"Hunted" vs. "Spider-Island"—How Nick Spencer's First Major "Amazing Spider-Man" Storyline Compares to Dan Slott's
by Nathan on September 7, 2019 (Comics)
I know the “Amazing Spider-Man” issues for Nick Spencer’s “Hunted” storyline were released several months ago, but as someone who’s been following the series’ progression through trades for the last year-and-a-half or so, I’m a bit behind. I honestly prefer this method; slapping down a single payment for five or six issues (or, in the case of the “Hunted” trade, a whopping twelve) after waiting a few months after a story completes feels a small price to pay compared to the several, meandering trips to comic book shops in the search of a single chapter of an overarching plot. Plus, trades store more easily on my shelves and will hopefully last longer than the flimsy, stapled single issues I have lying around.
But I digress.
I spent a decent chunk of time and money collecting ASM trades (and some issues) to reach this point. As a result, I’ve read through several of Dan Slott’s “event” storylines more than once. The quality of these past events (I can’t think of a single one I don’t enjoy…yes, even “The Clone Conspiracy”) have proven to me how interesting and entertaining “big” Spider-Man stories can be, and the stellar work Spencer had been producing so far made me excited and slightly apprehensive diving into “Hunted.”
Before I read the story, I really wanted to see Spencer do well with this tale. Not only have I been enjoying the first year of his run way more than I thought I was going to, considering his controversial history with a certain Star-Spangled-Man-With-a-Plan, but I was overjoyed when I heard Kraven would be the focus of Spencer’s very first event storyline. Kraven was one villain I felt had been severely under-utilized since his resurrection during “The Grim Hunt” several years back. Slott didn’t touch the guy at all during his time on ASM, and his appearance in the extended MU was relegated a handful of skirmishes with characters like Squirrel Girl, the Hulk, and Venom (the heroic Flash Thompson version). Squirrel Girl, y’all.
So does “Hunted” stand up? Is Spencer’s first “Spider event” a fun story and a promise of a good future? Or does it make me yearn for the days when Slott cooked up kooky plots like having people turn into spiders and rampage through New York?
I guess if I should begin anywhere, it’s with that last sentence. Let it not be said, ever, that Dan Slott, during his time on ASM, was the kind of writer who took things slow, made things easy for Spidey, or failed to deliver compelling “event” narratives. This is the guy who gave readers a truckload of Spideys crossing interdimensional borders and kicking the crap out of a family of spider-sucking vampires; this is the dude who had Doc Ock run around as Spider-Man for over a year; this is the guy who resurrected Ben Reilly. You can tell, just by the concepts behind his stories, that Slott was always on the lookout for bigger, better, bolder.
With “Spider-Island,” Slott hits it out of the park. The guy is insanely good at taking something that sounds, on the surface, like a really dumb idea—like turning the population of Manhattan into giant spiders—and crafting a compelling tale out of it. The general idea sounds like the premise of a cheesy 50s sci-fi movie, but Slott makes the dang thing work. Somehow, he shoves a story with large scope into several issues. And it feels like it’s enough. Slott teases out the story nicely: the infection New Yorkers are stricken with first makes them acquire Spider-Man-like abilities, such as wall-crawling and super-strength, before they become the frenzied monsters I mentioned earlier. The story’s staggered, broken into nice, bite-sized chapters that pick up speed and develop well throughout the storyline. You learn a little more plot as you read on, see interactions between characters, watch Spidey face mounting problems and create interesting solutions to combat those issues. The story’s palatable, easy to get through and digest. I’m not saying it’s overly simple or treats its readers like idiots; sure, we’re not talking Shakespeare here, but Slott knows how to spread the concept out. Never does it feel like he’s running out of material.
