There are very few comic books that have the gravitas, eloquence, and sheer genius storytelling that the Spider-Man story that we are going to talk about here, Kraven ’s Last Hunt. Released by Marvel Comics in 1987, written by J. M. DeMatteis, drawn by Mike Zeck and being a crossover between the three Spider-Man titles at the time, this story shows the character of Kraven the Hunter at his absolute and it touches a topic that is key to our hero’s motivations and core essence: What makes Spider-Man be?
The story goes something like this: Kraven, after many years of losing against Spider-Man, decides to go all guns blazing and put an end to their little quarrel with their final and definitive battle. Meanwhile, Peter is dealing with the death of a friend and the toll being Spidey takes on him. But one night, when he is swinging around town, gets attacked by Kraven, gets hit by a tranquilizer of his and is apparently shot to dead. Later on we find out that Peter was buried alive and Kraven took on the appearance of Spider-Man to prove to be his superior.
DeMatteis has always been a very flexible writer and his approach to comedy in the Justice League run he had after this story shows that in spades, but one of his biggest virtues when it comes to writing Spider-Man is that he understands what makes Peter tick and why he is the way he is. Not only due to Uncle Ben’s death, but also the many other elements that make his character the way he is and while he has written a lot of Spider-Man over the years, no other is as good and as definitive as Kraven’s Last Hunt.
I have seen a lot of people claim that this is more of a Kraven story than a Peter one and I can definitely understand their point of view as this comic gives a lot more depth and backstory to what was mostly a C level Spider-Man villain. DeMatteis explores Kraven’s Russian origins and how the rise of the Soviet Union took a toll on his family and his psyche, highlighting a lot of topics about mental health and family instability in a very clever and subtle manner. In a couple of pages in the first issue, Kraven goes from the butt of the jokes by Spider-Man fans to a multilayered, complex antagonist and that is all DeMatteis–no one has written the Russian hunter better before or since.
But I also have to say that this is, at its core, a profound Spider-Man story. From Kraven’s perspective, Spidey is this borderline mythical figure that is above normal humans and that is why he does what he does as no mortal can be like this. And as the story progresses, we discover and understand how wrong he is: Peter’s humanity and sense of right and wrong, molded by how he was raised by his family, the love of his wife Mary Jane and the experiences he went through, are what made him who he is. That’s why Spider-Man is who he is and that is why he is such an iconic and relatable character–he is just a normal guy that was touched by fate, paraphrasing what Peter said in one of the issues.
At the end of the story, Peter doesn’t defeat Kraven by wits or strength, but rather through this battle of ideals and morals. This is why the character of Vermin is thrown into the equation: to highlight how different Peter and Kraven’s approach to things are and how different they are when put in the same situation. And the second Kraven understands what makes Peter tick as a human being… he breaks. He loses the will to fight and to continue as he understands he will never be Spider-Man’s superior and is a very powerful and heartbreaking thing to see, which goes to show the quality of DeMatteis’ writing.
I have to give a lot of credit to artist Mike Zeck. Secret Wars might be the comic he is most known for, but Kraven’s Last Hunt is always going to be his absolute and definitive creative summit. This is one of those comics that I can’t picture with another artist and this is due to the fact that Zeck perfectly captures DeMatteis’ storytelling and every page is vibrant, filled with atmosphere and a kind of dark feel that fits perfectly with the events that are unfolding. There is a certain psychotic darkness when Kraven is on the page and a vibe of horror comic books when Vermin is attacking civilians, not to mention the tenderness of the moments showing Peter and Mary Jane. Master at his craft.
One of the best aspects of Kraven’s Last Hunt is the fact that it has a lot of layers and it explores a lot of different concepts: the love between a man and a woman and how strong it can be, the wounds that we can carry since childhood and the damage they can make later on in life, the elements that define a hero and a man and the very essence that makes one person different to another. It’s all so rich and exciting that this is a comic book that deserves to be done over and over again.
Kraven’s Last Hunt is one of those key moments in comic book history where the medium reached its creative zenith and showed that they can be a lot more than just mere entertainment for young kids. This is the kind of story that can be read and appreciated by people of all ages, regardless of whether they want to go in depth in terms of analyzing the subtle messages and symbolisms that DeMatteis goes to great lengths to explain.
If you are a Spider-Man fan (or a comic book fan in general), you owe it to yourself to read this story at least once as is a great example of what superhero comics can be in terms of storytelling and as a celebration of the core values that define these heroes.