The end of 2006 is upon us. Rather than resolutions, crystal balls, and, party favors, my thoughts lie with Spider-Man's future. Comic books and sequential art have come a long way since the days of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Superheroes are not the only viable art form as the graphic novel has so vividly demonstrated. The direct market has changed the ways comic book publishing houses have marketed their books. New techniques in printing technology have allowed the medium to reach its full potential. Spider-Man has evolved and adapted to all of these innovations and market-wide shifts.
Sure, cosmetic changes have been foisted upon our favorite web-head. Loves and costumes have come and gone. Villains have been periodically killed and revived ad nauseam. Yet, the core principles behind superheroes such as Spider- Man have startlingly remained virtually unchanged by the writers and artists that followed Lee and Ditko. And it remains equally jarring that the core concepts of the character are being challenged today.
It was a rough 2006 for Peter Parker. Over in the Ultimate-verse, the still teenaged Peter was forced to deal with a plethora of clones and the seemingly brought back from the dead Gwen Stacy and Richard Parker. In the 616 universe, Peter died and then was resurrected in The Other. Brutally shaken by these events, Peter was thrust headfirst into Marvel's Civil War event. We all know what happened next...Change is good. We can all more or less agree on that. For example, would we really want Aunt May to still be an obsessive-compulsive freak when it comes to Peter's health? But change that challenges the core concepts of a hero is a troubling development. This nagging sense of character displacement has lingered in the background for quite some time now.
Some have argued that the essence of superheroes has been lost, relegated to a time before huge summer crossovers and the rise of the trade paperback. Critical opinion points to the changes wrought by the grim and gritty 1980s. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen permanently shed the innocence and idealism behind the superhero archetypes. These were seminal works and should be lauded for their visionary writing and visual style. However, the superhero industry has struggled to define itself ever since grim and gritty became the theme of choice.
Is Peter Parker a superhero anymore? Has Marvel lost sight of what makes Spider-Man such a successful popular culture icon? If the heroic Spider- Man has been lost, what does that say about the mindset of the comic-book readership? These are just a few of the troubling questions that gnaw at the collective minds of Spider-fans.
Spider-Man: Reign immediately prepares the reader for the worst. At first glance, this is a story of Peter Parker/Spider- Man's possible future. However, this would be undermining the true scope of what Spider-Man: Reign is trying to accomplish in just four short issues. Writer and artist Kaare Andrews has stated:
"If you love the character as much as I do, than maybe you shouldn't watch what I'm about to do to him because I am going to beat him into submission. I am going to take away everything he loves, and not give it back. I am going to give him pain and humiliation. He will face the worst and he will fail. No, maybe you shouldn't pick it up. Maybe you should look away and read something funny. Go watch a romantic comedy or something, because I'm not interested in pleasing a particular fanbase or meeting someone else's expectations. This is my shot at a character I grew up with, a character I love. And I am aiming right between the eyes."
It doesn't really matter if you feel that the Spider-Man is an appropriate character to explore these dynamics. The decision to remove Spider- Man: Reign from accepted continuity allows Andrews a fresh perspective in deconstructing his favorite character. His love for the classic Spider-Man mythos is hidden beneath the dark veneer that comicdom has chosen to embrace and emulate. Make no mistake, no punches are pulled by the story's narrative structure. But the violent tonality never overshadows the sincerity of Andrews's vision. Underneath the darkness is a sincere hope for the "everyman" in all of us. This is something that the character of Spider-Man has always represented and will hopefully always be a symbol of in the future.
Andrews begins the issue by dedicating it to Seth Fisher. The narrator recites the old "itsy bitsy spider" nursery rhyme as a spider is symbolically washed away. The scene opens up on several New York City youth vandalizing an alleyway. Their handiwork reads "Where Did u GO?" A masked and brutal police force, known as "Reign," discovers the gang of kids. The kids try to escape but many are brutally shot down. The narrator remarks that nursery rhymes teach kids about the one constant in life, death.
The narration echoes into the next scene. An old and haggard looking Peter Parker has just screwed up at his new job. He was supposed to supply white lilies, instead of cream, for a couple's wedding. Peter is deeply apologetic but the couple leaves clearly disgusted with the old man. His boss angrily fires him and Peter walks out with the flowers. He is revealed to be the narrator. We discover that Peter has nothing - no money, no dignity, and no job.
Suddenly, a youth slams into him scattering the flowers to the wet pavement. The youth is from the opening scene. Peter tries in vain to reason with the Reign officer in pursuit of the youth. Peter is clearly not impressed by the authority of Reign. His smirk prompts the officer to violently attack him. Peter's nose goes soft and his arm pops loudly. The defiant youth is led away. A small girl asks the bloody Peter why he won't stand up for them.
A TV switches on to a Daily Bugle news broadcast. New York City has been free of super-powered crime for ten years. Mayor Waters will celebrate by unveiling a new protective system, dubbed the WEBB. This protective technology would keep New York City safe from super-terrorist attacks. Mayor Waters is revered as a national hero according to the newscast.
Mayor Waters is revealed to be eating dinner with a vegetative and deformed man. Apparently, their meeting is a yearly ritual. The unidentified man has not eaten for ten years. Mayor Waters has fun taunting the bulbous flesh sitting before him. The man is alive due to a thin IV drip and is being kept in the Vault. Mayor Waters considers him to be a trophy of his success in reforming New York City.
