Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
For the past several weeks in comics, Spider-Man’s been clobbered over the head repeatedly as several of his old foes—including Electro, Sandman, the Rhino, Mysterio, the Vulture, and the Lizard—have been updated, upgraded, or received new faces. Buildings have fallen, jobs and lives have been lost, villains have abandoned their humanity, and Spidey’s received a gamut of injuries.
Behind the scenes, the Kravinoffs have been pulling the puppet strings: they kidnapped Madame Web and Mattie Franklin (one of the multiple “Spider-Women” characters in Spidey’s universe), pulled in Chameleon and Diablo, broke Electro and the Vulture from prison, hired the new Rhino and the new Scorpion, and led the Lizard to devour his son Billy Connors. But what has been their master plan in all this?
We find out now.
"They're Hunting Spiders"
Joe Kelly, along with Michael Lark and Marco Checchetto, gives us the answer we’ve been waiting for. The story begins with a bloody Kaine, not seen since Spidey’s fight against Damon Ryder, crawling to Peter’s door. “They’re hunting spiders,” he says.
Spidey soon finds out who “they” are as he fights alongside Julia Carpenter (another Spider-Woman) and then with Arana (a “Spider-Girl”-like character) against Ana Kravinoff, her brother Alyosha, and a giant lion-man monster. The monster is actually Kraven-the-Hunter’s other son, Vladimir. Like his brother Alyosha, he at one time attempted to adopt his father’s persona after Kraven’s death in order to kill Spider-Man. Killed by Kaine, Vladimir has now been resurrected by Sasha after murdering Mattie Franklin.
Gee, a blood sacrifice to raise a deceased member of the Kravinoff family back to life. I wonder where this is going . . .
These two fights are brutal, and Michael Lark does not let up. Unlike Chris Bachalo or John Romita Jr., whose cartoony styles mingle with darkness and violence often, Lark’s work is just dark. His more realistic take on illustrations makes for some rough fights and brutal injuries. We get kicks, punches, gunshot wounds, knife wounds, and claw wounds as both sides exhaust their storehouses of abilities. In the aftermath, Ana, Vladimir, and Alyosha have all fled, while Arana, Spidey, and Julia are approached by Ezekiel.
Back during the Straczynski run, Ezekiel was a fellow spider-person and benefactor of Peter’s, who revealed that Peter’s abilities were actually related to magic, not science. It became the backbone of much of Straczynski’s run, and as odd an addition it was to the hero’s origin, Straczynski perhaps handled it better than most writers would have, given the direction of the book. Nevertheless, it seems to have become a slightly taboo subject (much like Gwen and Norman Osborn’s children or the fact Spidey once accidentally killed a lady by punching her in the face; yes, both these things happened) that is only referenced now and again but is typically relegated to a dark corner and forced to sit in timeout.
So, Ezekiel pops up, tells Peter that the “web is unraveling,” and leads him to a place where, possibly, they could locate more allies. But—plot twist—it’s all a set-up. Ezekiel is really the Chameleon in disguise, working alongside Mysterio to lead Spidey into a trap.
Surrounded by the Kravinoffs, our hero desperately tries to flee but is followed, shot, stabbed, clawed, and offered as a sacrifice. Much like the death of Mattie Franklin raised Vladimir from the dead as a monstrous lion, so does the death of Spider-Man bring back a long-deceased member of the Kravinoff clan . . . Kraven the Hunter has returned.
Night of the Hunter
This is Sasha Kravinoff’s ultimate plan. She’s spent months gathering resources, wearing Spider-Man down, and using Madame Web to make sure everything’s clicked, all so she can resurrect her husband from the dead. It was a somewhat predictable outcome, spoiled for me in part since fan chatter indicated this is where the book was headed. Was Kraven’s resurrection meant to be a surprise? Maybe, maybe not. It really doesn’t matter, because Kelly writes it in such a fascinating way. His pacing is great, and there’s a wonderful symbolism in Spidey’s death/Kraven’s return to life. This is the climax of the story; this is where it’s all led to, and it feels like a great payoff.
Is it dumb that, once again, we have yet another story about another comic book character returning from the dead? No, not really, and for a couple of reasons, in my opinion: first, Kraven is such a classic villain—one of Spidey’s original rogues—that it was great having him back again. It was a little odd following Spidey stories without him, having read his tales in older issues and only having him appear currently in alternate universes. For the writers to be able to use him again is great. Second, this isn’t some weird coincidence, like “whoops, Kraven ducked at the last second, didn’t shoot himself in the head, and only pretended to be dead” or that is actually a Skrull or a shapeshifting mutant or, heaven forbid, a clone.
This is a genuine resurrection. In a medium where heroes tend to return to life rather coincidentally, this was the best path to go. Kraven’s death wasn’t faked for years, unlike Norman or Harry Osborn. He was dead—as in, buried underneath the ground, without breathing—and now he’s not. It’s a breath of fresh air.
