The year is 1985. Dark Knight Returns has come out and wowed an ever-fickle readership by reinventing a well-established, and frankly toothless, character into a kinetic, mad engine of wild justice and inner turmoil. The same year that came out, Watchmen redefined what a superhero book could even be about, managing political intrigue and psychological realism tinged with incredible emotional depth. Two years later, a Spider-Man story is released by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck containing all of these themes, and more, set in a well-established superhero that doesn’t get NEARLY the credit it’s due in the modern era. Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen or DKR and, in my humble opinion, is a far superior book in terms of quality, though perhaps not deconstruction.
The story takes place when Spidey was still wearing his black and white duds (though they were no longer secretly sentient) and tells the tale of Kraven the Hunter at the end of his proverbial rope. He’s been humiliated and beaten by Spider-Man so many times, that he realizes his only choice is to BECOME the Spider-Man. Symbolically and metaphyiscally, though, you'll find no brain-swapping here. He treats himself with mystical herbs and even poisons in order to strengthen his body and mind, sets out against Spider-Man and, seemingly, shoots him in the head after trapping him in a net, burying him in a grave on Kraven's estate grounds. He then sets out in Spider-Man's costume to prove himself against a villain that DeMatteis and Zeck recently pitted Spidey, alongside Captain America, against in the hideous sewer-dwelling manrat Vermin.
Much of this tale is bookended with Mary-Jane and Peter’s new marriage being somewhat rocky due to Parker’s dual identity, but we also get to see inside Vermin's fractured, tortured psyche at a creature that barely knows what's going on around it beyond his most basic needs. The plot threads seem frayed, but all come together in amazing ways that work on a thematic level, and that’s what sets this book apart from so many others: the underlying themes and symbolism. It’s not precisely subtle, a lot of it is revealed in the text of the book itself, but that actually makes it more accessible, and since it’s not all crystal clear, it makes rereading the tale an absolute joy. Kraven proves that he has become something more than a mere villain, even Spider-Man at one point thinks he has the situation well in-hand, commenting on Kraven's normal MO of spiriting him to his hideout to gloat until Spidey breaks free, but this is a Kraven that had never before been seen, and a turn for a villain that was every bit as shocking as Green Goblin back in 1973.
This story isn’t as acknowledged for how ahead of its time it was, I feel, because it came out in the wake of two of the most influential comics of all time, but, and DeMatteis goes into incredible detail about his process in the absolutely must-read intro to the hardcover, he does for Kraven what Frank Miller did for Batman and helped expand the kinds of stories that Spider-Man could be involved with.
Kraven had been a joke, even below D-listers like Shocker or Electro, for a number of years (nipple lasers, people. Nipple. Lasers), but something about the character and the writer’s life at the time clicked and he crafted a being of incredible madness and obsession.
A fallen nobleman from a long-dead way of life that he could never reconnect with. Kraven had been established as Russian previously, but it had never really factored into his character beyond giving him an accent and a name. DeMatteis, in a few panels, gives us an incredible, tragic backstory of a boy raised by an insane mother and a despondent, dishonored father all while sidestepping the usual "abusive family" villain trope. He has a storm raging in his mind, and DeMatteis acknowledges the influence of Russian author Dostoyevsky in this influence, of the duality that he faces: animal VS civilization, noble VS dishonor, death VS life and, of course, man VS beast.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely immaculate Mike Zeck art. DeMatteis mentions him repeatedly in the introduction, but Zeck’s style fits this story more than perfectly and I'd be hard-pressed to find an artist better suited for it, then or now. His muddy, grimy pencils are perfect for a story where the sun never seems to rise and the rain never seems to stop, and they’re paired with incredible linework from Bob McLeod and Zeck himself, with Ian Tetrault on colors. Every panel of this story is intentional, there’s not a single one that doesn’t serve the tone or advance the story and the entire thing comes off as a gorgeously realized project. Even the letters, supplied by Rick Parker, are a sight to behold and become an integral part of this dark, haunting tale.
The book works so amazingly well as a collected work (it was originally six issues across three different Spider titles) and, again, doesn’t get the credit it deserves. This was still when books were branded with the Comics Code Authority label, though its relevance had begun to wane, yet it deals with themes like loss, depression, clinical insanity and the duality of humans all while using things like drug use, incredible violence, and even a bit of nudity. The characters behave like real people, the lense we use to see inside their inner-workings is clear and it paints the principle players in ways they’d rarely, if ever, been painted before.
Kraven’s Last Hunt remains literary, deep and, most importantly, relevant after over 25 years later (and fortunately, Kraven’s return in Kraven’s First Hunt was actually handled very well, paying proper respect to the source) and should be read if only to remind what a talented creative team can do with a character long relegated to being a joke.