"Down Among the Dead Men - Part One (of four).”
Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Terry Dodson (p) Rachel Dodson (i)
Things are on the up in Spidey's life: Aunt May is moving on with her life adapting to the fact that her nephew is Spider-Man, and Mary Jane is readjusting to playing the superhero wife. However, an encounter with the Green Goblin and a fight through the streets of New York leads to the introduction of a mystery bad guy who threatens to blow this happiness apart for poor Peter...
Mark Millar opens this new "adult" take on Spidey with one of his trademark bangs, and it doesn't take the 4-issue build up that we see in the likes of The Ultimates before we can get into the action here. A nicely structured narrative throughout the opening fight sequence informs us of the build-up to the fight as it's happening, painting one picture at the same time as the artwork provides another. It's a compact, economical technique and one which gives the opening a real sense of speed: a major confrontation is already over by the time we are 8 pages in, leaving lots of room for Millar to move the plot along.
The story shows Pete confronted by a (new?) mystery villain as Aunt May moves into Manhattan to live nearer to here nephew. Granted, the final cliffhanger isn't the most original you will have seen, but it sets up a potentially gripping structure for the next few issues. I just hope that this new development doesn't reduce Norman Osborn's initial appearance here to a mere cameo: he's too important a bad guy to waste. On the other hand, if Millar can convince us that the shadowy figure watching Pete from the trees is as considerable an adversary as the Green Goblin then we'll be in for a thrilling ride indeed. The set-up of this issue certainly bodes well for the future: Millar seems to have a compelling mystery planned, even if some details threaten to foreshadow the solution: I'm hoping Pete's reference to his parents' death is nothing more than a throwaway remark - although the arc is called "Down Among The Dead Men"...[pinched from the Alan Moore Swamp Thing story of the same name? Possibly indicating a similar theme ultimately? – Ed.]
My familiarity with the Dodsons' artwork stretches to the Spider-Man/Black Cat miniseries (which is still on a perpetual cliffhanger...) and the short fill-in run they did on Daredevil. Here, they seem to have grown from the overly cartoony style on display there, giving a real sense of realism to the fight scenes - and Pete's subsequent injuries - and capturing objects and textures solidly. The realistic approach is aided by the colours of Ian Hannin, whose use of a subdued colour palette fits the tone of the issue to a tee. The Dodsons interpret Spider-Man in accordance with their current contemporaries, giving us an Aunt May which is not too far from the stylings of John Romita Jr. on Amazing Spidey and incorporating Humberto Ramos' redesign into their Green Goblin battle. There are fun details to be found in the artwork, be it the antics of the kids in Peter's classroom or some further nods to classic Spider-Man lore (check out some of the stuff Pete has in the shelves in his room). The one artistic choice that I'm not quite sure about (and which is presumably out of the artists' hands) is the 90s-style "Spider-Man" logo on the front: Amazing Spider-Man managed to make the change back to its much more classy logo a while ago: something similar here would have been nice. But this is an extremely minor quibble!
If you were worried about yet another Spidey title not finding a niche, you will be relieved to learn that Millar has already carved out a distinctly different feel to this series, managing to inject freshness and originality into the character (the costume-less swing through the streets of New York is a cool moment that we haven't seen in a long time) whilst staying true to his world. Indeed, Millar seems refreshingly aware of current happenings in the Spider-Titles: May is almost as self-confident as Straczynski has made her in Amazing Spidey and we see more of Peter teaching class here than we have in many issues of that title. As a comic set in Spider-Man continuity, this is a good document of where Spidey is in his life right now; and the amount of exposition that Millar fits into his text - none of it sounding clunky or out of place - means that this comic would be just as entertaining and accessible for a newcomer or someone who hasn't read Spidey in a while as it is for longtime fans.
A fresh, original and more serious take on Spider-Man is exactly what the Marvel Knights line demanded, and this creative team delivers it in spades. Working within the confines of a standard superhero premise, Millar and the Dodsons craft a distinctive story which sets up a fine mystery and draws heavily on the more successful of the Spider-Man storylines of recent years, coming up with a satisfyingly adult Spidey tale - albeit one which will not alienate readers looking for more simple superhero pleasures.
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