|Well I always found you funny.|
One measures a circle starting anywhere, so let’s get the most banal question of this project out of the way: Why does Spider-Man have to die? The desire to kill off a major character within an ongoing narrative has always been a sign of desperation. A trick to pull out when sweeps week comes a-knocking and the producers need to increase viewership. There are, of course, many examples of this within the realm of genre fiction: Tasha Yar, Peri Brown, and Gwen Stacy (just to name a few egregious examples from terrible stories). And yet, Peter’s death is something different. For starters, it’s not a killing off a “problem character” solely because the writer can’t write women for shit. It is however akin to the Death of Gwen Stacy in the sense that it’s a narrative collapse.
Coined by Dr. Philip Sandifer, a narrative collapse refers to a form of narrative wherein the threat of the story is not against the characters, but rather towards the story’s ability to be told in the first place. In the case of the Death of Gwen Stacy, for example, the love triangle of Peter/MJ/Gwen is disrupted via the murder of Gwen Stacy, thereby making future stories of that kind impossible to tell. The collapse is typically resolved by the narrative cheating and undoing the change, but at the cost of a different change entirely (in the example’s case, this is attempted by killing off Norman Osborn, but fails utterly forcing Spider-Man to become a different story entirely [as is the case with many Spider-Man story]).
This draws us back to the question: why does the story have to collapse? Why does Spider-Man have to die? Is it because it’s an old story? Well no, even young stories can collapse (The Final Chapter, is a collapse that resolves the crushing weight of the Death of Uncle Ben by having Peter come to terms with it, and forgive himself. The price for this was the loss of a relationship between him and Betty Brant [but that was doomed anyways]). So then, what causes the narrative to collapse?
The answer comes in the form of the unofficial #0 Issue of the story, “Spider-Man versus Wolverine.” There are several obvious reasons why this story is typically not discussed in the context of Kraven’s Last Hunt, not the least of which because it’s not written by J.M. DeMatteis, but rather Christopher Priest, a writer of talent who isn’t bringing his A game to a story that amounts to “let’s have Spider-Man and Wolverine fight”. The story itself isn’t all that interesting (save a few points we’ll touch up on in a bit), the art is trying way to hard to be Frank Miller (especially in the faces where the art starts to veer in more modern Frank Miller drawings), a large chunk of the writing is a bit off, and…
Look, I’m extremely bored by this story. It’s not even a bad story that can have weird things pulled out of them. This is just so bloody middling. I literally want to talk about anything else. But I have to talk about this story because there are three things within it that are somewhat relevant to the plot of Kraven’s Last Hunt (in retrospect, plot is perhaps the wrong angle to go for a psychic landscape, so I won’t touch stuff like the first appearance of Kraven or the Marriage of Peter and MJ). So you’re just going to have bear with me as I try desperately to get those bits out.
Going in chronological order, Mary Jane Watson. We’ll get more in depth into her later on, but within the context of this story she poses an interesting problem for Priest. Throughout the story, she and Peter are “not” dating (sidenote: during their “not” date wherein they go see a movie [that was most assuredly not Rambo], to which Peter reviews it as follows “I’m sorry MJ, I just don’t think some guy with a machine gun mowing down people is a good time. I hate this whole “macho” movie schtick”). There’s a sense that they should be.
This is a problem, as Priest is trying to make an argument that they shouldn’t be. Given the text, it’s extremely hard to see why this is. The best possible answer for this is that Peter’s life is full of pain and misery and people like him shouldn’t have close friends they don’t expect to see die, typical macho movie bullshit (indeed, the what if for this story effectively has Peter embrace this mentality and become an assassin working for hire). The story, despite Priest’s best efforts, seems to be arguing that Peter and MJ should be together, if only because they help hold each other up when the pain becomes too much.
This of course leads us to the second relevant aspect of this story: the death of Ned Leeds. (Most people who talk about Ned’s death do so within the context of the Hobgoblin story arc. Looking it up, it reads like the typical convoluted mess that keeps new readers away from comics and frankly continuity only matters if something interesting comes out of it. The characterization within Kraven’s Last Hunt of Ned fits more within “dead old friend” than it does “brainwashed old friend who is in fact a baddie because he wanted a cover story for the real Hobgoblin because…” and you see why I’d prefer to talk about the mediocre one shot) Straightforwardly speaking, Ned’s death looms over Kraven’s Last Hunt. Peter obsesses over it so much, that he leaves Uncle Ben to a side note. Given that said story is about Peter Parker dying, one would expect the ghost to haunt him in the afterlife would be Uncle Ben, or at least Gwen Stacy (for reasons that I’ll get to near the end).
