Spider-Man Noir Volume One
4 out of 5 for Story. 5 out of 5 for Art.
Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without A Face
5 out of 5 for Story. 3.5 for the Art.
Marvel Noir is a limited alternate continuity series first published in 2009 and up till 2010. It is pulp fiction + 1930s Noir + gritty superhero drama packed into 4 issue series.
The series features Daredevil Noir, Punisher Noir, Luke Cage Noir, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without A Face, Iron-Man Noir, Deadpool Pulp, Weapon X Noir, Wolverine Noir, X-Men Noir and X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain.
And the most noir of them is Spider-Man Noir, paying a tribute to Spiderman's true origins on the Marvel work board.
As is known, Spiderman was the brainchild of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko; the three of them have infamously disputed the claims of each other for the original and the final idea for the character, especially Lee and Kirby.
Stan Lee mentions in his autobiography that his inspiration was a non superhuman hero called The Spider, who appeared in an American pulp magazine of the same name during the 1930s and 1940s.
Spider-Man Noir featured the Spider in its pages as an alter ego of Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich before bestowing spiderlike powers upon Peter Parker.
Set in 1933, during the great depression and World War II, it is as grungy and as political as the era gets. It is a proletarians against the bourgeoisie back alley thriller to its bones. Shame its only a limited edition with just 8 issues. (4 more than the rest).
Hence, it is unlike the Spiderman comics that we know and enjoy. Being a Spiderman aficionado, I was always interested in seeing Peter Parker vying for justice in the 30s.
It is profound, crisp, concise and precise in its narrative. There is no hint of comedy or fluff. It seamlessly deals with several issues prevalent during that era.
The art is immaculately done. The snow and the shadows are common catalysts to set the mood in the first volume and early spring dandelion hues are common in Eyes Without A Face.
There are two central characters in this series: Peter Parker and Felicia Hardy. Ben Urich and Aunt May are second in prominence. Mary Jane has a cameo role in the second volume.
Spider-Man Noir Vol. 1
Ben and May Parker are Proletarian movement instigators in the wintry alleys of Manhattan. Urich is a photographer for the Daily Bugle who covers the movement extensively and blackmails the Mafia with compromising photo evidence. Peter is a follower of his uncle and aunt and helps them run the proletarian shelter home. We meet May and Peter through the eyes of Ben Urich, who is covering a demonstration staged by our beloved aunt. They are heckled by the Enforcers Ox, Fancy Dan and Montana (henchmen of the Kingpin in regular Spiderman series). They work under the Goblin, who is a crime lord instead of a CEO.
Urich confronts them and they walk away saying, "He is off limits."
I love this setting, it captures the socialist movement immaculately; you feel a sense of belonging from the get go. With bold strokes and various viewing angles, the mood is grim yet enticing. You are made to feel the plight of the proletariat masses.
Urich then speaks to May and Peter and offers his condolences over the grisly death of Ben Parker. He was supposedly torn to shreds by rabid dogs left onto him by the Enforcers. He was found in a harrowing state by Peter.
Urich advices Peter to stay away from the streets and to find an alternate means of funding for his college education. Peter is an angry young man bent on avenging his uncle and reiterates his desire to help his aunt instigate a revolution. Urich, in admiration of his determination, takes him late at night to the Black Cat, a speak-easy club for the rich and the corrupt to meet and discuss. It is owned by Felicia Hardy, a former lover of both the Goblin and Ben Urich. Felicia orders a drink for Urich and soda for Peter. Peter tells her to give him a drink as well. She says he is under age. He says she doesn't have liquour license. She is amused.
From their first interaction, we are hinted at an unconventional bonding between Peter and Felicia. Peter is eighteen years old and Felicia is in her thirties. It is controversial yet exciting. I have always preferred Felicia and Peter over Peter & Gwen/Mary, there are separate prints of comics featuring the both of them in my closet.
Peter is confronted by the Enforcers while Urich introduces him to the world of organised crime. The Goblin himself walks up to Peter and taunts him with his uncle's death. He is flanked by Kraven the Hunter and The Vulture, both freaks from a Russian zoo. The Vulture is a cannibal and Kraven has animals at his disposal. Peter splashes wine on the Goblin and curses him. Urich rushes him out and Felicia tells him to return when he is of appropriate age.
There is no time wasted for niceties. There is no hint at ulterior motives of the villains. They are outright nasty, haughty and egotistical. They are dauntless and ruthless. And Peter, though disadvantaged, brims with confidence.
Urich takes Peter to the Daily Bugle and the lad is offered a job of an assistant. Peter works rigorously with Urich, covering the streets extensively. One night he finds Urich passed out after drug intoxication. He receives a call on his behalf from an informant regarding smuggling of African antiques by the Enforcers. Peter reaches the scene of the crime to find a great host of spiders consume Ox. One of the spiders climbs up the wall and bites the spying lad on his left hand.
During this act, we are introduced to the underbelly of Manhattan, we are given a tour of the heartless atrocity and ghastly state of the unemployed proletariat. From lynching and cold blooded murder of a man and his family who couldn't pay their dues to the burning of an apartment building in Hell's Kitchen to get rid of homeless who cannot pay...we are shown the plight of the common people through the photographer's lens. The whole series is a very intimate take on social inequality.
He passes out and is visited by a Spider deity in his dream. The deity informs him that the spiders do not kill the worthy, rather bestow upon them a great power, a responsibility. He wakes up to find super strength and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. The webs are black and cannot be condensed to form strings. He can neither swing nor climb walls.
In accordance to the noir tone of the series, his powers are grounded and mysterious in origin. I like how his powers are limited in nature. Only giving him enough strength to fend for himself and spy in silence.
He assumes a makeshift disguise comprised of a trench coat, a padded sweater, a ski mask, ski goggles, bowler hat and a handgun. The next day he crashes through the window of Goblin's office - to avenge his uncle's murder - to find Ben Urich dealing with him for heroin. He is attacked and escapes almost immediately. Urich meets him in a nearby lane and Peter is disgusted to find his inspiration spineless and corrupt.
There isn't a great spectacle to show, it happens quickly, no goofs at all. Peter is clouded by several emotions: of betrayal, revenge, regret and disappointment.
Urich tells the Goblin that he doesn't work for him anymore and that he will expose him. He had witnessed the death of Uncle Ben at the hands of the Vulture. He decides to hand over the vital information to J Jonah Jameson at the Bugle. Jameson shoots Urich as soon as he opens the door. He is Chameleon in disguise and the real Jameson is imprisoned in Kraven's cage. Unbeknownst, Chameleon searches for the files but doesn't find any incriminating evidence. Felicia had approached the crime scene earlier. Urich instructed her to hand the files over to Peter, saying he will know what to do with it. When Peter comes to Urich's house to lecture him, he finds him dead. He is heartbroken and calls the police. Later, Felicia gives Peter the documents; she says she always had them in her locker, right under the nose of the Mafia. She warns him not to trust anyone, not even the Bugle.
It is noir. And in classic noir fashion, there are grisly deaths and deception and a foreboding funeral. Felicia's role in the series is truly awesome. She is at the centre of all drama at all times. There couldn't have been a better cog to run the story. The series would've been weak without her.
Peter starts clearing the streets with his new found powers and the information. The Goblin suspects Peter and Felicia of involvement with the Spider-Man. He sends the Vulture to Parker's house. The Vulture finds Aunt May instead and lunges at her. Peter enters in time and shoots him at point blank range. Aunt May, unaware of his identity, laments him for the murder even though the Vulture had killed her husband.
Once again, Peter is left lonely...the story is uncompromising. There is no hint of happy ends to side plots.
Peter rushes to the Goblin's abode. He finds Felicia and the real Jameson captive. He frees them both and confronts the Goblin. In their tussle it is revealed that the Goblin always wore a mask and the real reason why he was called the Goblin was for his hideous goblin-like visage. The Goblin too was a part of the Russian circus. Peter's identity is revealed to the Goblin as well. Before they could fight to the death, Kraven the hunter covered in spiders attacks the Goblin and the both of them die. Peter reveals his identity to Felicia and she in turn tells him that she had once been a forced mistress of the Goblin.
I admit the end was a bit of a rush, something common in other issues of Marvel: Noir as well. But it was satisfactory. It is important to note that the series plays with the political atmosphere of the era really well. These villains are Russian runaways with obscure origins and unsympathetic blood lust, a slight and deliberate stereotyping of the Russians as evident in that era.
Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without A Face
Its 1934. There is a new antagonist: The Crime Master. He is an anonymous thug who wears a mask, he is the incognito poster boy for the greater political scheming. The friends of New Germany are sponsored directly by the Nazi Party, to infiltrate the political offices and obliterate those deemed unworthy of an Aryan flawless future.
We have moved past the Great Depression and the Proletariat uprising. The new themes are viral racism against the coloured, the Klu Klux Klan and Friends of West Germany, the underground Nazi scientific experiments and the rising popularity of practical science in everyday issues.
Peter gets close to Felicia and Felicia has a soft spot for him too. They flirt in the beginning and end up having a one night stand...instigated by Felicia. She seduces him in the night but kicks him out the first thing in the morning. Peter - who is young and relatively innocent - mistakes her quenching of lust for romance. He asserts relationship authority but she shrugs him off saying she has to tend to other clients as well. They argue and he leaves unceremoniously. He stalks her in the following days from afar but doesn't talk to her.
It is another of those noir themes: of controversial, forbidden and raunchy affairs. Of strong, confident female supporting character who knows how to go about in the world of men and a young and naive protagonist who cannot control himself.
