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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: Sandman – Keemia’s Castle (Review)

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.

As much as The Gauntlet might seem to be a single over-arching story stretched across eight months of The Amazing Spider-Man, it really makes more sense a collection of smaller stories grouped together exploring the same core themes and ideas. There’s very little to directly connect Keemia’s Castle to the large plot in The Gauntlet. In many respects, this is just a typical confrontation between Spider-Man and recurring opponent Flint Marko.

On the other hand, it plays beautifully into the themes of the larger event, offering a glimpse at how desperate situations can push people to desperate decisions and how sometimes it’s possible to win without a sense of accomplishing anything. It also manages a pretty clever re-working and reinvention of a classic Spider-Man foe, doing a much better job at re-purposing the Sandman than Power to the People did with Electro.

A cold heart...

A cold heart…

Keemia’s Castle is a rather beautiful low-key story. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the two-issue arc playing out as a stand-alone story with only a minimum of adjustment. Like a lot of the stronger stories in The Gauntlet, it works because it feels so intimate. Yes, the event itself is epic in scope, but the individual components work best when they remain personal. Here, it’s the relationship between one of Spider-Man’s oldest adversaries and the girl he calls his daughter.

Part of what makes Keemia’s Castle so fascinating is that writer Fred Van Lente is essentially re-purposing the “Sandman just wants to help his daughter” subplot from Spider-Man III. While Thomas Haden Church’s performance as Flint Marko was one of the best parts of that admittedly troubled film, the actual plot itself came off as terrible cliché. After all “turning to crime to pay for a sick child’s medicine” is a stock sympathetic villain plot, and Spider-Man III lacked the energy to make it novel or exciting.

March of the snowmen...

March of the snowmen…

In contrast, Van Lente takes that old chestnut of a plot and finds a way to make it a bit more specific to the characters involved. Sandman’s plight in Spider-Man III was so generic that it could easily have been adapted into the back story of any Spider-Man villain from Electro through to Mysterio through to the Vulture. Keemia’s Castle takes this basic idea and fashions it into a story tailored for the Sandman.

There’s something equal parts sweet and horrific about the way that the Sandman uses his powers to create an entire world for Keemia. Able to form a living landscape, Flint Marko is able to shape Keemia’s world to provide anything she needs at a moment’s notice. “He’s everywhere, all at once,” her opening narration explains. “And makes sure whatever I need, I get.” He can create an army of snowmen to create a sense of magic, tuck her in when she falls asleep at play, build her a castle to keep her safe.

Sometimes you hit the wall, sometimes the wall hits you...

Sometimes you hit the wall, sometimes the wall hits you…

It is incredibly creepy and unsettling, but there’s something very earnest and sincere about it – what parent hasn’t imagined being able to build a castle to protect their child from the outside world? The beauty of Keemia’s Castle is that it concedes both sides of the argument. It allows that Flint Marko’s abduction and manipulation of Keemia is unhealthy at best, but also that he really does – at least consciously – want the best for his daughter. It never once suggests that Spider-Man is wrong to rescue Keemia from his clutches, even while it allows that there’s some tragedy about the situation.

Like Power to the People, Keemia’s Castle emphasises the fact that many of Spider-Man’s iconic bad guys are tragic figures. They are “freaks” who have been unable to live normal lives as a result of various mishaps and accidents. While Spider-Man tactfully waits until Keemia is out of earshot to mention it, Keemia’s Castle draws attention to the fact that Marko cannot be Keemia’s father, at least from a biological perspective.

Talk about making a last sand...

Talk about making a last sand…

“I’m the only guy who ever treated Keemia like a father!” he responds, angrily – and it’s hard not feel a pang of pity for Flint Marko. The man will never be a father, and he is trying to do what he sees as the right thing. He challenges Spider-Man, “You know what that means to a freak like me, who’s never had anything permanent in his life?” It’s interesting – in the context of wiping out Peter Parker’s family life in Brand New Day – that so many of the villains in The Gauntlet are fighting so hard to preserve their families.

Indeed, like the Rhino, Sandman is a character who just wants to be left alone to live his family life. He repeatedly stresses how he doesn’t want to hurt Spider-Man – or anybody – he just wants to be left alone to live his family life. “I don’t know what kinda B.S. charges you’re trying to pin on me, web-head — but I don’t want to do nothin’ to nobody!” he yells. “Except be left alone!” Ultimately, parts of his sub-conscious are driven to horrible lengths to protect what he sees as his own, just like the Rhino is driven to impossible lengths to avenge what he sees as his own.

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

(This is an effective contrast to Spider-Man’s situation at the climax of The Gauntlet, in Grim Hunt. Spider-Man has just been pushed through hell by the events of The Gauntlet. And yet, despite all that, the story emphasises that there are some things that Spider-Man would never – could never – do, even in the most dire of circumstances. Of course, given the events of One More Day, it’s impossible to attack Peter Parker’s family, so the Kravens target “the Spiders.”)

