There are certain stories in comics that everyone needs to recognize as antiquated and more than just a little stupid. One that always bugs me is the ‘superhero kills someone and just. Cannot. STOP!’ story. That story is a lazy, overly simplistic attempt at a morality play that doesn’t actually say anything worth saying. It’s treating killing like potato chips: you can’t stop at just one! It argues that there’s an innate psychopath within the hero that’s kept in check simply by the good grace that he hasn’t killed someone in self-defense and then realized, much to his shock, he enjoyed it. More than enjoying it, he must do it again to satisfy that hunger deep down inside, because, screw you all, killing must done en masse from now on! That’s pretty much all “What If? Spider-Man” #1 is about. Been there, hated it then.
A twist on the recent “Grim Hunt” storyline from “The Amazing Spider-Man,” this issue begins with Spider-Man killing Kraven and, from there, bouncing back and forth between wanting to give up his costumed life and wanting to become ‘the hunter.’ Told via narration by the new Madame Web, the plot jumps around, delivering insipid scenes of melodrama. Ever wanted to see Harry Osborn and Mary Jane hold a ‘please stop killing’ intervention while a confused Aunt May sits there, before a drunk-looking Peter bursts in and tells them all off? Well, son, have I got a comic book magazine for you!
There isn’t a plot here so much as some lip-service scenes that pave the way for Peter to become Kraven and get confronted with his own monstrosity in a scene where, basically, his former friends show up to kill him. Irony is a bitch, huh? It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the story and its argument that Peter Parker is one step away from going off the reservation like this. A believable explanation is never attempted, it’s just that he goes from Spider-Man to Kraven 2.0 in zero to sixty as Madame Web’s narrates in bad purple prose.
The real pity is that the art in this comic is absolutely gorgeous. Azaceta and company deliver thick, bold black lines that are one part mood, one part emotion, and one part great-looking drawing. The opening scene shows a fluid, agile Spider-Man completely focused on taking down the bad guys and does so in a direct, stand-out fashion. This is art that demands you stop and look at it. The colors accentuate the line work expertly, using single shades often instead of the gradual fades in vogue right now. The final action scene is a visual feast and some of the best art I’ve seen in a while.
But, it’s hard to look past the writing in “What If? Spider-Man” #1, where Peter Parker crosses a line and quickly decides that, since he’s already past it, may as well go hog-wild. It’s a lazy, intellectually devoid path to take in a story like this, one that’s been done to death, and offers nothing new but ill-conceived cliches. With any luck, this is the last time such a story will see the light of day, but I doubt it.