Talking Comics with Tim | Neil Kleid on 'Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt'

One of the most memorable Spider-Man storylines of the 1980s remains J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck's "Kraven's Last Hunt," which featured the ultimate battle between Kraven the Hunter and Spider-Man. Now, nearly three decades later, Marvel has enlisted Neil Kleid to author a prose adaptation, Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt.

To mark the novel's release today in comic stores, Kleid talked with me about the nuances of the adaptation. He'll appear today at 6 p.m. for a book signing at JHU Comic Books in New York City.

Tim O'Shea: How many times did you reread Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294 and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 before embarking on this novel?

Neil Kleid: Two full reads for the flow, another for dissection and note-taking, then sporadic reading as I worked through the manuscript. I also tossed in Amazing Spider-Man #15 (Kraven’s first appearance), #289 ("Death of the Hobgoblin") and Spectacular Spider-Man #178-184 (“The Child Within,” a kind of sequel to “Last Hunt"). In addition, and for good measure, I also devoured Captain America #272 and Marvel Team-Up #128 in order to dig inside Vermin’s head a bit more.

Writing a prose adaptation of the story allows you to expand on certain elements of the story. Was there any aspect- - such as Vermin or Mary Jane's elements -- that you were able to dig into a little deeper?

Oh, indeed. The nice thing about taking a six-issue miniseries to approximately 65,000 words is that you have a room to explore inside your characters’ heads. The adaptation gave me the chance to turn each of the main characters — Kraven, Peter, MJ and Vermin — over and around, examining their emotional journey through this story from every angle.

The editors and I decided to slightly adjust the continuity so that the story takes place right after Peter revealed his secret identity to Mary Jane. They aren’t married in the novel, but rather beginning a deeper, more intimate relationship than before. This change allowed us to explore what it truly means to be Spider-Man’s girlfriend, how Peter’s double life affects (and has affected) MJ’s, and thrusts her into a difficult decision: Is she strong enough to withstand the highs and lows of this relationship? Her character arc through this book travels from an emotionally secure, somewhat excited place and takes her through growing doubt and her first trial by fire as Spidey’s significant other (well, the first that she KNEW he was Spidey, anyway).

Vermin, meanwhile, got a closer look at the dueling voices inside his head: Edward, scared and sensitive, and Vermin, cruel and hungry. I’ll admit being inspired by Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and particularly gave The Two Towers another watch before diving into Edward’s head, searching for his heart’s desire. I learned that in order to attain it, Edward would have to first confront and defeat the second, cruel persona he’d constructed inside his mind … a persona he’d built in order to protect himself from a crueler society that hated and feared him.

Finally, and more importantly, there was Kraven. J.M. DeMatteis (and, of course, Mike Zeck) had already done most of the heavy lifting getting inside Sergei’s mind. My job was simply to expand on that, make more of a connection between his perceived failures as a super villain and perceived failures as a son. Kraven’s journey through the original miniseries is a confusing one at times, because so much of his “mission” lives inside a drug-addled mind … fighting imaginary spider-monsters … defending his family’s honor from a larger-than-life, ancient Beast. But when you strip away the poetic/symmetric visuals and get to the heart of his ultimate goal, Sergei Kravinoff — a third-rate supervillain, a guy who dresses like a lion and throws monkeys at New York’s more colorful superheroes — is exceptionally relatable. He’s a son who misses his parents, and yearns to restore honor and dignity to his family name. A hunter who reveres the elements and nature more than man-made jungles and weaponry. An enemy whose constant failures — perceived or actual—dog his every step. And in the end, a man who just wants to find peace and happiness…and sets out to accomplish that by the only way he knows how.

This was back when Mary Jane and Peter were together, and while they did not have many scenes together, the connection of these two characters was vital to the story. What did you most enjoy about using the Mary Jane/Peter dynamic in this adaptation?

As I said earlier, the largest change we made to the source materials was dialing back Peter and MJ’s relationship by a year or so. My opinion is that decision allowed Mary Jane to become something more than a wife waiting for her husband to come home. It gave her a decision to make — a decision informed by both Peter’s revelations as well as the recent death of her friend Ned Leeds … who turned out to be one of her boyfriend’s most dangerous enemies.

Of all the characters in the novel, Mary Jane is the only one who can choose to walk away. Her dilemma in this story exists because of Peter’s secret, and I really felt it important to focus on how Peter’s two-week disappearance affected her life and the larger implications of what it would mean for her to stay. Truthfully? They’re in three scenes together in this novel. A brief scene of my own invention, squeezed between Ned Leeds’ funeral and the events of "Kraven’s Last Hunt"; a briefer respite following Pete’s return from the grave; and, finally, their reunion at the novel’s end. That’s it. And what’s fascinating about that is how much the scenes when they’re apart drive and evolve the nature of their relationship even more than those moments together. I suppose absence truly does make the heart grow fonder.

Why do you think that initial comic arc resonated with readers so much -- and how did your understanding of that appeal help inform your writing?

I mention in the book’s afterword that "Last Hunt" was, to me, one of the first — if not the first —c omic book stories to run across multiple titles. It was, to me as well, the first psychological exploration into the mind of a supervillain … and especially one that had been kind of lame. A blank slate, if you will. Look, we’re talking about Kraven the Hunter here. Not Doctor Doom, or the Green Goblin, or even the Joker who got this deep psychological dive one year later. Kraven. The Hunter. The dude with a lion’s mane vest and leopard-skin pants.

But what DeMatteis and Zeck did was examine every facet of his being … and using poetic, disturbing imagery turn this from a “super villain makes good” tale into a story in which every character is a victim. You feel bad for Kraven at points in this story — a story in which he shoots and buries Spider-Man. You feel bad for Vermin, a vicious cannibal who kidnaps and eats women throughout the crossover. They say every villain is a hero in his or her own mind … but I believe it goes beyond that. These villains aren’t filled with a sense of confidence and assurance that what they’re doing is the right thing — no, these villains are filled with doubt, and self-loathing and sadness. And so is Peter. And so is MJ. It’s what binds them to one another throughout the story. And I think that is relatable to a reader — especially if that reader was, like me when the original issues came out, coming of age and moving away from adolescence. I wanted to capture that victimization, that undercurrent of doubt and tension that runs across "Last Hunt."

Would you agree that in some ways Kraven is the star of this story, to a certain extent, and Spider-Man (while in the fight for his life) is a guest-star?

While I do agree that Kraven’s journey is the heart of the story, I would very much disagree with that notion. I believe Kraven’s mission sets off and affects the individual arcs for each of the POV characters, but each character can be viewed as a star within each of those. This is as much a Spider-Man story as it is a Kraven the Hunter story, touching on themes of doubt and honor, trust and responsibility. If not for Spider-Man, Kraven would not be driven to undertake his final hunt, nor would he push himself to don his enemy’s mask. If not for Spider-Man, Mary Jane would not be tossed about in the frenzy of her own emotional whirlwind. If not for Spider-Man, Vermin would not force himself up above the sewers nor would his defeat at the hands of Spider-Man (and Captain America) have captured Kraven’s attention.

There are so many iconic scenes in "Kraven's Last Hunt." Were there any in particular you relished getting to tackle in your adaptation?

Peter’s resurrection, I have to be honest, was a blast to write. I’m fascinated with afterlife stories, and it allowed me to get as poetic with my prose as DeMatteis did with his script. That first scene of Web of Spider-Man #32, where Ned Leeds crumbles before Peter’s eyes, has always been my favorite. And, in general, it was a joy to draw Ned Leeds’ story and how it affected Peter into the larger narrative of Kraven’s Last Hunt. Readers (and I was one of them) had spent the previous year — through the "Gang War" and other stories — speculating as to the identity of the Hobgoblin. What I wanted to do was connect the impact and effect the Hobgoblin had on Spider-Man to the impact and effect Kraven’s mission would have on him, as well. In essence, what I wanted to do was establish that Kraven’s Last Hunt did not exist in a vacuum and show how events before and after (as well as those in the past, of course) also shaped Peter’s life.

Apart from that, I’m pretty happy with Vermin’s last scene. That was a fun chapter to write. And, of course, Kraven’s…but the less said about that the better.

One scene that stuck out to me in the re-reading of the arc, the fact that Joe Roberson may have suspected Peter was Spider-Man. Did you explore that element at all? In general, other than Kraven, Spider-Man, Vermin and Mary Jane--who makes up the cast for your novel?

Not really — while Joe and Jonah do make an appearance in the book, we really downplayed their presence and allowed the narrative to focus on the four POV characters. The first draft included an original Daily Bugle scene, in fact, in which Mary Jane goes to Joe and Ben Urich for help during Peter’s disappearance, but we ended up cutting it and mentioning her call to the Bugle in passing. There’s a lot of “Mary Jane wrings her hands” in this novel, and the editors and I felt that in order to not get bogged down in repetitive soul-searching, it was best to excise some of that and just keep things moving.

There is a line in that Bugle mention that basically explains how ridiculous it would be to ask a group of investigative reporters for help with finding her missing boyfriend — their colleague — and I think even MJ caught on to the same thing you did. She must believe that men like Joe and Jonah have a sneaking suspicion that Peter is Spider-Man — constantly running away and disappearing before Spidey shows up, and how does he get those amazing photos? And bringing this to them would just embolden that suspicion, which is something she isn’t prepared to do. What I think she would have discovered, though, is that even if Robertson knows, he must understand how important secrecy is to a super hero with a family (an aunt, a girlfriend, etc). I mean, come on; Perry White must know that Clark Kent is Superman, right? The guy’s been a reporter since WWII. Glasses and a suit can’t hide a disappearing, muscle-bound employee with a penchant for broom closets. But he understands and respects who Superman is, the importance of a secret identity which allows him to stay plugged into the world in order to do some good. The same might be said for Peter and Joe Robertson … just as it was for Ben Urich and Daredevil.

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