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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: Morbius – It Is The Life (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.

At a scant fourteen pages (sharing a single issue with a larger Flash Thompson story), It is the Life feels like something of an interlude in the large scheme of The Gauntlet. While most of the stories in the cycle are relatively short and contained (with nothing running over four issues), this is an exceptionally brief encounter between Spider-Man and one his older foes-turned-allies.

At the same time, writer Fred Van Lente manages to pile a lot into the fourteen pages of It is the Life, maintaining a wonderful thematic consistency across the line. Editor Stephen Wacker has done a wonderful job managing his team of “web-heads” and making sure that The Gauntlet remains internally consistent and on-point. Despite the diversity in talent working on the sprawling Spider-Man epic, it never feels like the larger threads get away from any of the writers.

Even a short fourteen-page interlude manages to hit on many of the event’s core themes.

What's at stake?

What’s at stake?

Reading It is the Life, one can get the sense that the story was a bit of filler. The Flash Thompson back-up eats up the rest of the comic and amounts to pretty much a full single issue of content. It’s not too hard to imagine that It is the Life was a story drafted in at the last minute make sure that there wasn’t a random stand-alone Flash Thompson tale sitting in the middle of the year’s big Spider-Man event.

Indeed, despite having the smaller page-count, It is the Life both opens the issue and claims the cover. The story itself feels fairly slight and disconnected from the rest of the stories, and there’s a sense that the team are keeping the creative wheels spinning a bit. Dan Slott already wrote an epilogue to Mysterioso dealing with the fact that a vial of Peter Parker’s blood had fallen into the clutches of some questionable people. There was an entire issue spent with Spider-Man and the Black Cat reclaiming it back.

Vamping it up...

Vamping it up…

It is the Life opens the revelation that the Black Cat had already sold the vial of blood on to some interesting parties. So Spider-Man has to steal it back, again. Given that there are only fourteen pages in the comic, Van Lente has to gloss over this plot contrivance, but it still stands out. After all the work of stealing the vial, realising how Spider-Man’s blood could cause an incredible amount of suffering in the wrong hands, the Black Cat just sold it on so casually?

Yes, the Black Cat is meant to be morally ambiguous and a little untrustworthy, but this seems particularly absurd. While Peter freaks out at the revelation, it’s all handled in a decidedly matter-of-fact manner. It’s essentially treated as a casual jumping-off point for another story about Peter trying to get his blood back, after we’ve just had an entire issue dedicated to Peter getting his blood back.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

As such, It is the Life feels like something of a holding pattern – a story designed to keep the plot static between two chapters of the story. You could easily skip It is the Life on a read-through of The Gauntlet and miss no major plot reveals or character developments. There aren’t even any allusions to the larger plot against Spider-Man or advances in any of the soap opera plot threads that happen around Peter. So it seems like It is the Life could easily have been slotted in to make sure that the issue featuring a solo story about Flash Thompson wasn’t completely separated from The Gauntlet.

And yet, if you are willing to accept these problems, It is the Life works surprisingly well. It may not advance the plot of The Gauntlet, but it does hit on the core themes. It’s a short story packed with nice touches and thematic resonance. In fact, it’s the first story to really make an explicit connection between the idea of blood and the larger story of The Gauntlet. Mr. Negative’s possession of Spider-Man’s blood in Mysterioso felt more like a plot device than a thematic element – a justification for a weapon that raised the stakes and a macguffin for an issue focused on Spider-Man and the Black Cat.

Talk about blowing the bloody doors off...

Talk about blowing the bloody doors off…

Here, as in most vampire stories, blood becomes a perversely romantic object – something to claimed and consumed and bonded. “Blood is all to these creatures,” Morbius remarks. He is, of course, talking about vampires; however, he is also referring to the Kravinoff family who have sworn a blood feud against Spider-Man. Like Martine, the Kravinoffs are eager to transgress mortal boundaries in order to bring their loved one back to them.

