Issue #1 of Spider-Man: Reign saw Peter Parker resume the mantle of Spider-Man after several decades' absence. Issue #2 introduces the "Sinner Six" who have been released from jail in order to stomp out their long-time nemesis. The group's members include Electro, Kraven, Scorpion, Sandman, Mysterio, and unrevealed sixth villain. Mayor Waters and Project WEBB ominously remain in the background.
Writer and artist Kaare Andrews has decided to further the characterization elements that made issue #1 a spectacular sequential narrative. This decision remains relatively sound. However, there are a few cracks in the armor that should bear watching as we head into issue #3. At certain points, Andrews doesn't seem to know when to advance the plot and when to pull back. Nonetheless, Reign shows off some of the best experimental comic book storytelling that we haven't seen in quite a long time.
Unfortunately, this title has flown relatively under the radar due to Civil War. Readers should make room on their pull list for Reign. It must be reiterated that this mini-series is not a plagiaristic Dark Knight Returns with Spider-Man in the lead role. Rather, Reign is a pastiche that simply uses some of the best elements which made Frank Miller's TDKR so special. The story itself has a voice of its own (and quite powerful).
Now onto Round 2...
J. Jonah Jameson is a man possessed. His diatribe against the government in the streets of New York City has gathered a large crowd of onlookers. Jameson is galvanized because Spider-Man is back. The Daily Bugle newscasters are perplexed at Jameson's reemergence but nonetheless condemn his actions. They also inform their viewers that WEBB project is running smoothly and is ahead of schedule.
The next scene shifts to a very displeased Mayor Waters. He simply can not believe that Spider-Man is even alive, let alone active and fighting Reign officers. Mayor Waters's advisors call for two developments: the acceleration of the WEBB system for immediate use and the release of the Sinister Six (now dubbed the Sinner Six). The Sinner Six (which includes Electro, Kraven, Scorpion, Mysterio, and Sandman) have been briefed on the situation and are eager for revenge against our wizened wall-crawler. They are each fitted with micro-thermal explosives in case they turn against Mayor Waters's orders.
We then shift to a little girl who is rudely beaten down by a Reign officer. Another young boy, named Kasey, confronts her and offers her to come with him to an undisclosed location. The girl runs off, clearly scared.
Peter Parker is suffering from delusional visions. We see him packing as his apartment location has been compromised by Jameson's earlier exploits. Mary Jane does not answer his pleadings to leave the place. Peter then shaves his beard off. Blood runs from a cut. Peter seems helpless.
Meanwhile, the girl has changed her mind and is searching for the location the boy mentioned. She stops outside of an abandoned church and hears a voice emanating from within. Jameson has gathered the youth of New York City into a hodge-podge congregation. He urges the children to look within themselves for strength and power. Only then will they have the power to make an effective resistance to Mayor Waters's dictatorial rule. Kasey is revealed to be hacking into a network for an unrevealed Jameson ploy.
Times Square lights up with a newscast as a dark storm rages away. The smarmy newscaster urges New York City's denizens to stay inside until WEBB can be activated. The only problem is that the newscast shorts out to an image of Spider-Man. Various clusters of streetwalkers and bar patrons are shocked as they view the new image. A crowd gathers in the center of Times Square. Something seems to be sparking a revolutionary chord within everyone. A minor hero from the past, Hypno Hustler, feels compelled to turn on disco music. The Reign officers can not take the sounds. Unfortunately, the boom-box dies out and the Reign mercilessly shoot the Hypno Hustler dead. Jameson forces his young protégés to watch the Hypno Hustler die. He considers it an important lesson for them.
Back at Peter's apartment, the demented vision of Mary Jane still refuses to leave the apartment. Peter violently throws a suitcase at her. However, Mary Jane is preoccupied. Peter looks out the window with her and sees the bloody corpse of the Hypno Hustler. Mary Jane smiles for the first time in thirty years. Jarringly, we enter Peter's thoughts. Peter seems to be reliving the memory of Mary Jane's death. Some strange feeling coaxes Peter to put on his black costume and meet the crowd that has gathered.
Spider-Man brutally rips into the ranks of Reign officers, all the while spouting off classic Spidey banter. The Reign realizes that Jameson is in the crowd and is the man behind the chaos. Children and adults look on in wonder. Some of the crowd begins to verbally oppose the Reign's actions. Kasey realizes his signal is being traced. Before he can get away, Kraven brutally stabs the boy through the heart. The Sinner Six have arrived to restore order.
Electro and Sandman gang up on Spider-Man using their respective powers. Scorpion and Mysterio clearly feel liberated from their long imprisonment. Spider-Man lies dazed on the ground as Kraven taunts him. Kraven rips off the mask and is startled to find Peter's old and haggard face staring out at him. The dreams of the young girl seem to be ruined at the revealing of Spider-Man. Jameson frantically urges Peter to wake up. Surprisingly, tentacles rip out and catch the Sinner Six off guard. It seems that the "thing" that was formerly Otto Octavious (AKA Doctor Octopus) wants Spider-Man all to himself.
Our issue ends on a morbid note. Another Daily Bugle telecast reveals that the WEBB will be activated tonight due to Spider-Man's "terrorist attack." Mayor Waters vehemently remarks that WEBB is the price of freedom. The girl zips up Kasey's body bag in the first issue's alleyway. Spider-Man has shown them the courage to fight terror even though he has seemingly been defeated. The girl looks down as the scene pans out showing the familiar graffiti "Where Did u GO?" Peter lies defeated in a mass graveyard. The bulbous mass that was Doctor Octopus stares down at him. WEBB is being activated around them. Peter reaches out for a grave. It is the resting places of Mary Jane Watson Parker, Ben Parker, and May Parker. The events of the night don't look so good for Spider-Man's future.
