Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
We’re coming to the end of The Gauntlet, and need I remind you of how painful it’s been for Spidey? He lost his job, witnessed the fall of The Daily Bugle, battled enhanced or enraged supervillains (many of whom, it should be noted, are still flying fancy-free), felt the deaths of innocents like Oksana, and got stung by the corruption of his Aunt May at the hands of Mr. Negative.
The series has certainly lived up to its name, and, just because we’re reaching the end, it doesn’t mean Spidey gets a break. If anything, we’ve got some even darker corners to explore before the end comes.
Zeb Wells teams up again with artist Chris Bachalo for their take on Curt Connors, the villain known as the Lizard. We last saw this pair during the Spidey/Wolverine showdown with the Mayan warriors, and, as I made clear in that post, I think Wells and Bachalo make for a great team together, especially with these darker stories. Both use their dialogue and their art to infuse their tales (or, in this case, “tail”) with dark humor.
Whereas a writer like van Lente is good for more lighter issues (heeeey, maybe that’s why he couldn’t get a larger Gauntlet arc), Wells is great at honing his energies on darker subject matter; not necessarily in a way that pushes the boundaries for the sake of pushing the boundaries, but for telling a good, deep story that makes the reader a bit nervous, a bit uncomfortable, a bit more thoughtful than they normally would be when reading a comic.
And Bachalo adds to that, certainly. While you’ll always expect a more upbeat tale from a guy like Humberto Ramos, Bachalo makes it clear that’s he ready to plumb the depths right alongside Wells, and their combined storytelling abilities make for one heckuva ride.
Curt Connors hasn’t had it easy the past several years. A scientist attempting to regrow his lost arm, he injected himself with lizard DNA and transformed into, surprise, a lizard. The Lizard, to be exact. He’s transformed a number of times over the decades, sometimes as a result of his experimentations, sometimes as a result of others, and sometimes because there’s still part of the Lizard that lingers inside him, waiting to break free.
And his scaly alter ego has led to some problems. He’s estranged from his son, especially so after his wife Martha (why are there so many “Marthas” in comics?) died of cancer; he’s got a good job, but his past has his employers on edge; he feels the Lizard clawing at him, struggling against his human persona.
Already, Wells does a really nice job bringing Connors into the Brand New Day era. He reminds us just how awful Curt’s life has been because of the Lizard, but how the Jekyll-and-Hyde fight inside him continues to rage. It’s like an addiction or some poor habit real people face that they want to kick but can’t or choose not to. Past comics have given us a Lizard that was evil, but a Connors that was completely good and did everything he could to fight his urges. This tale does it differently.
The Story Begins
Our story begins with Spidey foiling a bank robbery with the help of the Black Cat. She’s flirtatious, naturally, but Spidey’s growing interest in Carlie Cooper as Peter Parker makes him more wary of the Cat’s affections. It’s been interesting to see the friendship between Carlie and Peter blossom over the past number of issues. Peter no longer has to worry about pining for an anti-hero like the Cat because Peter’s falling for a girl who’s very much like him. Oh, and the whole “doesn’t break the law on a regular basis” thing is key, too. I’m not a huge fan when it comes to the romance side of comics, but after the whole One More Day debacle, it’s nice for Peter to find someone like him.
Love seems to be in the air for Curt Connors, too, as he’s seemingly infatuated with his lab partner. But her affections for Curt’s boss, and the fact that it’s the Lizard’s primal side that dominates his attraction, cause him to grow angry and jealous, enough so that the Lizard is triggered. Like a smaller, scalier, but similarly green version of the Hulk, Connors undergoes the transformation, slaughtering his boss and coworker. The scene is mildly violent, but still artistically terrifying from the pen of Bachalo.
"Dr. Connors Can't Come to the Phone Right Now"
Wells now has a reason to bring Spidey and the Lizard to blows. In the early years, the violence of the Lizard was downplayed because of the Comic Code and younger audiences. But now, Wells lets him do what, essentially, a walking, talking crocodile would do. After murdering his colleagues, he goes after the one last tether Connors has to his humanity: his son Billy.
