Writer: Kaare Andrews
Artists: Kaare Andrews with Jose Villarrubia
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Spider-Man: Reign has been an interesting mini-series so far, making use of Spider-Man's supporting cast and history in a fairly original way and mixing its tale of an aged Spidey's re-emergence with some pertinent subplots which question the acceptable boundaries of government control and explore the potential power of the individual in society. Yes, it wears its Dark Knight Returns influences on its sleeve, but this issue marks more of a departure from the Miller imitation of the first couple of instalments, suggesting that writer and artist Kaare Andrews has a slightly different kind of finale in mind for his pet project.
Opening where last issue left off, Peter is thrust into his family graveyard by the mechanical arms of the dead Doctor Octopus, allowing Andrews to develop the story threads which relate to the absent Mary Jane a little more fully. The flashback to her death is touching and perfectly in-character for both Peter and MJ, and the low-key storytelling techniques employed by Andrews show a measured restraint which actually allows the moment to feel far more powerful than it could have been if the writer had chosen to play it up in a grand, operatic and more overtly sentimental manner. However, the explanation that Andrews provides for the cause of MJ's death doesn't show the same subtlety, as the implication that MJ was killed as a result of her contact with Peter's radioactive semen is followed up by a more blatant description of how his fluids crawled up inside her body: "Like a Spider... laying a thousand eggs of cancer." It's a little too graphic and repulsive to feel like a smooth fit with the wistful tone of this section of the book, and ultimately overplays an otherwise interesting idea. Still, Andrews' art really manages to sell the feelings of regret and bitterness that plague Peter, and his sometimes grotesque visuals (especially when depicting the animated yet dead bodies of MJ and Doc Ock) create a distinctive, creepy tone for this sequence.
I'm also somewhat ambivalent about the revelation that Venom is behind the activities of the "Reign" government of Andrew's dystopian future New York. On one hand, it's a way to incorporate another significant player in the Spider-Man mythos into the story, and the use of the symbiote as a dark reflection of Spidey is an interesting way to symbolise the conflict between Spider-Man's ideals and the mindset of the world he now inhabits. On the other hand, it undermines the anti-authoritarian stance of the reborn Spider-Man, reducing Peter's struggle against a totalitarian society that has lost its way to a more simple battle between super-hero and super-villain. It's as though Andrews lost faith in his message half-way through and decided that he'd rather have the forces of the Reign be driven by the comic-book villainy of Venom than by more realistically corrupt and selfish politicians, even though it weakens one of the more challenging aspects of the story to do so. If Andrews really wanted to pay homage to DKR, it would have been nice to show the same courage that Frank Miller had to give his hero a more ambiguous and revolutionary spirit, rather than allowing his main players to fall into easy hero and villain roles for their climactic showdown in the final issue. One element that does work well, however, is Andrews' use of J. Jonah Jameson's anarchic group of rebellious street children, who finally develop into a positive fighting force towards the end of this issue. I'm looking forward to seeing how they play into the big confrontation next issue, and the idea of them literally ringing the changes with their use of a church bell to fight the Venom symbiote is a fun metaphor.
There's a lot to like about Reign: I'm a big fan of Andrews' art, and I'm consistently staggered by his impressive ability to distinguish each new project with a markedly different style, matching his story ideas perfectly with the darkness of his images here and capturing the emotional content of the story well through his expressive characters. I'm also still enjoying his application of Miller's Dark Knight Returns template to the lighter character of Spider-Man, as it's quite an unusual approach for the character, and the elements which are "inspired" by Miller's highly influential work are becoming less jarring and distracting with each new issue. However, it's quite late in the day for Reign to have only just started to assert its own identity, and there's a real danger that the book has left itself too little time to make good on the promise of the concept. That said, I can't deny feeling a small thrill from Spidey pulling on his old red-and-blues at the end of this issue, and if Andrews can pull off a conclusion which is strong enough to justify these three issues of gradual build-up, then Spider-Man: Reign could still go down as one of the most original and successful Spider-Man projects for quite a few years.
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