"Everything always slips through my fingers--"

"Keemia's Castle" - "the Amazing Spider-Man" #615 and #616 from Marvel Comics

If you can imagine something sadder than children being ripped away from their family half-unfairly by child services... well, I can't.

That's the last-minute twist ending of Fred Van Lente and Javier Pulido's entry in the current ongoing huge Spider-Man storyline "The Gauntlet". Talk about heart-wrenching. How often does a Spider-Man comic move you? Well, you're talking to someone for whom Peter Parker is the ultimate model of how to be a man. So... couple times a year. This is one of those times.

The story starts off more conventionally: a girl named Keemia has gone missing under strange circumstances, Spider-Man takes it upon himself to find her. Plus there's a double-spread in the early pages of part one devoted to the reactions of J. Jonah Jameson and Joe 'Robbie' Robertson to the major event of the previous issue: the destruction of the Daily Bugle building. These two pages had some of the most excellent character work I saw in mainstream superhero comics last year. Then, Peter Parker learns that his friend who works at the NYPD crime-lab Carlie Cooper is accused of carelessness when three murder weapons seem to "walk" right out of the office. Peter now has to find this missing child, determine whether the murders are related, and find the murder weapons to clear Carlie of the besmirchment to her name. He has to do all this while appeasing the Mayor's office staff (that is his current bill-paying job, after all) who want the loss of the murder weapons blamed on Carlie so the NYPD doesn't look inept as a whole. All in two issues!

A big job for a little Spider-Man, as usual! Bits and pieces of the stories he hears from various people eventually leads Peter to bet on one of his old villains: the Sandman a.k.a. William Baker a.k.a. Flint Marko a.k.a. Sylvester Mann. Like I said, fairly conventional Spider-Man story.

But even in these old-school Spidey-as-detective sequences both Van Lente and Pulido shine: Spider-Man swings through the South Bronx wearing ear muffs, a scarf, and leg warmers. Hilarious and surprisingly stylish-looking! He lets himself into the apartment of one of the victims only to be shot at by a little old lady with a shotgun! (Javier Rodriguez's colors deserve mention here, as the light-up/washout effect at the moment of the shotgun's "BWOOM" is awesome.)

"I'm a friend--can't you tell by my big, expressive eyes?" The panel including this line, and the panels that follow in the two-page scene, are wonderful. Spidey stands lanky and tall, upside-down, on the ceiling connecting with and offering help to this stout, fierce elderly lady still holding her shotgun who has just lost her daughter and doesn't know where her great-granddaughter is. Some of the panels are straightforward, some are POV, some are in silhouette. I was simultaneously touched and tickled by this scene.

This wonderful scene is followed by a quick meeting with long-standing supporting character Betty Brant. (She has been around since a brunette was seen at J. Jonah Jameson's front desk in "Amazing" #2 and was named in "Amazing" #4, which was the Sandman's first appearance!) This gives us another great scene in which Betty reveals to us that since the Daily Bugle is no more, she plans to start a BLOG (yay!) called "Bugle Girl". This scene is another two-pages, yet has too many other good points for me to list here. Suffice to say it's another great scene.

In a beautiful 3/4 page panel, Spider-Man gently floats down on a web-parachute to the place Betty's info sends him: Governor's Island (a small, state-owned island off Manhattan, generally closed to the public), where we finally get a bit of action! After canvassing the island, and showing us some nice architecture, Sandman traps our webbed hero in an arena-type space and their visually inventive fight tears through the place! Sandman forms his head into a set of ram's horns and charges Spidey. Spidey swings a metal grate at Marko's head and the little 'waterfalls' of sand falling off the metal bars each have little faces that all yell at him. Who's not going to think that's cool? The first issue (#615) concludes with the discovery that Marko has separated/multiplied his body into many humanoid sand-constructs.
In the second issue (#616), we get a better perspective on these various SandMEN (and women) and we learn that Marko/Baker/Mann/heroic Sandman/evil Sandman have divided into multiple separate bodies and multiple separate personalities. (This connects nicely with the first time Sandman separated bodies in "Peter Parker: Spider-Man" #154 and #155. In that story, he broke-down into separate personas: super-ego, id, inner child, and inner female.) In fact, the only two things these myriad SandGents and Ladies can agree on is that Spidey has to be crushed and that he (they've?) found a small measure of happiness being a foster father to this girl he has 'kidnapped' and it's worth holding onto.

