The Spider-Man Reign comic by Kaare Andrews and José Villarrubia is a graphic novel set in future New York City. Peter Parker’s tenure as Spider-Man has been over for many years. Supervillains have also been missing though crime and corruption still exist. Peter Parker is now an old man, but the city still cries for his alter ego.
Time hasn’t treated Peter Parker well. In his old age, his wife, Mary Jane, is dead, his aunt and uncle are dead, his friends are gone, and he’s barely making ends meet. We first see Parker working in the flower store interacting with a couple who is complaining about a small error in their flower order. The culprit for the error was Peter Parker and the couple refuses to pay for the flowers. The elderly and mild-mannered Parker is apologetic and offers to correct the situation but to no avail. Parker’s boss fires him immediately.
Parker and Mary Jane were once married, but Mary Jane died years ago from cancer that gradually took over her body. Death of a loved one is already traumatic, but to learn that it was your fault can compound one’s grief. This was the case with Parker. Who knew that being bitten by a radioactive spider would turn you into a walking contamination zone? Apparently, by being physically intimate with Mary Jane, Parker exposed his wife to years of radioactive bodily fluids giving her cancer. Even though this is not an idea you would typically expect for someone to explore, but with a stretch of the imagination, it is believable. It may seem a little bit ridiculous surface level, but it’s not incomprehensible.
It does beg the question, why was Peter Parker able to survive the radioactivity? But, sometimes that’s just how life is; two people can be exposed to the same thing and it will affect them differently. What are the odds that the one person the spider bit was able to survive? What if Parker wasn’t the only person that the spider bit? What if there’s a cluster of people-centered around the company that created the radioactive spider that died from cancer over the years, but no one noticed the pattern? What if there is an epidemiologist or an oncologist somewhere that has discovered this? What would that story be like? I digress. The point, Parker’s life is in shambles, but the world continues to revolve.
The mayor of NYC has a plan to stop crime by building an electric fence called “the web” around the entire city to keep out crime. That’s the story told to the public, but in actuality, there is a sinister plan involving an old “acquaintance” of Spider-man.
Before the final stages of the plan, the city is placed under martial law and city-sanctioned armed thugs, called The Reign, are roaming around the city. The citizens understand that this encroaches on their rights and they begin to grumble. So, a resistance forms against this new regime, but of course this regime isn’t going to back down, so they use extreme force and intimidation to quell any the buds of resistance.
Part of this resistance is Jay Jonah Jameson, who has to be probably in his 90s or over a hundred at this point, but he is still alive and fighting. And he actually is advocating for the return of Spider-Man. At some point in the past, Jonah Jameson learned that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and in light of this new threat, Jameson attempts to persuade Parker to don the mask again. The encounter doesn’t go so well, as Parker punches Jameson in the face and sends him on his way.
Tension in the city continues to escalate and the mayor’s plan progresses. All the while, Parker is still battling his personal demons. Ironically though, a key incident that puts Spider-Man wholly back in action was something that was meant for revenge. Spider-Man’s old nemesis, Dr. Octavius, programed his mechanical arms to fulfill one last task after he died. Doc Ock’s steely appendages were tasked with taking Spider-Man to his deceased wife’s grave and exposing him to her corpse just to cause him grief. Talk about petty.
Unbeknownst to his foe, Spider-Man had buried his suit with Mary Jane. Being thrown in her coffin reunited with the old Spider-Man and facing down some of his demons, Parker is fully committed to wearing the suit and saving the city.
He is pretty old though at this point, probably in his seventies and I just wondered how long does he intend to do this. Also, how long can he still do a decent job? For a septuagenarian, Parker holds his own, but I can only imagine it could last so long. As far as we know, there is no Miles Morales in this universe or other superheroes to take his place. But we know that there are still villains in the world and it’s doubtful that they will ever go away. How will the people of New York survive once the geriatric Spider-Man is officially retired?
It is eventually revealed that the mayor is actually under the control of a past villain, Venom. Interestingly, to fight one villain, Spider-Man not only is helped unintentionally by one of his past nemeses, Dr. Octavius, but he also is helped by another one, Sandman. I also must mention another past enemy of Spider-Man, who served as a catalyst for the resistance, the Hypno-Hustler. I had never heard of this guy before, but apparently, he was a villain. The black hypnotic funky music playing man contributed to the cause by serving as an extreme example of The Reign’s tyranny when he is murdered by them during an attempt to help Spider-Man early in the story. The black man helped by dying. He was also the Crispus Attucks of this story. I just thought I would state that for the record.
Sandman is the villain with a heart of gold. Sandman is a victim of circumstance, actually. Sandman is still around working with The Reign and still looks relatively young. I guess the sands of time didn’t pass for him. See what I did there? Anyway, as Sandman is working for The Reign, little does know, he has a daughter who is working for the resistance.
When he encounters the girl, he has his suspicions, but it is only when she activates her latent powers during an attack does Sandman realizes the truth. To defend her friends from The Reign, Sandman’s daughter steps in front of the group and uses her powers to turn herself into stone. Unfortunately, the bullets break her apart as Sandman watches. He tries to tell her to use her powers to put herself together, but it is too late and the girl is lost.
This is an important pivotal moment. The death of his daughter convinces Sandman to stop the mayor’s plan and is at this point, aware of the return of Spider-Man, decides to help him. The final showdown between Spider-Man and Venom will actually be tough and Spider-Man could use help as he faces not only multiple clones of himself, but also the remaining Sinister Six as well.
The hero wins and he decides to officially come out of retirement.
Marvel is a relatively large company; therefore, the artwork is going to be of a minimal professional standard at worst, but the artwork in Spider-Man Reign didn’t thrill me. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked something for me. For the tone of the story, which was more on the serious side, the artwork was more cartoonish and lacked details occasionally. For comparison, my favorite graphic novel artwork style so far is from Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man Torment. The artwork felt grittier and fine. In my opinion, new technology has made digital artwork as well as some of these newer movies have a certain gloss to them that look nice but the kind of removes you from the story. They both have their advantages and disadvantages though.
A major theme of this book is the danger of restricting personal freedoms in order in the name of protecting the collective good. This directly affronts ideas like the necessity of the Patriot Act in the US after the 9/11 attack. It also touches on probably Spider-Man’s greatest legacy, the responsibility of having great power. It’s almost cliché at this point, but famously from Spider-Man, we get the line with great power comes great responsibility and just as he struggled with this idea early in his life, this lesson returns later as well. Showing that responsibility isn’t dependent on age, but circumstance. Seeing a superhero deal with mental and emotional health issues was refreshing, as well. Said to be inspired by Frank Miller’s gritty The Dark Knight Returns, about an aged Bruce Wayne returning from retirement to become Batman again, Spider-Man Reign definitely has a good story here. Maybe with a few tweaks here and there, this could have been even greater, but it was still enjoyable overall.