Peter wanders into his bare apartment deep in thought. He appears to be slightly delirious. He imagines that his wife, Mary Jane, is still alive and is sitting at his dinner table. The white lilies were for her. He yells at her for not responding but quickly apologizes. Peter looks forlornly at the rainy cityscape.
Mayor Waters has suspended the democratic process due to unsubstantiated claims of super- terrorist attacks against WEBB. Freedom is being subverted. All citizens must sacrifice for the WEBB system. The Daily Bugle fully endorses the Mayor Waters's call for a dictatorship.
Two Reign officers are engaged in conversation. They seem oblivious to an old man's crazed ranting. Elsewhere, Peter dreams that Mary Jane is with him in bed. A visitor interrupts his fond remembrances of a more innocent time. The crazy old man appears at Peter's door with a package. It is J. Jonah Jameson, former enemy of Spider-Man. Jameson tries to reminisce with Peter about the old times but is rudely rebuffed. Jameson leaves the package as Peter breaks down in tears.
Jameson enters the street and resumes his ranting. His destructive march catches the attention of two Reign. Meanwhile, Peter discovers that his old Bugle camera resides in the package that Jameson left him. Peter fearfully realizes that black fabric is wrapped around the camera. It is his old Spider-Man mask. The eyes of the mask stare back at Peter. Montages of Jameson getting beaten to a pulp are juxtaposed with Peter's reaction.
Jameson pleads forgiveness from the Reign. Spider-Man appears just as the Reign are about to finish Jameson off. Peter only has the mask on. He fights the two Reign in his boxers and socks, utilizing classic Spidey banter. The Reign are incredulous at Spider- Man's appearance. A raging Spider-Man imagines his more youthful days. Without warning, he kills one of the Reign. Images flash in Peter's head. The memories of Aunt May and Mary Jane haunt him. Finally, Jameson professes that the city needs Spider-Man. He claims it is Peter's responsibility and destiny. Peter slams his fist into Jameson and walks away. Spider-Man is back...
Some critics have written off Spider-Man: Reign as thinly disguised rip-off of The Dark Knight Returns. Grim and gritty? Check. Aging, disillusioned hero? Check. Dystopian future? Check. TV talking heads? Check. Noir-style narration and art? Check. Spider-Man: Reign shares all of these qualities with The Dark Knight Returns. Do not be fooled. This is not a blatant rip-off of TDKR. I prefer to think of Andrews's story as a pastiche. It is honoring the components of what made Miller's works so vital in the 1980s. There is a danger of following too closely to the ideas set forth by Miller's TDKR. However, the influences presented by Andrews never seem rehashed or dated. This is a story clearly meant to have its own voice.
Andrews has Peter retain a certain humor unlike Miller's Batman. This decision allows the reader to establish a humanistic link in a world filled with darkness. Injecting sincere qualities into the main character allows us to accept the contrasting dark world he resides in. Our Peter is a tortured soul but has the ability to recognize the absurdity of his environment. We empathize with his plight. We then cheer him on when he takes up the mantle of Spider-Man once more. It's a tried and true technique that Andrews uses and should not be confused with plagiarism.
Jameson's character is one of the most realized in this first issue (apart from the fact that he should be long since dead). He is heroic in the sense that he prompts Peter to become Spider-Man. In reality, Jameson is a bitter, old man who helped bring about characters such as Mayor Waters. Only until his last days does Jameson realize that he was wrong about Spider-Man. Responsibility was taken away from Peter. He simply can't assume his old duties. Jameson needed to allow Peter the avenue to assume the responsibility he unwillingly lost.
Nursery rhymes are great framing tools for this story. We immediately recognize the child-like innocence and simplicity of the rhymes. However, their messages are girded by the cold reality they actually represent. We recite nursery rhymes without realizing that they represent something far more sinister about the nature of life. Spider-Man: Reign is no different in this regard. The juxtaposition of the "itsy bitsy spider" motif with the young vandals works well as a foreshadowing device.
The art style chosen by Andrews is outstanding. The pencils are brutally simple. The detail comes from the color scheme. Brilliant reds are chosen to outline the darkness that surrounds Spider-Man in his battle against the Reign. The dark green uniforms of the Reign effortlessly blend in with the dark hues of the city. They almost seem like wraiths preying upon the helpless denizens. The realism of the violence is well documented. It never seems real though. Your eye scans a page and sees something that could be, not something that is. This fits in with Spider-Man: Reign being a "possible" future.
Andrews has decided to use the black costume as a way of bringing back Spider-Man. The darkness behind it fits in with the new environment that Spider-Man will inevitably have to confront. It signals a change, a time of re-evaluation. Could Spider-Man have killed the Reign officer while using his classic mask? Doubtful. Peter's memories are too scarred. The black mask allows him to forget the past and confront his new reality. The black costume is not simply a "fanboy" moment.
Great, great, great issue. Andrews is a master at creating a sequential graphic art narrative. Many of the themes presented have symbolic choices behind them. Spider-Man: Reign goes beyond a solid title. The social relevance and deconstruction of superhero archetypes place this story with some of best stories out there. And there is plenty of exciting moments for the reader to debate over. What exactly is WEBB designed to do? What foes of Spider-Man will appear next? How did Mary Jane die? Who is Mayor Waters's prisoner? I can't wait for issue #2.
Solicitations indicate that Mayor Waters will unleash the Sinister Six upon the now active Spider-Man.