Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

08 February 2013

Spider-Man: Spider-Island

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #666-73 and backups from #659-60 and 662-4, Venom #6-9, and Spider-Island: Deadly Foes #1 (2011-2)

Released: September 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 376 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785151050

What is this?: The Jackal gives spider powers to everyone in New York City.

The culprits: Writers Dan Slott and Rick Remender and artists Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli, Tom Fowler, and Giuseppe Camuncoli

Over the summer, I started reading all of the Spider-Man collections after the Brand New Day reboot, using a combination of bargain books and interlibrary loan. Overall, the stories were amusing, but I didn’t think it was worth the huge retcon it took to set it up.72 I finally caught up with the collections by reading Spider-Man: Spider-Island.73

When Spider-Island begins, Spider-Man is on top of the world, being part of two superteams, pursuing his solo career, basking in New York City’s adulation, dating police forensic scientist Carlie Cooper, working a dream job, and finishing his martial arts lessons with Shang Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Into this set up wanders Miles Warren, also known as the Jackal, and a Spider-clone …

Spider-Man: Spider-Island coverWait! Come back! This is not a saga, and the clone is incidental. The Jackal, however, is important; his plan this time involves giving everyone in New York spider powers that will turn them into monstrous arachnids, then controlling them after their transformation via a mysterious ally. From there, the infection should spread across the country and the world, leaving the Jackal to rule over a world of spider humans and superhumans, who are immune to the infection.

Overwriting DNA is part of the Jackal’s modus operandi — I think; it depends on what Warren’s Carrion Virus does this year and whether the Jackal can really clone people. I’m not fond of the Jackal, since the character’s stench is all over the Clone Saga and some other bad stories. He does have a “zany” sense of humor, though, which enlivens his expository scenes and panels with his mysterious benefactor / co-conspirator, but it makes divining his motivations or taking him seriously difficult.

The Jackal is better than his partner, though. She’s portrayed in shadow for most of the crossover, as if readers would recognize her instantly if she were seen clearly. Instead, she’s the Queen, a continuity implant Spider-Man and Captain America fought in Spectacular Spider-Man #15-20. 74 I’ve read that storyline, and I had completely forgotten her; it was not writer Paul Jenkins’s best Spider-work. I don’t mind writer Dan Slott using her, although she does take away from the central Spider-Man / Jackal rivalry. She latches onto the Jackal’s plans after he’s already set them in motion, showing how extraneous she is to the plot. What bothers me, though, is pretending such a minor character is a big deal; the character had not appeared outside of that storyline, yet Spider-Man and Captain America act as if she had been haunting their dreams. If Slott was going to use an overhyped 21st century Spider-villain, I would have preferred Shathra, really.

I have to congratulate the Spider offices on the mechanics of the crossover. It must be easier to coordinate a crossover when there are only two writers and titles (and a one-shot), but Spider-Island’s stories interlock as smoothly as two overlapping plots can. Slott and Venom writer Rick Remender frequently take a page’s worth of panels from the other’s story and use it to start their part of the story, and they manage to avoid contradicting each other. It may sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but I am impressed. Bravo!

Character and plot development is not curtailed in either book because of the crossover. In Amazing Spider-Man, Slott develops Peter and Carlie’s relationship, moves Aunt May and her new husband, Jay, to Boston, and has someone discover Spider-Man’s secret identity. (Weakening Spider-Man’s magical protection in this regard was long overdue, even if I think the actual mechanism used in Spider-Island was weak.) In Venom, Remender continues strengthening the bond between the Venom symbiote and its current host, Flash Thompson, and wraps up Flash’s tumultuous relationship with his father. Interweaving simmering subplots increases the verisimilitude of the stories; life goes on, even in a crisis, no matter how much you might want things to stand still.

Although the crossover’s villains are a disappointment, the supporting figures are wisely chosen. In a story about everyone in New York getting Spider powers, certain characters have to show up: Venom, Anti-Venom, Kaine (the first Spider clone), Alistair Smythe (the inventor of Spider slayers), the new Madame Web, Mary Jane … about the only relevant missing character is Spider-Girl, who gets only a cameo despite Slott’s fondness for the Young Allies. (I’m not fond of Madame Web and can’t understand why her mystical “Web of Life” powers aren’t as derided as JMS’s mystical turn for Spider-Man, but she needs to be in Spider Island.) Slott wisely spends considerable time with J. Jonah Jameson, who, in a development as entertaining as it sounds, gains spider powers.

In the crossover’s plotting is tightly coordinated, the same can’t be said for the art. Four different artists contribute at least one story to the collection. Humberto Ramos provides most of the Amazing Spider-Man art (#667-72). If you’ve been reading Amazing Spider-Man for a while, you know how you feel about his hyper-exaggerated style. I think it works better for comedy than it does for action and drama, but there’s no denying he’s become one of the go-to Spider-artists over the past decade. His work certainly sticks out among the more realistic styles of Stefano Caselli (#666 and 673 and Venom #9), Giuseppe Camuncoli (the main story from Spider-Island: Deadly Foes), and Tom Fowler (Venom #6-8). Of those, Fowler is my favorite, and I’d like to see his simple, retro-tinged style featured on its own. But the muddy coloring from John Rauch clutters and muddies his work. Caselli is fine, except when he gives Peter an emo / manga look very similar to how he draws Phil Urich. Camuncoli’s work is a bit sketchy and exaggerated for my taste, yet it still manages to look stiff occasionally.

I admire the execution of Spider-Island greatly. Unfortunately, that admiration can’t override a lot of what’s wrong in the crossover: the villains, Madame Web, clones ... It makes for a lot of conflicting feelings. The higher stakes hurt as well; Marvel isn’t going to wipe out the human population of New York, so of course the infection has to be completely eradicated. Perhaps if I connected more with Venom / Flash or with Peter’s new status quo, Spider-Island would have been more successful. Unfortunately, it comes across as a middle-of-the-road story.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol

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