Originally published in 2006, Spider-Man: Reign was Kaare Andrews’ attempt to reinvigorate Spider-Man similar to how Frank Miller injected new life into Batman with The Dark Knight Returns. It’s been ten years, though, and the book has not failed to make a splash in the Spider-Man mythos. Furthermore, it was subjected to so much ridicule when it was released. Reign is now a largely forgotten book, mostly remembered as a curiously misguided attempt to ape Miller.
WARNING: Spoilers for Spider-Man: Reign below. …Yeah, if you haven’t read a 10-year old comic yet.
Sure, the book had problems. Sure, the ridicule that the book suffered, especially for that particular page, was well-deserved.
However, radioactive spunk isn’t even the book’s greatest failure. There was no need to revitalize Spider-Man at that time. He was Marvel’s most famous character – Iron Man (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe) was two years away, and Spider-Man was riding a wave of popularity thanks to the Raimi movie trilogy. On top of all that, the normally bright and optimistic character was put in a completely dark and hopeless story, one that did not suit the character at all. Sure, Spider-Man’s had his share of dark and gritty moments, but never in a story this bleak, where even the jokes that he cracks ring hollow and do nothing at all to break the darkness.
I recently decided to revisit Reign after a talk with fellow WAG admins, and you know what? Despite some major flaws, a lot of Spider-Man: Reign actually holds up.
Let’s back up a bit.
Set 30 years in the future, Spider-Man: Reign is about an elderly Peter Parker living in a dystopic version of New York City. Super-powered crime is virtually gone at this point, but so are civil liberties. Under the rule of Mayor Waters, policemen called the Reign brutally hold the peace. However, cracks are showing up in his iron grip – a small pocket of dissent (made up of children) is forming, and a certain friendly neighborhood web-crawler has returned, only unhinged and dangerous.
Readers are introduced to a Peter Parker who is old, derelict, and unable to hold a job. Having quit being Spider-Man after Mary Jane’s death, his guilt over her passing is slowly driving him insane – he keeps on seeing visions of her everywhere. As a superpowered human, he is trying to keep a low profile under Mayor Waters’ rule. He can’t have that, though – an elderly J. Jonah Jameson returns Peter’s old camera, covered in his old black mask. He unconsciously wears the mask, and soon he is out of control, swinging in the streets, and beating up the Reign who have found Jameson.
Spider-Man’s return has had two effects. First, it accelerated Waters’ launch of a protection system called WEBB, where lasers cover New York. Second, his return has led Waters to reform the Sinister Six, now called the Sinner Six. Peter’s first run-in with the Sinner Six was disastrous. He is cornered, beaten up, and is almost killed, if not for the timely intervention of Doctor Octopus’… corpse.
This is where the infamous scene takes place: Peter going on and on about his how radioactive sperm killed Mary Jane, and then he kisses her corpse while blood spews out of her mouth.
Then Octavious’ tentacles bury Peter next to MJ. Turns out he buried the red and blue costume with MJ, and he punches his way out of her coffin to face Waters and the Sinner Six one last time.
I forgot to mention that Waters’ assistant is apparently Venom. He is running everything behind the scenes, launching the WEBB initiative so that he can eat New York’s population. Or something.
So far everything is insane, tonally incompatible with Spider-Man, and made many a reader go “WHAT THE FUCK?”
What follows is what I believe to be the saving grace of this comic.
Hallucinating on Mysterio’s fear gas, Peter finally faces his demons and sees Mary Jane. And this happens:
There. Those two pages saved the comic, and is exactly why the Peter Parker and Mary Jane relationship was one of the greatest.
It goes without saying that the comic concludes with Spider-Man saving the day, stopping Venom and murdering (?) the Sinner Six in the process.
There’s a lot to dislike about the comic. The Dark Knight Returns homage feels tacked-on, and Kaare Andrews’ art aping Frank Millers’ does not age well. Crazy, murderous Spider-Man does not sit well with me. Frank Miller’s Batman was insane, yes, but he never murdered anyone. Plus, the computer-generated backgrounds feel tacky – ten years later, it looks and feels like an amateurish webcomic instead something published by Marvel. I often attempt to defend an often-derided comic or movie by trying to point out the context in which it was made, but… not Reign. Sure, there was a culture of paranoia and fear of the police state that permeated America after 9/11, but it still feels misplaced and out of place in Reign’s cold war-centric story.
However, Reign gets to the heart of the Peter Parker-Mary Jane relationship better than most writers could. Especially now that their marriage has been sold to the devil, Mary Jane is off working for Tony Stark, and Peter is off living his own life away from hers. I must also say, I really liked Sandman’s daughter and how she managed to make her father switch allegiances. Reign also explores an angle with Venom that was barely touched on.
Read Reign as a black comedy instead of the dark dystopian tale it tries to be, and it will be much better. Peter’s gallows humor lands, and the scenes where he straight up murders people aren’t as WTF as the first time. I wish they played up the black comedy angle instead of the confused dystopian concept.
Would this be the first comic that I would recommend for someone looking for a Spider-Man comic? Oh, hell no. But this comic has much more depth than people give it credit for. Dust off your copies and read it again. You might actually appreciate it this time. I know I did.