Arana #1

Background

"Araña. Anya Corazon. Last in a nine-hundred year line of hunters, touched by blood and magic, protecting the world from ancient enemies striving towards a new dark age where they will rule supreme. She must stop them... and bring her grades up to at least a B+ or her dad won't let her go for her new driver's test next year."

Sounds quite good doesn't it? A super-hero cut from Spider-Man's mould, having to juggle a disastrous personal life with the stress and danger of her double identity. Sadly, Araña did not have auspicious beginnings. This series directly follows on from the introduction of Anya Corazon in issues #1-6 of Amazing Fantasy (volume 2) - six issues that were less than impressive on numerous levels.

Amazing Fantasy shed 60% of its readers during Anya's first story arc, and nose-dived into Marvel's cancellation zone. This series is a second chance, another opportunity to make the character work. There is definitely potential here, there are stories that could be done with this character that are worth telling. So let's be prepared to give Araña: The Heart of the Spider the benefit of the doubt.

This comic is being marketed as part of the "Marvel Next" pseudo-imprint, and it is certainly in good company. The X-23 limited series started very strongly, and next month sees the return of Runaways - a book that I really can't recommend highly enough. Titles branded with the Marvel Next label are aimed specifically at a teen audience and introduce brand new characters into the Marvel Universe. Both these goals are noble ones, and on those grounds alone you want Araña to succeed.

So does it succeed? Is Araña: The Heart of the Spider any better than Anya's stint in Amazing Fantasy? Read on and find out.

Story 'Freshman Flu'

  Arana #1
Arc: Part 1 of 'In the Beginning' (1-2-3-4-5-6)
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Writer: Fiona Avery
Pencils: Roger Cruz
Inker: Victor Olazaba
Articles: Arana

We open on a dark street somewhere in Fort Green, Brooklyn. Obvious criminal- types are lurking in a dingy alley plotting their nefarious plots. Anya Corazon, aka Araña, is sneaking around the rooftops, edging closer to the bad guys, and we are treated to a little narration from the chosen one of the spider society. She says she can sense the fear in her quarry, believes that she has them running scared. Then she sneezes, which pretty much kills the mood.

Anya immediately calls upon the Hunter and the armour flows from her mystical tattoo forming into a blue exoskeleton. She then attacks the thugs that surround her, but during the fight the carapace begins to retract - it appears Anya's cold is having an adverse effect on her magical spider-powers. Miguel, who is watching form the shadows thinks he will have to intervene, but in the end Anya prevails - leaving one thug conscious for questioning.

Miguel grabs the thug. They are looking for information about a Judge Thomas Bandar. The criminal won't talk until Miguel infers that Anya will devour him unless he cooperates. Anya plays along terrifying the poor delinquent, who tells Miguel everything the mage wants to know.

Anya isn't too happy about this sort of bluff, as it besmirches her do-gooding reputation. We then cut to Ted, who helpfully points out that the police and the heads of local organised crime families are all gunning for Araña, so her reputation should be the least of her worries. Miguel tells Ted what he learned: that Judge Bandar is making a midnight trip to the Court of Appeals. In a hasty piece of exposition we learn that Bandar is believed to be stealing attorney-client records and passing them to the Sisterhood of the Wasp which is why Miguel and Anya are after him in the first place.

Ted hacks into the court-house's systems to aid with the impending mission. While he does so, Nina contacts Ted on another line asking for directions. It is obvious that she is there to provide back-up for Miguel and Araña, but she isn't happy with that role. She is still put out not to be more directly involved.

Meanwhile at the court of appeals, Miguel tells Anya there is no need to go "all out", she has a simple mission: catch the judge stealing information and then bring him back to the Spider Society HQ. He beseeches her to stick to the plan. Anya smiles winningly and tells the "old man" not to worry about her. Ted cuts the cameras remotely as Anya uses her strength to bend the iron railings surrounding the courthouse and then scurries up the wall like a spider.

Miguel is smarting from the "old man" remark. He remembers his father predicting such a day would come. Miguel uses a spell to envelope himself in shadow and then jumps over the fence.

Meanwhile Nina is staking out the front of the building in time to see Judge Thomas Bandar arrive in his limousine. An ageing bald man with very little neck, Bandar is impatient with the security guard and then soliloquises that people only toady to him because of his power - he commands no true respect.

Bandar heads up to his office to find Anya sitting in his seat, facing in the window. Anya taunts the judge by telling him how easy it has been to catch him. Bandar threatens to call security and when Anya calmly announces that security has been taken of, Bandar pulls a gun and shoots her. Fortunately, Anya is armoured up and the bullet bounces off. She leaps from the seat and advances on Bandar.

