Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kraven's Last Hunt by J. M. DeMattis

Spyder, spyder burning bright!
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

As far as I know, I'm the only comic book reader on the blog. By comic book, I mean monthlies normally featuring superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman, not graphic novels like Watchmen or that weird Japanese thing Nathan read last year. Owning around a thousand comic books (and having read most of them) I realize that the medium tends toward adolescent wish-fulfillment rather than substance, but occasionally a storyline, even one featuring an established character like Spider-Man, will provide a little food for thought.

The story is set up thusly: Kraven the Hunter, the world's greatest, uh, hunter, is old and near death. He ruminates on his life and realizes he cannot die happily until he conquers the one beast which has so far eluded him: Spider-Man, of course. Taking Spider-Man by surprise during on of his nightly patrols, Kraven shoots him with some sort of hallucinogen, throws a net over him, and, while Spidey is struggling to escape, shoots him with a rifle and buries his body. Kraven then steals the Spider-Man costume an goes on a quest to prove that not only can he defeat Spider-Man, he can defeat the only villain to best Spidey (at least recently), a half-human, half-animal creature named, naturally, Vermin. Kraven finds Vermin and captures him.

Of course, Spider-Man isn't actually dead. He's in a comatose state induced by whatever he was shot with, and he awakens (and crawls dramatically from his grave) to find that two weeks have passed, during which Kraven has been impersonating Spider-Man, albeit a much more violent version. Spider-Man, still in his weakened state, tracks down Kraven who refuses to fight him, instead releasing Vermin for a rematch. Spider-Man incapacitates Vermin, and Kraven, always a bloodthirsty hunter of his word, says his unting days are over now that he's defeated Spider-Man. Spidey leaves to deliver his captive to the police, and, while he's gone, Kraven blows his head off with a shotgun, leaving a note absolving Spider-Man of all crimes committed during Kraven's time beneath the mask.

When I was reading comics more regularly, I knew that J. M. DeMattis' work tended to delve deeper than most mainstream comic scribes'. The comics he helmed tended toward a lot of metaphysical navel-gazing that sometimes worked (as in most of his Spider-Man run) and sometimes didn't (Dr. Fate). Kraven's Last Hunt is DeMattis at his best. He draws Kraven, normally a silly, shallow villain, as a sad disturbed man who sees Spider-Man much as Ahab saw Moby-Dick, as an embodiment of everything wrong with the world. To him, Peter Parker represents the forces that brought down his homeland, Russia, and killed his mother. In contrast to Spider-Man, who distances himself from the evil fights both by refusing to kill and by making light of even the most dire situation, Kraven's response to his demons is to become one with them, to try and embody, understand, and destroy them. Kraven becomes, temporarily, Spider-Man, but Spider-Man never allows himself to become Kraven, always standing just across the threshold from his animalistic instincts. Kraven's madness is ended when he sees Spider-Man post-resurrection and realizes that he is, after all, only a man, and a good one at that, one that fights against the same forces that Kraven abhors. Ultimately, however, it makes no difference—Kraven's fate is sealed as soon as he defeats Spider-Man. Without the thrill of the hunt, the natural predator has no reason to live.

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