Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
This volume marks the end of the single issues that I bought. Around this time, while I still thought The Gauntlet was a fantastic story, I had no idea when it was going to end, and I didn’t think I could keep buying up issues on a regular basis to finish the arc. I’d have a little time to wait before I finally did finish it, but it’s good that I bought a volume’s worth of single issues before then.
"It Is the Life"
Fred van Lente returns, working with artist Joe Quinones on our first issue. After such a cool story concerning the Sandman, and given my appreciation of his writing during Marvel Adventures, you’d think I’d be really happy that van Lente’s back, right? Not that I’m not, but he’s just given such a boring story to write here, probably my least favorite out of all The Gauntlet tales.
The first reason for this is that it’s yet another filler issue between the Mysterio arc and the next two-issue arc. Remember that vial of blood the Black Cat and Spidey got from Mr. Negative last issue? Remember how Spidey battled Inner Demons? And was pummeled by Mr. Negative? Let’s add another injury to the list, then, because Cat just sold the vial of blood. It’s a jerky move, albeit not one unexpected from a cat burglar, and now Spidey has to go find it from a club full of faux vampires.
He’s guided by a mysterious vampire lady to the lair of Morbius, the Living Vampire, who purchased the blood. Morbius does certainly fit into Spidey’s classic rogues' gallery, as he debuted a while ago and has cropped up multiple times since then, but he isn’t considered one of Spidey’s top tier foes. In a series that updates heavy hitters like Electro, Sandman, and the Rhino, Morbius seems like a weak choice to bring in.
Spidey and Morbius go toe-to-toe, and it turns out the vampire that led Spidey to Morbius is none other than…Martine! You guys remember her, right? Debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #102? Took part in Morbius’ limited series? No? Okay, neither do I. I learned all that from Google just now. Apparently, she’s Morbius’ ex-girlfriend-turned-vampire, and this Other Living Vampire is an actual vampire. Fun fact: Morbius once suffered a rare disease, and it was his faulty cure which transformed him into a pseudo-vampire, only simulating the pale skin, sharp fangs, and bloodlust of a vampire; he’s not really undead. So, for example, he’s immune to sunlight.
Considering the Comics Code at the time Morbius was introduced, a pseudo-vampire was as sinister as they could get without invoking the realms of the undead. Times have changed, however, and Martine is an actual vampire and feeding on Spider-Man and bringing Morbius to her side of the grave is her plan. Yay! Fortunately for us, Spidey saves him himself from becoming vampire hors d'oeuvres and Morbius ends up impaling Martine, since he was never won over by her plan anyway.
Raise your hand if you thought the vial of Spidey’s blood was going to play any further part in ASM. You aren’t? Again, me neither. It’s just a bland issue. Not sure who came up with the plot, but it’s really shoehorned and far-fetched. Someone heard “blood” and decided to bring Morbius in, because we haven’t heard from him in a while, and oh, his undead girlfriend comes back too. It’s just weird and doesn’t gel with the rest of the series, considering that every Gauntlet issue, up until this one, has had something to with upgrading villains or the over-arching Kravinoff plot. Plus, the art’s a bit too goofy. Look at Spidey’s eyes in the image above.
In defense of the artist, you need to show some emotion in Spidey’s face, but that’s typically by having his lenses shrink or widen. They don’t curve into sad puppy dog eyes. It just looks weird. The whole issue, unfortunately, has a “Saturday morning cartoon” style that looks good when someone like Marcos Martin handles it, with his detailed sketches, but this ends up bland. That’s mainly the colorist’s fault here, but it also lacks the sophistication of an artist like Martin.
Onward, then, to better tales. Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta team up again for our next story line, a two-parter that features the return of the red Vulture. For those who missed his previous appearance, the red Vulture popped up during a time where Spidey was going gangbusters on fighting crime, trying to be a hero 24/7 to annoy the dickens out of recently-appointed mayor, J. Jonah Jameson. Unlike Morbius, the Vulture has a direct Gauntlet connection, as he’s freed by Electro under orders from Sasha Kravinoff.
Waid has the responsibility of giving us this new Vulture’s origin: Jimmy Natale was a lowly clean-up man for the mob, disposing of bodies and such, until he came up with the “great idea” of adding some superhuman help to their roster. Employing scientists to craft the mob’s own superhuman helper, Jimmy is backstabbed by his employers when they select him as the test subject. Thus, the all-new, all-fierce, all-red Vulture is born! Jimmy’s Vulture character—a villain who preys on the weaker criminals—is a direct link to who he was previously as a mobster, making Waid’s idea really cool and natural. The origin doesn’t really feel stuffed in there; the ideas make sense, and Waid weaves it well.
Birds of a Feather
Vulture starts going after the criminals responsible for his transformation, and they sic him on Mayor JJJ as being responsible. Why JJJ is targeted is never really expressly stated, but it’s the mob and Jameson’s the mayor. It’s pretty easy to see why. Spidey isn’t about to let ole’ Flattop get his face eaten by this guy, though, and engages the Vulture in some heady fisticuffs and, uh, acidic puking. While the Vulture flees, Peter returns to the scene to find Jameson distraught over the loss of a security guard killed by the Vulture during the battle. To make matters worse, the media’s gotten wind of Jameson’s supposed “connection” and is having a field day. Fortunately, our buddy Peter was on hand to snap some photos of Jameson fighting the Vulture.
