Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
In the last review, we looked at the beginning of The Gauntlet, as Mark Waid and Fred van Lente brought classic Spidey foes, Electro and the Sandman, into the fray to mess up Spider-Man’s world. These villains brought down the house—literally, as Electro helped topple the Daily Bugle—crippled Dexter Bennet, murdered people, kidnapped a little girl, and received or displayed power boosts, making them stronger and darker villains for Spidey to deal with. It spells big changes for Spidey’s little world, and it’s only going to grow in strength and shadow.
"The Rage of the Rhino"
Joe Kelly makes his return to ASM by penning the first single-issue story in this volume, a tale centered on Aleksei Sytsevich, an enemy of Spidey, also known as the Rhino. Like Electro and Sandman, the Rhino is one of the old members of his rogues' gallery and is a strong villain with a tough hide. Never depicted as someone intelligent, the Rhino has provided plenty of muscle to situations, ramming through buildings with his horn and, in a Civil War tie-in published a few years earlier, beating the tar out of Spidey. He’s supposed to be slow-witted and tough, a nigh-invulnerable opponent. Kelly’s take is slightly different, as we’ll see.
Perhaps the biggest introduction, however, is that of the new Rhino. An unnamed individual given an armored suit by Dr. Trama (an evil mad scientist who works for Mr. Negative), this new Rhino is supposed to be muscle for hire. Armed with a scythe and a more Iron Man-esque suit, this Rhino is like Reinhardt from Overwatch, a hulking menace ready to clobber his enemies. Trama wishes to hire his services, but this guy has a mission in mind already, given to him by a mysterious employer. His mission? Kill the original Rhino, Aleksei.
Cut to Peter Parker, rocked by recent events and eeking whatever jobs he can from Frontline, a group of ex-Daily Bugle staff that left after Dexter Bennet took over, while also working for JJJ. He’s sent by Ben Urich along with Norah Winters to check out a new casino that’s opened. Norah herself has faced some traumatic incidents of her own, as working behind-the-scenes during the American Son storyline at Avengers Tower put her in Osborn’s crosshairs, with him threatening her life. So this story’s supposed to be easy and simple—no danger involved.
No danger except for Aleksei, working as bouncer. His life is changed; he’s a family man now, with a wife named Oksana and a job to take care of her. As an additional story included in the back of this issue shows, he’s settled down after being released from prison, where he was a model inmate, even refusing an offer from Dr. Trama to become the Rhino again.
These are the changes Kelly makes that I mentioned earlier. It’s a cool couple of ideas. He turns Aleksei into a really sympathetic character, a man who was once a villain and has seen the errors of his ways, desiring to change for the woman he loves. Like Sandman, his motivations aren’t driven by greed, money, or power. They’re controlled by family, by protecting and caring for those he loves. At the same time, he introduces this new, more fearsome Rhino, free of identity and backstory, ready to kill whoever he can to get what he wants, which includes Aleksei.
This new Rhino smashes his way through the casino, trying to kill the bouncer. But then here comes Spidey to save the day. Max Fiumara’s art here really stands out for the issue. He’s never as frequent as other artists, only popping up for this issue and one other during The Gauntlet, but he packs a lot into here. His art is different than others—faces are more angled, less static, details are sharper. His designs for the new Rhino bring a Grim Reaper feel to the villain, and his actions scenes are vibrant. Occasionally, it will feel like there’s “too much” going on in his panels, but other than that, I have few complaints.
Fiurmara brings the battle between Spidey and the new Rhino to life, and Kelly’s dialogue gives us that humorous hero we all love, as well as a darker tone. No mistake, this new Rhino is really a monster, clubbing Aleksei with a horse. The battle may end with the new Rhino leaving, disappointed Aleksei will not put on the armor to fight him, but the battle is not yet done.
Then we get some real masterful last pages. Kelly manages to bring back Norah’s urge for dangerous reporting, cheered on by surviving the brawl, and has Spidey convince Sytsevich to not don the Rhino suit and just return to his wife. It’s very well-written, and there’s a lot of emotion that Kelly puts in here. He gives Spidey a small win. Sure, the new Rhino’s out there, Aleksei and Oksana might still be in danger, but it shows that not every single part of Spidey’s life is crumbling—yet. Oh, the new Rhino’s mysterious employer? Sasha Kravinoff. No surprise there.
A Couple of Perilous Pachyderms
Dan Slott and Marcos Martin team-up for the next installment, a three-issue story that brings in another old foe, the master of illusion and former Sinister Six member Mysterio. As far as longer arcs go in The Gauntlet, this one is probably my favorite, second only to the Rhino issue I just reviewed as well as the issue that will finish up Kelly’s take on Aleksei.
