By J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Mike Zeck (pencils), Bob McLeod (inks), Mike Zeck and Ian Tetrault (colors), Rick Parker (letters)

The Review: Because of the recent “Grim Hunt” storyline in Amazing Spider-Man (and, frankly, to wash the taste of “OMIT” out of my brain), I thought this would be an excellent time to look back on what, in my mind, just might be the single greatest Spidey story ever told.

I really shouldn’t be as big a fan of this story as I am: I don’t care for overly dark or noirish stories, overwrought emotion irritates me, and Spidey himself has never been at the top of my ‘favorite heroes’ list. The way Spider-Man is often written comes off (to my ear) as too immature and naive. I’m sure these are some of the same character aspects that make him charming and endearing to so many, but it has never particularly worked for me. To top it off, I’m really not a fan of breaking up a cohesive story between multiple comic book titles. This isn’t an issue when reading the book collected in a trade like this, but it still irks me in general principle.

And yet, I can’t help but love this book. It stands as final proof to me that a serialized comic book can hold just as much literary merit and value as a novel, poem, or other written work of art. The story, characters and symbolism are absolutely epic, in the Homeric sense of the term. Kraven’s Last Hunt feels more like an ancient myth with a Spider-Man mask loosely draped over it than it does a comic book, and I mean that as the highest sort of complement. The combination of DeMatteis’ writing and Zeck’s pencils tap into something very deep and primal here, and create a book and a story that is far more than the sum of its parts.

The major key to what makes this work is the characterization and the writing. The dialog flows effortlessly and—against all odds, naturally—between Kraven’s lofty, self-assured poetry, Spider-Man’s blue collar, down to Earth shock and anger, and Vermin’s simple, animalistic expressions of craving. Not only are these characters beautifully and deftly crafted as individuals with wants, needs and goals of their own, they function as fully realized archetypes which fit in seamlessly to the grand, almost mythic tone that runs through the surface-level grit and realism of the story.

In addition to the fantastic writing, the artwork helps set this story apart from its peer as well. Both Zeck’s pencils and Zeck and Tetrault’s colors create a fantastically dark and eerie world drenched in shadows and symbolic imagery. From the first glimpse of Kraven on the first page (covered in blood-red light and smoke) to his completely creepy (but strangely affecting) fight with a spider-monster, to the climactic spread of Spidey breaking out of his grave, to the rampage Spider-Man goes on in Kraven’s mansion, to the underground sewer scenes that are so dank you can almost smell it, the book is chock-full of page after page of outstanding artwork that meshes with the written storytelling with rarely-achieved aptness. The iconic nature of so many of the images—to say nothing of the way several of the stick with you (just try to forget the panels of Kraven bathing in a roomful of live spiders)—speak to just how important the visuals are to this story. For as excellent as the writing is, were the words paired with another style or quality of art, this book would be unable to reach the creative heights that it does.

In addition to the panel layouts and images themselves being so fantastic, the art does many little things right as well. Take, for example, the scene in which Spider-Man escapes from his grave and confronts Kraven for the first time. Kraven (and these are minor spoiler, so beware if you’re trying to avoid such things) refuses to fight, and acts completely nonplussed by Spider-Man’s attempts to goad him into a battle. Although his face is completely covered by a mask, you can completely read the abject confusion Spider-Man is feeling at Kraven’s uncharacteristically docile response to his attack. And although it’s easy enough to tell whether Kraven or Peter Parker is wearing the Spider-Man suit at any given time thanks to the narration and dialogue, the exacting way in which their physicality is depicted would allow you to differentiate between them even if the entire book was silent. They may be wearing identical suits, but the art team makes it a simple matter to tell Peter Parker’s lithe athleticism from Kraven’s hulking, brute force.

Conclusion: Kraven’s Last Hunt is not only one of the quintessential Spider-Man arcs of all time, but one of the best stories ever told in the medium. I hold it up alongside Watchmen as one of the most exemplary demonstrations of what comic books are capable of, and why they are so viable and important as an art form. An absolute must-read for any comic book fan, regardless of your feelings about Spider-Man or Kraven as characters. It’s that good, and that important.

Grade: A+