She confronts Bandar with the fact that he has been passing information to the Wasps. He cries for help, realising that it is the Hunter and fearing for his life. Then Miguel appears, and uses a spell to put him to sleep. The last thing he says before he falls unconscious is "...so young..." - was he referring to Anya?

Suddenly the pair get a call from Nina. The Sisterhood of the Wasps have arrived en masse, which means a whole gaggle of Agent Smith clones are on their way up the stairs. This shocks Miguel - it was supposed to be a routine assignment, why does the Sisterhood consider Bandar so important? Anya prepares to confront the Wasps, but Miguel says he will do it and Anya should escape with the judge.

Anya questions this. She is the Hunter, which means it his her job to smack down elegantly-dressed, sunglass-wearing adversaries, but Miguel is fearful that Anya is not completely well and wouldn't last in a fight. Anya accepts this, but she doesn't like it. Anya flees the building, but there were more Wasps than Miguel could stop, and after Anya dumps Bandar into Nina's car she fights them anyway.

She sneezes and her powers fail momentarily, but she rallies and uses her spiffy bolas to end all resistance and escapes. A little later Anya is sitting atop a skyscraper looking out over the city. She is pleased with her night's work, she thinks of her school friends and her father and prepares to return home to her normal life when Miguel calls. He reports that they got away with Bandar and that they were going to try and get him on their side. Something fishy is going on - why did all those Wasps have to turn up? Miguel also says that he wants Anya to take a few days off and get over her cold.

Anya's father, Gil, is there when Anya gets home. He is cooking carne frita which would seem to a favourite of Anya's - and I'm assuming is something more than the literal translation of "fried meat". Gil informs his daughter of all the chores she has to perform and that they have arranged to go through Anya's algebra homework this evening.

Being an investigative reporter, Gil notices that Anya smells of gunpowder. She manages to bluff him with a truly feeble story about the gas burners on the stove needing to be cleaned. I'm not sure if Gil falls of this, or if he suspects something more is going on.

After dinner, Gil gets a call from Dan Stevens, Gil's colleague in the world of investigative reporting we last heard from in Amazing Fantasy #1. Gil has to work on a story all night to meet his deadline. Anya expresses concern at her father's health, and they get to talking about the story. It seems that Dan and Gil were working to expose a criminal called Michael Mascarpone (like the cheese) in a case of possible court corruption. Gil thinks he was let off by a crooked judge called Thomas Bandar.

Anya is obviously interested about that, and Gil agrees to let her read the story when she is finished. Meanwhile, outside in the dark Miguel continues to watch over Anya. It seems he has become very protective of her.

General Comments

Well, so much for a fresh start. This is more of what we have come to expect from this creative team over the last six months. It's a competent tale, it gets where it needs to go with the minimum of fuss, but if I hadn't read it repeatedly for the purpose of this review I doubt I'd be able to remember what actually happened. And I certainly wouldn't care.

This is a new issue #1, and is supposed to be a jumping on point for many readers who didn't catch the earlier issues. Therefore it has to set up the premise all over again. As a result we have a number of scenes and throwaway lines to re-introduce the cast and the concept. Lynn is mentioned twice even though she isn't in this issue, to prepare the reader for meeting her next time. Gil's role as an investigative reporter is again underlined. All this is perfectly understandable and doesn't look out of place to someone who has been with it since the beginning.

However, considering how poorly the sales of this title are compared to other Marvel comics, I really question the logic that says publishing "more of the same" is going to widen the audience. It was stories like this that made the audience so small in the first place.

The first Spider-Man story I ever read was "The Wings of the Vulture" from Amazing Spider-Man #48. In that story Peter is suffering from a bad cold that affecting his fighting prowess and gets clobbered by the new Vulture. He struggles with the illness and then comes back from 'the depths of defeat' to take down both the Vulture and Kraven. It's classic stuff. In that story we really fear for an under-par Spidey. The story has drama.

In contrast, this tale has had a drama-bypass operation. It's nearly forty years after ASM #48, but the device of the ill superhero isn't so hackneyed as to be unusable. There was an opportunity in this story to show a more vulnerable side to Anya, but it wasn't taken. As so often in this comic, the creative team seem to be coasting. They don't care about telling the best story they can, so why should we?

There is no soul, there's no passion and I really don't get the sense that the writer has any affection for these characters at all. Plus we are (once again) the victims of incredibly sloppy writing, and expected to accept narrative leaps and plot holes that wouldn't have looked out of place during the Clone Saga. Much of the story here doesn't make sense. Observe:

The Spider Society operates outside the law - so why does Araña have to catch Bandar "in the act of stealing courthouse information" before she can bring him in? They know who he is, they know they want to capture him so why bother with breaking into the courthouse at all? They could have stopped his car and taken him en route, they could have got him at home. Why go to a place with heavy security, which was also the one place where Bandar likely to have some back-up from the Sisterhood of the Wasp? Well, obviously the answer to that is so we can have a big fight scene, but fights have to make sense in the context of the story and this doesn't make any sense.

