Spider-Man: Spider-Island (Comic Review)

(This review covers Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, along with several other titles that tied into the storyline.)

Amazing Spider-Man #670 coverA few months ago, I praised Dan Slott’s current work on Amazing Spider-Man as one of the comic’s definitive runs. It has its ups and downs, of course, but the overall feel is perfect for the character, and the release schedule (twice per month) allows it to fit large, satisfying plots into a short timeframe.

Of course, all long-running comics have their ups and downs, and usually the big “events” are some of the most notable disappointments. The “Spider-Island” storyline that just ran through Amazing is arguably its biggest event in years – at least, it’s the only to feature so many related mini-series and tie-in comics – and surprisingly, it managed to maintain the quality of the series leading up to it. This may not have been one of the series’ highlights, but it was fun and felt true to both the ongoing series and the hyped “event”, and that’s a rare success.

The “Spider Island” of this story is Manhattan. A supervillain infects the borough with a virus that gives everyone the same powers as Spider-Man. At first, this is just about the chaos that results from people having “all of the power and none of the responsibility”, with a look at how it impacts Peter and his supporting characters. But as the virus continues to progress, the victims fall under the control of the villainous “Spider Queen” and the true threat becomes apparent.

As usual, Slott juggles several sub-plots, this time also tying in with several other spin-off titles and cross-overs. Since most of the Marvel community revolves around New York, this effects a lot of the heroes. At times, the story suffers a little for having to remain coherent and interesting whether or not the reader is getting the tie-ins, but is generally succeeds. Most importantly, all of the side titles feel like legitimate stories in their own right – There are no cliffhangers that say “Be sure to read comic ____ for the exciting conclusion!” as some events do. I read most, but not all, of these supporting comics, and they are a part of the overall grade I’m giving this storyline.

The art is by Humerto Ramos, who has become one of the major Spidey artists in recent years. I have mixed feelings about his work: He’s a skilled and dynamic artist. However, his people look incredibly cartoony, with inconsistent proportions and exaggerated body language. It isn’t necessarily less realistic than some of the trends that have dominated comic art at times, but it is different enough to seem out of place in a Marvel book. Even after seeing his work in Amazing Spider-Man for a few years now, it sometimes strikes me as distracting and off-model. I have to admit, though, that if I read through quickly and let his art flow by, those exaggerations create action scenes that feel natural and varied. Ramos’ style is definitely rooted in an understanding of the human form.

Spider-Man stories are a continuous soap opera, for the hero and the ordinary people around him. The ongoing stories continue to progress, with yet another plot-line that started over 100 issues ago (that of the characters Venom and “Anti-Venom”) coming to a close. This remains the only modern comic series that can manage that sort of long-form storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not bothered by occasional annoyances in the short run. In the long run, this is always excellent. (There were a couple of those annoyances in this storyline. The sight-seeing Madame Web is one of the most frustrating characters out there, just popping in from time to time to drop intentionally vague hints that don’t help anyone. Also, after recent issues that celebrated Spider-Man’s refusal to kill, the workaround at the end of this story felt cheap.) It is unfortunately that most of the changes that came up at the conclusion to this were actually returning things to a previous status quo, but even there, the changes came up organically and didn’t feel like the editorial fiat that normally dominates high-profile events.

Panel from Spider-Island

“Spider-Island” is far from perfect, and it’s definitely not the place a new reader should start. However, I can say that it is the only event comic I can think of in recent years that I actually enjoyed and would recommend to others. Most events seem focused on “Get from point A to B, introduce these arbitrary changes the corporate office asked for, and be sure to sell all the cross-over issues!” Storytelling isn’t a priority, so they mask it by repeating over and over how important everything is. This comic, on the other hand, still put the story and characters first. The “importance” all flowed naturally from that.

Grade: B-

Though they were factored into the above grade, here is a brief discussion of the other comics that were a part of this event:

Avengers (one-shot): This is a straightforward filling in of some gaps that the main story doesn’t have time for. Though it’s competent and sets up a couple quick jokes in Amazing, this one is pretty skippable. It’s also written in a light, humorous style that feels at odds with the titles it’s tying in to.

Black Panther (issue #524 of the ongoing series): Not read.

Cloak And Dagger (3-issue miniseries):  This hardly touches on the Spider-Island event, but it may be one of the standout series anyway. Nick Spencer has a compelling vision for these C-list heroes, and Emma Ríos’ dreamlike art makes this unique on the shelves. The teen runaway-turned-superhero couple take turns narrating the story, often disagreeing with each other. The first issue especially makes the case that these are strong characters deserving an ongoing series (which is Spencer’s stated goal). The next two get a little bogged down in the plot, but they lead up to an interesting twist for the characters. I’m definitely interested in a series from this team.

Deadly Foes (one-shot): This contains two stories focused on Spider-Man’s villains. The first, about the new Hobgoblin and his relationship with other supporting characters, feels pretty much like a normal issue of Spider-Man. It even progresses those characters’ stories in a way that makes it important to readers. The second focuses on melodramatic villain Jackal. Part of Spider-Island’s success was that it didn’t give this character too much screen time, but this issue shows less restraint. Still, this is a worthwhile comic overall.

Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu (3-issue miniseries): One fun side effect of Spider-Island was realizing just how many Marvel heroes had ties to spiders in some way. Here, it’s the Bride of Nine Spiders making an appearance with the rest of the Immortal Weapons. This is probably the best use of the characters since they were introduced to support Iron Fist. Understand that this series is aimed squarely at an audience who loves “kung fu” as a concept and enjoys extensive fight scenes with captions for each imaginative fighting move. The art is good, though, and kung fu comics are pretty rare these days. This was a lot of fun.

Herc (issues #7-8 of the ongoing series):  Speaking of the ways spiders appear throughout the Marvel universe, these issues find the mythological Hercules meeting spider-god Anansi! It’s yet more fun storytelling from one of the most underrated series at Marvel (it’s cancelled with issue #10), and it can be appreciated on its own or as part of the event.

Heroes For Hire (one-shot): Not read.

I <Spider> New York City (one-shot): Not read.

Spider-Girl (3-issue miniseries): Spider-Island is mostly a backdrop in this adventure of Spider-Girl against her foes The Society of the Wasp. It sets up an interesting connection between her and a villain, and will tide over fans who are still disappointed by the recent cancellation of her own comic. Whether or not you should read this depends mainly on whether you’re one of those fans.

Spider-Woman (one-shot): There sure are a lot of characters with “Spider” in their name, aren’t there? This is another story to fill in the gaps of the main series, but you won’t notice those gaps if you don’t read this. Otherwise, this is a story of Spider-Woman learning a Very Important Lesson™ about herself. Just like the cliche Very Important Episodes of a tv series, this will be forgotten by the next time she appears.

Venom (issues #6-9 of the ongoing series): Between Venom and Herc, it seems like there was a strong effort to make the ongoing titles work whether read as part of their own series or part of Spider-Island. This ties in much more directly, with Venom taking on a mission key to the plot. However, that is easy to accept on its own, since Venom is a government agent who regularly enters combat zones without knowing the full story. The ongoing character development isn’t forgotten, though: As he fights to save Manhattan, he may be missing the last chance to see his dying father. It sounds silly and melodramatic, but works in the classic Spider-Man style of someone struggling to balance his heroics with his own life.

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