Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Mike Zeck (pencils), Bob McLeod (inks)
Originally Publisher: October 1987
As a wide-eyed youngster taking his first steps into the wide world of comic books, I somehow managed to avoid all the twee, wholesome superhero stories lining the shelves of my local comic shop in the late ’80s and instead found myself picking up J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck’s Kraven’s Last Hunt Spider-Man arc. And with my only real American comic experience prior to that being Secret Wars (also drawn by Zeck, coincidentally enough), it’s safe to say that my per-pubescent mind was completely and utterly blown from the first page to the last.
For those of you who don’t know, the story sees Kraven the Hunter planning one last great hunt for himself by not only taking down but actually supplanting Spider-Man, proving that he’s more than equal to his long-time adversary by actually donning the mask himself. He shoots and drugs Spider-Man before burying him alive and single-handedly taking down long-standing and incredibly dangerous Spidey foe Vermin, seemingly proving his claim to be true.
Peter returns, Kraven surrenders without a fight, Vermin nearly kills Peter, Kraven actually saves his enemy but then takes his own life, feeling that his work is finally done. Oh, and then Spidey cleans up the Vermin mess himself. It’s a poetic arc filled with emotion and gravitas, and feels far deeper and more nuanced than a lot of the ‘punch the bad guy, save the girl’ Spider-Man stories I’ve read since.What’s doubly impressive about this story is the fact that is succeeds in spite of Spider-Man himself – for the most part, at least – almost feeling like a supporting character. And while Peter’s personal arc undoubtedly provides the beating heart of the series, it can’t be overstated just how bold a decision it was to keep Spidey in a goddamn grave for the bulk of the early part of this story, or just how well that decision ultimately paid off.
DeMatteis makes some equally bold decisions with his narration and storyline choices, from the subtle tweaking of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” into “The Spyder”, to the frequent blood, cannibalism and death that punctuates the story. This is a darker, edgier Spider-Man story, and DeMatteis has the characters narrate their own scenes beautifully, from the single-minded determination of Kraven to the claustrophobic, terror-fueled doubt of Peter to the feral, animalistic instincts of Vermin.
What’s also impressive is that, unlike a lot of other 80s comics, Kraven’s Last Hunt still holds up incredibly well. Zeck and inker Bob McLeod’s artwork is slick and polished even by today’s standards, and DeMatteis’ writing is some of the absolute best from that era. And, while a lot of other “classic” stories suffer from the diminishing returns of rose-tinted nostalgia, Kraven’s Last Hunt still feels fresh and exciting almost thirty years later.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the artwork in this arc was perhaps the first thing that really opened my eyes to just how amazing comics could be. Between this and Marvel’s Secret Wars, Mike Zeck basically illustrated my childhood, but as much as I love his art on the character-heavy Jim Shooter event, his work alongside McLeod here feels like Zeck taking things to a whole new level.
There are so many memorable pages and moments here, from Kraven’s flash of elation as he buries his greatest prey, to the gradual accumulation of spiders on Peter’s grave, to the iconic scene where Spidey is forced to dig himself out of that very same grave, emerging in a dramatic splash page as lightning erupts in the background.
Oh, and there’s also this page, which gave me the creeps for about a year afterwards:
The artwork here is truly stunning in a lot of different ways, from Kraven’s almost hallucinogenic preparations to the classic Spidey action shenanigans to the almost Eerie Comics-esque sequences featuring Vermin. Zeck’s layouts are superb, mixing simple panel structures with more thought-provoking and unconventional pages, giving the book a unique aesthetic that really sets itself apart from a lot of other books of the era. McLeod’s inks are light enough to let Zeck’s mastery shine through, but skillful enough to stamp his own unique mark on the proceedings, managing to different dequences of the story their own unique visusl styles.
There’s no denying that I still have a soft spot for Spider-Man: Blue and, obviously, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, but in terms of villain-centric stories featuring our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler (or villain-centric stories in general), you’re really not going to do much better than Kraven’s Last Hunt. Highest of recommendations for one of the best superhero comics of all time.