First off let's address some of the more unfounded complaints that critics have made towards Reign. A comic book's first and most crucial purpose is to entertain the reader. Reign does this in leaps and bounds. Issue #2 is no exception as Spider-Man gets into some brutal fisticuffs with the Sinner Six. The second objective that makes a comic book sparkle is the layers of characterization that the writer and artist convey in the panels. Here is where the main complaint against Reign has been leveled: its supposedly crass attempt at deconstructing Spider-Man. Should Andrews be criticized for attempting to go beyond a mediocre storyline?
Critics of this mini-series need to set aside their preconceptions about the character of Spider-Man. The fact is that fanboys don't write the comics, we simply buy them. Obviously, the audience has a certain stake in the continued viability of what made the character successful. However, as fans we must not hamper the writers (for it is the writers who have the passion and literary tools necessary to bring us these stories) need to challenge and deconstruct our favorite heroes. Spider- Man would get boring very quickly if Marvel writers had continued to write Spider-Man as a product of the 1960s. Even Stan Lee has recognized this crucial insight. The fact of the matter is that superheroes have remained around so long is because they have been able to change with the times. Look around your favorite comic-book store. How many Western comic books do you see? Romance? Sci-Fi? Crime? Horror? There are always exceptions to the rule but these genres have been swallowed up by changing popular cultural tastes.
Now, you may be wondering is issue #2 any good? The answer is an emphatic yes. Andrews makes no apologies that he is trying to get at an essential truth about Spider-Man's character. He does this by challenging the core concepts of Spider-Man. Responsibility has always been Spider-Man's modus operandi. It is up to him to regain that sense of responsibility if he hopes to save a city that has gone into social, cultural, and political decay.
Frankly, I did not much care that the Sinner Six were in this issue. I was more fascinated that Jameson role as a pseudo preacher. Spider-Man is a proto-religion. The crowd in this issue looks to him not for his ability to beat up bad guys. Rather, they cheer him on because he brings them hope of a better future. He is a messiah back from the dead. Furthermore, Jameson's congregation is composed of children. Andrews is reminding the reader that Spider-Man, no matter how dark or mature he has become, will always be an outlet for kids. Comics readership may be skewing towards an older demographic but we must realize that Spider-Man will always have a youthful spirit.
We can not deny the political climate that Reign is clearly aping. Reign brings up some interesting questions about the erosion of civil liberties much as what Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns did so long ago in the 1980s. Spider-Man is an everyman figure and shows us what will happen if we lose faith in ourselves as individual human beings.
Hypno Hustler is an excellent way of showing how innocence has been lost. Andrews seems to be commenting here on the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books. The costume and the concepts back then might have been ridiculous but they had plenty of heart and sheer honesty of conviction. It's why Mary Jane smiles when she looks on at the Hypno Hustler's death. She is finally happy that Peter, while not innocent, has regained his joy for the human spirit. We then thrill when he leaps into the Reign officers in full costume. Andrews's characterization hits all the right spots in evoking the reader's memory of their first comic book experiences.
Meanwhile, the darker elements that I mentioned in issue #1's review are still ever present. Peter is clearly a delusional old man. He may be taking steps to becoming a hero again, but time doesn't heal all wounds. The scene where Peter cuts himself shaving provides plenty of pathos in this regard.
The art is once again stellar. This time, Andrews adds bright, fluorescent yellows to his color palette. Electro's blasts leap out at you from the page. A more subdued yellow is used to highlight Kraven's stabbing of the hacker, Kasey. Your eye immediately focuses upon the cold impact of Kraven's knife. Andrews uses more subdued reds. The best example where he uses red to great effect is the focusing upon Mary-Jane's lips. The subdued red represents her illusory nature. She is pale and unfeeling. A rich red would make her seem too real and would have the effect of creating doubt that Mary Jane was dead.
Let's get to the villains. I understand the reasoning behind changing the moniker of the Sinister Six but I still disagree with the change. "Sinner Six" sounds forced and not at all realistic within the context of the story. We can all agree that Kraven, Mysterio, Sandman, Electro, and Scorpion are sinners. They are supervillains after all. But let's look at the degree to which each have sinned. Did these villains put Spider-Man to retirement? No. Did they make the public lose faith in democracy and the selfless spirit? No. Mayor Waters has done each of these things and more. He is the true villain of the piece. The scene where Kraven unmasks Peter seems wildly out of place for this reason. Mayor Waters should be the one to do the unmasking honors. Andrews can not make up his mind on deciding who the real villain is. He should be applauded for wanting to include classic Spider-Man foes but the conventions of the story demand that Mayor Waters take central stage. At this point, Waters is only a shadowy menace that has not realized the full potential for villainy.
My point about Waters's villain status brings up the crucial issue of pacing. Andrews has a ton of ideas present in these first two issues. And they are all presented well and in a logical fashion. However, we have to keep in mind that there are only two more issues left in Reign. Andrews should not rush his story. Yet, that is what I feel he is doing by adding in Doctor Octopus so suddenly by issue #2's conclusion. It isn't enough to seriously hamper issue #2 but we could see some major problems in the concluding two issues. Spider-Man: Reign works best as a slow-burner unlike say New Avengers or Heroes for Hire. The ideas Andrews presents must be given time to grow and space to move in.
Andrews has followed up a great first issue with a great second one. Apart from some pacing concerns there is really nothing glaringly wrong in this issue. Well there is if you listen to fanboy whining. But I assume since you're reading my review that you aren't a Comics Journal snob or a Newsarama forum pest. See you soon for issue #3!
Solicitations indicate that Spider-Man will battle the thing that was once Dr. Otto Octavius. With the battering the black costume took, might we see the return of the red and blues?