In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, wastelander T.S. Eliot examines the tightrope act of the poet, who must simultaneously cultivate a historical sense for the writers who preceded her and separate herself from the pack in the present. For Eliot, the new work of art bears the mark of the past while at the same time altering how we view the tradition it emerges from. “No poet, no artist of any art,” Eliot writes, “has his complete meaning alone.”
Moving from the modern poet to the modern comic, in Spider-Man: Reign Kaare Andrews consciously and thoughtfully revisits one of the industry’s watershed moments, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Make no mistake about it: Reign is essentially a retelling of the epochal, dystopian Batman yarn, only featuring everyone’s favorite web-slinger instead of the brooding Bats we all know and love. But in returning to one of modern comic’s primal scenes, Andrews poses provocative questions about how well we really know our favorite superheroes.
The Dark Knight Returns remains as a sort of ground zero, a frame-by-frame bombardment of comic book tradition that ushered in comics’ gritty, grouchy Modern Age. Along with other writers of the time such as Alan Moore (of not only Watchmen fame but also the perennially unsung and legally embattled Miracleman), Miller brought a kind of deconstructive eye to the superhero genre, problematizing the old binaries between hero and villain and presenting a landscape that subverted polished Golden and Silver Age archetypes. (He also provided a definitive salvo in the now-venerable tradition of Superman bashing, portraying the Man of Steel as a sniveling, morally compromised Reaganite patsy.)
References both obvious and subtle to Dark Knight and its comic contemporaries abound in Reign. One nod is in the book’s visual geometry, as the book’s pages resolve into neat parallel lines a la the graph paper grids in Dark Knight. There’s also the omnipresent television news anchors commenting on the action, one of whom Andrews even names “Miller Janson” (the other goes by “Varr”, in a nod to Dark Knight colorist and Miller’s ex-wife Lynn Varley). Elsewhere, Andrews appropriates a plot device from Watchmen and even tosses in a plucky teenage sidekick. Of course, it’s the basic storyline itself that most induces déjà vu: a graying, broken Peter Parker, living in a dismal future New York, dons his costume one more time to battle a monstrous evil that threatens to plunge the city into bloodshed and horror. Reign‘s self-consciousness about its own tradition (which thankfully keeps its sobriety, never straying into terminally playful Jacques Derrida territory) makes it a fun trip for diehards, if a bit of a familiar one.
But in a way, just doing this kind of homage is a gutsy move in today’s comic climate. A reigning sentiment for many of today’s fans is Silver (and Bronze) Age nostalgia, thanks chiefly to a burnout with the R-rated seriousness of sober, introspective event books like Civil War and Identity Crisis. Books like the beloved All-Star Superman and even the labyrinthine 52 (despite occasional dismemberments dished out by Black Adam) yearn for a simpler time, full of mad scientists and alternate universes rather than morally ambiguous antiheroes and suits with excessive pockets (only realistically viable for the Punisher).
But Reign is more than just a contrarian comic about comics; it benefits hugely from a deft use of its unlikely main character. A tale like Dark Knight was a natural fit for Batman, who even before its publication had began developing into the bleak, noirish figure he remains today—but Spider-Man has always represented optimism and the hope for redemption in the face of overwhelming tragedy, a can-do, do-gooder foil to Daredevil’s embittered, skull-cracking backstreet avenger. (Both characters also have a brutal case of Catholic guilt, despite DD being lapsed at best and Spidey classically a man of science before faith.) Plunging Peter Parker into such a decidedly horrific environment brings out these intrinsic qualities in a way no other story has in years (although the recent and incandescent Sensational Spider-Man Annual also succeeded triumphantly in this respect).
Reign also teases out some of the long-dormant creepiness of the character and his world, making you wonder why so few writers seem interested in playing to the more horrific aspects of Spidey. Andrews satisfyingly transforms Doc Ock into a clanking zombie weirdo and restores Venom to full rampaging cannibal status, even though most of Spidey’s own rogues remain decidedly bumbling. But the story evokes a natural eeriness that fits the character surprisingly well.
A large part of this skin-crawling edge derives from the dark and dreary setting, which is also unfortunately one of the arenas where Reign falters. While Dark Knight traded coyly on the moral vagaries of the Cold War and Watchmen neatly summoned up the nervy anxiety of the SDI days, Reign puts its politics on center stage and occasionally stumbles into sounding like an obvious jeremiad. The danger of trading freedom for security becomes as tangible a foe for Spidey as the alien symbiote, with the wall-crawler turning into a kind of avatar for the opposition’s yellow bloc—as opposed to anarchist black—standing against an en-Venom’d police state. (Includes the literal ringing of a liberty bell; sonic vibrations, dig?) Except it’s not as cool as it sounds, and at times it makes the politics of Civil War look subtle.
But in the end, Reign has a lot going for it, not the least of which is Andrews and Jose Villarrubia’s stylish and inspired art (inspired specifically by guess who). In my humble critical opinion, The Dark Knight Returns stands as the single greatest comic of all time; and for those who, like myself, remain unsold on the Silver Age revival, Reign offers up a clever homage that invites us to get re-acquainted with a comic book modernity under siege.
Long live grittiness!