scarlet_spider_13_cover_2013I’ve kinda lost track of what’s been going on in Scarlet Spider over the past few months, but this week seemed like a good time to jump back in for a couple of reasons, the first being that, with the recent events in The Amazing Spider-Man and The Superior Spider-Man, I had a taste for a story about a Spider-powered hero who isn’t a reincarnated vainglorious blowhard… and it takes a lot to make a story about a spider-clone to seem like a palate-cleanser.

The second reason was that the book’s recent Minimum Carnage event is over. Don’t get me wrong: not having read the event, I really can’t address that there was anything particularly wrong with it per se, but once I heard the title of the event at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I had a problem with half of it. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t “minimum.” Suffice it to say that, when it comes to Carnage? Yeah, not a fan.

So Scarlet Spider #13 is my first jump back into the title in some time, and my first time back with the character since the closing events of The Amazing Spider-Man. And this is gonna be a strange review because of it, because, coming back into the book immediately after reading those events, I’ll tell you this: if there aren’t plans to cross the Doc Ock version of Spider-Man over, at least briefly, with Kaine? Either The Superior Spider-Man writer Dan Slott, or Scarlet Spider writer Christopher Yost, or both, aren’t thinking things through.

Scarlet Spider #15 opens in Minimum Carnage’s aftermath, with Kaine on a rampage trying to stop the sex traffic coming into Houston on a beating by beating basis (kinda like how I deal with the sex traffic coming into my Internet connection. Pow!), while caring for Aracelya woman also brought to Houston by human traffickers who happens to be psychic (but, considering she was seemingly taken in by the white slave trade at one point, obviously not a very good one). He does these things while knowing full well they are against his own self interest, and this concerns him… but it’s a bad time for self-reflection, because, since everyone in Scarlet Spider has a name that matches what they are (welcome to Scarlet Spider, Aracely!), there are a couple of illegal human smugglers – coyotes – have come into town looking for Aracely and, well, yeah: they’re werewolves. Werewolves, coyotes… get it?

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Okay, enough making fun of the story (although it is always weird to me to see a lot of supernatural elements in a Spider-Man type story… although I will apparently willingly accept the “science” of body-switching), because there is actually a lot to like in this issue, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the events of The Superior Spider-Man, but I’ll address that in a minute.

Kaine has, since the early issues of Scarlet Spider, been presented as self-centered and reluctant superhero, with a willingness to use extreme violence, and that continues here, up to a point. Unlike Peter Parker, Kaine is more than willing to break limbs and treat lethal force as a viable option. And seeing that kind of violence from a guy in a Spider-Man suit was shocking to me early on in this title’s run. But in this issue, Yost gives us a Kaine that has those same instincts – and who acts on them, up to a certain point – but who also is trying to rein them in. Further, where early in the title, Kaine was shown getting in costume only when absolutely necessary, here he’s out actively superheroing against the white slave trade. Yost makes sure we know that Kaine knows that acting this way isn’t in his best interests, but that he as also compelled to do something.

And I was pleasantly surprised to see these developments. On some level, I wrote Scarlet Spider off a while ago as “for people who want to buy both Spider-Man and Wolverine, but only have three bucks a month to throw around,” but it seems Yost has had Kaine evolve over the course of the title, from a dick who happened to have a Spider suit to someone actively trying to become a better man despite being brewed from a discarded wad of sperm (hey Mom! Maybe you could become a grandmother after all!). Seeing Kaine battle his own nature – and in one case, clearly to his own detriment – make me believe that Yost has had a long-term, character-based plan for this book that I didn’t see in the early going, and it makes me think that maybe – maybe – I’ve been denying myself something special by dropping out to avoid the whole Minimum Carnage thing.

As an individual issue, though, I do have some mixed feelings. The early pages showing Kaine Batmanning it up, terrifying and savagely beating criminals, were an exciting, fun take on a urban vigilante story – a protagonist who makes the decision to terrify the victim, albeit in a safe way and for her own good, was refreshing for this old pulp / Batman fan. But the supernatural story’s elements are a sticking point for me. I recognize that those elements have been in the book since the beginning, but they still feel out of place in a book ostensibly about a mid-powered urban vigilante. Maybe its because Yost sees Houston as a mid-level city, and therefore needing a little juice to be worthy of a superhero, but we’re talking about a town that’s on the main highway from the Mexican border. If only there were a serious violent crime problem in that area, with enough money floating around to attract a couple of organized crime-style villains (hell, Hammerhead’s not doing anything!)… but seriously: it’s hard for me to become totally immersed in a tale about a man driven to battle street-level crime and trying to incrementally better himself, when he spends all his time punching werewolves and hanging out with psychics. But still, the character work Yost has done with Kaine is interesting enough that the spooky shit isn’t in any way a deal breaker.

But what really stood out for me, having just read The Superior Spider-Man, are the parallels between Otto and Kaine. Neither started out intending to be a superhero, having begun as remorseless killers. Both are, for all intents and purposes, reluctantly following in Peter Parker’s footsteps. Each has made a conscious decision to try to be a better person. And each is dealing with the instinct to resolve every situation with lethal force. And each has found that taking the path of the better man has been detrimental to things they feel they want deep down. The similarities are spooky when read back-to-back, with the main difference being that Kaine is making all his own decisions, while Otto is being forced into some by Peter’s “ghost”… which is why I say that, if Slott and Yost aren’t coordinating at least one meeting between the two, they’re missing a sure bet. I’d pay good money to see these two talk about what they’re each going through… y’know, after the inevitable seven-page fight to see who is really the “superior” Spider-Man.

Khoi Pham’s art is a departure from the Ryan Stegman art I initially left the book with, and is an improvement in a couple of narrow ways. Pham works with a medium to fine line, and draws expressive faces that are often just on the cartoony side. He also takes a particular liberty with Kaine’s costume, in that he makes the eyes narrower and more slanted, giving him a more sinister facial “expression” that I thought was intriguing. However, Pham has some issues with human proportion – there are some panels where Kaine appears to be a lean, agile Spider-Man, and there are others where it looks like he’s had a keg of Bud surgically implanted is his chest. Further, there are some areas where the storytelling is unclear – on Kaine’s first meeting with the werewolves, we get three small panels of some unknown person and some teeth. I think that it shows the wolves eating a homeless woman, but I’m not sure, and it’s never addressed further. In addition, there was one action page late in the book where I really had to pay attention to background cues like lightswitches and stairways to understand what happened and why. It’s certainly not bad art, but there were some consistency and clarity issues that I would like to have seen cleared up.

I wasn’t really expecting a whole hell of a lot from Scarlet Spider #13, and mostly picked it up to see if Yost would do anything with the whole Superior Spider-Man thing. But what I found was a better-than-expected story of a violent man trying by inches not just to tame his lesser natures, but to improve himself. Sure, your opinion of the book will probably hinge up to a point on how you feel about crime stories featuring werewolves, but on the whole, this is a solid, character driven story that has gone places I wouldn’t have anticipated a few months ago. It’s also a surprising parallel with what’s happening in the main Spider-Man title, and while it isn’t perfect, it’s good enough to bring me back on board for at least a couple of months.

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