The Amazing Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt (J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod)
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
This quote from the William Blake poem, The Tyger is the line that closes out the story of Kraven’s Last Hunt. A serious story that many regard as both a quintessential Spider-Man story and a must read comic book. It is a story I have read multiple times over the years because it is such a classic, I love the structure, the themes and pretty much everything to do with it really. I also like that in the long history of Spider-Man comic books this one always stands apart because it is so deathly serious. Sure other Spidey stories go to dark places but Kraven’s Last Hunt is the prototype for these stories and it goes to some really dark places.
A story brought out slap bang in the middle of the Dark Age of comics brought about by the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, DeMatteis, Zeck and McLeod’s circular tale of Kraven’s ultimate victory and end carries huge weight and meaning that allows it to stand shoulder to shoulder to those medium defining books. It cribs the best story telling techniques from both while exploring its own subject matter and characters in a very serious way. By the end of the story both you and Peter Parker have been through hell and learned something and you feel sorry for Kraven. The great hunter becomes a tragic figure as madness and revenge take over him, consuming him whole.
In fact tragedy is the perfect way to sum up this book. It is the comic book equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy. I gleefully compare comic books to Shakespeare because there are so many similarities! I am of the belief that is Shakespeare were alive today he would either be writing comic books or soap operas. (I eagerly await the English Literature nut who stumbles across this post at some point in the future’s angry email or comment!)
The whole story hinges on the reader buying the over the top faux-dramatic style of it all. The reader has to buy into the poetic language Kraven constantly uses and his decent into madness that is at the heart of the book. Kraven sees himself as tragic hero and presents himself as such. For Kraven this is his ultimate plan, his victory over The Spider. Which quickly turns from just being Spider-Man to being the representation for all of the problems and ills that have effected him throughout his life. For Spidey he is just a normal man trapped in Kraven’s twisted tragedy. Recently married and worried for the future the events of the story deeply effect him and we see a rare moment of true fear on the part of our hero as he comes to terms with what has happend to him.
Death and how we view it is the key to the book and it is everywhere. Not just in Kraven defeating Spider-Man but in the imagery used around their conflict and in things such as Vermin’s senseless cannibalisation of random New Yorkers. Most of the first issue has Kraven working himself up with various drugs and rituals to take on the aspect of the spider as he sees it. This includes devouring a huge mountain of spiders which is pretty disturbing. He then hunts down Spider-Man, defeats him buries him alive in a drugged state simulating death and then takes his place. To defeat Spider-Man Kraven must become him and be better than him.
The rest of the story has Kraven’s madness taking over as he hunts down Vermin and Peter dealing with death and his own mortality as he fights his way out of the ground. There are several great Peter and Mary Jane moments as Peter defeats death because of his love for MJ and MJ deals with the possibility of Peter dying. A theme that would subsequently be revisited over and over again over the next few decades resulting in the misconception that MJ somehow holds Spider-Man back, ending with One More Day and the retconning of their marriage. (Divorce would have been too simple because you know…comic books!)
In the end Peter is drawn back to confront Kraven because of a sense of duty and a need to see things through but things do not go as planned as Kraven releases Vermin and ends up letting Spider-Man go to hunt him down. The switch is as sudden as it is striking as Kraven simply just gives up because he has fulfilled his purpose. Kraven’s suicide is lonely and almost empty, fuelled by his madness but it means that forever he will have beaten Spider-Man. Sad, pathetic and equally tragic because we see that Kraven has become so wrapped up in the persona of being the The Hunter and his past haunting him that he has completely lost his sense of self. He has done what he has set out to do and there is nothing left for him now appart from the release death.
While the language can be heavy (in a good way) and the story is very well written it is the art from Zeck and McLeod is what makes this such a defining comic book. It is a case of everything coming together to form a perfect whole. The art in general is fittingly dark (it also helps that this story happened during the Black Costume days) with shadows and the many types of death that can live in them being a recurring motif. The panel structure adds to the drama of the tale as everything is presented in cinematic way. Even the sound effects add to the cinematic feel as they are used to enhance the mood of a scene or sequence rather than to add punch to the action. The more trippy parts of the book serve as good juxtapositions to more broody parts of the book and they present some great imagery for both Kraven and Peter Parker’s nightmares.
Like I said at the start, to truly enjoy this book you need to buy into the super seriousness of it all. As with many Spidey stories from the 80s and early 90s it does not quite feel like Spider-Man at times because it is so bleak. It takes the dark aspects and the inherent tragedy of Spider-Man and turns it up to eleven. If you can embrace that you have a classic comic book in your hands, if you can not and light-hearted Spider-Man tales are more your thing then this might not be for you.
The Amazing Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt is made up of Web of Spider-Man #31-32, The Amazing Spider-Man #293-294 and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 as part of the 1987 crossover. It is available in trade via Amazon and the Marvel Ultimate Graphic Novel Collection.