Column: Retronomicon: Kraven’s Last Hunt

By J. Keith Haney

DeMatteis, J.M.; Zeck, Mike; Kraven’s Last Hunt. Marvel (August 27, 2008). USD $15.86. ISBN-10: 0785134506 or ASIN: B005OHSSGW.

J.M. DeMatteis is, to my mind, one of the great unsung writers in the medium of comics. This lowly status is in contrast with the fact that he has been consistently working in the field since the late 1970s, when luminaries like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were rising to the top of the comic food chain. While DeMatteis has had his share of independent productions, such as the series, Moonshadow, with Jon J. Muth for Marvel’s Epic Comics (later reprinted by DC’s Vertigo line, which he and Muth followed up with a coda entitled, ‘Farewell, Moonshadow‘) and Blood: A Tale with Kent Williams (yet another Epic-to-Vertigo import), as well as graphic novels like Mercy and Brooklyn Dreams, he has also plied his trade in the comic mainstream. His work on Defenders for Marvel, with its dashes of Seussian humor and the metaphysical deconstruction of the “Six-Fingered Hand” storyline, and his sitcomish leanings on the Justice League maxi-series are still fondly remembered in some quarters.

But, to me, his greatest achievement in mainstream comics will always be his unique take on Spider-Man. While the tragedy and the humour of this character have been emphasised to varying degrees by different creators over the years, DeMatteis is the only writer that I am aware of who has pushed Spider-Man and his supporting cast into the realm of flat-out psychological horror that is the equal of any Batman story of the same bent (I’d also go so far as to say that J. Michael Straczynski’s take on the character owes more than a little to DeMatteis’ paving the way for him). This has much to do with the influence of his all-time favourite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, father of the psychological novel. One could reasonably argue that the superlative work of Robert Bloch’s Psycho couldn’t have happened without Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (also the inspiration for the video game, Silent Hill 2) and The Brothers Karamazov. The bulk of DeMatteis’ work on Spider-Man tends to follow the cue of a particular Dostoyevsky quote: “Good and evil are so monstrously mixed in man.”

DeMatteis wrote the comic series, The Spectacular Spider-Man, for many, many years using this approach (often paired with veteran comic artist Sal Buscema throughout the early 1990s). But one storyline above all the others he wrote stands out. Though the first part of its title was called “Fearful Symmetry“, to honour the William Blake poem that gets quoted with a slight twist in the story itself, most comic fans know it better by the bottom half of its title: “Kraven’s Last Hunt“.

The “Kraven” of our title is Sergei Kravenoff AKA Kraven the Hunter, a Spider-Man villain who had been created during the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. days of the character. As depicted, he was fairly one-note and silly, a hunter obsessed with bagging the perfect prey in Spider-Man, using traps, snares, and “nerve punches”. DeMatteis throws the silliness right out the fifth-story window with the first few pages. We first see Kraven naked and giving in to his bestial side, tearing the richly appointed rooms he is in to shreds in a frenzy of destruction. Then he resumes his more human side, putting on a bathrobe and thinking about how little time he has left. He fled Russia with his family when the Red October Revolution swept the noble classes out of their bases of power. Though he seems a vigorous man in his mid-forties, that’s just some carefully prepared, exotic elixirs keeping him alive…and they’re starting to lose their kick. So…one last hunt against the one man who always beat him…a man who looms large in his fractured mind like a mythical beast.

Spider-Man is having a bit of a downward swing in his mood, himself, at the moment. He just finished attending the funeral of a petty thug who got killed by his own carelessness and Spidey himself is getting blamed for the death. He thinks that he knows the deal when he sees Kraven, another silly villain in a silly costume, just like all the rest he’s fought. Then he sees the rifle in his hands and realises way too late that Kraven actually means serious harm this time. BLAM! When Spider-Man comes to, he’s got a lot of physical and psychological digging to do to get out of the grave that Kraven just dropped him into (complete with headstone, I might add).

Finally, there’s the minor villain named ‘Vermin’, a one-time scientist who was transformed by Baron Helmut Zemo into a rat-like man. Physically, he combines the hairiness of the werewolf with the skinny frame and facial features of Count Orlok in Nosferatu. But the worst part is that the transformation was more than just physical. Mentally, he has gone into a bestial state that alternately lashes out and cowers in fear (There is one scene involving a spider on a manhole cover that illustrates the point). Kraven, masquerading as Spider-Man after “killing” him, makes things worse for Vermin, tormenting him with whips and physical abuse that push him right to the edge.

There are other characters involved in the story, but the ones I’ve just described are the only three that matter. DeMatteis spends the entire story inside each of their heads, shifting as need be, and pointing out the fissures and the instabilities that go with each mind he’s probing. Kraven can be best described as a paranoid schizophrenic, looking alternately remorseful and quite pleased with himself over the monstrous actions he takes, usually in the same scene. Watching him gobble up a swarm of spiders is gross on a physical level, but listening to his unstable internal dialogue makes it even more disturbing. You get the picture of a man who never got over losing everything he ever cared about, with a warped sense of honour that ultimately brings ruin to everyone, even himself.

While everyone knows the old saw of “With great power comes great responsibility,” DeMatteis shows the heavy toll following that mantra has taken on Peter Parker’s life. Bearing that responsibility has left him whiplashed between being wracked with guilt and resentful that he can’t bring himself to walk away from the responsibility he puts on his own shoulders. The guilt really gets turned up inside the grave that Kraven leaves him in with the weight of every dead friend and relative weighing him down just as surely as every pound of earth on top of his coffin.

Of the three, Vermin is the most pitiable. Much like an injured dog who has spent his life among humans and got nothing but abuse for his trouble, Vermin needs help and cannot bring himself to reach out for it. Sometimes, the hurt gets so bad that he wants to spread it to everyone around him, particularly the people he sees as his enemies. But there’s also the fear, the fear of losing what little he has left, including his life. In Spider-Man, he finally finds the one person who is willing to push past the pain and get him the help that he desperately needs.

Mike Zeck’s reality-grounded artwork serves as the story’s anchor (in much the same way that Richard Case’s artwork did for Grant Morrison in their collaboration on Doom Patrol: Crawling Out From the Wreckage). There are a few surrealistic touches in the form of that spider swarm I mentioned earlier and all Peter’s ghosts of guilt coming to haunt him. But, by and large, Zeck keeps it as real as he ever did in collaboration with long-time partner Steven Grant on their work on The Punisher. The constant use of rainstorms, shadows and night scenes suggests the darkness and horrors behind DeMatteis’ words. The final scene with Kraven in particular is a heart-stopper.

I only read this story twice cover-to-cover nearly twenty years ago. I borrowed it from a friend and I promptly gave it back when I was done. Indeed, I didn’t even read the story again in preparation for this column. But I have never, ever forgotten Kraven’s Last Hunt. The ugly things it has to say about the human condition just hit too hard, cut too deep to really ever forget. It is a potent reminder that some of the worst horrors on this planet are just your average human beings…and that even as familiar a pop icon as Spider-Man can show us how deep that abyss can go.

Yeah, DeMatteis is way underrated.

You can buy Kraven’s Last Hunt from Amazon.com.