Or was he? What sounds like irrefutable evidence for Jameson’s innocence is actually a doctored photo created by Peter to make Jameson appear innocent. And Jameson calls him out on it, in public, and terminates his employment.
Meanwhile, the Vulture’s free and flying high. Though Spidey will never fight him again, he escapes justice. It’s a nasty one-two punch by Waid. Peter screwed up, he was deceitful, and he was rightfully punished for it. He couldn’t even bring in the Vulture, so that stings as well. It’s just another problem in a long line of troubles for our young hero. Daily Bugle, gone. People, dead. Job, no more.
It's a much better story than our Morbius tale, since it has the Kravinoff connection and manages to really mess with Spidey's life for a long time coming. Out of all the changes that directly impact Peter, it's this unemployment which stings the longest (that and perhaps the collapse of the Bugle, but Peter was a freelancer anyway and can go where he pleases, so the effect on him isn't as pronounced).
What's also interesting is that, unlike other changes, this is Peter's doing. With other dismal changes, it's largely been the fault of the villains. Electro caused the Bugle to collapse, Sandman murdered Keemia's mom, the new Rhino is targeting the old, Mr. Negative corrupted Aunt May, etc. This, though...this is all on Peter. It's a consequence that he suffers because of his own actions. We haven't seen much of this yet in The Gauntlet. Typically, Peter's worried that he's gonna screw up as Spidey, and the one time he thinks he does a good thing as Peter, that's the time where it backfires on him. It's a cool ploy by Waid.
Do I really have to tell you it gets worse?
Joe Kelly brings back the new Rhino in a story where, yes, it does get worse. Attacking Aleksei again, the new Rhino demands he don the armor and face him. Spidey engages the baddie and is soundly whooped, again, by this stronger opponent. The only man who can stop the battle is Aleksei, who promises he will face the new Rhino if he only leaves him alone. Except he lies. He has no intention. Instead, he and his wife Oksana intend to flee the city, guarded by a police escort.
Then everything goes wrong. The new Rhino gets wind of their plot and destroys the convoy, and in the rubble of the accident, Oksana is dead. This is a huge blow from Kelly, written very well, and stings more than any corrupted Aunt May or Daily Bugle collapse. Here’s an actual person, a woman who loves her husband and whose life is stolen by a man who wants him to return to his predatory state. It’s a character we’ve gotten to know a little, not much, but enough to see the love between her and Aleksei.
It’s the final straw for Aleksei, and as Spidey tracks down the new Rhino and prepares to face him, in charges the old Rhino. It’s a powerful image by Max Fiumara, Aleksei rushing in on all fours, slamming into the new Rhino and disabling his suit. Broken, the new Rhino can only sit there helplessly as Aleksei prepares to charge again. The combination of writing and art is gorgeous here, images of Spidey straining against Aleksei, trying to keep him from charging, the new Rhino sitting in total defenselessness, and Aleksei pushing and pushing. He wins, the old Rhino wins, and he slaughters the new guy. There’s only one Rhino now.
This is perhaps the absolutely lowest point in The Gauntlet. Things are still gonna suck for Peter for a while after, but this is perhaps the worst blow of them all. For a brief second, Kelly gave us a win, he let us think that Aleksei would conquer the beast inside him and walk away from the Rhino. For a brief second, he did. And then Oksana is killed and the monster returns. A life is lost, and a villain caves in to hopelessness. That’s far worse than a building falling or a job being lost. Lives and souls have come into play with The Gauntlet now, and you know Spidey’s getting sick of it.
Fiurmara's art is dismally bleak here, in a good way. His Rhino is all power, all muscle, all rage, all animal. Combined with Kelly's script--which, in a fun switcheroo, is actually narrated by Norah Winters--the art is devastatingly brutal and poignant. Kelly's words, channeled through Norah's narration, Spidey's pleading with his old enemy, and Aleksei's curt and dark determination to plow ahead, make for a difficult scene between Spidey and the Rhino. Spidey's fighting the Rhino, and Aleksei just plows ahead, losing his humanity in the process.
This volume is really difficult one to rate. Up until now, The Gauntlet stories have all been stellar. Electro, Sandman, Rhino, Mysterio…even the Mr. Negative tale was an interesting read. Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect, and this volume suffers from a mediocre Morbius story that has no immediate payoff and will only come back into play about fifty issues down the line, deep in the midst of the Dan Slott era. Even then, he’ll only mention this story briefly.
The Vulture story, fortunately, is quite fun—even better when seen as a spiritual successor to Waid and Azaceta’s Electro arc at the beginning of The Gauntlet—and rocks Peter’s world dramatically, and Kelly’s wrapping up of his two-parter Rhino tale makes for the most powerful story The Gauntlet has to tell. Sadly, it gets stuffed at the back of The Gauntlet’s first “okay” volume; even the Amazon page on this particular volume makes no mention of it, even though it’s the best story in the entire run, in my opinion.
On the plus side, I do have all these in single issue format, so it’s easy to read both Rhino issues together without the stuff in the middle. Without the Morbius story—perhaps the one issue that should have never been written—this volume would rank up there with the others. But the Living Vampire sadly makes the first chunk of this volume a victim of his curse: drained and seeking more.
Amazing Spider-Man, The Gauntlet, Vol. 3
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn