• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Lizard – Shed (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.

Shed is the climax of The Gauntlet. It is The Gauntlet pushed to its logical extreme – just about as dark and grim as you could possibly make a story in The Amazing Spider-Man. In many respects, Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo’s Shed starts out as a typical Spider-Man story. Curt Connors has relapsed, as he tends to do. Connors has transformed into the bestial Lizard, and the Lizard has decided to target Connors’ family in order to assert his dominance.

The basic plot is familiar. It is standard Spider-Man fare. Our hero will react to this crisis and fight the Lizard to save the Connors family from the monster that their husband has become. Indeed, Spider-Man may even use Curt Connors’ love his family to help vanquish the Lizard, thus offering readers a “happily ever after” ending to what was an emotional ordeal for all involved. It’s one of the most basic and archetypal of superhero stories, one so compelling because it’s about humanity winning out over basic instinct.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

That isn’t what happens in Shed.

What makes Shed so brutally effective is the way that it manages to completely subvert expectations. Thanks to the meddling of outside forces, Peter Parker isn’t able to protect the Connors family; he can’t save the life of Billy Connors; he can’t redeem Curt Connors. The Lizard wins. The Lizard dominates. However, what makes the story so clever is the way that Wells layers another twist on top of this, suggesting that although the mosnter has vanquished the man, the monster may not be unchanged.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

The best stories in The Gauntlet have worked to update and reinvent the central characters – to push the iconic Spider-Man villains into the twenty-first century. Mysterioso reimagined the master of mystery as a criminal performance artist and organised crime stunt director. Keemia’s Castle gave us a more sensitive and personal glimpse of Flint Marko. Endangered Species turned the Rhino’s story into a grand tragedy, juxtaposed against the attempted “ascension” of a newcomer.

In Shed, Zeb Wells incorporates a lot of these different elements into his work on the Lizard. Like Alexei in Endangered Species, the story of Curt Connors becomes a tragedy about a man trying desperately to be something more than his baser instincts – trying and failing. Like Marko Keemia’s Castle, the Lizard sees his abilities dramatic expand and increase, making this something of a literal rebirth. As with the replacement Rhino in Rage of the Rhino, this is the story about a villain transcending.

It's not easy being green...

It’s not easy being green…

As much as the title Shed is metaphorical, it is also literal. The Lizard sheds his old skin like a cocoon to become something else, something new. This involves a large-scale reimagining of the classic foe. Chris Bachalo offers us a radically redesigned take on the character, minimising the Lizard’s residual mammalian traits. Zeb Wells gives the characters new powers, including limited telepathic control of his prey. However, Wells also works quite hard to re-conceptualise the character.

In Shed, Wells emphasises that the Lizard is linked to the “r-complex”, an aspect of Paul D. MacLean’s “triune brain” model. While the theory itself is viewed somewhat sceptically in academic circles, with strong evolutionary evidence undermining MacLean’s findings, it remains a popular piece of pulp science. It’s a great visual – the idea that part of the human mind is secretly reptilian, and that this reptilian section of the brain contains all manner of basic impulses and instinct.

What a tangled web...

What a tangled web…

In fact, MacLean first formulated his theories in the sixties, making his work on “the reptile brain” part of the same pseudo-scientific pop cultural stew that created Spider-Man and the rest of Marvel comics. The sense that everybody secretly has a bit of lizard hiding inside of them is a delightfully unsettling idea – an idea that is compelling and intriguing even if it isn’t necessarily accurate. So fact the actual accuracy or legitimacy of MacLean’s theory is completely irrelevant. It’s a great concept, easy to grasp, and one that plays beautifully into the way that superhero comics work.

So the Lizard is introduced as a primal force, the most bestial of Spider-Man’s animalistic adversaries. The Lizard finds expression through Curt Connors’ impulses and instincts, his subconscious responses to various cues. “Y-you’re invading my personal space, Brian,” he warns his boss. “I won’t stand for it…” The Lizard is provoked by the alpha-male conduct of his supervisor, Curt Connors’ territoriality and rage given form.

Prey tell...

Prey tell…

In a way, it makes sense to position the Lizard at the end of The Gauntlet. After all, The Gauntlet is a story about what makes Spider-Man so special, how the hero endures all his defeats and humiliations. It’s about how Spider-Man is so much stronger than he might think, about his ability to endure and to retain his own agency and identity while those around him slip up and fall back on their baser instinct. So the Lizard is the ultimate example of a character dominated by their baser impulses. (Shed makes it clear that this was always part of Curt Connors. Charlie describes it as a “relapse”, while Billy says he always knew it would end this way.)

