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Revisiting Spider-Man's dark past with Kraven’s Last Hunt

GamesRadar logo GamesRadar 10/21/2020 Kat Calamia
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In 1987 Marvel Comics published one of Spider-Man's darkest tales with J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck's 'Kraven's Last Hunt.' When surveying the entirety of Spider-Man's 50+ year publication history, 'Kraven's Last Hunt' is still considered to be one of Spider-Man's best

Could you imagine it happening to another hero? Maybe not, but it almost did according to DeMatteis.  The writer tells Newsarama that it was initially pitched to DC - first as a Wonder Woman limited series, and then an arc of the Batman titles. It didn't land there but ultimately found its home across town at Marvel.

"The way I look at it, it had to be a Spider-Man story or else I would have sold one of those earlier pitches," DeMatteis tells Newsarama. "I really do believe that stories have lives, and timing, of their own and that this story knew, far better than I did, where and how it needed to land."

"As much as I love Batman/Bruce Wayne — and I do, Peter Parker may be the most psychologically authentic character in all of mainstream comics.  He's real, believable, layered, relatable: He's fully human. And that humanity made the story all the more resonant."

An element that truly brought that humanity to 'Kraven's Last Hunt' was the focus on newlyweds Mary Jane and Peter Parker, a component that wasn't originally in the story until then-Marvel editor Jim Salicrup suggested the idea. 

"How could we have him be married and not think of his wife when he was buried alive?," Salicrup. "It's something J.M. added to the story at my request, and it became such a powerful part of the story, that J.M. thought it was there all along. I had to remind him, at a comics convention after we were on a panel celebrating the 30th anniversary of that story, that the wedding of Peter and MJ happened after he had conceived 'Kraven's Last Hunt.'"

One of the most memorable moments from this story-arc was Kraven's suicide at the end of the story. DeMatteis tell us that it was inevitable, and part of the character.

"Kraven's suicide was inevitable because of who Kraven was: his painful, dysfunctional childhood, the mental illness that he struggled with," the writer explains. "It was the only outcome for him."  

At the time, some readers saw this as glorifying suicide - which DeMatteis tell us he was appalled by.

"We seeded the story with references to Kraven's difficult family life, his mother having died in an institution," says the writer. "The phrase 'They said my mother was insane' is the last thing Kraven thinks. It was clear — to me, at least — that this was nothing glorious. This was a tragedy. So, when we got that feedback (and it wasn't like we were inundated, it was just one letter from a suicide prevention group), I decided to explore and clarify the issue very directly in our sequel, 'Soul of the Hunter.'"

During its release in 1987, it was a thriving seller. Comic book retailer Jim Hanley, of the original Jim Hanley's Universe in New York City, remembers never being able to keep all the issues in stock at one time - ever.

"It was a remarkable seller - with each issue of the various titles it ran in seeing large sales increases over their normal numbers," Hanley says. "As many reorders we got, I don't think we ever managed to keep all the chapters in stock at the same time."

That being said, why isn't 'Kraven's Last Hunt' held in similar regard as other dark '80s classics like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen? Hanley says the story was the same level - just people couldn't readily buy the complete story in single issues or collections for almost a decade

"Good comics are good comics. Frank Miller's Dark Knight has all the appeal (and flaws) it did in 1986. The same is true of 'Kraven's Last Hunt,'" Hanley explains. "Now, imagine if Marvel had followed DC's lead with Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Ronin, all of which came out as collections in 1987. I don't know how many copies those books have sold, in the last 33 years, but 'Kraven's Last Hunt''s sales would be a rounding error, compared to them."

Hanley says that Marvel printing quality and book collection practices of the time stymied 'Kraven's Last Hunt' from entering the rarified air of other dark classics of the time like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. When a collected edition eventually came out in the mid '90s, it was too late.

"By the time a serious effort at reprinting the story came around, a generation had passed since its original appearance," Hanely says.

Although Dark Knight Returns was the beginning of darker times for Batman, 'Kraven's Last Hunt' was seen as the last hurrah of a dark Spider-Man for Marvel at the time.

"There was an overall move in super-hero comics at that time to become darker, which I didn't think was right for Spider-Man overall," Salicrup says in retrospect. "That's why I wanted to get rid of Spidey's black costume and return to the red-and-blue costume. But to me 'Kraven's Last Hunt' was simply a great story, featuring a villain that many thought had very limited potential up until that point. Since the story was planned before the return to the red-and-blue costume was scheduled, I thought if we're going to get this dark we may as well do it while he's still in the black costume — I think this story works best with Peter in the black costume."

So what makes 'Kraven's Last Hunt' so great? Why has it been able to stand the test of time as one of Spider-Man's best tales? Salicrup has a thought.

"It's simply a powerful story, beautifully written by J.M., dramatically drawn by Mike Zeck, and incredibly inked by Bob Mcleod," the one-time editor says. "It touches on all the major themes involving Spider-Man, and even the scene of Spider-Man clawing his way out of his grave is in the great tradition of when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had Spidey trapped under all that machinery. It also benefits from being a Spider-Man story, and the many stories that came before, and even after, in providing the full context in which that tale is set."

Salicrup concludes, "The audience certainly has very strong feelings and emotional attachments to that character, perhaps now, more than ever. Many fans first read that story when they were eleven or twelve years old, and it obviously had a great impact on them. I'm still told by fans at comic conventions about how that story scared them when they were kids."

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