Conversation, late 2009, Marvel Tower.
Ralph P. Kashphlo (Marvel Accountant): "Joey, we got problems. Dem kids just ain't buying our Spidey comics so much any more."
Joey Quesada (Marvel Bigwig): "Those ungrateful little tykes! After all we've done for them! Well, I guess you'd better tell me. Just how bad is it, Ralphie-Boy?"
RPK: "It's real bad. Two decades back we had three hundred thousand Spider-Fans buying each month. Now fan numbers are down to, like, a quarter of that."
RPK: "We can't go on like this. We have to get those sales numbers up, Joe!"
JQ: "Well, it's pretty simple isn't it! A quarter the number of fans. We just need to get each one to buy four copies of each comic."
RPK: "But... that's impossible! Nobody is going to pay four times to buy the same comic, are they?"
JQ: "Two words for ya Ralphie-Boy. FOUR. VARIANT. COVERS."
RPK: "But... surely that's just something we do for special issues. Centenaries, things like that, right?"
JQ: *Evil Grin*
Aleksei Sytsevich is the Rhino. Former Russian thug, super-criminal, and these days mostly retired. But life has a nasty way of catching up with popular former Spider-Villains, especially when the Family Kravinoff is planning to assembled a collection of classic foes to run Spider-Man through the Gauntlet. Though that still lies a few issues ahead.
But back to Aleksei. He's passing a happy morning at home in the suburbs of New York with his beloved lady, "Oksana", before heading off to work. It's a scene of domestic bliss. But miles distant, another less pleasant scene is playing out. A couple of gang bosses are watching a lethal demonstration as the Rhino (or perhaps we should say, "a" Rhino) proves that he's a mean gray killing machine. A killing machine created by scientist Doctor Trama, a sexy Asian woman in a tight body-suit. Now that's my kind of scientist.
Hang on, you say. Isn't some guy named Spider-Man supposed to be in this comic too? Well, we'll have to settle for Peter Parker for a moment. He's having screaming nightmares about lions. His supportive (yeah right!) flatmate Michelle comes rushing in with a shotgun. She's that kind of girl. She's also the kind of girl who alternates between hitting Peter and hitting on him. They had some kind of romantic thing a while back, and she's still not sure if she wants to re-ignite the relationship, or just ignite Peter.
Anyhow, Peter's late for work as usual. As well as being press photog. for Mayor Jonah Jameson, he's also moonlighting at "Front Line", the independent newspaper run by Ben Urich. Ben offers Peter a permanent position, but Peter has to think about it. While he's thinking, sassy Frontline reporter Norah grabs him and wheels him out to work on a story with her. Not only that, Norah offers Peter the chance to work on her directly at the upcoming New Years Eve party. Sure, Norah is dating Randy Robertson. But he's out of town, and Norah's prepared to be flexible.
Interlude: Back to the Rhino, and we learn that this Rhino is bigger, meaner and madder than we've ever seen. This ain't yer pappy's Rhino. Of course, whenever there's a new version of any villain, they're always bigger, badder and meaner. Except for possibly the Kangaroo. But in general, I mean. Anyhow, this "new" Rhino receives an anonymous phone call offering to tell him the location of the old Rhino. It's clear that the new wishes to destroy the old and take his rightful place in the pantheon. Same old, same old.
And... jump back to Peter and Norah. What's this story she's investigating? Well, it turns out the "story" is $100 of free credit offered to reporters to come and check out a brand new casino. Norah bets, wins, bets, and wins some more. Peter is kind of freaked out, not being the gambling kind, and ends up attracting the attention of casino security. Which is to say, Aleksei Sytsevich. In a Rhino suit? Nope. In a dinner jacket. All fancy-like.
So if Aleksei Sytsevich is no longer the Rhino, then who's this eight-foot tall giant grey armor-plated super-villain who just crashed through the wall of the casino? Hmm... must definitely be some other guy.
As alluded to earlier, the new Rhino wants to fight Aleksei in order to take his "skin" and "ascend". Everybody has a spiritual side, I guess. Spider-Man turns up and dances with the new Rhino, but Aleksei meanwhile is not in the mood for fighting. He has a new life. If the new guy wants to take over, that's just AOK by him. But the new kid isn't going to settle for that. He tells Aleksei that he will force him to resume his skin and fight the new version. Then he activates his turbo-jets (yeah, the new Rhino has turbo-jets) and gets the heck out of there before Spidey can figure out which way is up.
So, what is Aleksei going to do now? He's naturally worried that the new Rhino will attack his beloved Oksana. Instinct tells him to put the suit back on and head-butt his way out of trouble. But Spider-Man (after finally being convinced that Aleksei really is looking to make a new life for himself) persuades Sytsevich that discretion is the better part of keeping your family safe, and the Rhino agrees to go deeper into hiding and leave his old life behind.
Back to the new Rhino. He's on the phone to Mrs. Kravinoff once more, she now being revealed as the anonymous caller from earlier in the issue. He's mad because he didn't get the chance to prove himself, to ascend. But fear not. She has plenty more plans in the making...
Some villain replacements work (e.g. Hobgoblin replaces Green Goblin), others don't (I'm looking at you, Ms. Doctor Octopus II). Yes, and you too, Scorpia.
Upgrading a classic villain is an art, not a science. This new Rhino certainly has plenty of potential, and most importantly, I believe the way it has been approached has the potential to give just as much growth to Aleksei Sytsevich the departing Rhino as it does to the new, as yet unnamed arrival.
Joe Kelly has received a little flak recently from Spider-Fans for his less-than-subtle approach to the Spidey/Black Cat relationship. This issue goes someway to redeeming him. Sure there's plenty of sexual subtext between Peter and Norah (and Peter and Michelle), but it doesn't step outside the bounds of good taste this time.
No, I'm thinking this issue is good stuff. It expands the Kravinoff/Gauntlet thread, it moves the Peter/Jonah/Frontline subplot along, and there's plenty of human interaction plus once decent scrap. There's potential all over.
I'm gonna give this one a hefty four webs for now.
But let me assure you, this tale isn't over yet. And if we get some hackneyed, unoriginal follow-up where Oksana is killed and Aleksei simply reverts to his former self... well, I'm going to be mighty disappointed in Joe Kelly.
How disappointed? Well, disappointed enough to come back and knock a web or two off the rating of this issue, that's for sure!