It starts off really strong, an overview of recent members of the Maggia that have been slain, culminating in the death of Silvermane (an old gangster now housed in a robot) and the murder of almost all the men in the Maggia family by Mr. Negative, all save Bruno Karnelli. Bruno was introduced back in some of the first Brand New Day issues, coming across as a bumbling idiot who has no idea what’s going on. He’s still an idiot here, and after his consigliere Carmine witnesses Spidey foil an attack on one of their casinos by Mr. Negative’s men, he decides he’s had enough.
Cue dramatic drumbeats.
Switch to Spidey, who drives Aunt May and Jay to work after foiling the attack. At F.E.A.S.T., Aunt May wanders into the back, where she discovers that Martin Li and Mr. Negative are the same. This has been another plotline that has been teased by Slott periodically—at the beginning of Brand New Day, during New Ways to Die—and it takes a dramatic turn here as Li “corrupts” May before she can reveal his secret, turning her into a darker version of herself.
The Mr. Negative plotline is particularly fun to watch unfold, mainly because it’s one you don’t pay a ton of attention to and has really stuck to the background behind more important story lines, allowing Slott to subtly weave it through various issues. Heck, Mr. Negative is still playing a role in comics, so he’s probably been Brand New Day’s most successful new supervillain.
A corrupted May berates Peter for his pathetic life, and an upset Spidey goes to battle mobsters…including the dead guys from before as well as the supposedly dead Silvermane! Carlie Cooper and Police Captain Watanabe (perhaps the one officer who really likes Spidey) get in on the action, with Carlie seeing her father (also supposedly dead) and Watanbe witnesses Spidey “murder” a criminal, even though she’s suspicious of the act. Spidey’s no murderer.
Things then get too weird. More gangsters Spidey fights start dying, and he runs into his old foe the Big Man (deceased Daily Bugle reporter Fredrick Foswell) and discovers George Stacy under the mask. Then Spidey knows something’s up, and he knows Mysterio’s behind it.
What follows is one heckuva climactic battle. As Mr. Negative and his men attack Silvermane again, Spidey breaks in on the action and discovers his old pal Mysterio, who manages to slip away at the end. Carmine, meanwhile, has been murdered by Mysterio, and he plans to use the Master of Illusion upending on him by the villain. It’s a decidedly darker take on an enemy whose most prominent feature is the fishbowl he wears for a helmet. Slott’s writing is really, really good here. Spidey’s funny, Aunt May is brutally harsh, Bruno is still a moron, and Mysterio comes across as an introspective genius who’s doing all this for the fame.
He’s messed with Spidey a lot from the shadows, like with bringing back Harry Osborn “from the dead,” and Slott uses him to good effect. Mysterio is never featured all that heavily after this, but Slott does a good job showing how this villain will always be there, in the background, manipulating events. Heck, Slott even ends the story by having Mysterio approached by Chameleon to join his little gang with him Diablo, and the Kravinoffs. It’s a good weaving together of plots and characters, a really fun story that ranks as one of the best The Gauntlet has to offer. Marcos Martin provides his typically excellent art, but with a slightly darker tone that matches the story.
"Out for Blood"
Slott returns for the next issue, another filler that pits Spidey and the Black Cat against Mr. Negative. You see, Mr. Negative has a vial of Spidey’s blood, and he uses it to create a poison called “Devil’s Breath.” It’s how he killed the Maggia guys at the beginning of Brand New Day, fashioning poison from their blood. It’s a pretty bad thing to have poison specifically keyed to your genes, so Spidey gets the best thief he knows to steal it back. He and Black Cat invade Negative’s compound, battling his Inner Demons and Mr. Negative himself. While Spidey gets thrashed, Cat at least gets his blood back. So no more poison—at least not physical poison.
As Slott shows, Aunt May’s still a jerk. After finding out her house was partially burned by Velociraptor a few issues ago, she’s kicked the Reillys and Harry out of the house. So now Harry’s staying at MJ’s place, and Aunt May’s even being rude to her husband Jay. It’s a weird path for May to go down, but it adds some interesting non-superhero tension. Meanwhile, Carlie Cooper confronts her apparently-resurrected father, realizing it is him but the love he has for her no longer exists.
Michael Lark provides the art for the issue; while I’m not as a big a fan of his as others—his style is a bit too realistic for my taste—he will do a very nice job down the line providing art for The Gauntlet finale.
Overall, this is a really strong volume for The Gauntlet. While Electro and Sandman kicked it off, Rhino and Mysterio plunge Spidey into new depths. A new Rhino appears on the scene and nearly drives Aleksei back to villainy; Mysterio brings a conflict into Carlie’s life, upsets Mr. Negative, and joins Team Kravinoff; Mr. Negative holds a threat over Spider-Man and displays his longevity as a bad guy. The dead come back to life (seemingly), and death is threatened on the living. Spidey is physically and emotionally pounded. We’re in full swing now. Stay tuned to see what darkness we head into next.
Amazing Spider-Man, The Gauntlet, Vol. 2
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn