1987 was a somewhat transitional year for comic book storytelling, as the popularity of DC Comics' Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen showed that superhero comics didn't have to be bright and cheery in order to be successful – and enormously successful, at that. Subsequently, one of Marvel Comics' first attempts to turn down the lights on one of its own characters met with great success of its own, in the form of J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck's "Kraven's Last Hunt," the classic six-issue arc that ran through Web of Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, and Spectacular Spider-Man.
While outwardly seen as Marvel's attempt to copy DC's success, the story idea had actually been based on one that DeMatteis reportedly had developed years earlier. With the unprecedented attention given to Dark Knight and Watchmen, the wake of these acclaimed stories seemed to be the perfect time to bring DeMatteis' own to fruition, and its continued popularity over the past three decades has proven that it was one that deserved telling.
Why A Dark Spider-Man Story Shouldn't Have Worked
The telling of such a dark Spider-Man story, though, was a bold move for a character typically known for his jovial wit and wisecracks. There was outright skepticism at the time of the story's publication by many who saw DeMatteis and Zeck's arc as little more than an execution of Marvel's attempt to cash in on its competitor's success. The already-grim Batman, after all, lent himself to being darkened a little further, but the happy-go-lucky Spider-Man meant that Marvel had a tougher sell to its readership and a larger gap to bridge regarding a darker story featuring its flagship character than DC did with its own.
There are even those who accused DeMatteis of unabashed plagiarism for his usage of William Blake's classic poem The Tyger, referencing the same "fearful symmetry" verse within his story that Alan Moore had quoted in Watchmen. The dual usage, of course, was coincidental – the final issue of Watchmen saw publication the same month as the first installment of "Kraven's Last Hunt," and the only real similarities between Moore and DeMatteis' stories are the themes involving the idea of symmetry, with both drawing from the same inspiration: Blake's poetry.
Why A Dark Spider-Man Story Did Work
Spidey's journey to the dark side was ironically made a little easier by way of another controversial element in the web-slinger's mythos: his newer black costume, which still had yet to win over much of Spider-Man's fanbase. The perpetually dark atmosphere of DeMatteis and Zeck's story – whether it was the stormy, nighttime skies or the dark sewers beneath the streets – served as the perfect environment for Spidey to don his modern outfit. "Kraven's Last Hunt" was arguably the best-suited, pun intended, storyline to showcase Spider-Man's oft-maligned new uniform, and perhaps unintentionally, helped win over the undecided and perhaps ensure that the costume would remain entrenched in Spidey's world, even if the overall look ended up belonging to Venom, who was introduced a few months later.
The nature of DeMatteis' story also helped ease Spider-Man into a darker world, as poor Spidey was merely a victim of Kraven's machinations – he didn't become the darkness, he merely responded to it. After all, even the happiest and most care-free among us would react badly to being buried alive for two weeks and having our good name sullied in the meantime. Any other time, an abrupt change-of-tone or mood swing from the previous storyline would have seemed contrived and opportunistic. Changing tastes, though, made the readership at large ready for such a move, and DeMatteis' story provided the device to make such a move seem plausible. Spidey having an outfit in the closet that was perfect for such an occasion only helped make "Kraven's Last Hunt" a well-timed and welcome breath of fresh air.
Why A Dark Spider-Man Story Became A Classic
It was a time when fans were ready for such a story, and DeMatteis and Zeck delivered. Evoking the same kind of surprise that Walt Simonson did when he had first taken over Thor a few years earlier, "Kraven's Last Hunt" was the Spider-Man story that no one knew they wanted. In fact, some didn't realize it wasn't really a Spider-Man story as much as it was a Kraven The Hunter story – so all-encompassing and engrossing was DeMatteis and Zeck's story that readers were transported into the mind of Kraven himself. It was a treatment that the villain had rarely, if ever, received, and one that made this story one of the most worthwhile sendoffs of a character in comics history – an especially meaningful sendoff in the days when the death of such a character in a comic book story was believed to be permanent.
While seen as an atypical storyline 30 years ago, its influence on today's comic storytelling has ironically given the story a kind of modern feel that allows it to stand up well in modern times, and certainly better than many of the more typical comic stories of the era. The story's biggest fault might be one that's really the fault of publishing practices of the day – written at a time where comic books were almost exclusively consumed an issue at a time, the issue-over-issue repetitiveness of DeMatteis' script makes the story at times a little overly repetitious in collected form. Conversely, though, the collected volume gives the story a cohesiveness that only came with rereading previous chapters in the past – an often necessary activity back in the pre-trade paperback days in order to best enjoy multi-issue arcs.
In 1987, "Kraven's Last Hunt" hit that sweet spot between the advent of darker superhero stories and the arrival of the so-called "grim 'n gritty" era of the '90s. Creators for both mainstream and alternative publishers ultimately killed that darkly-golden goose, with characters who relied on lots of scowling, over-the-top posturing, and grisly displays of violence in an attempt to replicate and one-up the truly innovative work of writers like Frank Miller, Moore, and DeMatteis. Remaining one of the most-remembered and fondly recalled arcs in over five decades of Spider-Man stories, "Kraven's Last Hunt" clearly was the darker Spidey story fans wanted – even if they didn't realize it at the time.