Peter is now an established reporter at the Daily Bugle; he is fascinated by scientific developments of Doctor Otto Octavius, who had previously embarked on an Atlantic expedition at the end of the first volume.
During the expansion of new media in that era, expeditions were a rave. And magazines were a critical and commercial hit, rise of the National Geographic an example. So, its a nice nod at the growing popularity of that aspect; something used as the spine for the Iron Man: Noir series.
Mary Jane Watson works at the Proletariat Help Center and is a good friend of Peter. Herein we meet the new driving force of the series: Robbie. He is an African-American reporter at the Bugle; an ambitious lad who is the son of a family friend of the Parkers. We see him debate Aunt May and his father, he claims that the coloured are being hunted in the ghettos and there is a rise in discrimination across the States. He says Friends of New Germany are secretly lobbying in the Parliament and change of Presidents hasn't helped either.
He accompanies Peter to Doctor Octavius' laboratory on Ellis Island. They are received by Doctor Connors who in turn introduces them to a wheel chair bound crooked little fellow. He is Doctor Otto Octavius. He has deformed limbs. He haughtily displays his latest experiment to the reporters: it is a monkey whose brain is uncovered for all to see. Otto experiments on his brain, a new form of lobotomy and eugenics to find a solution. The problem he intends to eradicate is imperfection in the human mind. Robbie lashes out saying it is inhumane. Peter is not fazed and insists that it is all for science. Robbie suspects shadow play.
It was good to see Peter as an imperfect individual. He vouches for equality because he needs money to fund his scientific education. He is humane to an extent but also too scientifically ambitious to separate right from wrong at the outset. Moreover, though he empathizes with Robbie, he doesn't take his concerns seriously; though always for the proletariat, he isn't vocally active for the rights of the coloured.
Peter busies himself during the night hours fighting crime. He decides to confront the Crime Master by hitting his sources of income: clubs in Harlem. He hits the biggest golden goose of the lot and discovers a secret torture room. He is informed by the owner that it is used for BDSM activities of the prostitution sector. When he returns home he gets to know that Robbie is missing. He is reminded of Robbie's foreboding and returns to the bar to get to the bottom of the issue. He confronts the Crime Master and his goons. One of them is the Sandman. He is known as the Sandman because he crushes skulls of his victims like Melons. Spiderman gets bashed up by Sandman before Jean DeWolff, the new detective in town, arrives. Jean DeWolff is a righteous detective, yet he is racist. During the shoot out Sandman is killed and the Crime Master flees.
The focus of the story is clearly several levels of exploitation and prejudice against the coloured. The clubs in Harlem are used as prostitution rings. The Detective - when apprised of mass abductions by a black man - rewards him with a heavy beating. The owner of the club and the clients are all Caucasian males.
Bruised and severely bleeding, Peter has nowhere else to go but to Felicia's quarters. He tumbles at her porch. She nurses him and takes care of him through the night but sends him off quick in the morning once again. During this conversation, Peter also decides to go check on Octavius. As he leaves, the other man arrives. He is the Crime Master but Felicia doesn't know it. She asks him about Ellis Island and the abductions; he finds Peter's blood and bandages in the restroom. He attacks Felicia with a shard. He then gets a call from the leader of the New Friends of Germany to shut down Octavius' lab.
Peter arrives at the island to find Robbie lobotomised. Octavius had been experimenting on black people to render them robotic. He was brainwashing them to find a less cruel way to deal with non Aryans in a Nazi led world. He is a German who had grown up in Africa and was tended well by his servants but bore hate for their kind. The Crime Master is present as well. Peter frees the captives while The Crime Master destroys all works of Octavius. The Crime Master tells Peter that he killed Felicia. Otto kills him and attacks Peter. Spiderman crushes his mechanical hands while the gang leader's men flee and surrender to the police. Jean DeWolffe informs Peter that he was tipped off by his girlfriend aka Felicia Hardy.
Racism, Organised crime, illegal Nazi experiments, scientific explosion and consequences of negligence are all handled effectively. And the story ends on a very bitter note. Peter visits Felicia straight away, overjoyed that she was safe and alive. When he reaches, he finds her absent. Her butler informs him that she never wants to meet him again. Back at the Help Center, Robbie can never again act with free will, and Peter cannot forgive himself for not listening to him. Doctor Octavius is granted diplomatic immunity and leaves for Germany as the lobbyists control the courts and vouch for his scientific genius. Octavius arrives in Germany but Himmler informs his soldiers to shoot him as he is a cripple and there is no place for the disadvantaged in the new world. Mary Jane tends to a morose Peter who says he is alone in the world. We are shown that Felicia has stopped receiving clients and now hides her face behind a silver cat mask. She was disfigured by the Crime Master. Peter looks from a distance in absolute regret.