Amazing Spider-Man’s ‘Shed': A Horrific, Grim and Gritty Comic Done Right [Spoilers]
Let’s say I was painting a broad picture of a comic. It’s a superhero comic, recently released. It features horrific violence, threatened rape, a grim and gritty revamp of an existing villain and, like a cherry on top, the sacrifice of a character’s child to make the villain seem more evil. The title this occurs in isn’t a mature-readers title, but rather a long-running superhero comic starring a major media icon.
Chances are, you’d think I was talking about any number of ill-received recent superhero comics trading in these kinds of usually manipulative narrative devices, but in this case I’m not here to bury the book, but to praise it.
Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo’s “Shed” — the first two parts of which are released as “Amazing Spider-Man” #630 and #631, the second one of which has very capable guest art by Emma Rios — is one of the darkest superhero stories I’ve read in a while. Not cartoonishly evil or rehashed “Law & Order: SVU” scripts, but a legitimately dark, totally tragic story about good people being ruined morally and emotionally.Curt Connors, the Lizard — sometimes known as the less boring Man-Bat — is a long-running Spider-Man villain with the general gimmick of being a brilliant scientist who lost his arm, played with reptile DNA trying to regrow it, and instead turned into a huge-ass murderous lizard. Rampages and “remember who you are!”s ensue and repeat as required.
The idea behind “Shed” is based in the overall “Amazing Spider-Man” arc right now — the Kraven family have kidnapped mystical fortune-teller Madame Web and are using her to get spoilers on Spidey’s upcoming adventures so they can screw them up royally in new and fascinating ways. This unfolds alongside Connors at a new job, fighting against the reptile impulses in his brain as his new boss is constantly trash-talking him and hitting on his attractive lab assistant. He gets territorial, goes reptile, horrific murders occur.
Before that, we see Connors working, trying to keep it together — trying to communicate to his son, who he’s threatened the life of repeatedly over the years — but continuing to fail at basically all areas of human interaction because his brain has just become too reptilian. He thinks in terms of territory and treats his women like property, and he’s got constant dueling internal monologues between the human and reptilian portions of his brain. It’s not about the heroes having to stop a dastardly murdering, raping mastermind from attacking a girls’ elementary school, it’s about a man’s struggle not to completely self-destruct.
But he does, utterly. He goes after his son, and this is where the standard “Amazing Spider-Man” story momentum would reach its logical conclusion — Spidey shows up and talks Curt down, he’s moved by his son’s cries, he reverts to normal and everyone’s happy except the poor sons of bitches who’ve already been eviscerated at their workplace for the crime of office fraternization. Cue scene. The Kravens willingly mess it all up, and I guess they ARE fully evil — but they seem legitimately sinister here, mysterious rather than boisterous, and with a determined focus. They throw a wrench into the works with the Lizard and his son, and as a result when Lizard catches up with him, Spidey isn’t there.
So instead of Curt Connors having a last-minute epiphany and saving his family — like the natural progression of a Spider-Man story would go — he eats his son in half while screaming at his reptile brain in his own head until he literally eats through and shreds his narration boxes as his consciousness completely shuts down, unable to deal with the horror of watching himself eat his own son.
It’s probably the most terrible thing I’ve seen in a superhero comic this year, legitimately horrifying stuff as a suffering man basically commits mental suicide as a response to being forced to witness a myriad of deaths all stemming back from a simple scientific sin years ago.
Yeah, it’s shocking, it’s violent, it’s emotional. But it hits honestly and brutally in a way that isn’t manipulative, other than the heartstring-tugging that any story has to try to pull off to create an emotional connection. In the hands of almost any other team, a story with this mandate — to take the humanity of the Lizard and have him attack his family — would be laughable dross, but here Wells and Bachalo elevate it to a pretty harrowing story that never loses the tone of a Spider-Man book. It’s not a sudden nonstop abattoir, it’s a really dark punctuation mark on a story, represented by the Lizard himself eating the panels and narrative whole.
It’s easy to make blanket statements like “dead children shouldn’t be in comics,” or “rape shouldn’t be mentioned.” But every once in a while — it’s rare, but it happens — a story, or a creator, will come along that’s able to treat these things with respect within the structure of a superhero comic and without trying to subvert the book’s usual themes. I’m tired of banal violence, where it’s played off as part of the fabric of everyday life in a superhero universe — here’s an arm ripped off! Here’s a rape! Here’s a disembowelment! Here, though — where it’s used to effect, where it doesn’t feel cheap, where it’s rare enough that its appearance is a shock — it works like a charm.
“Shed” shouldn’t be one of the best stories I’ve read this year so far. But here it is.