Late last year, Marvel finally reissued one of the most requested and most needed Spider-Man trades. Previously published as three small trades, Spider-Man by Mark Millar had been out of print for years, much to the consternation of Spidey fans who wanted to read this important chapter.
Collecting the first twelve issues of Marvel Knights Spider-Man, this story has often been called “Spider-Man’s Hush.” Considering its epic length, scope, year-long run time and permanent effect on the character, this is a very apt comparison.
Mark Millar’s run on Marvel Knights Spider-Man was actually composed of three arcs, hence the three trades. While they can all be read on their own, they connect beautifully and Marvel was wise to collect them all at once. The first arc, “Down Amongst the Dead Men,” sees Spider-Man finally put the Green Goblin behind bars, only for him to arrange the kidnapping of Aunt May. This introduces the central conflict for the next twelve issues, with multiple supervillain subplots weaving their way in.
These first four issues set up most of Spidey’s character interactions, as well as Millar’s view of Spidey himself. For Millar, Peter Parker’s greatest strength is his sheer will and determination; he nearly dies at least twice. With the loss of May, Mary Jane -- with whom he had only recently reunited -- becomes Peter’s confidante, while the Black Cat becomes his closest ally, leading to some friction between the women. Back in The Fantastic Spider-Man, I lamented the loss of Mary Jane, and this is one of the reasons why. She truly knows the inner workings of her husband’s mind and is able to get him through the toughest times in his life.
There’s an odd moment where Spider-Man has a confrontational encounter with the Avengers while seeking their help; he would join the team months later. He has a much better encounter with the X-Men later on, marking this as an even greater oddity, and one that had an effect on which side Spidey chose in Civil War.
The villains are slowly introduced as well, with Electro and the Vulture taking center stage. Electro’s power has increased thanks to help from Doctor Octopus, and Millar introduces the controversial notion that he picked up some ... alternate sexual tastes while in prison. This doesn’t offend me, but I wonder if it was included just to justify the Marvel Knights branding by adding some edginess. The Vulture gets a fantastic subplot involving stealing money to help his cancer-stricken grandson. The Vulture is one of the most elderly supervillains, and when he loses the money during the fight with Spider-Man, his revenge feels a little justified.
All of this villainous activity, along with the machinations of the Owl, lead into the next arc, “Venomous.” Eddie Brock, a.k.a. Venom, has found God and has sold off his symbiote suit so that he can commit suicide out of guilt. New York’s villains, never one to let such an effective weapon go to waste, auction it off. If you’ve read Dark Reign: Sinister Spider-Man, you know where this is going, but what you might not know is that there’s a stop along the way. The suit first goes to Angelo Fortunato, the wimpy son of a powerful crime boss, and the symbiote hates him so much that he detaches from Fortunato in mid-leap, letting him plummet to his death. It sounds macabre, but this is why I love Venom: even without a human to work with, the symbiote is quite literally “crazy awesome.”
Spider-Man is having a rough time too. As bills pile up, it comes to light that his fight with Electro ended with him partially unmasked in a hospital, and Rachel Summers of the X-Men has declared Aunt May to be dead. This is also when the story starts resembling Hush in the surface details, with a number of rapid villain encounters, including a fight with a feral Lizard which feels remarkably like the Batman vs. Killer Croc fight. Angelo Fortunato’s only major battle involves him attacking Peter at his high school reunion. It’s worth mentioning that Peter also teaches at his old school, yet another great detail lost in the reboot.
Everything comes to a head in “Last Stand.” Norman Osborn has been in jail this entire time, with Spidey breaking in to get more clues from him. His plan to escape involves forcing Spidey and the Black Cat to break him out, and it culminates in the union of nearly every major Spider-Man villain into the Sinister Twelve (I just love typing that name). Seeing the Green Goblin, the Vulture, the Lizard, the Shocker, Hydro-Man, Electro, Rhino, Chameleon, Sandman, Hammerhead and Tombstone working together is simply epic. The team is completed with the reveal of Mac Gargan as the new Venom.
In the end, Spidey wins thanks to the Fantastic Four, the Avengers (who always show up to big fights like this) and Doctor Octopus, who has never liked working with Osborn and was mentally programmed by the government to kill him. Osborn even attempts to pull a “Death of Gwen Stacy” with Mary Jane, but Spidey saves the day, finds Aunt May, and keeps his identity secret. As a side series, Millar couldn’t break the status quo too much, but at least he put Spidey through hell to get there.
The art for Spider-Man by Mark Millar was provided by Terry Dodson, with Frank Cho filling in for two issues. They have a similar style, using highly rounded characters with exaggerated features; it’s truly astonishing that the Black Cat doesn’t fall out of her top at any point. This is a “drawn on black paper” series, enabling the artwork to stand out even when shadowy.
Spider-Man by Mark Millar is, essentially, the last Marvel Epic. Like Armor Wars, Avengers Under Siege, Captain America: The Captain and other 1980s epics, it’s massive in scope and defines how the main character is used from thereon out. It sets the tone for Civil War and put Norman Osborn in place for the events of Secret Invasion and beyond. It helps that it’s an excellent collection of stories in its own right.
[Thanks Doug! And come back right here tomorrow for the Collected Editions review of Batman: Earth One -- don't miss it!]