Greg Hunter

Comic Preview: Dark Reign: The List – Spider-Man

In Comics on November 17, 2009 at 3:14 AM

The appeal of Marvel comic books, from the sixties onward, has partially been that characters from different parts of the Marvel universe routinely interact, many living in the same town. Marvel tends to be slightly better at having a shared universe than competitor DC, and Marvel’s ambitious “Dark Reign” storyline takes this phenomenon about as far as it can go.

For the past year, Norman Osborn (formerly the Green Goblin, still evil) has presided as head of U.S. national security, backed by a group of villains disguised as heroes. (Osborn received the job through a series of circumstances too convoluted to summarize, and which required Marvel readers to suspend more disbelief than usual.) The effects of the new status quo have been felt in nearly all individual Marvel titles.

“Dark Reign” has been inconsistent in quality, but I’ve mostly enjoyed it, maybe because I read a few Marvel titles every month rather than every week. (As you can imagine, Osborn and his underlings have become a little overexposed.) Osborn’s rise to power is implausible (even in superhero comic terms), but better-executed than DC’s attempt at a Lex Luthor-as-president storyline several years ago.

Over at The Comics Reporter, comics blogger Tom Spurgeon recently laid out a criticism of “Dark Reign” that did ring true for me:

The reason Norman Osborn doesn’t 100 percent work as a villain in the wider Marvel Universe is that a key and yet frequently under-appreciated aspect of the seminal Spider-Man comics revolves around the fact that Peter Parker frequently encounters adults. The vast majority of these adults are disappointments … The Green Goblin is the ultimate dickish, disappointing adult, and thus Spider-Man’s arch-villain …

Norman Osborn popping into his Green Goblin costume is … a total invasion into Peter Parker’s world by someone who should know better. But when Norman comes up against other costumed villains as he does in this new Marvel stuff, he’s an adult wearing an adult costume … fighting other adults: a dick, but not a special one tied into some characters overarching theme.

Another way of thinking about this is that Spider-Man and his recurring villains are all freaks of science in one way or another. But unlike Peter Parker, Doctor Octopus, Electro and Osborn use their abilities selfishly and narrowly–they’re superpowered hacks. (The disappointing adult bit.)

Spugeon’s unspoken assumption is that Spider-Man works best as a character in stories where Parker’s barely past puberty, in his late-teens or early 20s, and in way over his head. (Debatable, sure, but the best Spidey stories of the last decade certainly support it.) This has a lot to do with the young vs. old dynamic Spurgeon mentions, but for more reasons than the ones Spurgeon lists. Osborn’s not just the top Spider-villain because he’s a disappointing adult–it’s because the idea of a powerful grown-up determined to harm a good-hearted young person is, at its core, pretty terrifying.

For this reason alone, “Dark Reign” ought to be a great Spider-Man story, however well it works out elsewhere–a chance to see what happens to the archetypal down-on-his-luck comic hero when things get as bad as they possibly can. But for the most part, there have been only occasionally forays into “Dark Reign” territory within the Spidey books, not the atmosphere of sustained paranoia that the situation (or at least a creep like me) demands.

The last few months have seen a series of comics called Dark Reign: The List, which feature Osborn at his most Nixonian, checking tasks off his to-do list. Each issue has had a different creative team, and focused on a different character. Some have been much better than others. (Dark Reign: The List – Punisher was a gorgeously drawn, winningly over-the-top issue-long fight sequence; Dark Reign: The List – Daredevil convinced me to stop following Daredevil comics for the immediate future.) In some, but not all, things have even changed by the issue’s end–the Punisher issue actually ends with the title character in several pieces.

Dark Reign: The List – Spider-Man, out Wednesday, is the last of the List comics. It’s also probably the last chance for the kind of Spider-Man-Osborn confrontation that readers have been waiting for. Will it deliver? Probably not. “Siege,” a storyline that supposedly marks the end of Osborn’s time in power, begins in December, so it’s hard to imagine the issue will provide any feeling of conclusiveness. Will I read it anyway, just in case? Probably, yeah. A dark reign indeed.

  1. Greg: very insightful, although I think we’ve established before that I am generally more pleased with these big-tent Marvel events than you are (and I can’t stand the sort of guff Bendis gets from people on the Internet, most of which can be boiled down to an idiotic nostalgia about what constituted a proper Avengers team back in their youth). The List has plenty of fairly consequential things going for it, chief among them Daredevil, which I can’t understand why you’d ignore (if you read the following issues, the payoff is even better).

    The reason I like what’s going on in Dark Reign (and kind of wish they would push “Siege” back another year or two) is because Osborn, despite his major villain status, has remained an exclusive part of the Spider-Man universe for so long that it’s kind of a novelty to place him at the center of a storyline where Spider-Man is reduced to a supporting role (it would have been cooler if Spidey had been basically excluded altogether). And this makes perfect sense: Osborn is a captain of industry, so it makes sense that he would be hobnobbing with the likes of Nick Fury and Tony Stark. That’s not a convincing argument for why he’s in power in the first place (he shot a Skrull? That would have been killed by someone else?), but it leads to all sorts of unexpected confrontations.

    BTW in my opinion the best Dark Reign stuff has been Matt Fraction’s work in Invincible Iron Man as well as the Dark Avengers/X-Men crossover that didn’t nearly get the props it deserved for being complex, detailed, and politically relevant.

    • I’m waiting for the collected ‘World’s Most Wanted,’ but I can buy that Fraction’s stuff is the best–I thought ‘Five Nightmares’ was pretty great. As far as Daredevil goes, the problem for me is mostly Diggle–I dug the twist at the end of Brubaker’s run, even if it seemed too much like the earlier DD-as-Kingpin story. (Reviewed it here! But I don’t think Diggle is a writer on Brubaker’s level, or Bendis’.

  2. I would suggest reading the Losers or Green Arrow: Year One then–or maybe his run on Hellblazer although I haven’t read it (Hellblazer is the most daunting comic I have yet to read). Anyway, the next few issues make it abundantly clear that this is far different from the Daredevil as Kingpin storyline.

    One thing I like that Marvel is doing waaay better than DC is that their stable of writers are almost entirely drawn from the non-superhero indie field. The List one shots for instance have basically the best writers out there–Bendis, Fraction, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman (my new favorite), Jason Aaron, plus there are a few other marquee names like Brubaker, Warren Ellis, etc. I can’t think of anyone working on a regular title at DC that can compare, save for the obvious giant Grant Morrison.

    • You know, I read GA: Year One, wanted to like it, and found it kind of dull. (Seems to me like Diggle writes Bendis-style comics but lacks Bendis’ strengths.) Is Jason Aaron’s stuff usually stronger than The List: Wolverine? I was excited about this one because of all things Morrison-related in it, but couldn’t get over how Marvel Boy, Wolverine and Fantomas all talked the same when they ought to be the three most differently-voiced characters in the Marvel U.

      Agreed about Marvel generally, though. I think you could even say the big difference between Marvel and DC right now is that Marvel’s doing forward-looking things, and DC isn’t. Love Morrison’s Batman and Robin, but I think Geoff Johns is bad for comics.

  3. Jason Aaron’s work on Scalped is great. I try not to be a Johns hater but for all his good plot ideas, he will always insert these character moments that bother me severely, where he always seems to have to have superheroes step back and observe the mythic dimensions of who they are and what they happen to do. For instance, I happen to agree with Morrison, who says that he never really liked Hal Jordan very much because he’s kind of a preening asshole, and yet every Johns comic has to have a situation where someone (usually Barry Allen) is like, “Hal Jordan, you’re such a HOTHEAD! You have…NO FEAR! That is why you are…A TEST PILOT!” And Hal Jordan will agree, “Yes, I am a hothead, Barry, whereas you are a man of science. We embody diametrically opposite principles blah blah blah…you are science and I am action this is why I am such a rebel.”

    Morrison was correct to prefer the character of Kyle Rayner, who may not be from the 60s but at least isn’t basically the prototype for what we today would call a bro. Anyway, that’s what I think of “Blackest Night.” And yet the people who complain about Bendis’ dialogue style love this stuff.

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