Editor's Note: Amazing Spider-Man #615 arrives in stores tomorrow, December 16.
Following on from the rehabilitation of Electro as a more threatening and dangerous villain in its previous arc, this issue of Amazing Spider-Man begins the process of doing the same for the Sandman, another classic Lee/Ditko spider-villain who has been somewhat neglected in recent years.
In a way, it's a shame that the cover makes it so obvious that Flint Marko is the villain of the piece, because until the closing pages of the issue, he's absent. In his place is a compelling triple-murder mystery that Spider-Man sets out to solve, with every step leading him closer to his eventual climactic confrontation with the Sandman.
This grounded detective story is a refreshing change of pace from the larger-than-life superhero/villain antics of recent issues, and writer Fred Van Lente treats it with an appropriate seriousness. Even if it's not quite Batman-level stuff, the plot is engaging enough, bringing in a couple of members of Peter Parker's supporting cast who haven't had much time in the spotlight lately, whilst also allowing for some lighter moments that spring out of Van Lente's winning characterisation of the web-slinger.
There are some equally well-executed smaller scenes that advance long-running Amazing Spider-Man subplots. Most notably, we see J. Jonah Jameson's reaction to the destruction of the old Daily Bugle building (as seen in the previous arc), and it's a moment that Van Lente again plays relatively straight but with a certain lightness, understanding that good comedy and good drama both rely on the ability to create an involving fictional world with three-dimensional characters, rather than simply taking the easy option and characterising Jameson as a ranting and raving caricature. Smaller moments like this help to make the various different subplots from Amazing Spider-Man's many contributing writers feel like one big cohesive story rather than a series of loosely-related arcs (although having said that, there is the occasional mismatch: for example, this issue sees some slightly forced dialogue from Robbie Robertson acknowledge the oddness of following up a story arc set during a heatwave with an arc that sees the city covered in snow).
In addition to the strong writing, the issue features some excellent artwork courtesy of Javier Pulido. His take on a web-slinging Spider-Man dressed up in his woolly winter clothing is a hoot, and there are some lovely images that hark back to the character's Silver Age glory days (such as the delightfully old-school web-parachute), with a classic look for Spider-Man, Peter Parker and his supporting cast and environment that evokes the John Romita Sr. years of the title.
Pulido's artwork (assisted by Javier Rodriguez's well-judged slightly subdued colours) does an excellent job of capturing the tone that's required by Van Lente's script, whether it's the fairytale quality of the opening pages or the gradually-building tension of the closing sequence, which restores an unsettling and disturbing quality to the Sandman (as well as gifting him with some new, as-yet unexplained powers). Most of all, though, the impression is one of extremely well-controlled visual storytelling, with equal attention given to the quieter moments of the story and to its flashier, more action-based scenes. Van Lente's story might be good, but Pulido's art really brings it to life.
At just two issues, it looks like this Sandman-based arc is going to be short and sweet, and I'm already slightly disappointed that there's only one more issue of the story to look forward to. If every issue of Amazing Spider-Man was this good, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend picking it up every week that it's published. However, whilst the book is still too inconsistent to make such a blanket recommendation possible, issues like this are definitely a step in the right direction.
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