Writer J.M. DeMatteis, penciller Mike Zeck, and inker Bob McLeod crafted a nightmarish descent for Spider-Man and a harrowing journey into an insane mind with their six-part “Kraven’s Last Hunt” in 1987. From its shocking first issue to its unflinching portrait of fatal madness, this story of Spider-Man and Kraven’s dueling dark nights of the soul has stayed with fans for more than three decades, defining just how dark and psychologically tormented a story centered on your usually friendly neighborhood Spider-Man could become.
DeMatteis’ “Kraven’s Last Hunt” tracks long-time villain Sergei Kravenoff, also known as Kraven the Hunter, and his attempt to kill and replace Spider-Man to finally prove his own worth. But instead of being a long game of cat and mouse, Kraven shoots and buries the hero by the end of the first issue. What follows is, and spoilers from here on out, a feverish descent into Kraven’s disturbed mind and the nightmarish journey that one hero takes to return to the light.
“Last Hunt” was published across the consecutive, alternating issues of “Web of Spider-Man” #31–32, “The Amazing Spider-Man” #293–294, and “The Spectacular Spider-Man” #131–132, temporarily taking over every ongoing Spider-Man publication to emphasize the idea that Peter Parker had truly been killed.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” ranks among the darkest Spider-Man stories ever published and came in the wake of influential DC Comics like “The Killing Joke” and “Watchmen.” Its success paved the way for even more dark adventures of The Wall-Crawler, with Venom making his debut less than a year later and the mega-stardom of Todd McFarlane on both “Amazing” and then his own “Spider-Man” title leaving a massive imprint on the character and the industry. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” takes the grim tragedy inherent within Spider-Man’s story of great responsibility and unavoidable loss and elevates it to a nightmarish level.
But what’s critical to the central ideas of “Last Hunt” is that while Spider-Man is thrown into one of his most disturbing challenges, he himself isn’t turned into a darker character. Instead, the temptation to turn a bright hero into a tortured protagonist is fulfilled through Kraven usurping the place of Spider-Man and taking over multiple comics in his attempt to prove himself better than his enemy. In doing so, Kraven lives out an obsession born from a fundamental misunderstanding of the hero while Peter Parker must cling to hope and love to survive his near-death ordeal.
It’s a story of death and rebirth, madness and heroism. And, appropriate for its original title, “Fearful Symmetry,” a story that contrasts an obsession with death against an affirmation of life, despite the grave being closer than ever.
Spyder, Spyder, Burning Bright
While the story of “Kraven’s Last Hunt” has become one of the definitive modern Spider-Man stories, it wasn’t always meant to star Peter Parker.
DeMatteis had originally conceived of a story where a hero is defeated by their enemy, left for dead, and buried, only to return from the grave in 1984. Only it was Wonder Man and his villainous brother The Grim Reaper. But the story was rejected. When DeMatteis moved to DC Comics, he envisioned it as a tale of Batman and The Joker. But DeMatteis’ pitch came shortly after Alan Moore and Brian Bolland had just started work on The Killing Joke, leading to his next rejection. Cue another rewrite that had Hugo Strange taking Batman’s place a little while later and another rejection.
By 1986, DeMatteis had gone back to writing for Marvel and pitched his story one final time, this time with Spider-Man targeted by a brand new villain. And this time, the story was approved, with the new villain quickly replaced by Kraven The Hunter. While the idea had been conceived before the rise of grim and gritty superhero stories in the late ‘80s, the precedent set by DC was likely what led to DeMatteis’ story finally being greenlit and what allowed the author to go as dark as he did with the material.
In doing so, he was able to psychologically torture his hero and add a level of depth to a villain who had never benefitted from such exploration.
Specifically, Kraven’s Russian heritage led DeMatteis to connect the villain to the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, with the author specifically citing “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” as massive influences on himself.
“No other novelist has ever explored the staggering duality of existence, illuminated the mystical heights and the despicable depths of the human heart, with the brilliance of Dostoyevsky,” said DeMatteis. “The Russian soul, as exposed in his novels, was really the Universal Soul. It was my soul. And Kraven was Russian. In an instant, I understood Sergei Kravinov.”
In “Notes From the Underground,” Dostoyevsky wrote, “Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”
The electrifying horror story of “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” and make no mistake, this is a horror story through and through, is given its charge through the psychological suffering of each of its characters. Kraven’s madness and grief over a life of failure. Spider-Man’s torment of the grave and nearness of death. Vermin’s shattered mind and fear of the human world. And Mary Jane’s anguish over a new husband that has suddenly gone missing.
It’s a suffering that DeMatteis transposed from his own life onto the characters.
“In the years that had passed from the time I pitched the original Wonder Man idea, my personal life had gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket,” said DeMatteis. “I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker; as much a dweller in the depths as Vermin; as lost, as desperate, as shattered as Sergei Kravinov. My own personal struggles, mirrored in the struggles of our three main characters, were, I think, what gave the writing such urgency and emotional honesty.”
DeMatteis frames his story with a modified version of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” changing the subject of the work to “spyder.” And like Blake’s poem, much of “Last Hunt” is dedicated to Kraven’s obsession with an animal. Whereas “The Tyger” sees the author wonder what force in existence could make something as ferocious and beautiful as a tiger, “Last Hunt” sees Kraven wonder how he could make himself into something as powerful and terrible as Spider-Man.
But beyond the differences in subjects, there’s a fundamental difference in their understanding. “The Tyger” leaves Blake in awe, knowingly never fully able to grasp the spiritual and physical power of the animal. Kraven believes he has finally fully understood Spider-Man, but is shown to be completely wrong.
From its start, we see that Kraven views “The Spyder” as a mystical force greater than a mere human and something he can claim for himself by slaying his enemy and symbolically wearing his skin. To become “The Spyder,” Kraven destroys the last remnants of his sanity through some venomous brew of drugs. But in the first of these six issues, DeMatteis also puts us in the mind of Spider-Man, where we see that our hero is first and foremost the human and compassionate Peter Parker and that the dark figure criminals fear is only a mask.
Spider-Man isn’t some fearsome, mythical creature of the night that lives outside the realm of human limits. That’s the Batman of the then-recently published “Dark Knight Returns.” The symmetry of Kraven making himself into a dark and deadly version of Spider-Man while Peter must cling to the love that makes him human emphasizes that what makes Spider-Man special is that he’s first and foremost an ordinary man struggling to be his best.
In What Furnace Was Thy Brain?
Kraven’s Last Hunt is meant to feel like a nightmare come to life and DeMatteis and team use a series of storytelling techniques to trap the reader in this mind-bending horror.
The first three issues heavily use conflicting voiceovers that juxtapose one another and slowly blend together to create a feverish, frenzied rhythm. These display the deepest, darkest fears of the lead characters and when blended together, hint at something supernatural tying their hearts and minds to one another.
While each issue takes a different motif and contrasts characters against one another in varying ways, there’s a recurring theme of intrusive thoughts and fears within each character’s mind. And, specifically, it’s the intrusive thoughts of death. Those deep, dark ideas that suddenly come out of nowhere to remind us of our mortality.
It’s Kraven’s dueling fears and desires of death that propel him to hunt Spider-Man and take his place, therefore putting the entire story into motion. At the start, Peter’s fears of death, compounded by the then-recent death of Ned Leeds and the death of a small-time criminal at the story’s start, are put to their ultimate test through Kraven’s attack. And Mary Jane’s fears that Peter may have been killed torment her as she tries to find out what happened to her husband.
Letterer Rick Parker’s work here plays a crucial role in making “Last Hunt” into a visual representation of our intrusive fears of death. Each character is given his or her own font and caption box style to contrast against one another on the page. At times, characters are given two different caption boxes within the same panel, emphasizing what a person wants to think versus what they can’t help but think. And when those thoughts overpower their thinker, they escape the boxes and fill the panels, surrounding the character at every turn.
Penciler Mick Zeck and inker Bob McLeod fill “Last Hunt” with rain-drenched, slime-crusted gothic imagery. Much of it either bathed in rain-drenched blacks, blues, and greens or hallucinatory reds and purples by Zeck and co-colorists Bob Sharen and Janet Jackson.
And as both Kraven and Spider-Man slip into hallucinations, their fears manifest into physical representations. Is this all in their heads? Or is there something supernatural at play? The creative team leaves just enough room for interpretation to let Kraven’s madness seep into and influence the real world. But it’s their panel layouts and pacing that turn the story into a hypnotic fever dream.
Zeck sets a deliberate pace with his panel structure, often dedicating a row of increasingly thin images to a single movement or reaction. The result is that the reader is forced to reckon with a character’s shifting emotions or horrific realizations. These characters can’t simply skip past the horrors they’re experiencing and neither can you.
DeMatteis and Zeck also fill the story with recurring visual motifs – a grave being dug, the fight between a rat and a spider, a slowly unmasked face. These images shift between being literal and imagined until we can’t quite tell which is which. In the darkness, reality bends to the will of our deepest fears.
In “Crime and Punishment,” Dostoyevsky wrote,
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
So much of “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is spent in that dark night and deep grief, but the hope we glimpse at its end is just enough to carry on.
Framing Fearful Symmetry
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is structured around the dueling, inversely moving reflections of Spider-Man and Kraven the Hunter. Issues 1 and 6 both begin with a tormented man and end with a funeral. Issues 2 and 5 both center on someone trying to gather themselves mentally to become Spider-Man. And issues 3 and 4 find hero and villain alternately at their most mentally anguished.
And these two reflections rotate around the inflection point of the little-used villain Vermin.
Vermin, who had been created by DeMatteis and Zeck during their time on Captain America, is a man turned feral beast who dwells in the stinking sewers of New York. When Kraven takes over as Spider-Man, he decides that if he can beat Vermin on his own, which Parker could never do, then he’d prove himself to be the mythic beast he’s always wanted to become.
Kraven sees Vermin as nothing more than prey and while DeMatteis shows us that Vermin is a killer and a cannibal, he also makes us feel sympathy for him. So when Kraven viciously beats him and then locks him up, we don’t root for the hunter. But the only person we feel more empathy for is Peter Parker himself, with the surprise reveal at the end of issue three showing us that Spider-Man is alive and trying to escape his grave.
That escape is a haunting, mind-bending experience where we don’t see Spider-Man’s actual fight to dig himself out, but instead see his spiritual battle to escape death. It was only his love for Mary Jane that gave him the strength to be reborn.
Spider-Man’s rain-soaked rise is equal parts triumphant and terrifying, but his return to Mary Jane is a short moment of relief quickly leading to his confrontation with Kraven. But instead of a climactic fight, Kraven simply refuses to battle his enemy. In his mind, he’s already won. Instead, Spider-Man must stop Vermin after Kraven sets him loose. And it’s here we see the mental toll on Peter, with PTSD flashbacks showing his experience in the coffin. In the end, Spider-Man defeats Vermin but shows mercy. He’s haunted by his near-death experience, but he isn’t turned cruel by it.
In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoyevsky writes, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
It’s Peter’s love for Mary Jane Watson that compels him to rise from the grave and find the strength to defeat Vermin. In the end, this love is what soothes his grief and allows him to move forward from all this trauma.
And finally, as one man rises from a grave he was unwillingly interred within and reaches the light of new life, the other man willingly commits himself to another grave.
For Kraven, defeating Spider-Man and proving that he was worthy of taking the mantle of a great, mythic beast was the last reason to live. After years of mental anguish and with his last, madness-propelled desire attained, Kraven takes his own life.
The stark, sudden depiction of suicide in a major superhero story caused some readers to write in and accuse DeMatteis of glorifying the act. But this is far from what DeMatteis intended.
“It really disturbed me that people would think that the purpose of that story was to glorify suicide,” said the author. “That is something I would never do. That is not my view of life or the universe.”
In response, DeMatteis would publish the 1992 graphic novel sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” where Peter would help put Kraven’s soul to rest after his continual torment caused by his suicide. But the wrongness of Kraven’s death is evident in the pages of “Last Hunt” itself.
Kraven’s vendetta against Spider-Man, his mad inner ramblings, his drug-induced hallucinations, and his reflection on his mother’s insanity reveal that the tragic villain suffered from mental illness. And while it’s never shown in any real-world clinical terms, it’s easy to see that Kraven may be suffering from manic-depression, driving him into utterly despairing lows and dizzying highs. Instead of seeing his death as some sort of mythical rest, we should see it as a tragic end to a man driven by demons. And seek out support when we feel at our lowest.
And this fearful symmetry also leads us to Spider-Man as a symbol of what we should be – brave in the face of death and still willing to show mercy and love even when confronted by the worst life can throw at us.
Kraven’s story may have come to a terrible end, but as long as we embrace life and live to see another day, there’s hope for a better tomorrow.
Find what you are living for and keep reaching for it.