But something’s . . . off about Kraven. Not only is he having a difficult time adjusting to life as a reborn bad guy (as the Chameleon remarks, this was a guy who shot himself in the head years ago during the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story by J.M. DeMatteis, a story considered by many to be a classic Spidey tale), something’s wrong with him physically. He’s alive, but he’s weird. When Ana tries to reassure him, he attacks her, and she stabs Kraven in defense. He bleeds but does not fall or die. That’s when he realizes Sasha’s mistake. He’s alive, but not fully.
Why? Because the Spider-Man that died wasn’t Peter Parker. Peter was replaced with a duplicate—his clone Kaine. Kaine died in Peter’s place.
Again, it’s a great idea, and it feels very natural. Kaine’s been introduced to the story already, so his sacrifice doesn’t feel forced. He’s been torn for years about himself and the role he has to play, so his inclusion flows from his story and his character.
This is when things begin to fall apart for Sasha Kravinoff and her family. Peter wakes in a shallow grave Kaine hid him in, discovers his clone’s dead corpse, and goes nuts on the Kravinoff family. Kelly makes it absolutely clear that this is revenge for our hero—for all the death he’s faced over the past several months, for all the suffering the Kravinoffs have put him and so many others through over the course of this engineered “gauntlet.”
He drags the Chameleon through a window, pounds on lion-man Vladimir, attacks and captures Alyosha, and tears off part of Sasha’s face with his sticky fingers. While he’s able to rescue Arana and Julia, Madame Web is killed by Sasha, blaming her for Kraven’s faulty resurrection—true villain, to the end.
It’s a dark move for Spider-Man, but there’s an oddly satisfying appeal to it. Spidey’s been dealt so many low blows by these guys recently, and while the beat-down is brutal, he never crosses the line of killing any of them. Even when he reaches Kraven and the two engage in fisticuffs that leave Kraven sprawled on the ground daring Spidey to kill him, the hero never does. Julia Carpenter, given Madame Web’s precognitive abilities following her death, appears to Spidey and begs him not to, because ending Kraven’s life will lead him down a dark path.
And where’s the responsibility in taking a life?
End of the Grim Gauntlet
So Spidey refuses to kill his old foe. On the one hand, it feels a little cheesy, the clichéd “moral hero makes a decision not to kill his foe because he knows he’ll end up just like the bad guy” move that’s been utilized dozens of times in fiction. On the other, Kelly gives us satisfaction. It’s rare that a hero actually gets to one-up on his enemies; typically, he has to struggle his way to victory. And while Spidey struggled relentlessly against this gauntlet the Kravinoffs threw at him, he came back and whooped them soundly.
In a sense, his story is paralleled to the Kravens. Unlike Kraven, who returned from the dead, Spidey returned from the brink of death. Unlike Sasha, who was manipulative and murderous and did whatever dark deed she needed to in order to bring her husband back, Spidey refuses to go beyond a certain point. By refusing to kill Kraven, Spidey surrenders his right to justice, or at least justice on his terms.
Unfortunately, sparing Kraven’s life does have the consequence that the entire family escapes. Once again, The Gauntlet’s villains have gotten away. However, seemingly free in the Savage Land, the Kravinoff family runs into some inner struggles. Kraven kills Sasha over her scheme and murders Vladimir, finding the monstrous state he’s turned into repugnant. Alyosha leaves in a huff, with Ana tailing her brother following Kraven’s offer of joining him as the “last Kravinoff standing” essentially. Though they escaped, the villains have gotten what they deserved, albeit in a less straightforward fashion than Spidey rounding them up for the cops.
But with that, The Grim Hunt brings an end to The Gauntlet. Once again, the writers and artists have crafted a long story, this one longer than most, weaving in subplots, characters, and conflict to create an overarching, typically well-told tale. There have been a few minor hiccups (the standalone Morbius tale and the Juggernaut arc), but that assumption is based on my opinion and is no way a reflection on the arc as a whole. And unlike the Juggernaut tale, The Grim Hunt doesn’t feel like it was just written to be a sequel to Kraven’s Last Hunt. There'ssymbolism and comparisons (Spidey being buried in both tales, for example), but you feel as if the creators wanted to resurrect Kraven first and then decided how best to tether it to the classic tale.
As a whole, The Gauntlet shines. Here we have an epic story with fantastic villains who get great upgrades, powerful writing from some of the best in the business, great art to accentuate the narrative, and emotional beats that hit hard. Not since One More Day has a Spidey story been so directly impactful. The Gauntlet will affect Spidey for a long time coming, and as a reader, it has impacted me for a long time as well.
Amazing Spider-Man: The Grim Hunt
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn