Spider-Man faces one of his most difficult tests.
“Hunted” may have started out on a very sluggish note, but the second half of this Spider-Man event is making up for lost time. It’s no coincidence that issue #21 is also the most intimate in scope. This finally feels like a true Spider-Man story again, and one that shows the potential to reinvent more than just Peter Parker by the time all is said and done.
The first several chapters of “Hunted” spent far too much time focusing on Kraven’s group of over-privileged hunters and the dozens of animal-themed villains in their sights. Thankfully, this issue alters course by all but completely ignoring both groups in favor of a much smaller, contained cast of characters. Kraven, Spidey and Black Cat trade off narrating the issue. That process is handled elegantly enough, especially with letterer Joe Caramagna taking great pains to distinguish each narrator’s captions in terms of color and font. It’s especially interesting to see Caramagna break with tradition by not using the all-caps approach to Kraven’s captions. Juxtaposed against Spider-Man’s narration, this creates the effect of a careful, practiced hunter watching over his desperate, thrashing prey.
The narration-centric approach of this issue is critical, as writer Nick Spencer takes a very introspective approach to the penultimate chapter of “Hunted.” We get a better sense of what Kraven actually wants and exactly how he’s testing Spider-Man this time around. While the reveal does raise certain awkward questions (namely, wasn’t there a less ostentatious way of carrying out this test?), it’s satisfying all the same. As for Spidey himself, Spencer really nails the animalistic, fight-or-flight mentality of a hero fighting a desperate battle for survival. It’s almost enough to believe the wallcrawler might finally be meeting his end in these pages. Black Cat’s narration doesn’t stand out quite as much relative to the others, but it still offers welcome insight into the mind of a woman torn between selfish survival instincts and the need to protect an innocent boy.
Though even Kraven and Spidey play second fiddle to the real star of this issue. Spencer’s greatest strength on the series has been his ability to elevate villains both major and minor, to the point where they often steal the show from Spider-Man himself. This issue becomes Curt Connors’ chance to shine. Curt is the one with the most immediate and personal investment in this conflict, as his son’s life is on the line. But as Spider-Man’s former nemesis explains, it’s about more than just saving Billy. Curt is guilty of a horrific crime – losing control of his Lizard side and slaughtering his own family. Even after being given a second chance at happiness thanks to The Clone Conspiracy, Curt can’t let go of the shame and self-loathing that have defined his life. This issue serves as an excellent character study, and that in–depth exploration of an iconic villain pays off in the story’s dramatic climax.
It’s a shame the art and writing aren’t a better fit for each other. Artist Gerardo Sandoval handles some scenes well, particularly Peter’s horrific run-in with a family of Vermin clones. Those panels deliver a frenzy of claustrophobic violence that meshes perfectly with the desperate narration. This issue also does a much better job than its predecessor in terms of differentiating the elder and young Kravens.
But the quieter scenes don’t fare quite so well. Sandoval has a tendency to over-exaggerate Spidey’s masked expressions, which winds up working against the emotion of the scenes. His depiction of the human Curt Connors is less tortured scientist and family man than generic, muscular male protagonist. Only in his Lizard form does Connors pack any sort of visual punch.