Spencer’s premise for “Hunted” works in a similar vein. Kraven the Hunter, having captured several animal-themed villains, loosens them (and Spidey) in New York’s Central Park and sends a marauding group of robots mentally guided by a bunch of rich people after them. As you read, things start becoming a bit clearer: Kraven’s intentions come into focus and layers to his scheme are revealed; his plans for Spidey, though set on the back burner for a good chunk of story-time, are eventually brought to the fore; the rather simplistic “Hunger Games but with supervillains and super rich folk” plot turns out to not be as simplistic as that basic premise sounds. There’s also a second Kraven, a clone the villain created of himself years earlier. I cocked an eyebrow at this early on, but as you read, you find the inclusion of this “Kraven Clone” is intentional to the story.
And, no, not in a “Clone Saga” kind of way.
Spencer’s stakes aren’t nearly as high as Slott’s, and while I think Slott ably wrote a story that sees all of Manhattan under siege, Spencer was wise not to go in the same direction. Slott, I think, eventually fell into a trap where each story had to be bigger than the last. By that, I’m not saying he didn’t write some great tales. He did, and I’d say many of his events (“Spider-Island,” “Ends of the Earth,” “Spider-Verse,” and “The Clone Conspiracy”) are some of the best stories of his Spidey career. But his tales just feel stuffed with big plot after big plot, and while the structure he built remains undoubtedly stable, some of the pieces aren’t cut as finely. When I read Slott’s stories, I remember the plots, the general premises. But the specifics? The dialogue, the themes, the humor, the characterization? Some of it gets a little lost on me. So Spencer was ultimately wise to keep “Hunted” at least a bit more grounded.
But both writers help themselves greatly by having their stories so open-ended. “Island terrorized by giant spiders” and “supervillains hunted in Central Park” aren’t super specific premises, which enable both Slott and Spencer to pepper their tales with some great moments and twists and turns. Slott’s moments tend to be in the guise of “stunning” revelations, and when I put “stunning” in quotes, I don’t mean that sarcastically. He presents these tiny twists—like J. Jonah Jameson fighting alongside Spidey against a horde of monsters (who would’ve seen that coming?), or Spidey’s clone Kaine making a last-minute save, or the introduction of a mysterious character that would feature in later stories—that keep you reading, wanting to know more. I mean, the guy has already ramped things up to 11 and then, as if you weren’t already enjoying yourself, makes little promises to tell you that continuing your adventure aboard the Dan Slott Train might just be more rewarding down the line. These “stunning” revelations are small but make reading Slott’s work a worthwhile investment.
In that respect, “Spider-Island” tends to be largely self-referential. Throughout many stories, Slott weaves subplots and characters that refer to his prior stories or have a bigger pay-off later on. One plot development that leads to Spidey’s victory over his foe the Queen later helps Doc Ock usurp Spidey’s brain; the fallout from “Spider-Island” spills out into tales immediately following this event; scenes with JJJ and Alistair Smythe gush with tension because Smythe murdered JJJ’s wife in a previous Slott plot. Slott does rely on some larger continuity—his main villain is, after all, the Queen, a character introduced several years before by Paul Jenkins in the pages of “Spectacular Spider-Man”—but in this and other tales, you see Slott trying to establish a continuity that is largely self-contained. For the moment, it works, and is absolutely gives Slott’s entire Spider-Man bibliography several narrative threads to follow should you choose to read his whole run.
Spencer, on the other hand, offers us a mixture of new and old. I read that “Hunted” was the tale that nabbed Spencer the ASM job, and from prior issues, you can tell he was loving teasing this epic storyline. He built up to “Hunted” nicely and in a way that revealed only a hint of where the story could possibly go. Admittedly, with only a year under his belt, it’s hard to say how exactly this story will impact further tales down the line. But Spencer still sews seeds that have narrative promise to them.
