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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Rhino – Rage of the Rhino/Endangered Species (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.

The Gauntlet is structured very carefully. The opening salvo of The Gauntlet is comprised of stories spanning a reasonable number of issues. These aren’t epic six-month-long encounters with classic bad guys. Thanks to the thrice monthly shipping schedule of The Amazing Spider-Man, few of the stories lasted longer than a month of real time. Still, stories like Power to the People, Keemia’s Castle and Mysterioso unfold across a number of issues.

As The Gauntlet races towards its climax, the stories get shorter. We begin to get a series of one-issue interludes, like It is the Life or The Sting. These are shorter, quicker affairs – they create a sense of heightened pace, as if the story is speeding up and gathering momentum as it moves towards its endgame. This is the middle act of The Gauntlet, working from the premise that the stage has been set and the band is engaged.

A smashing success...

A smashing success…

Then, as we push on into the third act of climax of The Gauntlet, we get three extended storylines. Something Can Stop the Juggernaut serves as something of a breather story arc, insulating the events of Shed and Grim Hunt from the rest of The Gauntlet. However, the four-part Shed is very much the climax of The Gauntlet – pushing much of the arc’s tones and themes to their logical endpoint. After that, Grim Hunt is the culmination of it all; a meditation on what this has all been about.

This clever structuring is in evidence for Joe Kelly’s story about the Rhino. The two-issue story arc is structured as two one-shots cleverly split over the course of The Gauntlet. The first part of the story, Rage of the Rhino appears nestled between Keemia’s Castle and Mysterioso. It appears to stand alone. And then, as The Gauntlet gathers pace, Endangered Species hits. And it hits with the power of a freight train.

Building up momentum...

Building up momentum…

Rage of the Rhino is a small tale, one with a relatively optimistic ending. It doesn’t feel too odd at this stage of The Gauntlet – at this point, the damage being done to Peter Parker is still impersonal. It’s sad to see the Daily Bugle building destroyed at the end of Power to the People, but the institution itself (and its staff) live on. While the ending of Keemia’s story is heart-breaking, she is a new character with no direct connection to Spider-Man. Of course, things become a lot more personal in later stories like Scavenging or Shed, but that’s still some distance away.

So, at this point, the ending of Rage of the Rhino doesn’t seem too strange. It ends with the affirmation that Aleksei Sytsovich has found true love and happiness, perhaps the most optimistic ending of any story in The Gauntlet. Only Something Can Stop the Juggernaut comes close, and it’s questionable if that officially counts as part of The Gauntlet rather than a respite from it. That’s the beauty of Kelly’s Rhino story.

Spidey's really got it figured out, eh?

Spidey’s really got it figured out, eh?

On its own terms, Rage of the Rhino is an endearing and optimistic one-shot. Structured as part of The Gauntlet, it’s just set up for one heck of a punch to the gut. Endangered Species is an astonishingly powerful piece of comic book storytelling, and it is constructed meticulously and precisely – with writer Joe Kelly, artist Max Fiumara and editor Stephen Wacker providing a heartbreaking tale of Rhino.

In a way, the sad story of Aleksei Sytsovich seems like a mirror to the life that Peter Parker had before Marvel decided to reset his continuity. Aleksei is happily married. He is a family man. Far from the Soviet troublemaker who confronted Peter Parker back in the day, Aleksei has matured into a fine specimen. He has grown as a character, while retaining his own history and his own personal continuity.

Grabbing the Rhino by the horns...

Grabbing the Rhino by the horns…

Kelly’s script draws attention to this. The change in Aleksei’s life is explicitly rooted in the events of Civil War. He explains to Spider-Man, “After the registrations, after the war, I was given a chance at a life and I took it. I walked away. It… has not been easy.” The events of “the war” were also important to Spider-Man. After unmasking in the main miniseries and the tie-in issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, it became necessary for Marvel to reset the character. It was the point at which the company seemed to commit to rebooting the character.

The public unmasking was very much the point of no-return for Peter Parker, the crossing of the threshold that would eventually and inevitably lead to the publication of One More Day and the resetting of his own personal continuity. In terms of narrative, it set the chain of events in motion that would lead to his infamous “deal with the devil.” In terms outside the comic itself, it was such a radical change to the status quo that it would require a reset.

Suit up...

Suit up…

And so it isn’t a coincidence that the radical change to Alexsei also took place in that context. Like Peter Parker, Alexsei walked down a path that would eventually force a reset, that would eventually lead the character back to his classic status quo, negating all the character growth and development he had experienced. When asked if they sell copies of him in the gift shop, Aleksei jokes, “Alas, miss, I am an original.” He certainly is.

Rage of the Rhino is built around the idea that Aleksei is still the Rhino and will always be the Rhino. No matter what happens, that cannot change. He will always be haunted by that fact, and drawn to that reality. It doesn’t matter that he has grown as a character or expanded beyond the one-note characterisation; much like Peter Parker – he will inevitably revert back to form. “All of this happened because I tried to be something I am not,” Aleksei tells Spider-Man at the story’s climax. “I will never forgive you.”

Yes, a story about a guy in a grey Rhino suit can be heartbreaking. Wanna fight about it?

Yes, a story about a guy in a grey Rhino suit can be heartbreaking. Wanna fight about it?

This sounds quite like the editorial rationales used to justify One More Day, suggesting that Peter Parker had lost something in his marriage to Mary Jane and that he needed to get back to his roots, so to speak. The difference is that Spider-Man got wiped and reset at an editorial level, through awkward contrivance and terrible plotting. However, the Rhino is actually aggressively reset within the pages of Endangered Species. As such, the comic manages to reframe the meta-textual tragedy of Spider-Man’s “reset” against the tragedy of Aleksei’s reversion to base form.

The new Rhino works hard to revert Aleksei back to the man he used to be, based around the logic that Aleksei has lost the essence of himself in trying to grow and develop beyond what he was. It’s an act of utter brutality, one that horrifies Spider-Man.  When Spider-Man asks him why he would do such a thing, the new Rhino replies, “Because animals carry nothing with them and he needed to be reminded… what he truly was.” In particular the idea that “animals carry nothing with them” seems like a rather cynical response to the argument that Spider-Man is only interesting when he’s footloose and fancy free.

Horse play...

Horse play…

It helps that Joe Kelly constructs Rage of the Rhino and Endangered Species as a grand tragedy. The (relatively) happy ending of Rage of the Rhino only lures the audience into a false sense of security; it postpones the horrific climax of Endangered Species as Aleksei is stripped of absolutely everything that made him hope to better himself. The Gauntlet is essentially a story about how characters respond to loss, and how Spider-Man endures because Peter Parker never allows his grief to consume him.

However, Aleksei remains one of the most sympathetic supporting characters in The Gauntlet, a tragic character who simply lacks Peter Parker’s strength of will. Like Curt Connors, the inevitability of his return to villainy (along with the circumstances of his collapse) are heart-wrenching. Kelly effectively and elegantly captures a sense of domestic bliss and happiness in these two issues. It is very hard not to pity Aleksei, and to invest in his own crisis.

Break glass in case of emergency...

Break glass in case of emergency…

(Indeed, the climax of Endangered Species is probably the strongest single moment of The Gauntlet, as Spider-Man can’t do anything but watch Aleksei give in to his darker impulses. Kelly compounds all this by playing on Spider-Man’s sense of responsibility, making it clear that Spider-Man’s attempts to assure Aleksei and calm him down were at least partially responsible for how things play out. “What happens next… is because of you,” Aleksei assures Spider-Man, as if Peter needed any more guilt.)

However, even outside it’s wonderful central tragedy, Rage of the Rhino and Endangered Species are exceptionally well-constructed. We even get a nice piece of foreshadowing of Grim Hunt, which makes sense given Kelly is writing both stories. Rage of the Rhino sees Peter waking from a prophetic nightmare.  He explains, “I’m, like, in a zoo, or the jungle… I don’t know… and there’s a lion. Chewing on something… bloody. And he’s just looking at me like ‘You’re next.'”

Hardly an uplifting instalment...

Hardly an uplifting instalment…

While prophetic dreams are a stock way of raising dramatic tension, the idea of Peter having nightmares works reasonably well in the context of The Gauntlet. After all, the nightmare underscores the mystical aspects of the story arc. It’s something that ties it back to the more magical aspects of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man, another nod towards the continuity and history leading up to One More Day.

The new Rhino is also a fascinating creation – probably the best of the second-generation villains to populate the middle-section of The Gauntlet. We never learn too much about who this character is, but that seems to be the entire point. Kelly’s script is very self-aware, and the new Rhino is treated as a replacement character within the narrative. In order to assert his own right to the name and the brand, he needs to vanquish the ghost (or, you know, the living form) of his predecessor.

There's gonna be blood...

There’s gonna be blood…

Indeed, even the literal “ramping up” of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery as part of The Gauntlet is presented in self-aware terms. It is suggested that the Rhino needs to “ascend” and “transform”, a way of literalising the transformative subtext of The Gauntlet. Stories like Keemia’s Castle and Mysterioso transformed their central villains, casting them in new lights. Here, that transformation isn’t a by-product of unseen factors, but the stated goal of the character. “Have you pulled yourself from the gutter to be a plaything?” the Kravinoffs tease the new Rhino. “Or… are you ready for a true transformation? The one you dream of?”

There’s a decidedly religious subtext to the new Rhino, providing a nice juxtaposition with his direct predecessor. The original Rhino was created as a boogeyman representing contemporaneous fears – a walking Soviet weapon of mass destruction. As such, his replacement taps into more modern anxieties – religious fanaticism. It’s no coincidence that he strikes during the citizenship ceremony where Aleksei’s wife formally becomes an American.

He certainly knows how to make an entrance...

He certainly knows how to make an entrance…

Max Fiumara’s artwork deserves special mention. Fiumara has a wonderful knock for pacing – drawing stylised figures while handling the action sequences with gusto. Fiumara’s artwork is suitably dark and moody for the story, but it’s also very crisp and clear – it’s never confusing, and Fiumara has a great sense of pacing a page – structuring and laying out the panels for maximum effect.

Rage of the Rhino and Endangered Species represent a high point of The Gauntlet, and a testament to just how well put together the whole thing is.

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

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