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Why Marvel’s ‘Spider Island’ Shouldn’t Work — And Why It Definitely Does

“Spider Island” shouldn’t be good.

I mean, when you get right down to it, there’s nothing about it that seems like it would work: Throwback villains, a big high concept involving three other franchises and a handful of second-stringers that get their own mini-series, tie-ins from characters that are related purely by the narrow geography of the Marvel universe, it all sounds like it should add up to something rough.

But in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos have taken those elements and somehow managed to turn it all into a story that’s highly entertaining.It’s not that I went into “Spider Island” thinking that it was definitely going to be bad; I’m a huge fan of the character in general and what Slott’s been doing on the book over the past few years in particular, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I will admit that I was a little leery, though. The whole concept just struck me as a giant throwback to the big events of the ’90s, like the classic SNES game 14-part epic Maximum Carnage. Even the fact that (as the Awesomed By Comics podcast pointed out) the whole thing was built around the threat of bed bugs that felt like it was catching up from last year.

And the fact that these dudes were in it didn’t really help:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, the green gentleman in the uncomfortably tight shorts is The Jackal, a long-time Spider-Man foe whose most prominent credit was being the architect of the notoriously awful Clone Saga. Growing up as a Spider-Man fan in the early ’90s, I have some pretty strong memories of the Jackal, and while they were pleasant enough at the time — when I was around 13, I dragged the “Mark of Kaine” issues with the holographic disc covers everywhere I went, up to and including being my only reading material during a week at summer camp — but over the years, they’ve cooled pretty significantly.

Throw in the fact that the other major villain is the Spider Queen

…a pretty obscure villain who last appeared in a six-part Avengers Disassembled tie-in that saw Spider-Man turn into a giant spider, then burst out of the spider’s guts with organic webs, which I believe he would do again a few months later so that he could emerge with Wolverine-Circa-1994-style bone claws.

These were not good signs is what I’m getting at here.

But here’s the thing about Dan Slott: More than any other writer at Marvel right now, Slott seems to revel in those pieces of Marvel history. It’s not just that he has an obvious respect and love for stories of the past, although that’s certainly a huge part of it. He is, after all, a guy whose first major Spider-Man story was designed to fit neatly between the issues of four different eras of the character, and even his writing style is directly and heavily informed by those classic Spider-Man stories. But it goes beyond that.

Slott has this amazing gift of looking at these stories that other writers would think of as best forgotten and pulling out the things that did work, putting them together like a giant puzzle, where the tiny images on each piece suddenly become something that looks a lot better. And like that puzzle, every piece he lays down onto the table makes it bigger.

That’s one of the things that’s really great about what he and Ramos are doing with “Spider Island”: it’s not a story that’s limited to one idea, one conflict or one problem to be solved. It keeps moving, keeps changing, and keeps growing as the story builds. I have to imagine that in a book like Amazing Spider-Man that comes out twice a month, keeping the readers hooked into the story has to be the most important challenge that the creators face. But Slott consistently rises to the challenge, and “Spider Island” is the perfect example of why.

There’s the initial problem, the one that they promoted the book around: A ton of people in New York, particularly criminals, were getting Spider-Powers, and without eight million Uncles Ben running around to hand out moral instruction and then go get shot, they use their newfound powers for eeeeevil. So Spider-Man’s solution? Rally the rest of the spider-powered New Yorkers through a stirring speech about civic responsibility:

As much as the problem is based on super-powered crooks, the fact that it’s not dealt with just by punching them all out (or at least by punching them all out himself) makes for an interesting answer to it. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t see often in super-hero comics, but at the same time, it’s perfectly in character — and the fact that he has to do it as Peter Parker, acting to inspire people through his words just like Uncle Ben inspired him, adds another layer to it.

It’s a brilliant moment, and it happens halfway through the second issue of an eight-part story. That initial threat, that first hook to the story, is over and done with, which allows the story to turn in a new direction, adding twist after twist to the plot to build it into something bigger as it goes on, and it’s accomplished very well.

It’s not flawless, though, and the fact that it does go out of its way to get bigger and bring in more elements does lead to some moments where the seams start to show and it collapses a little under its own weight. The scenes where J. Jonah Jameson gets spider-powers start off every bit as fun as you’d expect them to be…

But the dark turn they end up taking in that issue is more than a little jarring. I’m sure part of that is intentional — and after all, the quick transitions from life-threatening danger to quippy action are Spider-Man’s stock in trade — but in this case, I think it doesn’t quite work out as planned.

Overall, though, it’s been a ton of fun, and it’s worth noting that even the tie-ins have been pretty great. The return of Paul Tobin to Spider-Girl was something I was really looking forward to, and giving Hercules Spider-Man’s powers in the pages of Herc allowed Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente and June Brigman to work in a pretty amazing parody of Spider-Man’s signature melodrama in a page that actually includes the phrase “Is this… what it means… to be Hercules?

My favorite, though, has to be Spider Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and not just because it’s keeping one of the best titles in comic history alive. The last page of #2 is hilariously fantastic on a level that I don’t want to spoil, and if you enjoy comics that are at least 40% kicks to the face — which I do — I’d sugest you check it oiut. Like the main story, the tie-ins and the fact that they combine Greek gods, genetically modified bedbugs, kung fu masters, bizarre mutations and ancient wars against a secret race of wasp-men, don’t sound like they’d work.

But just like what Slott and Ramos are doing with Amazing Spider-Man, they’re pulled off in a way that makes them a lot better than they ought to be.

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