Parts of Flint Marko are willing to murder to protect his daughter. Alexei reverts back to raw brutality on the loss of his wife. The new Vulture is a creature of impulse. The mob is willing to sell its soul to Mysterio in order to remain on top. Charlie’s father sold out everything he believed in when things got tough. Michael Morbius’ beloved became a monster when confronted with the loss of her husband. Curt Connors is this idea taken to its logical extreme; a man who cannot cope with the world around him and who just gives in to his darker territorial impulses.

Curt Connors' change...

Curt Connors’ change…

In contrast, Peter Parker endures. He withstands all this pressure and all this weight bearing down on him. At the climax of Shed, the Lizard commands an army of New Yorkers to attack Peter Parker. Spider-Man’s inner monologue refuses to allow any possibility of harming these by-standers. “These people are innocent, Peter. Stay calm. Think. Let it go. Go limp. Don’t you ever hurt them… even if it means…” Peter Parker would rather die than compromise. Even when he makes the wrong choices – as in Scavenging – he does so for the right reasons.

Of course, Shed is most notable for how incredibly dark it is. The story starts out as a fairly typical confrontation between Spider-Man and the Lizard, but takes a turn for the morbid. As with the other stories in The Gauntlet, there’s a sense that the stories are being manipulated by forces within the narrative. As Mysterio tried to deconstruct Peter Parker, the Kravinoffs are trying to upset the story beats of a standard Lizard story.

I am Lizard, hear me roar...

I am Lizard, hear me roar…

Indeed, even Madame Web can see how this story is meant to play out; quite like all the other Lizard stories before it. “But from the cries of the son… will the beast be tamed,” she explains, informing the audience that there exists an alternate version of Shed where the second issue ends with Spider-Man getting through to Curt Connors. Unfortunately, this isn’t the ending that Sasha Kravinoff has in mind. “Madame Web, that ending won’t do at all,” she complains, so the family move to shift the ending ever-so-slightly.

The result is heart-breaking. Shed is a story that has a dead child. It features casual murder. There are several on-panel sexual assaults and some heavily implied off-panel assaults. When Spider-Man arrives at the scene of Curt Connors’ transformation, Charlie Cooper explains that his lab technician (and the object of Connors’ affection) has been deeply traumatised. “She’s in no shape to talk. … Leave it at that.” The dialogue is decidedly ambiguous, particularly given the frequency of Lizard attacks in New York in the Marvel Universe.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

In short, Shed is packed with the sort of things that have become cliché in superhero comics that are trying to be “edgy” or “mature.” After all, nothing says “comics are totally grown up” like throwing in the murder of children and sexual assault. One of the major criticisms of DC’s “villains’ month” in 2013 was the casual way that the featured villains would murder children in order to get a rise out of the audience, to the point where message boards would start counters to “keep score.”

So pushing these elements to the fore is a risky move – throwing in elements like child murder and sexual assault can seem blatantly manipulative or heavy-handed. It’s to the credit of Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo that Shed is a lot smarter than this. This is the logical culmination of The Gauntlet as “Knightfall but the Spider-Man”, an attempt to put the web-slinger through a grim and gritty wringer.

"I can come back later, if that suits...?"

“I can come back later, if that suits…?”

However, the point is not the darkness and brutality that surrounds Spider-Man. Instead, it is to underscore that Spider-Man is better than all of this. Indeed, The Gauntlet is designed to lead into Grim Hunt, a storyline that sees Peter pushed to the point of murdering one of his adversaries while dressed in his black “anti-hero” costume from the mid-eighties. The entire point of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt is that Spider-Man might be surrounded by darkness, but he will never be consumed by it.

There’s a romance to Spider-Man – a knowledge that he’s a character who is basically decent and who is not capable of any truly horrific action. Even when “grim and gritty” tropes are brought into play, Spider-Man remains Spider-Man. Early in the first issue of Shed, Wells makes a point to emphasis this in conversation with the Black Cat. Felicia Hardy is clearly interested in a “friends with benefits no strings attached” relationship – something Peter is toying with, based on It is the Life.

Green with envy...

Green with envy…

However, as much as friends with benefits casual kinky no strings attached superhero sex” might seem like a stereotypical and cliché “adult” comic book trope – to the point where it unironically turned up as part of DC’s recent Catwoman relaunch and in Frank Miller’s “I am never sure how seriously to take all this” collaboration with Jim Lee on All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder – it’s not one that suits Spider-Man as a character.

When Black Cat wonders if Spider-Man has a date, he replies, flabbergasted, “Well, I mean… I wouldn’t do that, while you and I are… you know.” The Black Cat responds, “Well, I’m an adult, so, yes, I do know. And we both know the word you’re looking for isn’t ‘dating’, right?” It’s clearly an arrangement with which she is more comfortable, something even Harry Osborn recognises. “Oh, grow up… you’re not a ‘just having fun’ guy, Parker.” (The “grow up” is a nice touch.)

"I drink your lizard serum! I drink it up!"

“I drink your lizard serum! I drink it up!”

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong the friends with benefits casual kinky no strings attached superhero sex.” As Felicia notes, the two characters are grown ups, and grown ups can decide to do what they want. The real problem is the assumption that this sort of behaviour is the default for grown ups – that something needs to conform to a certain set of expectations in order to be considered mature.

This applies to comic books as well, which went through something of a mid-life crisis in the nineties, when it seemed like ultra-violence and cynicism were all but expected from any comic that wanted to be taken seriously. Nothing says “we’re all grown up” like casual brutality and murder. There’s a certain irony to all this – a sense that this is attempt to be “adult” is ultimately more childish than mature.

King of the hill...

King of the hill…

Maturity means embracing one’s self – becoming comfortable with one’s identity. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, putting away childish things includes putting away the fear of being seen as childish. It isn’t childish for Peter Parker to engage in a kinky open relationship with Felicia. It is childish for Peter to do this while feeling uncomfortable with it because he thinks it’s the “adult” thing to do. Peter Parker is a character who feels more comfortable in a conventional relationship, and so pretending otherwise is just immaturity.

Similarly, Shed suggests that maturity means accepting that horrible things can and do happen. However, it also means embracing the idea that comic book superheroes are comic book superheroes; Spider-Man will never be an anti-hero. He will never be a morally compromised individual. He will never become a murderer and he will never kill in cold blood. He is the very embodiment of heroism, and – no matter what is thrown at him – he will continue to embody that ideal.

The jaws of... well, not life at any rate...

The jaws of… well, not life at any rate…

Indeed, Shed manages a rather clever second twist on this exploration of dark and cynical comic book tropes. After the Lizard brutally murders Billy Connors, the creature comes to a realisation – it has an epiphany. Even after its darkest moment, even after murdering a small child and killing a decent (if flawed) man, the Lizard is more than simply a one-dimensional adversary for Spider-Man.

The Lizard evolves. He grows. He becomes more than what he was before. “I could not see this, before I took Connors’… brain… Only knew what was danger… or what was prey. Only knew to run or to bite. But there is more, yes? Much, much more.” There is something faintly optimistic in the Lizard’s awakening, even amid all the destruction and chaos around it. It doesn’t undo the damage that the Lizard has caused, it doesn’t reverse the suffering stemming from his actions, but it does suggest that maybe the Lizard can be something more than what he was before.

My, what a white lab coat you have...

My, what a white lab coat you have…

(It’s also nice that Shed ends on Spider-Man talking it out with the Lizard. Even after everything that has happened, Spider-Man is still able to get through to his adversary. Spider-Man doesn’t save the day through brute force or through violence; he wins because he manages to convince the Lizard to withdraw. Reason wins out. Sure, the price is phenomenally high, but Shed ends on the idea that sometimes talking and reasoning might just be enough.)

Perhaps some element of Curt Connors endures – in some small trace. Indeed, Shed sees the end of the tiresome “evil Aunt May” thread that has been running through the book since Mysterioso, as Aunt may is confronted with a damaged and distraught Peter Parker. As with so many characters in The Gauntlet, the threat to her family is enough to allow her true nature to reassert itself. Of course, it feels like a rather small pay-off for a thread that had been unspooling for several months.

The Hunt is almost on...

The Hunt is almost on…

There are some minor problems. The female characters in Shed feel somewhat under-defined, which is unfortunate given some of the content of the story. Charlie Cooper is an exposition machine. Madame Web is a torture victim. Ana Kravinoff is crazy. Martha Connors is arguably the real victim of the Lizards rampage – losing her son and her ex-husband – but she only exists at the periphery of the story. Marissa, Connors’ assistant, is brushed aside and forgotten about after the first issue. This is compounded by the fact that the comic closes with the image of the Lizard luring a pretty young woman into the sewer as his “pet.”

Still, this is a minor complaint. Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo have constructed a suitable climax to The Gauntlet, a story that pushes most of the epic’s themes to their logical conclusions. It’s a powerful, shocking and unsettling piece of comic book writing, and one of the classics of the entire Brand New Day era.

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


2 Responses

  1. Can’t deny a lot of the artwork here us awful.

    • I’m actually kind of a fan of Bachalo, although I’ll concede that if I read more than three issues of his artwork in a row, I do develop a slight headache.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: