“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
-Guillermo del Toro, 2001
1/8: Touching a hand, wondering why it's time for saying goodbye.
Released in 1992, Soul of the Hunter sees JM DeMatteis and Mike Zeck reunite for one more story. As DeMatteis recalls, “Tom [DeFalco] had gotten a bunch of letters from people saying, 'Oh, you’re glorifying suicide!' Normally I would dismiss that as the usual rantings, except it really disturbed me that people would think that the purpose of that story was to glorify suicide. That is something I would never do. That is not my view of life or the universe.” So naturally, he wrote a story about Peter punching the ghost of Kraven the Hunter right in his stupid face.
In many regards, it’s a restatement of thematic intent on DeMatteis’ part: compassion and empathy trump brute strength and the death drive, the ambiguity of the supernatural, superheroics as means of coping with trauma. He even gives Mary Jane more to do in this part than in the rest of Kraven’s Last Hunt. It’s not that he gives her the role she had in the rest of the DeMatteis era, but rather MJ acts as a spiritual guide to Peter, an atheist who, because of her background in acting, understands the symbolic nature of what Peter’s going through, and works to help him through it by giving him advice as to how to cope with it. (One of the things that has fascinated me about the character of Peter Parker, and indeed why I have such an affinity for him, is that for all the talk of him being a whiner, he doesn’t really whine that much. Indeed he typically copes with traumatic experiences through keeping it bottled up. The only reason we see him as a whiner is because we’re the only ones who can hear his intimate thoughts. There’s a song that I think gets at the heart of this: I know what it’s like/when your family cries/I know how it feels.)
But more to the point, I want to talk about the ghost aspect. This aspect has been the thing that pushed my interpretation of Kraven’s Last Hunt towards the more Hannibal-esque margins between supernatural and mundane. And yet, despite having the living embodiment of Death themselves (yes I know Death is a lady within the context of the Marvel Universe and the story shies away from claiming the figure is Death, but the figure is literally a shadow shaped like a person in a hood with beady, hollow red eyes that they’re flagrantly meant to be Death), the ghost of Kraven the Hunter, and a sodding host of unalive people who are not allowed to pass on into the afterlife due to committing suicide, the narrative still keeps an ambiguity to it.
In one panel of Peter’s fight with Kraven the Zombie, we don’t see him fighting anyone at all, just punching the air. One could argue that this is definitive proof that all of this is in Peter’s head. Indeed, Mary Jane tries to make this argument in the coda of this coda. But I think Peter’s response is all the more telling:
Peter: Well, some things touch us in a place that words can’t ever really reach. And what I felt there--at the end--to talk about it too much, over analyze it--
MJ: You don’t want to cheapen it with words?
The point isn’t whether or not Peter actually fought a ghost or if it was just his mind using the tropes of superheroes to cope with a traumatic moment in his life that he’s just been reminded of or even whether or not Peter died at the hands of the Hunter. The point is what it felt like in the moment as he was saving Kraven’s soul. Not what it was in terms of matter and substance, but the internal stuff-- the effects it had on Peter as a person.
But then, what are those effects? Well, consider the moment Peter defeats the ghost (I’ve been using this term a bit liberally in the essay, in truth it’s less of a ghost and more of an amalgamation of all of Kraven’s [and indeed Peter’s] contemplations of suicide and death. It’s simpler to describe it as a ghost, though in terms of aesthetics, it’s more akin to a zombie. Also, since it’s going to come up, the other Kraven is his spirit/soul, not his ghost). On the surface, it appears to be a simple punching match but with more existential dread and PTSD, but in the moment before Peter can lay the finishing blow, the ghost vanishes. Why?
Consider what Peter was thinking of in the moment of victory: not of his love for Mary Jane or happy memories with Uncle Ben (indeed Ben has a more expansive role within this part of the story than all the rest, a pity as I found that to be one of Kraven’s Last Hunt’s more interesting aspects, though I can understand the decision as it’s been a few years since the death of Ned Leeds, and to have that be the aspect that drives this stand alone graphic novel would be silly), but rather of how Kraven felt in the last moments of his life. He doesn’t know what drove Kraven to the point where suicide was the right call, but he understands that life can bring pain and suffering that could push someone to that point. In short, what defeats the ghost is Peter’s ability to empathize with him.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about empathy in the preceding parts of this analysis, and at times I’ve felt like I’ve bungled it a bit. As I’ve stated previously, I am on the autism spectrum and as such have difficulties with expressing empathy towards others. I should stress that empathy is not the same thing as compassion. Nor is it an aesthetic. Unlike being a magician, you can’t just declare yourself to be empathetic and wear the aesthetics of empathy. Rather, empathy is something you do. And like any action, it can be hard or even impossible for some to do.
But that doesn’t mean that it should be looked down upon or even demonized like those who view masculinity as merely the ability to claim cruelty is the highest form of rationality do. Rather, we should guide our empathy with compassion for others. If we see someone who struggles with empathy, we should try to help as best we can. Listen to their perspectives and worldviews and act accordingly. Empathy can help us find the root problem of things, but it’s not the “be all/end all” solution.
In many ways, empathy is like literary criticism. We look at a text we call a person and based on what we see within the text we judge and critique the text accordingly. We can even redemptively read a text to see its best self, the best of which require a thorough examination of its flaws. But at the same time, our biases and worldviews can make us miss aspects of the text. Indeed, the entire narrative of Kraven’s Last Hunt is based around this concept. Consider Kraven for a moment. Give the whole of the story, it’s apparent that he is capable of empathizing with Peter. In his final moments, he realizes what kind of man Peter was: a good one. One who compassionate with others, willing to push those around him to be better. Sure, he has the world on the back of his shoulders, he blames himself for far too much, but he is self aware of it (or, at the very least surrounds himself with people who will point out when he needs to stop brooding) and tries to push himself past it. (I should note that Soul of the Hunter is one of many, many, many Spider-Man stories that explicitly state he is Jewish.)
But prior to that, Kraven was reading Peter as being this monstrosity that lurks within the annals of history, corrupting and destroying civilization after civilization. Not a man so much as a man possessed by a demon. In the end though, he realizes that it wasn’t so much a being he was fighting, but rather a symbol. As he puts it, “Every man… every woman… every nation… every Age has its spider: You have been mine.”
Everyone has something they react against. Something that makes them want to get up in the morning and live. And when that thing is gone, no matter how monsterous or cruel or wrong headed it was, it can make them… us feel like there’s no point to doing anything else anymore. That we’ve reached the highest point in our lives and we should just end it all before the fall becomes too much. For some of us it’s a television show we watch, for others it’s a project they’ve spent years working on in one form or another. It could even be a relationship. But when it’s done, some of us want to end as well.
…I have this idea for a Star Trek story. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to write it, but I might as well express it here. It’s called The End of a Generation, and perhaps obviously it focuses on the TNG era. It stars Geordi La Forge, last surviving member of the USS Enterprise-D. There isn’t some vast conspiracy at work here. No Romulan invaders or Dominion hold outs plotting some dastardly scheme that requires the Enterprise crew to be dead or some other nonsense. Life just happened. They died of old age or by accident or on the fields of battle. Someone has to be the last one out, and I’ve always had a fondness for Geordi.
Sure, most people view him as this tech person who wants to have sex with the Enterprise and/or his robot pal, but I never saw him that way. Even before reading Vaka Rangi, there was always this air of friendliness to Geordi, as if he just wanted what was best for everyone. Indeed, the first episode of TNG I ever saw was "Elementary, Dear Data," and he came off as a personable kind of guy. Later viewings showed he was mostly there to ask questions for Data to answer for the sake of the audience, but that first viewing where I focused on him standing up to Dr. Pulaski because she's being unempathetic and cruel towards Data or being nostalgic with Picard for a time he never lived in, that viewing is forever etched in my brain. In many ways, Geordi was the heart and soul of the series and it feels fitting to close the story of that generation with him as the lead.
The story itself concerned him being called off for one last adventure: the Enterprise-D has been spotted cursing in the Gamma quadrant when it’s also in a Federation Museum. Geordi is brought on as a consultant and gets on quite well with the next generation, even if there’s a bit of push back and growing pains. The adventure gets Geordi nostalgic for the days when he was a member of the Enterprise, and yet there’s a sadness to this nostalgia. Not that he doesn’t have a good life right now, but rather he misses those who are now gone. I don’t think he’s suicidal, just keenly aware that his time is coming close to an end.
But ultimately, Geordi ends up making some form of peace with the past. He’s always acknowledged that the past isn’t always perfect (indeed, contrary to popular belief, early TNG does not view its present as perfect). Indeed, I think somewhere at the middle I have a character ask him about it (probably Sela, perhaps as the captain of the ship), about how he coped with living with being the last. I don’t know the exact words I’d use, but I think it would involve the nature of change. We all change. We grow old, we fall in and out of love, we make and lose friends, and yes, we die. But when everything seems like it’s coming to an end, we can still grow as people and better ourselves. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?