Spidey realizes this, too, racing to get to the boy first. He engages Connors outside the home of Billy’s foster parents, trying to keep the Lizard back. Wells’ script is fantastic here, as he has a dual conversation between the Lizard and Connors inside his head. Connors is grateful for the Web-Slinger’s intervention, but the Lizard is not. Like with the Rhino, Spidey fights a foe struggling against his inner (and, in this case, outer) demons.
The Lizard eventually saunters off, leaving Spidey in to rush to find Billy’s foster parents, brutalized and near death, and Billy gone. He at first suspects Connors is involved, but what he doesn’t know is that it’s Ana Kravinoff who’s kidnapped the boy. Again, her mother has used Madame Web to figure these pieces out and set the board up the way she wants it.
Ana takes the boy and sets him up like a lamb on the altar. But instead of a sacrifice to a cosmic Father, Billy is his father’s next meal.
The scene is “tame” in the sense you never see the Lizard hurt, eat, or kill Billy, but Bachalo dances around it in a way that you know what’s going on. He makes it clear: the Lizard eats Billy, he kills his own son, and with that final remnant of humanity gone, the Lizard takes over Connors’ mind, inheriting his ability to speak and think.
The Lizard People
Connors still has a “lizard brain,” an animalistic side of him that’s piloting, but it has the advantage of some of Connors’ reasoning. He also has the ability to affect the “lizard brains” of the people around him, driving them to embrace their more violent, animalistic urges. It’s a weird power that has never manifested before, but it’s part of that staple of the comic book: putting the lives of others in danger.
Peter’s been hit so hard that we sometimes forget how this series messes with other people, too. It all haunts him in some way, what with the Bugle falling, his Aunt corrupted, his friend’s dead father returning from the grave, but it’s been a “gauntlet” for other people as well. This is probably the worst, as throngs of New Yorkers are driven to madness.
This “madness” includes going after Spidey, who nearly gets torn apart by the New Yorkers. An attempt to inject the Lizard with serum fails, but Spidey does manage to, as the Lizard says, “put images” in his “monkey brain,” aka the essence of who Connors is. Giving him a mental picture of Billy, Spidey confuses the Lizard long enough for the villain to become disoriented and save him from getting torn apart.
Like so many of other villains, the Lizard gets an “upgrade.” While only the animal portion of Connors’ brain now exists within the Lizard, it has not been stolen or destroyed but adopted by the Lizard persona. He can now speak, he can now feel, he can now understand. It makes the Lizard less of a one-dimensional “I’m gonna turn everyone into lizards” kind of villain and more of a villain we can relate to.
The story ends with him creeping into the sewers with some New Yorkers who actually liked having their “lizard brains” in control, so some of them can apparently relate to him, too. It’s a little different from his schemes of turning everyone into physical lizards, a plot which always carried with it the idea that the world would become full of mindless drones for the Lizard to control. This new ability allows people to turn to the dark sides of human nature; while some like having that freedom from responsibility and honor, others certainly are disgusted in the aftermath with what they’ve done.
For example, a cameraman beats a man to death who’s getting to close to the female news reporter he’s working with, and then proceeds to make out with the reporter in a way that would not be seen as professional were he in complete control of his faculties. Yet, you feel like it’s what he wants to do, and now he lacks the inhibitions that would typically keep him from acting that way.
What About "Bad Aunt May"?
We also get a resolution to the “bad Aunt May” conflict. Peter returns, upset over the loss of Billy Connors, and his distraught attitude turns her back. She fights through her corruption and finds good old loving Aunt May. Admittedly, this part of the story always felt weird to me. Unlike the other losses or problems Spidey faces, this one is used sparsely and tangentially to the rest of The Gauntlet. It isn’t related to any of the main villains and was really used as a way to remind readers that Mr. Negative is still in this one, too, even if the focus isn’t much on him.
Other than that, this volume concludes The Gauntlet nicely. It’s one of the darkest tales yet, what with the monstrous villain and cannibalistic filicide. Spidey is again hit with another tragedy and battles another revamped foe. But though The Gauntlet has reached its end, we still have a masterful conclusion to work through. The Brand New Day may be reaching sundown, but the night hasn’t come yet.
Amazing Spider-Man, The Gauntlet, Vol. 5
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn