Sunday, February 17, 2013

Superb Heroes: Spider-Man Noir

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism. 

Because he's such a classic and popular character, stories about Spider-Man have been done to death. Alternate realities, distant futures, clones, deaths and rebirths, enormous retcons, Doctor Octopus taking over Peter Parker's body...we've seen it all. This is not to say the Spider-Man mine is void of any fresh resources, just that the need for new takes on or examinations of the character has been met many times over. It's a smart if risky decision by writers David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, then, to not worry themselves too greatly with sticking to established ideas and/or character concepts in Spider-Man Noir. Instead, they craft a story that could be told through the eyes of nearly any superhero. This series isn't Spider-Man in the 1930s, it's superheroism in general in the 1930s, a chance to take the genre and map it onto an era that precedes it. There are numerous examples of recognizable Spider-Man-specific details in the book, but Hine & Sapolsky use them only when they are a natural fit, and are happy to ignore or dramatically change others if it suits their goals. This makes the series much stronger and more cohesive than it might've been if the Spider-Man mythos was followed too closely, and provides a solid, original tale about trying to stay good in the face of insurmountable evil.
     The biggest, most notable shifts are in the title character himself. This is not shy, scientific nerd Peter Parker. This is angry young man Peter Parker, railing against the ugliness and horror of society with an incessant fury. Even before he has any superhuman abilities, Peter is eager to take up the fight against evil, and refuses to accept the idea that someone as villainous as Normon Osborn---who loses the "green" from his pseudonym in this setting and is known simply as The Goblin---can't be taken down. And when a magic (not radioactive) spider bites Peter and grants him incredible power, there is no indication that it comes with any "great responsibility." On the contrary, he wages a brutal, unforgiving, sometimes reckless war against The Goblin's various illegal operations, using a gun along with his webbing because he's just as happy to kill as disable his enemies. Motivated not by a sense of honor or duty but the much baser impulse of vengeance, this Spider-Man is nearly as ruthless as the man he's trying to defeat. But Parker thinks that ruthlessness is necessary, seeing no other way to effectively combat these incredible evils.
     His rage comes from an odd mix of naivete and experience. He's naive in the sense that he doesn't understand why no one speaks out against The Goblin. Unaware (initially) of the widepsread corruption in the city, Peter can't see how someone as universally hated and feared as Osborn is allowed to stay in power. All injustice infuriates Peter, and he wants the rest of the world to feel the same, so when they don't, he's confused by it and even more deeply angered. As for experience...the Uncle Ben of this noir world was murdered by The Goblin and his goons, and Peter knows it, yet there is no way for him to prove it or get justice for his uncle's death in any way. The Goblin is too well-protected to ever have to answer for such a crime, and because Peter can't yet see all of his opponent's defenses, he is left to futilely and angrily wish that something could be done.
     This impotently pissed off Parker is who we meet at the beginning of the story, though, not who he is at the end. By the tale's conclusion, all of his anger has been focused and weaponized and used to topple The Goblin's evil empire for good. Obviously Peter's magical spider powers go a long way toward achieving that goal, but there is another, even more important element to the Spider-Man of Hine and Sapolsky's world: Ben Urich.
     Urich represents a version of Parker who's grown older and softer, having already succumb to the wickedness around him. Where once he might have been a passionate and noble man, he is now a jaded heroin addict, trading his anger for cynicism and sacrificing his morals for the sake of survival. He, too, hates The Goblin, and even has thick files of information that could bring the villain down if they were in the right hands. But Urich firmly believes that those hands don't exist, that trying to battle The Goblin is a pointless endeavor that can only result in failure. Not to mention that Urich is just as in The Goblin's pocket as anyone. It isn't until Ben meets Peter, full of piss and vinegar, that he summons the bravery to make a move, and it gets him killed almost immediately. But his files make their way to Parker through mutual friend Felicia Hardy, and without them, there might never have been a Spider-Man. Even with his amazing powers, Peter doesn't know how to best strike at The Goblin until he has Urich's files in hand, but once he does he becomes an unstoppable force. And it is even Urich who helps inspire the name Spider-Man, because his nickname amongst The Goblin's crew before they shot him was The Spider. He pulls back the curtain for Peter so the young man can see the depths of the corruption that rules their city, and Peter in turn reminds Urich what it feels like to be enraged by such things. And so the two of them combine forces to become a dark and deadly Spider-Man, even though for Urich it's posthumous heroism.
     I give Hine and Sapolsky mad props for killing off Urich in Spider-Man Noir #2, because up to that point he had been the series' narrator, so cutting him out of the remainder of the book was a bold move. Parker takes over narration duties for the second half of the story, and it helps underline that this version of the titular hero is really two men working together. Urich does more good in death than he ever did in life thanks to Peter, and Peter is more effective than he would ever be if he didn't have all of Urich's info. The spider-whole is greater than the sum of its spider-parts.
     The same could be said about the series itself, which uses some fairly simple, direct ideas and characters to tell a deceptively nuanced and intricate story. The good guy is SO good, all he does is talk about how angry he is over the evils that surround him, right up to the point that he starts actively fighting them. And the bad guys are also SO bad, a gang of former circus freaks who relish violence and openly, aggressively flaunt their power for all to see. In the middle of these two extreme camps is Urich, the only character to go through a significant internal change, but his narration is so honest and direct that, for the reader anyway, he is always an open book. Everyone is easy to understand immediately, as is the world in which they live. But that doesn't mean there are no surprises, or that the narrative ever grows tired or repetitive. Hine and Sapolsky do strong work with their whole cast, pace and progress their story with care, and end every issue on a powerful and enticing moment that keeps the excitement alive.
     All of this skilled scripting might well be for naught, though, if it weren't coupled so excellently with Carmine Di Giandomenico's art. Drawing dark and grounded images with a small but important amount of exaggeration in his figures, Giandomenico manages to capture the grim, ground-level tone of the bulk of the narrative while still fitting stylistically with the more outlandish details. So when Peter is bitten and we suddenly see a two-page spread of some sort of enormous spider demon/spirit speaking to him and gifting him with his powers, it's not as jarring as one might expect in the middle of a story about mobsters and the like. The same is true when, near the end, it's revealed that The Goblin got his nickname due to some sort of skin condition that makes him look reptilian (more reminiscent of classic spider-villain The Lizard than the traditional Green Goblin). Giandomenico displays Osborn's true flesh with enough subtlety and realism that it fits, even in a world where everyone else is essentially a normal human being in appearance. The only possible exception is The Vulture, but it is with that character that Giandomenico does his best and most memorable work on the series, anyway.
     I'd probably read a comicbook called The Vulture if he was drawing it. Actually, I'd want it to be called Toomes (the character's real last name), but that's just me. Giandomenico's Vulture is more feral dog than man, hissing and gnashing his teeth, hunched over, and covered in all black. Only his Nosferatu-esque face is visible, and the occasional glimpse of his pale, clawed hands. Unsettling right away, he progresses to horrifying by the close of the debut issue. And though he is nearly silent, his presence is felt heavily throughout the series. Every appearance adds tension and terror. The Vulture is a constant threat, a living threat, made by The Goblin to all of his enemies at all times. Giandomenico depicts him hauntingly, and as little stage time as he gets, he's still the breakout character of the book.
     He's also Uncle Ben's murderer. Though it was of course an order given by The Goblin, The Vulture eats Ben, emptying his guts and leaving a hollowed-out and wide open corpse for Peter to find. So once he becomes Spider-Man, there is a personal edge to Peter's rampage that culminates in a scene where he shoots The Vulture point blank in order to save Aunt May. It is a moment that highlights the key differences between this and traditional Spider-Man stories, and also brings home some of the overarching themes of the book. Spider-Man has never been one to callously kill, but this is a hardened hero for a harder world. The Peter Parker we all know and love would be unlikely to last a minute in this setting, but the one we get here is perfect for it.
     And that's what any superhero should be: the solution to the problems of his or her own time and place.

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