There are reasons for Ned being Peter’s ghost: his was the most recent (though given Peter’s first lines in the story are “Joe Face is Dead” and the whole “Peter sees the ghost of Face stalk him in the New York streets as Kraven is about to kill him” thing, this is slightly dubious), and there is a parallel between the two. Ned, much like Peter, is an adventurer seeking to make the world a better place (though more through informing the world of the horrors within it than by punching Space Hitler and his army of Space Nazis in the face). And it gets him killed off panel simply to show off how dangerous the situation is.
In a rather odd move, Peter is frozen by this murder. Typically when someone close to Peter has died (or are seriously injured), he responds with things like “I’M GOING TO CHASE THAT BURGLER TO THE DOCKS!” or “OSBORN!!!!” And yet, here he’s incapable of moving an inch as the assassins surround him. Throughout the story, Peter’s wondered if this whole Spider-Man thing is actually helping people. And unlike the usual tripe these stories go for, he isn’t asking if Spider-Man does more harm than good but rather does he do enough good?
The answer is obviously yes, but sometimes you need a break, or at least someone to hold on to. Given Priest’s claims about the relationship between Peter and MJ, one is shocked to discover that this isn’t an answer considered by the authorial intent. Indeed, for all it’s talk of not liking “macho” movies, the story doesn’t provide a tenable alternative to those Bang Bang A-Boom stories that end in pain and misery, offering only the satisfaction of Spider-Man and Wolverine fighting to the death for five pages like this is fucking Star Trek or something.
This isn’t enough to die over. As with many characters within long form fiction, there are many a story that, while important, are simply uninteresting to talk about and one simply talks about other things that spring off of it (Earthshock for one). There are simply some things that just don’t have 2000 words in them without filler. There are many stories, and indeed Spider-Man stories, that have done far worse than be merely meh. This isn’t the worst Spider-Man story (though I think it might be the worst one I’ll cover). So then, why is this the reason Peter Parker has to die?
Simple: the story concludes with Spider-Man killing someone.
Yes, it was an accident. Yes, she wanted to die. Yes, the narrative treats this like an assisted suicide. But the fact still remains: Spider-Man killed someone. The story says this is something that Peter’s going to have to live with for the rest of his life. This is also the reason why Peter keeps seeing Ned Leeds’ ghost above all others. Sometimes, when the trauma is too much, we’ll associate the event with something close by: a song on the radio, a dress in the store window, a person nearby, who died.
We can’t talk about those other things, because they hurt too much. So we talk about those other things. So that one day, we can talk about the horrors we have seen. The things we have done. The people who are no longer with us. And maybe we’ll have someone we can talk about it with. Someone we can open up our hearts to.
But we don’t always get that person. Sometimes we just get a parasite of a friend. Of a lover. Someone who just wants to use us for their own means. Who leaches off of us because we are weak and think they’re the only ones who care about us. We want them. We need them. This darkness we call love. The abuser who hurts us because we buy into their lies of keeping us in check, their evidence is that we sometimes hit back. And we believe them because this is the only way of life we’ve known. Because sometimes they smile the right way or they decide not to hit us this time.
But sometimes the right person sees us and drag us away, kicking and screaming. Sometimes that person is us, and sometimes it’s someone we’ve never known. It feels like death, being away from them. But we come out the other end stronger than ever. Maybe one day, we can look the abuser in the eye and laugh until they shrivel away and we’re free to be you and me. All we have to do is hold on tight, close our eyes and try to make the pain go away.
For a while, at least. It’s something a friend of mine once said: “There’s something about differently damaged people finding each other and being… not healed but maybe soothed? That appeals” The wound might never heal, least not fully, but if we’re there for each other that might just be enough.
…Yeah, I think I’m going to need to talk about one more Spider-Man thing before I get to other things…
(Next Time: Hello Darkness, My Old Friend)
[Photos: Punisher #17 by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson]