It's interesting to see that, in the post-New 52 world where Superman is becoming more like Spider-Man, we now have a Spider-Man who is more like Batman. Of course, Marvel didn't completely reinvent Peter Parker to do it – instead, they just brought an old carbon copy out of mothballs* to fill the niche, and gave him a name that was also collecting dust – Scarlet Spider.
It's hard not to notice the parallels, even though Peter's old killer of a clone named Kaine certainly has a different moral compass than Bats – most of the point of Scarlet Spider #1 is to illustrate the fact that Kaine not only wants to avoid responsibility, but he's a murderer barely restraining those tendencies when dealing with jerks. However, there's no clearer indication of this – as well as the fact that comic books are basically prototype versions of movies these days – than the extremely cinematic opening, featuring Kaine skullking around in the shadows, picking off members of a crew of Houston-based human traffickers one by one in scary fashion, all while the credits are actually rolled out over the panels. It's Batty, but it's also kind of horror-esque, especially when Kaine threatens to murder everybody, and then it sets itself apart when he absconds with the big pile of money they leave behind. The tone is rather well set. This isn't just "Spider-Man Goes To Texas."
Writer Chris Yost, who I credit with the best part of Marvel's big event of 2011 with his Fear Itself: Spider-Man miniseries, makes it a point to differentiate Kaine from Peter Parker, even though he's a clone of the guy. For one, he was a degenerating clone who was mentally disturbed most of his life, hence all the murder, and the result is a vast difference in personality between the two, illustrating the 'nature vs. nurture' thing. What would the Parker Luck do to a guy who didn't have a family or friends or any kind of legitimate life to help him through it? However, Yost also switches up Kaine's powerset as well, taking away his spider-sense but giving him organic web-shooters and the ability to see in the dark… somehow. Is this Spider Island residue, maybe? Yost doesn't explain it… or at least, he doesn't in the first issue.
What he does do is make sure we know this is a markedly different spider-book. It's certainly not Dan Slott's breezy and fun Amazing Spider-Man, nor is it Rick Remender's dark but heroic Venom. Kaine is only dimly aware of his own moral compass, and he fights it every step of the way. He absolutely hates it every time he feels compelled to listen to his conscience and get involved… and he's really crappy at being a hero anyway, as evidenced by his crushing an SUV to save an old woman from being hit by it, only to realize he may well have accidentally killed the driver instead. Then, he flees the scene to go get drunk. Before noon.
Yeah, Spider-Man, he ain't.
Ryan Stegman's art is pretty top-notch, too. It's hard to tackle a decidedly '90s character like Kaine and not make him look all… well, '90s, but Stegman manages to draw a long-haired bearded guy without trying to hammer us with how it makes him dark and edgy. In fact, it's almost a shame that he shaves the beard and gives himself a crew-cut, because it really drives home the fact that we don't get long-haired or bearded heroes anymore who aren't wielding hammers. Sure, it makes sense as he's trying to start a new life and yadda-yadda, but not only does the new-look Kaine seem a little too close to his spider-colleagues Parker and Flash Thompson, but he also looks exactly like the New 52 versions of Green Arrow and Deadshot – both characters who were previously defined by their facial hair. What do the 20-Teens have against beards and 'staches, anyhow? Did hipsters ruin them for everybody?
On the letters page, editor Steve Wacker says "In Kaine, we have someone who never expected to still be here living and fighting," and notes that he "spent his life making mistakes freely and fiercely because he never expected to have to pay for them." And if the last page is to be believed, the man who never had any family is nonetheless about to get his own Uncle Ben moment, and he'll be paying for that forever.
While this likely isn't what the small but devoted cult of Ben Reilly fans wanted when they clamored for the return of the Scarlet Spider, there's no doubt by the end of Scarlet Spider #1 that they're going to get an interesting read anyway.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 8.9/10
* Do mothballs even exist anymore? I'd say I'm old, but even I've really only ever heard the expression and don't think I've actually seen a mothball in real life.
A SECOND OPINION FROM IANN ROBINSON:
It’s nice when somebody can make something from nothing. For most Spider-Man fans, the entire Clone Saga was amongst the worst story arcs in the history of the character. It was convoluted, drawn out and wholly unsatisfying. From the ashes of that failure and the triumph of writer Dan Slott’s Spider Island epic comes Scarlet Spider #1, the new saga involving Kaine, the final Spider-Man clone who was healed of his mental and physical scars by the one true Spider-Man during Spider Island. If successful, this series will document a new spider-powered hero, one with a temperament more like Wolverine than old web head.
Writer Christopher Yost has a hard sell with this comic because the elements are pretty standard. A Spider-Man without all the goody good sentiment – who hasn’t wondered what that might be like? The reformed killer looking to make good, the anti-hero with a deep sense of honor and justice, etc. None of those are things particularly new, but Yost manages to make Scarlet Spider #1 interesting enough to draw me in. There’s a darkness within the writing, a subtext of pain and violence we don’t get in standard Spider-Man books. It’s more than just action; Kaine is a violent person by nature and somebody who is almost entirely about his needs.
That dark center is how Yost keeps Scarlet Spider interesting. When Kaine does something heroic, it feels almost his nature, so it makes the character that much more enigmatic. The first pages of issue #1 set the tone and Yost does a nice bait and switch. Kaine spends the opening monologue on overhearing a low life crook ramble drunkenly about a big deal going down.
As the monologue continues we see the men involved and hear their tough guy banter. Kaine swings into action, beats the bad guys mercilessly, with a vengeance Spider-Man never owned. When it’s all over, Kaine reveals this is no heroic deed, he’s ripping the dealers off. Kaine needs money and this is the easiest way to get it.
Suddenly, Kaine isn’t a hero at all. The deal he busted up was over human trafficking. Part of Kaine’s powers is heightened senses, so he smells the victims dying inside a large shipping crate. Kaine manages to save one of the victims but even his attempt at heroics ends with too much aggression. Yost also introduces the villain of the piece, a large gentlemen who can apparently control fire and temperature.
By the end of issue #1 we’re still not sure we can root for Kaine, especially given his actions on the last page. I’m sure the tide will turn, but for now the character has risen above the one-dimensional aspects of his background. Will Yost be able to keep the surprises coming and keep Kaine as more than Wolverine with spider powers? I don’t know. For now, Scarlet Spider is a series I’d recommend with cautious optimism.
The art from Ryan Stegman is pretty straightforward. This is comic book art, easy; fall back on work that tells the story without really setting the artist apart. Clean lines, good use of movement and panel placement keeps Stegman’s pencils from being boring, but I don’t care about them. Nothing on the page jumps out or catches my eye. A few of the scenes are really well done, but altogether it’s quality work that’s forgettable. To be honest, I would think Marvel might assign a more unique artist to work on a book like this. Scarlet Spider #1 isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it is a solid first step.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 6/10 (3.5 Story, 2.5 Art)