His subplots are a bit less subtle that Slott’s in “Spider-Island,” but that makes me appreciate them more. A new villain he’s been teasing for his whole run so far gets more screentime, and it works well, because I really wanna know who the heck this guy is; an old villain is given a face lift at the very end that doesn’t 100% sit well with me but nevertheless offers intriguing opportunities moving forward; another old villain/somewhat ally is left in a state of despair, leaving you to wonder if this classic foe will continue down a path of possible redemption or revert to a darker, more villainous state. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Spencer has placed himself in a position that, I think, will reflect Slott’s subplot-ting efforts. Neither Slott or Spencer’s use to sublot distracts from the main narrative and, occasionally, enhance the actual story.
What Spencer does in “Hunted” that Slott doesn’t do much of in “Spider-Island” is paying homages to the past. Slott certainly brings in elements of Spidey history, like with utilizing the Queen and furthering the characterization of individuals like Eddie Brock and Kaine, but as I mentioned before, he’s more interested in building his version of Spidey’s world. Spencer, conversely, makes some wonderful efforts to honor the past, and not just the recent past. Newer stories (as in, “within the last ten years”) are certainly referenced in “Hunted”: Spencer gives Curt Connors’ alter ego, the Lizard, a plot that organically grows out of the “Shed” storyline from the overarching “The Gauntlet” narrative from “Brand New Day,” even going so far as to employ “Shed” artist Chris Bachalo. Likewise, Kraven’s own story here begins shortly after “The Grim Hunt,” the last proper Spidey/Kraven storyline that ended “The Gauntlet.”
However, we also see beautiful glimpses of classic Spidey/Kraven showdown “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” the J.M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck collaboration that saw the Hunter kill himself after burying Spidey alive and usurping his position. “Hunted” begins with images of Kraven almost copied directly from “Last Hunt.” Word boxes are colored and lettered similarly; some of the dialogue and panel construction is either similar or the same. I’ll admit to smiling when I saw these pages. I don’t think Spencer discredits or defames “Last Hunt” with these pages; instead, he’s paying homage to a wonderful Spider-Man story and displaying how that tale has impacted and influenced his own. Mary Jane also receives a tiny subplot that mirrors her “terrified for Peter’s life” narrative from “Last Hunt.” It’s perhaps a little too similar in concept and construction, and a moment where she references her activities in “Last Hunt” maaay wander into “somewhat forced” territory. I mean, a nod’s a nod, and I appreciate Spencer’s dedication to honoring what came before. Still, I’m currently debating whether it’s good or hokey.
Slightly problematically, Spencer may also lean a bit too heavily on “Last Hunt” nostalgia for his tale’s conclusion. I say “slightly” and “may” because I’m not totally sure what I think about it. Unfortunately, as much as I’m trying to avoid overt spoilers, I think I may have to talk in detail about this, to get my thoughts down properly. Thus, as they say in all those other blog posts before they spoil some plot point or detail about a story…
“You’ve been warned.”
“If you don’t want ‘Hunted’ spoiled for you, turn back now.”
“I’ll wait until you’re finished reading, blah-blah-blah.”
In other words…
Okay, here’s the ending: Kraven dies.
Honestly, the whole time I was reading, I thought Spencer was going to kill the Lizard. Considering Connors’ narrative over the last twenty or so years—losing his wife to cancer, killing his son as the Lizard, having both Martha and Billy resurrected as clones, which he then turned into lizards like himself—and adding in how prominent a figure he’d been for Spencer’s last twenty-some issues, it seemed Spencer was heading in this direction. Connors’ plot thread for “Hunted” revolved around him going after Billy after the boy (boy-lizard?) fled his sewer home and was captured. He’s a strikingly complex figure through the whole story, including a fantastic revelation about his relationship with his son which I will not spoil here. I thought the guy was a shoe-in for an emotional death moment.