Here's an even worse slip-up: Miguel clearly states that Bandar is making a midnight trip to the Court of Appeals. It certainly looks like late at night when Anya is breaking into the place, and later still when she is musing on her life atop that building. But if it is midnight, how does she arrive home in time for dinner, why isn't her father shocked at the hour, and how is there still time for her to do her homework? This simply doesn't track.

If these are the sort of things I could spot in two readings of the comic then they are certainly the sort of things an editor should have spotted. These aren't problems of style or direction, these are fundamental holes in the integrity of the story. They really should have been plugged before this issue was printed.

So is there any good in this issue at all? Well, yes there is. Gil Corazon might be a cheerful old stereotype, but he is an engaging one and the book seems to come alive in the scenes he shares with Anya. The fact his work as an investigative reporter is bringing him into Anya's world as a superhero is interesting (predictable, but interesting) and if done well, it could raise the comic a notch.

Of course, the caveat "if done well" is the operative phrase. There are things to build on in this issue. Why does Anya call Bandar a traitor? Wouldn't he have actually had to be working with the Spider Society to betray them? - it's like saying German soldiers were traitors to the Allies in the second world war. Of course, that may be a plot point so I could be wrong to deride it. Equally, the whole business of Miguel being overprotective of Anya and treating her like a child could be going somewhere. Miguel is acting more like a stalker than a partner by the end of the issue.

But the problem is that after seven issues I am quickly losing faith in the creative team to pull off any of the future plots they have set up. They might succeed, I could be pleasantly surprised. And at the moment it would be very easy to pleasantly surprise me because my expectations are so decidedly low.

So that's the story, how about the art? The art is good and maintains the standard set by the series. This issue we have Roger Cruz back behind the pencil - he filled in for Mark Brooks in issues #3-4 of Amazing Fantasy, but their styles seem to be practically identical so I can't say that really makes much of a difference. It's a shame that both artists have been saddled with as woeful a project as this one.

Overall Rating

If this was the first issue of Amazing Fantasy I would have given the creative team the benefit of the doubt. I might even have been inclined to declare this an average issue and given it three webs. But this isn't the first issue. Avery and co have had seven months to get this right, and I'm losing patience with them. The lack of characterisation, the pacing and (most of all) the incredible plot holes tell me this comic doesn't deserve any more than two webs.

Footnote

Anya has an entry in this week's The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Women of Marvel 2005 (yes, that really is the title). There's not much text, but as she has only appeared in six other issues that's hardly surprising. However, the information that is presented plugs a few holes and raises a few questions.

Firstly it is stated that Anya is of Mexican and Puerto-Rican descent (if anyone was curious). It also mentions that she has a natural mechanical aptitude which is how she was able to build her spider-styled bolas. That's about as silly as Peter Parker creating his webshooters, but we'll gloss over it through affection for the genre. Most significantly it states that Anya's greatest battle is "...the battle for control over the brutal spirit of 'the Hunter' that rises within her in the midst of every combat." Hmmm.

In my review for Amazing Fantasy #5 I pointed out how incredibly ridiculous it was that Anya massacred scores of wolves with her bare hands without being emotionally affected by the experience. Evidently this was meant to show the spirit of the Hunter taking over Anya and working through her. I thought that may be the case, but it hardly invalidates my point that when Anya regained control she should have been affected by what she did.

From this, I would infer that the reader should have seen an inner conflict between Anya and the Hunter in the Amazing Fantasy issues. But there was no conflict. This was not something that was subtly done, it wasn't done at all. If Avery can build up that aspect of the character then the comic would make for a much more interesting read.

The handbook entry also reveals Ted's surname is Mankowski, and that Nina's surname is Smith. Nina is described as a "privileged, aspiring executive". If you cast your mind back to Amazing Fantasy #4 one of the members of the board of Webcorps is also called Smith. It's a throw-away comment, but he could be related to Nina. Something that is worth bearing in mind as the series continues.

Also worth bearing in mind is the entry for Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman). It lists the Spider Society as one of her former group affiliations. So it seems her picture on the wall of Webcorps was not a throwaway reference after all.

Finally, we also get a run-down of Anya's powers and abilities. She possesses superhuman strength, endurance and speed. She can lift about three tons and leap twenty-five feet from a standing start. She can leap between buildings, but cannot (apparently) stick to walls - although the opening of Araña #1 would seem to contradict that. The carapace she can cause to flow over her body originates from her tattoo and can stop small-arms fire (as we saw in this issue). Oddly, it says that exposure to water while wearing full armour leaves Anya unable to breath and she must retract it. That sounds like a plot point that will be utilised in the future.