Waiting for the Trade #3

Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
Sensation Spider-man: Feral
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Angel Medina and Clayton Crain
Collects Sensational Spider-man 23 – 27.
Why I bought this: It is exactly the kind of timeless high concept super hero story that appeals to me; in this case a meteor affects several characters with animal-based powers causing them to run amok in New York. Also among those characters are both Black Cat and Lizard, who are two of my favorites.

The Plot: The non-spoiler version is a meteor that emits a strange radiation is brought to New York. While it slowly making everyone in the city devolve into a more angry (or feral) state, it is having a more immediate and profound effect on heroes and villains with animal-based super powers–this includes the Lizard, Vermin, Black Cat, Puma, Man-Wolf and Spider-man.
The more detailed play by play by chapter is as follows (warning lots of spoilers ahead):
Chapter 1 – Mary Jane wakes up in the middle of the night to find Peter lurking on the balcony. He feels something is “wrong” with the city, puts on his mask and jumps into the night. He is soon attacked by the Vulture, whom he defeats with relative ease. The Vulture had murdered several civilians off-panel by dropping them from buildings; under interrogation he admits he did this because he was hungry and vultures eat the dead. Peter is quite shocked since Vulture’s usual m.o. is much more rational-based (for those who don’t know Vulture has no powers, he’s a scientist who invented a winged flight suit). The next day Curt Connors (a.k.a. the Lizard) receives a phone call to examine a mysterious meteor in his role as scientist. Peter meanwhile is assigned to a news story at the Bronx Zoo where the night before some animals killed themselves and others tore each other apart in an unexplained frenzy. MJ goes to the Bugle and bumps into John Jameson. She drops a scarf and after she leaves he sniffs it, foreshadowing the Man-Wolf, whom he hasn’t become in over two decades (John is an astronaut, on the moon he found a magic rock that began turning him into a werewolf minus the magic stuff like contagious bites and silver until Spidey smashed the amulet and cured him in the 70s). That night while on patrol Spider-man discovers his spider sense is on the fritz. He then gets a phone call from Connors, who fears he is once again transforming into the Lizard, and we see him transform on the final page before Spidey can make it across town.
Chapter 2 – Spider-man arrives at Connors home and is attacked by not one but two Lizards, the second of who is much smaller. Lizard wounds Spider-man by biting his shoulder and their fight spills into the hall where it is witnessed by neighbors. Spidey flees up the side of the building and encounters ex-flame the Black Cat, who goes into a berserker rage when she sees the Lizard. Meanwhile John Jameson goes to Avengers Tower (where the Parkers are living) to return MJ’s scarf. Aunt May buzzes him in and he strangles the doorman, while we learn all the Avengers and Jarvis are out dealing with problems in the city. Cut again and Vermin (half-human, half-rat that eats people and fought Spidey a lot in the 90s, most prominently in Kraven’s Last Hunt) has returned and he eats a corrupt cop. Back to Spidey and he’s shocked by Felicia’s uncharacteristic ferocity but before he can intervene he is attacked by the Little Lizard. The aforementioned neighbor comes up stairs with a shot gun and shoots the Little Lizard to help Spidey. This distracts original Lizard who is thrown off the building by Felicia and breaks his arm. Little Lizard meanwhile reverts to Billy Connors, age 13, who is now bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.
Chapter 3 – Spidey and Felica rush Billy to Fantastic Four headquarters so Reed Richards can treat him super science. Once the kid is stabilized, Spidey and Cat ask Reed to examine them to determine what is affecting them. Meanwhile MJ is ready to greet John but when the elevator doors open Man-Wolf pounces out and attacks. He corners her, but Aunt May hits him with a scalding tea pot and the two women flee. At that moment Peter gets a massive spider-sense burst that MJ is in danger and quickly heads home. By now May and MJ have made it to a safe room and a panic button brings some iron-man like robots who tranquilize Man-Wolf. We cut to Lizard, who has retreated to the sewers where he has a flashback on injecting Billy with Lizard serum as Connors after he came home from examining the meteor; Vermin is also in the sewers and he senses and begins to hunt the Lizard. Cut to Felicia who decides she’s had enough being cooped up inside and leaves the FF’s before the tests are in. After making sure MJ is okay, Peter dons his Iron Spider costume to both protect his wound and give him some extra-power given the ongoing craziness and then seeks out Madame Web for answers.
Chapter 4 – Madame Web (a blind old-lady with mystically derived psychic powers who occasionally helps Spidey out) babbles about the Web of Life as she always does and recaps what we already know before directing Peter to Central Park to find the source of the trouble. Felicia meanwhile encounters the Puma (a Native American with mystic cat powers who is usually a hero but was originally a mercenary; basically a c-list Sabretooth clone) and they compare notes and decide to team up. Vermin finds the Lizard in Central Park and they begin to tear each other apart until Spidey arrives we get a three-way fight. Spidey dumps them both in a lake and then turns to find Stegron (a.k.a. the Dinosaur Man, a Stegosaurus version of the Lizard that’s appeared infrequently since the Silver Age) and a posse of prehistoric beasts has taken up residence in what looks to be a castle in the park.
Chapter 5 – A flashback shows Stegron discovered the meteor, which he calls the Rock of Life and brought it to New York to fulfill his usual plan of devolving the world and putting dinosaurs back in charge. Stegron and Spidey fight for a couple pages, while Puma and Cat arrive at the park to take on Lizard and Vermin and we stay with that fight until the heroes win. Back at the Spidey-Stegron fight, Spidey is having trouble without his spider sense and uses his new costume to camouflage and take a breather. Richards radios into his suit and directs him to the meteor, which Spidey then covers with liquid metal from his suit to end the radiation output, at which point Stegron bursts in through a wall, sees his rock is covered with metal and starts crying and is taken out with one punch. The story ends with life retuning to normal across the city and Madame Web making her usual cryptic comments about some unnamed danger in the future.
Critical Thoughts – There is a lot to cover here. I liked the pacing of this story. The first chapter does a nice job foreshadowing what is to come, building up the tension as we get more clues of how widespread the effects are. The second chapter is excellent, the fight scene is dynamic and it involves some of my favorite characters. Lizard’s reaction to Billy getting shot and his reversion to human form is given the seriousness it deserves. Chapter three is Spidey at his best: taking responsibility by first trying to save Billy and then MJ. The initial scenes with MJ and Man-Wolf are great as she is trying to flee for her life from the beast; however I don’t see why we need Stark security to save MJ and May when we already have Pete racing across town. This is a Spider-man book; he should be the hero that saves his wife. It would have been much more dramatic and possibly given us a chance to Spidey pushed over-the-edge too from the combination of the meteor effects and concern for his family.
Chapter Four is really filler: we have a lot of recaps from Madame Web followed by Puma and Felicia comparing notes and Reed and Sue doing the science thing. The change in art style (more on this in a bit) also makes the fight scene in this issue much less satisfying, although the Stegron reveal at the end is gorgeous. There’s also no reason for Madame Web to even be in this story. She tells Peter to go to the Park, but since Reed also pinpoints the radiation there on his own and the other four characters make it to the park because the meteor is calling to them: that makes two different ways to get Spidey there without wasting our time with her.
And then we have Chapter Five. It starts so well. The concurrent fights are well drawn and exciting, Spidey’s fight has the stakes getting upped as dinosaurs and cavemen get involved on Stegron’s behalf and the story is engaging until we get to the ending sequence which has two  problems. The first and lesser problem is Spidey’s suit developing whatever random science fiction powers are needed for the moment: I mean first camoflauge and then liquid metal, why not just throw in some acid blood and hit the trifecta of 80s science fiction franchises. The second far worse misstep is our primary antagonist bursting into tears for no discernable reason either in or out of story. What the Hell is that about? And why would the writer think that is more satisfying than having Stegron enraged that Spidey neutralized his meteor and then try to kill him—maybe even say that Stegron is more powerful then ever since he’s been exposed to this rock for however many weeks it takes him to get from Antarctica to New York and thus make Spidey and the other heroes (who had already won their fights and were available to help) work for their victory. This to me cuts to the heart of a bigger problem in modern Marvel: it seems if a villain isn’t A-list then he’s a joke. There’s no middle ground anymore. Look I’m not saying Stegron should be treated like he’s Venom, but we can at least not have our devolved dinosaur men bursting into tears when they suffer a small setback? And that’s all it was because his rock isn’t permanently neutralized, it’s just wrapped in metal. All he has to do is kill Spidey and rip open the metal and he’s back in business, which brings me back to my main point, the climax of this (and pretty much any super hero story) should be an epic fight scene.
On the positive side I want say the art by Angel Medina is excellent. He has a great splash page of the Lizard to end chapter one, and all of chapter two is superbly drawn. His art in chapters two and three really increases the tension as the action jumps off the page—even the non-fight scene action like Billy being shot or Spidey sensing MJ is in danger conveys real urgency. More jarringly is that chapter four is painted by Crain. The painting itself is good, especially the new Spidey suit and the Stegron reveal but it doesn’t fit the rest of the story at all. I wouldn’t mind a separate Spidey story painted by Crain throughout, but it doesn’t fit the tone of this story as well as Medina’s pencils.
Overall Grade: This is hard because on the one hand the first three chapters of the story are compelling from beginning to end, and I like the overall concept of this story. Also the characters I like best in the story are portrayed strongly and more importantly properly: from Spidey to Felicia to Lizard/Connors. Sacasa also has a good grasp of the supporting cast something he showed throughout his run on this title–although I think John Jameson should be much more distraught over having killed someone when he recovers since he been shown to be a fundamentally good man over the years–including a lengthy stint as Captain America’s personal pilot, which he resigned from directly because of the one time he relapsed into the Man-Wolf in that title. Plus Medina’s art is so good so often in this story. But then on the other hand we have a bad anti-climactic ending. Overall I’m a glass is half-full guy so I’m giving this a B- because there is a lot to enjoy here and I don’t think it should all be discounted by three pages of missteps.