Keemia doesn't want to leave either, as Flint Marko has made Governor's Island into a winter wonderland kingdom just for her. He is her father, the king and she is princess Keemia. A child's dream or her worst nightmare?

Separating the two is difficult. (The scene in which Spidey convinces her he's not going to try to take her and then promptly scoops her up and makes a run for it, lamenting his ruse and the nature of "grittier, darker, more morally ambiguous 'super heroes' " is both funny, sad, and a genre commentary at the same time. Keemia's dialogue as she's carried through most of the issue on Spidey's back is hilarious.) Spider-Man has to run a 'gauntlet' (chuckle chuckle) made of Sandman's body in the form of a life-size SAND-castle and avoid the army of different Sandmans. It is at this point it becomes clear that Sandman's different personalities aren't communicating very effectively, in fact they're keeping secrets from each other. Three different Sandmen are responsible for the three murders that led Spidey on this goose chase in the first place. (Using his powers, Sandman is both the murder and the murder weapon. Mystery solved.) The other Sandmen claim no knowledge of this. Spider-Man states that as Sandman isn't entirely in control of... himself, not taking the girl back to her grandmother would be crazy. Sensible, yes. Sandman won't hear of anything sensible.

"One day while I was visiting, just on her own-- Keemia started calling me 'Daddy!' You know what that means to a freak like me, who's never had anything permanent in his life? Everything always slips through my fingers-- like you-know-what!"

William Baker has lived a conflicted life. He grew up without a father as Floyd Baker left the family while his son was very young. He became a career criminal like his father was. He used the name Flint Marko as a criminal to escape jail. He was on the wrong atomic testing site at the wrong time and found himself changed to living sand. He became a super-criminal under the name Sandman. He tried to go straight as a superhero for a time under the name Sandman (most successfully in "Amazing" #348). He used the name Sylvester Mann to escape his criminal past. Another villain found him too useful as a pawn and literally suppressed his super-ego to make him a pliable henchmen (in "PP:SM" #12). He began falling apart soon after (in "PP:SM" #22). This is, indeed, a man who would seek some permanence, some connection. Some family stability.

Baker is defeated, screaming the name of his surrogate daughter. Spidey is free to bring Keemia home to her grandmother. Case closed, good triumphs over evil (or, in true Marvel style, good triumphs over the selfishly deranged and misunderstood), everybody goes home. Not here. This brings us to our aforementioned heart-wrenching conclusion. The gut punch: Child Services arrives. The great-grandmother was watching TV when Keemia was abducted by the Sandman.

"I'm sorry, Spider-Man. I am. But... ...what did you think was going to happen?"

THE LONG AND SHORTBOX OF IT?
If I haven't made it clear yet, these two issues are excellent. Excellent writing, excellent art, excellent layouts, excellent colors. Plays with character continuity, yet stands alone. There is nary a misstep in the whole story. Honestly, this probably deserved to be on my "Personal Best of 2oo9" list as they were the last issues of "Amazing" in 2oo9, but I already had a Spider-Man story in there, plus there were TWO Fred Van Lente-written comics and a whole bunch of Marvel stuff and I didn't want to be accused of displaying blatant favoritism! If not for the crazy balancing act of writers and artists that came together to create "Red-Headed Stranger," this would have stolen its spot.

Man. So damn much information to impart to you! Van Lente and Pulido pack delicious bits wherever they can and I chose to review two of their issues at once! You should check them out. All reviews I do from here on in will be of single issues unless it's a series wrap-up review!

P.S. ~ Did I mention Paolo Rivera's covers for these two issues are awesome, too? Go look!

3 comments:

  1. Dear Gorga,

    I bet Aunt May knitted Peter that winter gear. This proves that knitting is the Best. Also do you know about this site? It is the coolest.

    Sincerely,
    Nicki

    ReplyDelete
  2. http://www.tencentticker.com/projectrooftop/

    This is the site I meant. I forgot it in the other post because I was so excited about Spider-Man's legwarmers.

    I am tired today.

    ~Nicki

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very cool!

    Thanks for the link Nicki!

    ReplyDelete