Review: Dark Reign: Sinister Spider-Man trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, June 13, 2011


[Guest-blogger Doug Glassman brings us a little relief from the DC Reboot mania today ...]

The “Dark Reign” era was an interesting time to be reading Marvel books. After the Secret Invasion event, Norman Osborn has become a national hero and his Thunderbolts have taken the place of the Avengers. For quite some time, evil reigned in the Marvel Universe. My biggest qualm is the gigantic "Idiot Ball" carried by the residents of the Marvel Universe, especially the government, to allow all of this to happen. However, the overall concept produced some excellent stories, such as the year-long Invincible Iron Man story “World’s Most Wanted” and the entirety of the wonderfully over-the-top War Machine series. Another of these great stories is Sinister Spider-Man.

With Peter Parker going through hell (One More Day pun intended), the Spider-Man here is Venom, a.k.a. Mac Gargan, formerly the Scorpion. He hides his nature as Venom well ... at least, until his hunger and base urges take over. Yes, Venom still eats people, but it seems less for sustenance and more for the sheer thrill of cannibalism. This is one of those rare books where the title character is gleefully and criminally insane. There are no moral qualms as with many anti-heroes, and no ruminations about death, like the kind you might find in a Punisher story. No, Mac Gargan is drunk with power and wants nothing to do with responsibility.

Much of the story is based in Gargan’s origin as the Scorpion. J. Jonah Jameson hired him and gave him his powers to take on Spider-Man. Now that JJJ is the mayor of New York, Mac is envious of his success and wants to take his old employer down a notch. It doesn't all make complete sense, but then again, Venom isn't really all there, and as he points out later on, he could just eat JJJ at any point; this is about torturing the man for fun. Along the way, Venom’s victims form a support group in order to redeem this Sinister Spider-Man. The “real” Spider-Man does not make an appearance here except in flashback, busy as he was with "The List" and other storylines.

This is my first time reading a book by Brian Reed, and he has instantly become a new favorite, demonstrating in Sinister Spider-Man a particularly dark sense of humor. Someone gets partially eaten every five pages or so, and in many cases, it's played for laughs. It helps that those who are attacked are super-villains. The absolute best joke of the series comes from Venom's hunger, and I cannot say any more lest I ruin it, other than it addresses some of the more horrifying aspects of being eaten by a symbiote. There is also a great throwaway joke about a potential rendezvous between Gargan and Squirrel Girl ... which leads to him having an appetite for squirrels, which he calls “squirmy popcorn.” A less grotesque but still brilliant moment reveals that Venom has gained a fortune from selling Norman Osborne's Iron Patriot prototype and replacement parts.

Reed gives the Sinister Spider-Man a wonderfully lame rogue’s gallery led by the Redeemer, a nebbish psychologist with a skull mask who wants to bring the Sinister Spider-Man to the good side. Amongst his cohorts are General Wolfram, a man who thinks he is genetically engineered from a wolf; the Hippo, an actual semi-evolved hippo created by the High Evolutionary; and Doctor Everything, a parody of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, complete with an ever-present “CENSORED” bar over his crotch. Bullseye and Daken (Wolverine’s son) of the Dark Avengers make a great set of cameos in the fourth issue. Since he is a major character, it is fitting that J. Jonah Jameson is very well represented; J.K. Simmons' voice rings through in every line. There are no combustible lemons here, unfortunately.

Chris Bachalo lends a unique style of art to this story. The cover is the first indication of the weirdly sketchy and cartoony style, including Venom’s multi-sectioned tongue. In fact, while the rest of the series has an animated feel, Venom is comprised of sketched shapes and ingrained lines, making him stand out. Occasionally, panels will be seen in only black and white inks, representing Venom’s vision, which is a creepy and very dehumanizing touch. Like Reed, Bachalo has taken advantage of this opportunity to let loose and try something new, which is something I think writers and artists should try more often, even if it is just for a limited series. A prologue story illustrated by Rob DiSalvo reinforces just how important Bachalo's art style is to this story. DiSalvo’s traditional art is perfectly fine for a traditional superhero book, but it would not convey Reed’s dark humor.

Overall, in an era of increasingly violent comic books and anti-heroes constantly inching towards the side of darkness, having an unrepentantly psychotic hero is a nice change of pace. The book is satisfyingly brief. Mac Gargan’s Venom would be hard to take as an ongoing lead, but for four issues, he is a lot of fun to follow.

Sinister Spider-Man does not require any additional reading; all of the required back story (which is fairly negligible) is provided. The book is dark, gory, and absolutely hilarious. The art is unique, and you may want to flip through the book in person to decide if it will really put you off. My one qualm is the price: $16.99, which is a bit much for four issues and a short prologue. I admittedly got mine at a sale at Tate’s Comics in Florida. Still, if you want to wait for a sale, check it out of the library, or if you have been waiting to see if it is worth it, then definitely take a look.
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3 comments:

  1. I'd really recommend the Spider-woman; Origins and Illuminati minis that Brian Reed wrote with Bendis. Great stuff.

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  2. Illuminati leads in to ... Civil War?

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  3. The Illuminati one-shot by Bendis and Maleev leads into Civil War, but the mini series Dave mentioned takes a look at the group's involvement in Marvel's past events, except for the last issue, which is a prologue to Secret Invasion. It's good stuff, with gorgeous art by Jim Cheung.

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