Martine’s obsession over Michael Morbius mirrors Sasha Kravinoff’s refusal to accept the death of her husband. When Martine recalls how Micahel tried to put distance between them, she angrily rants, “… as if he could go anywhere I would not follow! I became a creature of the night myself!” People can do truly horrific things (and turn into monsters) for their families, which is something of a recurring theme of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt. “There is no me without you,” Martine explains, articulating the same sense of ennui that would motivate the Kravinoffs to violate the sanctity of the grave in their own way.

Back from the undead...

Back from the undead…

Much of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt seems very self-aware, with many of the stories laced with meta-commentary and self-criticism. Some of it is playful – Van Lente has a great deal of fun both here and in Keemia’s Castle playing with Batman tropes – while some of it is a bit heavier. The Amazing Spider-Man was still in the middle of Brand New Day, a reboot spawning out of One More Day. In that story arc, editor Joe Quesada and writer J. Michael Straczynski had decided to wipe away decades of Spider-Man continuity and dissolve Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson.

Quesada’s argument had been that Spider-Man needed to go back to his roots as a young and single man swinging around New York City. He seemed to suggest that Spider-Man had really moved too far from the template that had made the character so successful, ventured beyond the archetype that popular culture had fashioned for the superhero. Quesada essentially argued that Spider-Man, as a character, must be entirely static. It goes without saying that this was a divisive and controversial decision, and one hotly contested to this day.

Blood work...

Blood work…

And The Gauntlet feels like it’s playing with these sorts of issues. As the Kravinoff family desecrate the grave of Kraven the Hunter in order to find direction, it feels like a metaphorical commentary on the larger trends in mainstream comic books. Grim Hunt is a story that undermines the weight and integrity of Kraven’s Last Hunt by virtue of its very existence; the reason it works so well is because this is entirely the point.

Yes, Grim Hunt is written as one of those “continuity fixes” in the style of One More Day, but it’s also written as a thinly-veiled criticism of those sorts of continuity fixes. Resurrecting Kraven the Hunter is shrewd business decision from the standpoint of anybody managing the franchise, given his iconic place in the Spider-Man mythos. However, resurrecting Kraven the Hunter also undermines the great stories that came before. It denies the character his ending and chips away at the weight of Kraven’s Last Hunt, in the same way that One More Day denies Peter Parker decades of development and devalues all those great stories.

More Morbius!

More Morbius!

So it’s no wonder that family is such an important part of The Gauntlet. Characters like Flint Marko, the Maggia, Charlie Cooper, Aleksei Sytsevich, Curt Connors and (of course) the Kravinoffs all confront what family means to them. They all fight to hold on to what is important, and deal with the devastating loss of the people they hold dear. In contrast, Spider-Man gave us his family in One More Day, and is no completely unaware that it ever existed. (Rather pointedly, Spider-Man has no real family to get drawn into The Gauntlet, so it focuses on his symbolic family of “spiders.”)

Van Lente builds a lot of this into It is the Life. When Martine discusses vampirism, she also seems to be talking about the lives of iconic comic book properties like Spider-Man. To live in stasis, ultimately unchanging, forever the same age. It’s a pretty effective metaphor. Like vampirism, it is both a curse and a blessing – a strength and a limitation. “A curse must also be attractive, yes?” she asks. “Otherwise… who would afflict themselves with it? To be assured of a love that will never fade… never age…” Peter Parker will outlive everybody who works on him, everybody who reads him. It is a form of immortality.

Not to put too fine a point on it...

Not to put too fine a point on it…

Van Lente also stresses – once again – the importance of Spider-Man’s “no kill” rule. It’s something that The Gauntlet repeatedly touches upon, but it’s explicitly stated in both Mysterioso and It is the Life. Here, Pete can’t even bring himself to kill an undead vampire. “And ever since Uncle Ben, I swore that if Spider-Man was anything… he was someone who didn’t let people die.” When Michael Morbius uses Spider-Man to help kill Martine, he flies into a rage. Although not directly responsible, he still feels culpable.

