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Welcome back superhero enthusiasts, 1990s arts and culture enthusiasts, Marvel Comics fans and comic book collectors! Today we go back to the year 1993 and explore a part of Marvel Comics’ universe through the reimagined tales emphasized in the What If monthly series.
Several years ago, I bought myself a trade paperback collection of the 1987 Spider-Man storyline Kraven’s Last Hunt written by J. M. DeMatteis and drawn by Mike Zeck. That particular storyline was very notable not just for its dark approach to storytelling and visualization, but it also explores what would happen had Spider-Man been defeated and someone very obsessed took his place and go on a rampage disguised as Spider-Man. The storyline also explored how Kraven perceived Spider-Man without ever knowing the defining traits of the man behind the mask – Peter Parker. Eventually, Marvel Comic went on to revisit Kraven’s Last Hunt and explored what would happen had Kraven actually killed Spider-Man through their What If? monthly comic book series.
With those details laid down, here is a look back at What If #17, published in 1990 by Marvel Comics with a story written and drawn by Richard Howell.
The story begins with the Watcher revisiting key moments from the Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline. History then takes a turn towards the unexplored when Kraven, armed with a gun, shoots and kills Spider-Man. As the dead webslinger lies in a coffin, Kraven celebrates his victory with a lot of passion believing that he struck back at what he perceives to be the meaninglessness of the world. Kraven is quite mad as he equates spiders with Spider-Man as well as the decline of civilization.
After fearlessly and grotesquely eating spiders, Kraven wears a black body tight costume that looks almost the same as that of Spider-Man’s. While he is victorious, Kraven is not satisfied and he becomes obsessed by becoming Spider-Man and prove himself superior to him. He then moves into the city whose people are familiar with Spider-Man and also are unprepared with who is coming to them.
In an apartment, Spider-Man’s wife Mary Jane Parker is alone and worried. As she does not know that her beloved Peter Parker has been killed, she cannot help but agonize over the strain of his double-life as a civilian and as a superhero. Determined to find Peter, she walks out during the rainy night and is spotted by two men focused on her.
Suddenly the new Spider-Man (Kraven) appears and in an apparent effort to help Mary Jane, he grabs one of the men and brutally pushes the man’s head on to a nearby wall. As Kraven does not recognize Mary Jane, the wife realizes that the Spider-Man she just saw is definitely not her husband. This only makes her wonder again where he is and what happened to him. She then starts calling others for help…
I’ll start with the visuals. This comic book took a serious effort to come close to capturing the look and visual tone of the Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline which I enjoyed. Richard Howell visualized the characters, the situations and details properly and there was not a single moment when the visuals overwhelmed the narrative. Howell’s artistic take on the characters is simplistic but they remain recognizable which is a plus. The superhero spectacle was presented with a clear and clean approach, and there were a few key moments of action that got highlighted with some dynamism.
As for the story itself, what I found surprising and also pleasant here was the presentation of Mary Jane Parker as the main character instead of Kraven. This makes sense as Kraven himself was the major attraction of the Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline while Spider-Man was out of commission. In the context of this What If story, it only made sense to have Mary Jane as the central figure. Going back to Kraven, Howell captured the essence of the character well when compared to his version in Kraven’s Last Hunt.
In terms of plotting, telling the story through the viewpoint and actions of the superhero’s concerned wife really works well. Without spoiling the plot, you will see Mary Jane get involved with three notable superheroes – including the iconic Captain America – and even with other notable Spider-Man supporting characters such as Flash Thompson and the irresponsible print media figure J. Jonah Jameson. Interactions aside, the plot works sufficiently as a couple of series of events take place before the big confrontation with Kraven (as the new Spider-Man). By the end of it all, I can say that the story is entertaining, engaging and intriguing to read.
I can say that What If #17 (1990) is pretty captivating read and it is a worthy literary companion to Kraven’s Last Hunt. Of course, to really enjoy this alternative tale cleverly told by Howell, you must read Kraven’s Last Hunt first. Otherwise, you would not feel the impact of this comic book very much. I also liked how the death of Spider-Man (note: Spider-Man got killed in another What If tale that itself is worth reading) impacts Mary Jane, how it impacts the superheroes who know him, and most notably how it impacts the fragile relationship between society and superheroes. Lastly, this comic book has one of the more significant portrayals of Spider-Man’s most beloved woman. This is indeed a great story.
Overall, What If #17 (1990) is highly recommended!
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