The Rhino has never been a big name Spider-Man villain, at least in the same way Green Goblin, Venom and Doctor Octopus are. That’s not to say he’s a nobody – he’s inarguably one of the classic members of the wall-crawlers rogues gallery – but how many memorable Rhino stories can you rattle off the top of your head? Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s two-issue “Flowers for Rhino” story, that time he showed up in Cable & Deadpool... and that’s about it. There's nothing truly character defining for him in the same way something like "Kraven's Last Hunt" or the original Hobgoblin saga are for their title villains. For the most part, he’s always been an ends to a means character. Need a heavy hitter in your story? You use Rhino.
That is, up until Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara’s two-part story in Amazing Spider-Man #617 and #625. In these two issues Kelly and Fiumara tear through the Rhino’s indestructible hide, exploring the man inside the beast by asking a simple question: Can you fully escape your past and start again?
Before he became the Rhino, Aleksei Sytsevich was a just a no-name thug, driven entirely by his own greed. Hailing from a non-specific Soviet state (back when that was still a thing), he opts to undergo an experimental treatment. If becoming a science project meant making more money, then that's a sacrifice he’s willing to take. Through these treatments he's given superhuman abilities, making him both stronger and more durable, and is also equipped with an artificial skin making him more-or-less invulnerable. He’s given great powers, but chooses to wield them without any responsibility.
Amazing Spider-Man #617 and #625 take place during “The Gauntlet” storyline, which saw Spidey facing a non-stop onslaught of his rogues gallery (orchestrated by Sasha Kravinoff and Ana Kravinoff, the respective wife and daughter of Kraven the Hunter) every issue for just over half-a-year. ASM #617 changes things up by presenting us with a reformed Rhino. He’s hung up his horn, having chosen to settle down with Oksana, a waitress he met when he had most recently been released from prison. He’s Aleksei Sytsevich now, a man willing to do anything to make his wife happy because she makes him feel like an actual person instead of a sideshow oddity.
Mad scientist Doctor Tramma, who offers to upgrade his Rhino suit on behalf of the Kravinoffs, approaches Aleksei. He turns her down, leading to her reach out for a replacement criminal, who she equips a powerful exo-suit. This second Rhino becomes obsessed with killing Sytsevich, believing the only way he can properly ascend and take the mantle of The Rhino is by killing the original.
Rhino II tracks down Aleksei, now working as security at a casino, and challenges him to a fight. Aleksei tells the newcomer he’s given up that life, willingly passing him the Rhino mantle of the Rhino.
ASM #617 ends on a positive note. The new Rhino is still at large, but Sytsevich has promised Spider-Man that he won’t take up his old mantle, if only for Oksana’s sake. “For her, I can do anything. I can even be a coward.” After the previous Gauntlet stories had run Spidey through the wringer, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Finishing out that issue, you genuinely felt hopeful for the future. Sytsevich seems to free from his past, redeemed by Oksana, and things aren’t going to end so badly after all.