Oddly enough—if I may deviate into a slightly different line of SPOILERS for a second—that moment came courtesy of D-level-at-best Spidey rogue the Gibbon. Heck, calling Martin Blank a member of Spidey’s rogues gallery insults less-lame-but-still-dorky villains like the Looter, Overdrive, the White Rabbit, and Leapfrog. Yet, Spencer masterfully weaves Martin his own storyline which pulls together the Gibbon’s history and makes for a surprisingly heartfelt death. I felt shades of Tom King’s treatment of Kite Man over in “Batman,” a lamer-than-lame villain taken and given some decent depth. Sorry, tangential to the above point, but I just had to mention Spencer’s use of the Gibbon. A surprisingly good moment in the story.
Back to Kraven. Yeah, Spencer kills him. He threads enough hints that make you go “Wait, is he actually…?” as you read the story. A coffin, a shotgun…more references to “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” As I read, I was legitimately torn. Part of me didn’t want Spencer to kill Kraven because (1. That’s a direct rip-off of DeMatteis’ powerful ending to “Last Hunt” and (2. You just brought Kraven the Hunter back, Spencer! After, like, eight years of no Kraven in any ASM issues! The heck?!? But as kept going, I swear, the piece of me that didn’t want Kraven to die roiled with the part of me wondering if Spencer was actually going to pull that actual trigger.
Which he does, and in a totally brilliant fashion. Throughout the story, Kraven keeps muttering how “the Spider” has to kill him. When Spidey refuses to stoop to murder in typical Peter Parker fashion, Kraven finds another way. We’re then treated to several scenes of Kraven’s son/clone duking it out with a black-clad Spidey interspersed with panels of Kraven finding a black suit of his own. Kraven’s kid pretty much beats black-suit Spidey to death and pulls the mask away. And, then, in a triumphant reveal, Spencer tears away the curtain and you can almost feel a palpable “TA-DA!” as the man behind the mask is shown to be Kraven. Killed by his protégé.
He becomes the Spider. He dies as the Spider. Being the Spider killed Kraven.
It’s a beautiful twist, one I didn’t see coming. Shortly thereafter, Spencer has Kraven’s kid adopt the mantle of Kraven. Hopefully, such a change satisfies longtime Spidey fans who really want more Kraven in the book. Do I wish that the original Hunter remained master of the mantle? Heck, yeah. But for what it’s worth, Spencer still delivers a rollicking ending that cements Kraven’s position in Spidey’s world, even if it’s tweaked. It’s good enough.
I haven’t touched on Slott in a while, because if I’m going to be honest, “Spider-Island” has no moments like this. There’s an interesting part in the epilogue where Peter’s then-girlfriend Carlie Cooper breaks up with him because she deduced his identity as Spidey. But I never liked Carlie anyway, so that moment’s always been “meh” to me. Spencer’s ending, however, promises a return to the status quo with just a hint of change. It’s hard to bring change to comics, it’s really difficult. Having an event be permanent is almost anathema to the always-shifting landscape on the graphic prose world. Will Kraven (the original) be dead forever? Hard to tell.
Slott brought a lot of “changes” to Peter, but few of them stuck—the island full of spiders resorted back to a city of humans; Doc Ock eventually abdicated Peter’s body; Parker Industries collapsed; and Peter went from rich business tycoon to lowly Bugle employee by time Slott wrapped up. I think Spencer offers something different. We have a new Hunter with flashes of the old Kraven—is he gonna stick around for good? We have a burgeoning relationship between Peter and Mary Jane—is that gonna last for a long time? I don’t want Spencer’s run to be all about placating the fanbase. Go ahead, Spencer, alter some stuff. But don’t come back to square one.
Slott’s Spidey started and ended as a down-on-his-luck dude with little direction for his future, ultimately meandering from occupation to occupation and from adventure to adventure with the promise of tangible change just out of reach. His is a fun run, it’s solidly entertaining, but few dynamic shifts occurred. Can Spencer be different? Can he begin and end in different places? If “Hunted” is anything to go by, the answer right now seems to be “Maybe.” For now, I’m happy with that. “Hunted” has left me excited to see what Spencer has for Spidey down the line.
No Nazis, though, Nicky. Promise?