peter.

More than that, though, there’s a creepy subtext to all this – as if Marvel is enforcing Joe Quesada’s bizarre “Spider-Man did not have sex outside of marriage” dicta that drove J. Michael Straczynski’s Sins Past. It’s the trashiest of moralistic horror clichés, the idea that having and enjoying sex is a bad thing and should be punished immediately. It’s creepy, unnerving and uncomfortable. Is it really such a problem to suggest that sex is something that can be fun and enjoyable if treated responsibly? That is, after all, Spider-Man’s mantra.

Suit up!

Suit up!

All this pretty much kills Spider-Man: Reign dead in the water. That’s a bit of a shame, as Andrews does have some good ideas buried in here. There’s something very clever about using Venom as a stand-in for “oil” or “black gold.” Andrews doesn’t do as much with it as he might, but it’s still a pretty cool idea in a story that is trying to do political commentary. The idea of Venom as a dark mirror to Spider-Man taken to the logical extreme is quite fun.

Representing the dark side of Peter’s mantra is a worthy idea, and Spider-Man: Reign flirts with it a few times. “You were always talking so much about responsibility and power,” Venom explains. “You didn’t want them anymore, Peter. So I took them both.” Sadly, it never quite develops the idea as much as it needs to in order to get the story to work. The bell imagery from the last issue is a bit on the nose, but clever enough.

Jameson's not afraid to get his hands dirty...

Jameson’s not afraid to get his hands dirty…

The presentation of Doctor Octopus is also quite interesting. Andrews presents a future where the Doctor’s mechanic arms have managed to outlive him. “All I had left were my four sons,” he explains. “And I gave them one last mission. To enter the underworld and find you, no matter how long it took. And then to exchange my body for yours.” In a way, it could be seen as a nice bit of foreshadowing. Dan Slott would run with this idea for The Superior Spider-Man. Again, it’s a good idea, just under-developed here.

Spider-Man: Reign is a misfire of epic proportions. It’s a story that fundamentally misunderstands its central character, and isn’t anywhere near as smart as it needs to be.

6 Responses

  1. It’s too bad for that…
    Unlike For Adventure Time, I’d mean without Finn the human boy, there’d be no hope for the mythical land of ooo.
    If there’s any Anti-heroes in the part, I’ll rather be put a lot of faith on All Adventure Time’s villains army.

  2. Should we loses faith on Finn the Human Boy and his certain reputation of being of an adventurer?
    i’d mean ,what if Finn the human will be married to Princess Bubblegum and gotten infected by the radioactive sperm when he’s remains as an ageless young adult, while his 1st Love intrest grows old and have to had an AI presence in the Future where There were no Land Of Ooo?

  3. Boy!!!!
    That’s one Good Comic Of Spidy… Ahem… Except for the representation of How ….Ahem…Adventure Time’s villains going to have revenges on the certain human Boy for making them look bad; even though they’d must listen for their… ahem… “puppet master” who’s actually turn out to be an evil alien spore known as the symbiote:-|||

  4. If there’s any volunteers of the micro-thermal bombs implanted on the Sinister 6 mutants…Ahem…I’ve recommend to tests out on Adventure Time’s Princesses to be intended to tests out to blown away their kingdoms on the Mythical Land Of Ooo!
    I’d mean i know it’s in our nature to love Adventure Time and treasure about the escapades that Finn And his talking dog, Jake, But we’ve got face the fact that Finn And Jake was the heroes that Ooo deserved…but not the ones that’s needed right now.
    But in retrospects on Spider man Reign comics, it’d represents how should we move on with our lives…our normal lives that we’ve held dearly about.
    That Is the Responsbility that a certain adventurer like Finn the Human boy shall soon realized when he’s a grown man…a creator with lots guidances when his teachings should soon comes within his childrens:The Crystal Gems.
    And hero that’ll be a burden of something good; even when everyone around him were beautiful,perfect,or cool(or not).

  5. Spider-Man Reign is unironically the worst comic series I’ve ever read.

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