Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.
So far, The Gauntlet has been a near-perfect run. Mark Waid jolted us awake with the rebirth of Electro and the fall of The Daily Bugle and let the new Vulture spread his wings, Fred Van Lente went against the grain as a divided Sandman split into multiple personalities, Joe Kelly charged in with a new Rhino and a dark take on the old one, and Dan Slott amped up the mystery with the return of Mysterio. These are classic Spidey adversaries, they’ve been upgraded, they’ve become darker, and they’ve rained a lot of pain down on Spidey’s life, both physically and emotionally. It’s been a crazy ride.
But, like I said, it hasn’t been perfect. So far, we’ve only had one major misfire—the standalone Morbius issue by Van Lente that seems completely out of place within The Gauntlet—but we’re headed for another one. Roger Stern teams up with artist Lee Weeks, a pair we last saw a handful of volumes ago in a tale starring incredibly obscure supervillain the Blank, to bring Spidey face-to-face with the toughest X-Men villain of all time: the Juggernaut.
You'd think this would work. Like, really well. And, occasionally, it does. Yet, there are some key flaws that keep this from reaching the level of spectacular that other Gauntlet arcs obtain, as shall be seen.
But first, Van Lente gives another standalone issue (why? why? why? why? WHY?) as Spidey investigates a new client of Peter Parker’s lawyer roommate, Michele Gonzales. This brings him face-to-face with a criminal underground fight club, run by the Hood and his henchmen, Bushwacker and Tombstone. Michele’s client, seemingly on the straight and narrow, is partaking for the chance to win the old costume of Mac Gargan, the Scorpion, who’s currently running around as Venom. But someone else wants the costume, too; a brand new female Scorpion who stings Spidey and momentarily takes away his powers. He’s powerless, the Scorpion’s fighting the Hood and Tombstone on her own, and Michele's decided it was a good idea to follow her client. So now it’s up to powerless Peter Parker to get both of them out safely, which he does.
It’s not a bad issue. Michael Gaydos provides the art, and thank goodness he’s far better than the goofiness we got with the Morbius issue. Van Lente provides quality humor here, as is his typical forte, and the nods to Spidey enemies like Tombstone and Scorpion are fun. It also brings the Peter/Michele relationship to a new level. Ever since the Chameleon incident, they’ve been at each other’s throats, so it’s good to have them smooth that out. Is the issue pertinent to The Gauntlet? No. The new Scorpion does sell the old Scorpion costume to the Kravinoffs at the end, but this never comes back into play. Would I have been disappointed if I’d bought the issue on its own? Yes, probably. However, is it better and funnier than Van Lente’s Morbius tale, or his Spot story from a few posts back? Yes, definitely. It’s just disappointing that, for such a good writer, Van Lente seems to draw the short stick all the time. Maybe he wanted it that way, maybe he didn’t have the schedule to do as much as the others. Just a bummer a guy with his talent couldn’t have done more with the series.
"Something Can Stop the Juggernaut"
Unfortunately, the main story in this volume—which, believe it or not, centers on the Juggernaut—cannot live up to the same standards as the previous tale. Okay, mostly. Is it better than the Blank issue Stern and Weeks did a little while back? Oh, yeah, it’s waaay better. Is it a fun story with good art? Yes. Does it add to The Gauntlet whatsoever, though? No, not at all. That’s my biggest beef with it.
The tale follows Spidey as he investigates a meteor crashing into Central Park. But it’s not a meteor, or a rocket from another planet, or anything like that. It’s the Juggernaut, hurled from space. But how? By who? The Juggernaut is soon captured, and Spidey infiltrates a military base to get some answers.
Answers quickly come to him. Suddenly, Captain Universe bursts through the wall, gunning for the seemingly unstoppable, recently stopped Juggernaut. It’s a shock, making Spidey wonder what the heck the captain’s doing there. “Captain Universe” is actually the host of a cosmic entity called the Enigma Force, which seeks out hosts to inhabit whenever great danger is present. It selected Spidey for a while in the late 80s. The captain is the one who took Juggernaut down, carrying him into space and tossing him down to Earth. More questions now: who is this new Captain Universe? And is Juggernaut the major threat he needs to eliminate?
The next couple of issues cover dramatic fight sequence after dramatic fight sequence, as Captain Universe tosses the Juggernaut all the way to New Jersey and battles Spidey through New York. Soon, the host of Captain Universe is revealed: William Nguyen, a man with major angst towards Juggy. Back in the 80s, Roger Stern penned a tale called “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” where Spidey tries desperately to defeat the Juggernaut as he hunts down Madame Web. It’s become a classic confrontation, with Spidey trying everything from punching, to webbing, to hurling a tanker truck at the guy, all to no avail. He only manages to stop the Juggernaut by trapping him in soft cement, where the villain sinks. But unknown to the two, William lost his job after the pair rampaged through his workplace, causing the business to shut down. It’s actually a really cool idea. Here’s a plot element we never thought was all that important—two guys duking it out through a building—but has cropped up years later. It also shows the impact of superhuman conflict on regular people…even though not every person ends up with cosmic powers they use against the Juggernaut.
Nguyen’s made a mistake, however. Battling the Juggernaut is not the purpose for which he was given the Enigma Force: it’s to reconstruct fault lines that were shifted when Juggernaut finally broke out of his concrete tomb. His negligence causes the Enigma Force to leave him and enter the unlikeliest of heroes: the Juggernaut himself. And so Juggy fixes the damage he caused, stitching the delegate tectonic plates together (wait, do you "stitch" back rock?), and Nguyen is allowed back a normal life, albeit one filled with a bit more purpose.
Now, I said earlier this story doesn’t live up to the standards of van Lente’s issue, but that’s a little misleading. Van Lente’s issue, though a one-shot, is a fun romp with intriguing characters and a small Gauntlet tie-in at the end. That’s the big part that bothers me about this Juggernaut-centric story: there’s no Gauntlet tether. One commentator I read mentioned how the whole Gauntlet story, centered as it is on Spidey’s old cast of foes, is a celebration of Spidey’s past, so it made sense to include the Juggernaut because of Roger Stern’s classic tale. However (and that’s a big “however”), the necessity of including this story within the frame of The Gauntlet storyline as a whole is unconvincing to me.
The issues are fun, Stern’s writing is comical, and I appreciate Lee Weeks’ art here far more than I did in his previous issue with Stern. His Juggernaut is imposing, and his version of Captain Universe is cool. I’m still getting John Romita Jr. vibes, sadly, but I see progression in Weeks’ art and I can appreciate what he’s done here better. Where the story falls apart a little for me is the fact that, while some may call it a celebration of the past, I just find it as a way to 1. Craft a filler story to keep fans waiting for the next Gauntlet-themed storyline, and 2. Pull together all these old elements—Captain Universe, the story being a sequel to Stern’s previous tale—in order to make older readers feel nostalgia. Much like the Blank story, it just feels a little unnatural to me. It’s like they’re trying to hit me over the head with nostalgia rather than letting the story naturally craft itself.
To its credit, the volume does also include the original "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut" tale Stern penned years ago. While it doesn't necessarily have to be included (one could argue it's only used to pad the volume, which would only have four issues otherwise), it's a nice touch by whoever decided to place it within the volume. Why just read the new story when you can catch up on the old one? Especially for readers like me who were aware of the tale but had yet to read it, it's a nice inclusion.
Ultimately, however, this story would’ve been better had it been placed elsewhere, perhaps in the weeks leading up to The Gauntlet, rather than taking away from The Gauntlet itself. There’s a reason I stopped buying single issues right before this volume: money. Maybe I sound harsh, but the fact that the awesome parts of The Gauntlet are so good make the poorer parts seem less awesome. This story, and the Morbius tale, are just padding. On its own, this Juggernaut tale is fun, the dialogue is catchy, and the art is enjoyable. Slotted in the middle of The Gauntlet, this tale makes me scratch my head and wonder why it's here.
Amazing Spider-Man, The Gauntlet, Vol. 4
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn