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

19 April 2013

Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death

Collects: Scarlet Spider v. 2 #1-6 and story from Point One #1 (2012)

Released: February 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785163107

What is this?: An amoral clone of Spider-Man gets a new lease on life in Houston.

The culprits: Writer Chris Yost and artists Ryan Stegman and Neil Edwards

Going into Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death, I thought all the circumstances were against writer Chris Yost and artist Ryan Stegman.

Life after Death’s setup is not conducive to a long run. Kaine, Spider-Man’s original clone, is its star, so Scarlet Spider has the ‘90s / Clone Saga stench wafting from it. Kaine spends the entire book insisting he’s not a superhero and trying to avoid doing good. The book is set in Houston, far away from the center of the Marvel Universe. Yost is forced to create a supporting cast from scratch. Half the villains in the book are either Ana Kravenoff or the Assassins Guild (talk about an awful smell from the ‘90s), both of whom have long since worn out their welcome.

Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death coverWell, at least the book isn’t out of continuity. That would have been the death knell.

But Yost manages to make something from this not-blank-enough slate. Houston, rather than just being New York with fewer skyscrapers, has its own feel. The supporting cast is mostly sharp, and the Assassin’s Guild turns out to be an excellent adversary for Kaine. Most importantly, though, Kaine turns out to be an interesting protagonist.

Kaine, whose genesis was in the ‘90s, is still a ‘90s character, with some of the rough (and “kewl”) edges sanded off. Kaine is interested in getting away from the violent life of the superpowered, insisting he has no interest in fighting or committing crime. As if to emphasize his lack of interest in superheroing, he’s extremely cavalier with his secret identity; at least four supporting cast members learn it, and several villains do or could figure it out. His mindset is violent and his morality gray, leading to pragmatic but immoral contemplations of killing villains to simplify his life. Kaine doesn’t kill, but he has no compunction about breaking bones, and he regrets his past as an assassin. Unsure if he wants to give in to these impulses or be a better man, Kaine vacillates. His hesitation over whether he wants to be a hero drives the book and provides more tension than a dustup with a supervillain ever could.

That being said, there’s a limit to how much suspense Kaine’s moral choices hold. Kaine’s redemption seems inevitable; he’s the star, and few characters (other than Punisher and Deadpool) can headline a book while being a killer. Certainly it would be difficult to do that with a clone of Spider-Man. Also, it’s disappointing that Kaine’s reform seems to involve a turn to Catholicism in #6; even though the imagery, ritual, and tradition of Catholicism make it attractive for writers and artists, the continual equation of Catholicism and Christianity is a cliché, simplistic, and not representative of Christian diversity in America or (especially) Texas.87

Since Scarlet Spider is set in the Marvel Universe, Kaine does more than consider moral questions. The book has plenty of action sequences, with a corresponding amount of property of damage. (It’s surprising Houstonians don’t resent the destruction more.88) Kaine’s battle with the Assassin’s Guild in #4 is a standout, and it’s really the only point in the book I warmed to Stegman’s work. His designs for the four assassins, especially the little girl, are very good, and the action is clear and exciting. It helps that Yost’s solution for how the battle ends is more imaginative than “punch them until they stay down.”

Stegman’s art isn’t always clear, though. Kaine’s battle in #1 with the Salamander — whom Yost doesn’t name until his appearance in an epilogue in #6 — is muddled by panels dominated with fire, and his depiction of how Kaine captured Salamander is a little opaque. It’s also unclear whether the spiders between panels at the beginning of #1 have any significance, given Kaine’s later-revealed power to communicate with spiders, or are merely decorative. I have no idea where the fence Kaine flees toward in issue #2 is; I believe it’s supposed to represent Kaine’s desire to flee to Mexico, but Houston is more than 300 miles from a land border with Mexico, too far to hitchhike round trip during one night. I’m unsure how the assassin in #3 recognizes Kaine, as Kaine lacks the distinctive scarring, shaggy hair, and beard he had when he previously met the assassin. (To be fair, this is probably Yost’s fault; Stegman portrayed the character accurately.) I also didn’t realize the purple-haired woman on stage in #6 was supposed to be Annabelle, a prominent supporting character. Stegman’s depiction of the Mark of Kaine, Kaine’s signature disfigurement of his victims during his assassin days, makes it look like Kaine turned his victims into Atlanteans.

These are small complaints, but these glitches do interfere with the book’s flow. Otherwise, Stegman is a decent artist, even if I’m not wild about his version of Kaine. (His face doesn’t remind me of Peter Parker’s.) I prefer the work of Neil Edwards, who drew #5; his style is more realistic, and his action scenes are clearer. (Although not perfect; in a scene in which Kaine confronts a gunman, Kaine’s relative position seems to shift, and it’s difficult to understand why Kaine couldn’t have disarmed him.)

That isn’t the only part of #5 that’s flawed. In #5, a racist group plants a nuclear bomb in Houston, and the plot’s danger level is out of proportion with the rest of the series. The previous issue has Kaine fighting the Assassins Guild, and the following issue shows Kaine battling Ana Kravinoff; #5 has a panel with the president being told a major American city will be destroyed. One of those is not tonally like the others. Yost does show how Kaine would react to the threat — selfishly, but also pragmatically — but there’s no setup to justify the escalated peril. Kaine also demonstrates his ability to communicate with spiders in #5, a power that is both random and dumb.89

The book assumes a level of familiarity with Kaine the average reader does not have. Kaine’s history as a clone is explained in issue #1, but readers don’t get a clear idea of his non-spider powers or why he thinks the heroes would be pursuing him in Point One #1. (I read Spider-Island, and I don’t understand why he would believe that.) Yost also doesn’t let the reader know who the “Louise” Kaine mentions at the end of #4 is; a footnote would have been useful.

Kaine’s powers were reset in Spider-Island, so even readers who are familiar with Kaine can’t assume anything about them. In #1, we see his organic webbing and general spider powers. Kaine removes his beard and trims his hair with a touch of his hand in the same issue. Is this his “Mark of Kaine” power? (Or is it an art flub?) Kaine’s suit has a cloaking device, but Kaine uses it rarely. Why? In #5, Kaine mentions his strength, quickness, web shooting, and … an ability to talk to spiders. Revealing such a silly power so late in the book makes it seem like Yost decided on the spur of the moment to give him the power, which is doubly bad — a bad time to introduce it, and a bad power to introduce.

Scarlet Spider is a book that’s flawed but interesting. Other books may be more polished, but Kaine’s growth will be entertaining to watch — and given that he doesn’t have hundreds of previous appearances, readers believe he can change. I’m more than willing to give Yost and Stegman time to work out the flaws if Kaine remains as interesting.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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