As such, It is the Life reinforces the idea that Spider-Man is distinguished by what Michael Morbius calls his “moral clarity.” Spider-Man doesn’t kill. Spider-Man tries to do the right thing. The Gauntlet is really more like a crucible – it’s an attempt to push Spider-Man to breaking point, in order to demonstrate that his “moral clarity” is so strong and so essential that it cannot be corrupted. Characters like Daredevil may suffer moral weakness, but Spider-Man has to be more.

The gloves stay on...

The gloves stay on…

And so It is the Life closes with a lovely image of Spider-Man rolling up his sleeve to donate blood to help Morbius’ attempts to cure an undead plague. That is – essentially – who Spider-Man is. Even on his darkest day, he’s a character who tries to help and who tries to do the right thing. That’s what really distinguishes the darkness of The Gauntlet from some of the more nihilistic “grim and gritty” comics around it – most notably another “Spider-Man-story-by-way-of-Batman”, Spider-Man: Reign. The Gauntlet is about how Peter endures the darkness, and pushes through it, without being compromised by it.

Writer Fred Van Lente’s script is decidedly playful. As seems to be mandatory in any modern vampire story, there’s a dig at Twilight (“is that glitter?”), but the best gag in the script comes in the opening page. Van Lente reveals that Spider-Man and Black Cat keep their masks on during sex, which is both hilarious and unsettling. It serves to immediately undermine Joe Quesada’s puritanical approach to Peter Parker by revealing that Peter apparently has a kinky side, but it also feels like Van Lente playing with the Spider-Man-as-Batman subtext of The-Gauntlet-as-Knightfall.

Somehow this seems a lot less exciting than Frank Miller imagined it...

Somehow this seems a lot less exciting than Frank Miller imagined it…

If The Gauntlet can be seen as a riff on Knightfall, it’s a story that works because it consciously plays up the differences between Spider-Man and Batman. So Van Lente uses this for a few nice gags during his work in The Gauntlet. In Keemia’s Castle, we got a wonderful twist on the old “Batman disappears once he has the information he needs” trope. Here, Van Lente seems to be playing with Frank Miller’s gloriously over-the-top sex scene between Batman and Black Canary in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, where the duo have mind-blowing superhero sex on a dock. (“We keep our masks on. It’s better that way”)

The opening of It is the Life feels like a cheeky subversion of that moment of Miller-esque excess. Apparently, Batman isn’t the only character who keeps his mask on in intimate moments. However, while Miller played it as a ridiculously cool sequence (complete with actual explosion), Van Lente treats it as more than a little weird and uncomfortable. The two aren’t making out on a rooftop or anything as absurd. They are in bed like a normal couple, just wearing clothe over their face. It makes the moment seem a lot less impressive than Miller tried to make it seem – acknowledging just how deeply weird that must be.

Eight-legged freak...

Eight-legged freak…

It’s also worth noting that The Gauntlet – as a whole – is an epic that stresses continuity. Great care is taken to chart the lives and developments of the various supporting villains, in order to demonstrate that these events don’t take place in a vacuum. Even in It is the Life, Michael Morbius is revisited by a character from his origin story and we get a flashback to his first encounter with (en eight-legged) Spider-Man, as if to emphasise (and wallow in) the strangeness of comic book continuity.

In a way, then, The Gauntlet could be read as a criticism of how One More Day essentially prevented that logical development and progression for Peter Parker, how large parts of his character arc are now missing. After all, it seems surreal that the time Peter had six arms is still part of continuity for The Amazing Spider-Man, but his marriage to Mary Jane has been completely obliterated. It says something about the mindset of One More Day.


One cool cat…

It is the Life is an interlude in The Gauntlet, but it is a fascinating interlude.

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

One Response

  1. Great review as always, but Black Cat and Spidey wearing masks during sex was established earlier, in the Return of the Black Cat arc. You didn’t seem to touch on it in the review, but whilst there’s certainly a kink aspect to it, it’s more because Peter doesn’t want just anyone knowing his identity, even if that someone is a friend like Black Cat.

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