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Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2007
By: Dave Wallace

Collecting issues #107-110 of Spectacular Spider-Man

Writer: Peter David
Artists: Rich Buckler (p), various inkers and colourists

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Half of Spider-Man's back catalogue seems to consist of stories which begin "The Death Of...", and this collection continues the trend by outlining the tale of the murder of police Captain Jean DeWolff by the masked villain known as 'Sin-Eater'. Unlike many of Spidey's other great bereavements, this death doesn't come at the climax of the arc, but acts as the catalyst for the story - and with DeWolff dead within the first few pages (so that title isn't too much of a spoiler), Peter David is free to use her murder as a springboard to explore the themes of moral relativism amongst superheroes, the flaws of the criminal justice system, and the feelings of rage and desire for vengeance that accompany the death of a loved one.

Traditionally, Spider-Man has been a light and airy character, despite the many troubles which often afflict his alter-ego. However, in 1985 Peter David used this story to take Spidey to a darker place than usual, pushing him into a violent rage as he deals with a serial killer who seeks to punish his victims for their perceived sins. This story also details one of the most historically significant meetings between Spider-Man and Daredevil, and will probably be of much interest to followers of Matt Murdock, dealing as it does with the criminal justice system and the manner in which superheroes complement and override it on their own authority. Whilst many superhero team-ups struggle to contrive a reason for the two heroes to come into conflict, this story pits the characters against one another due to their differences of opinion on how best to deal with criminals, and their skirmishes feel far more organic and convincing as a result. By the end of the story, both heroes understand each other's views a little better, and a friendship between the two is forged which still remains to this day.

The story reads more like a straightforward crime thriller than most superhero books, and whilst much of that is undoubtedly due to the 'darkening' of the superhero genre which was taking place in the 1980s (there's a strong Frank Miller influence here from his work on Daredevil, particularly in Rich Buckler's artwork, which is realistic without sacrificing the spectacle of the story's action scenes), it's also testament to Peter David's ability to integrate elements of police procedural and cop drama into his story without an of it feeling forced or out-of-place. David also applies a more realistic characterisation than usual to Spidey and Daredevil's heroic archetypes, showing how Spider-Man's righteous anger and desire to punish the Sin-Eater is blinding him to important details of the crimes he is investigating. Daredevil's support of the justice system also casts him in a poor light on more than one occasion, such as his defence of the muggers who attack one of Aunt May's lodgers, his selfishness in not preventing a murder because it would compromise his secret identity to do so, or his more rigid adherence to proper procedure in gathering evidence against the Sin-Eater - which later proves to be important, as he realises that Spidey and the police have got the wrong man.

Whilst it's not a perfect story (the eventual reveal of the Sin-Eater's identity feels under-developed, and the twist a little contrived) and suffers in the collected format for some of the subplots which were introduced for later Spectacular Spider-Man stories (a criminal dressed as Santa shows up on more than one occasion, with no payoff here), this is one of the best examples of a writer making a more serious and gritty approach to Spider-Man work. The striking black costume of the era reflects the dark tone of the story, and whilst David is careful not to let the more humourous elements of the character get overwhelmed by the more mature nature of his plot, he pulls off one of the more successful 'straight' superhero crime sagas that I've read in quite a while.

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