Over the years, Spider-Man has had an impressive array of super villains (or rouges gallery), all of whom with colourful costumes and equally colourful personalities. People tend to think of his major villains such as Green Goblin, Venom and Doctor Octopus, especially given their portrayals in the movies. However, Kraven the Hunter is a classic foe that fans often believe should receive more of the limelight. Born Sergei Kravinoff, Kraven prides himself on being the ultimate hunter especially after a serum enhances his strength, speed and senses. But there is still one stain on the hunter’s record: Spider-Man. And that is the premise that drives the story in Kraven’s Last Hunt.
Written by J.M. DeMatteis and illustrated by Mike Zeck, the story follows Kraven as he enacts his latest plot to defeat Spider-Man. As he sneaks up on his prey, Kraven shoots Spider-Man with a tranquiliser dart and ensnares him in a net. Finally, much to Spider-Man’s shock, Kraven shoots the Web-Slinger with a rifle, seemingly killing him. After burying the hero, Kraven then puts on a replica of Spider-Man’s costume, determined to prove he could be better than his fallen rival ever could.
Now dressed as Spider-Man, Kraven stalks the streets, dealing out vicious attacks against any criminal element he can find. One of these attacks is witnessed by Mary Jane, who notes the brutality and quickly deduces that the man beneath the costume is not her beloved husband, Peter Parker. Meanwhile, the half-man/half rodent creature known as Vermin roams the streets of New York, feasting on citizens to satisfy his base instincts. The creature’s exploits gain the attention of Kraven, whose increasingly destabilised mind decides that defeating Vermin will be his final test to prove his superiority over Spider-Man. After an intense, primal struggle, Kraven emerges victorious and takes Vermin back to his lair. Meanwhile, Peter Parker makes his way back to the land of the living, as we find out that Kraven had deliberately put him into a coma as opposed to killing him. After briefly reuniting with Mary Jane, Peter decides that the time has come to clear Spider-Man’s name and bring Kraven down. He hunts down his foe but must first face a frightened and feral Vermin, who believes that Peter was the one who beat him earlier. Vermin eventually flees and Kraven allows an injured Spider-Man to chase after him, in order to protect those who may end up in Vermin’s path. As Spider-Man disappears out of sight, Kraven picks up his rifle and takes his own life. Spider-Man tracks Vermin down into the street and hands him over to the police with care. Finally, Peter gets the chance to embrace Mary Jane once more, as we find out that Kraven handed in a confession to the police, clearing Spider-Man of any recent crimes lodged against him.
When I first picked up this book, I knew that there would be the standard hunter/prey element that often accompanies Kraven’s stories but I was pleasantly surprised at the psychological themes that were at play as well. Kraven reduced his foe Spider-Man to simply ‘The Spider’, an analogy with which he compares other hardships in his life, including his family’s exodus from Russia. In a unique and rather disturbing way, Kraven immerses himself in the idea that he must vanquish The Spider in order to prove his worth. He displays both a reverence and a fear for his enemy, which isn’t totally out of character as Kraven has always had a sense of respect for Spider-Man. The story takes it a step further, as graphic images depict Kraven consuming the flesh of spiders, almost as an attempt to truly become one with the prey he seeks. J.M. DeMatteis does an excellent job at showing the inner thoughts of these characters, highlighting the striking similarities and differences between them. Kraven remarks on how he finds civility in the jungle, rather than the world of man, and I believe the portrayals of Spider-Man and Vermin are used to support his claim. Spider-Man’s spider sense always keeps him one step ahead of danger (presuming he reacts quickly enough) but there was a hanging sense of dread above him at the beginning of the story, even though he had no way of knowing that Kraven had a plan in the works. This primal instinct of Spider-Man may have been seen as a distraction at first, but as he skirted the line between life and death, it helped bring him back to where he needed to be. Vermin’s mind is plagued with the struggle of being both man and beast, terrified of the world that has shunned him, but driven by an animalistic fury for his own survival. As Spider-Man comes face to face with Vermin, he attacks his opponent with uncharacteristic rage, but in actuality, the ferocity stems from his fragile state after returning to the land of the living. The story masterfully compares and contrasts the experiences of three men, struggling to identify their truest natures. Kraven’s act of sparing Spider-Man’s life, before taking his own, perhaps indicates an end to the madness that plagued his mind. As he stated himself ‘he has defeated The Spider and now only the man remains.’ Whether or not he is only referring to Spider-Man is, in my opinion, up for debate. However, I appreciate the finality to it all regardless. In different ways, the three men who are at the centre of this story have now been given a chance to put their demons to rest.
I would recommend this story to anyone who is a Kraven fan, or even anyone who is looking for a comic book story with a slight change of pace. Mike Zeck’s art style perfectly complements the story’s tone, especially when dealing with the literal and metaphorical contrast of dark against light.