While Keemia provides the story’s heart, Van Lente and artist Javier Pulido have great fun with Sandman. Like Electro, Sandman is a character who really has an incredible amount of potential. The ability to control every single molecule of his body without a central nervous system is an intriguing concept, right up there with mastery of electricity. It’s something that has a lot of application beyond the classic “turn arm into cartoon sledgehammer and hit Spider-Man” schtick.

Sand storm...

Sand storm…

Keemia’s Castle is full of brilliant twists on Sandman’s power set. Sandman can morph his body into a giant castle, retaining the form while he sleeps – although the architecture tends to distort to resemble an MC Escher painting. He is able to form weapons that are left behind at the crime scene and then simply crawl home – which feels a little bit like a plot hole, but it’s a high-concept plot hole. More than that, he is able to form duplicates of himself, so he can better multi-task.

It’s this last ability that is perhaps the most novel twist on the Sandman’s set-up. From a purely conceptual level, it’s a brilliant twist on the character. “The crowd scene is kind of new for you, isn’t it, Sandy?” Spider-Man muses. Of course, this has unforeseen consequences. It turns out that some part of Flint Marko’s mind is responsible for the murders that spark the plot. “Your subconscious is controlling some of your bodies — acting out repressed urges without your knowledge!”

Bug hunt...

Bug hunt…

Keemia’s Castle is also interesting for how it plays with Spider-Man’s relationship to New York City. The entire Marvel Universe seems centred around New York, but Spider-Man has a particularly strong relationship with the city. While the X-Men live in up-state New York and the Avengers tend to deal with global threats, while Daredevil keeps to Hell’s Kitchen, Spider-Man is a character particularly associated with Manhattan. There’s a reason that Sony got away with turning the Empire State Building red and blue in celebration of the hero.

As such, it makes sense that the character should feel dug into the day-to-day life of the city. Keemia’s Castle was published in 2009, and so it feels anchored in the New York of that particular moment. Most obviously, there’s the fact that Flint Marko has claimed Governors Island for himself. The site was the cause of much debate in the early years of the twenty-first century. George W. Bush sold the site to the city for a nominal cost in 2003, and Mayor Bloomberg called for “visionary ideas to redevelop and preserve Governors Island” in 2006.

Good times...

Good times…

While Governors Island has been open to the public on summer weekends since 2003, there was very little progress on what was to be done with the island. Proposals have included pitches for a “New Globe Theatre” on the island or a land bridge connecting Governors Island to the mainland. In many cases, the beauty of the isolated land mass was stressed, with the New York Times commenting that “the island’s isolation might prevent it from drawing enough visitors to make it economically self-sustaining.”

In a way, then, Governors Island evokes that other site which invites debate and discussion. Years after September 11, what to do with the site of the Twin Towers remains a hotly contested topic. Keemia’s Castle touches on this idea. As with Governors Island, there’s a sense that the city has no idea what to do with the remains of the Daily Bugle, destroyed by Electro during Power to the People. The rubble is drawn in such a way as to invite comparison, as the suggestion that a “Freedom of the Press Tower” should be erected where the Daily Bugle once stood mirrors various proposals about what to do with the site of the World Trade Centre.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Indeed, even the conversation between J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson as they stand by the rubble seems to invite that sort of comparison. It’s telling that the two reflect together on their past – in particular, the events of “Recount Thanksgiving.” The Gauntlet was published after George W. Bush had left office, but the events of his term still hung heavily over New York City. It’s not hard to imagine why staring at the ruins of the Bugle might prompt memories about the infamous (and hotly contested) 2000 election.

The legacy of September 11 seeps into the story in other ways. Peter Parker has found his position dramatically altered. His investigation into the missing weapons is consciously positioned close to the scene of Jameson and Robertson examining the wreckage and alluding to the 2000 election. “In the Bugle days, this is just the sort of story Glory and I would be trying to blow wide open… but now we’re government employees, trying to keep as tight a lid on it as possible. In both cases, we’re doing what we think is best for the city.”

You gotta be kidding...

You gotta be kidding…

Things are more complex than they once were. They are not as black-and-white as they may have seemed back in the day. In a way, Keemia’s Castle seems to touch on these themes as part of Spider-Man’s inexorable connection to New York City. It can’t help but explore these ideas, and they can’t help but inform the comic. Even years after the events, they cast a shadow over proceedings. In a way, it’s perfect fodder for The Gauntlet, which is a story about how dark you can make a Spider-Man story.

At the same time, there’s a conscious sense that maybe there’s a limit to how dark a Spider-Man story can become. Keemia’s Castle touches on some pretty heavy ideas, but it never loses sight of Peter Parker. So we’re treated to scenes of a winter-wrapped Spider-Man singing “spider-sleuth” to himself, and fashioning a glider out of webs. Indeed, playing off the Batman-esque themes of The Gauntlet, Van Lente even makes a pretty funny “Batman disappears as soon as he gets the information” gag.

Oh, chute...

Oh, chute…

Keemia’s Castle is a superb Spider-Man story, and a fantastic chapter in The Gauntlet, one that manages to hit on a lot of the event’s core themes without feeling too tied into the on-going plot.

You might be interested in our other reviews of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt:

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