Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Spider-Man Noir was Marvel’s second offering under the Noir banner. Published between February and May 2009, it told a story by David Hine, previously known for such Marvel offerings as The 198 and the New York mutant “ghetto” series District X, and Fabrice Sapolsky, a relative newcomer. Artwork was provided by Carmine di Giandomenico, who also did the art for X-Men: Magneto Testament.
Spider-Man Noir starts at the ending, with police busting into the office of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, to find the titular protagonist standing over the editor’s bullet-riddled body with a gun in his hand. From there, it grows into a picture of the Great Depression, a halting story of redemption, and then into one of revenge against the man who murdered his uncle, a mob boss known as the Goblin.
For the first issue, we are led through the story in large part through reporter Ben Urich’s cynical narration, presented in classic hard-boiled fashion. In fact, the down-and-out reporter is a pretty noir character overall. But classic noir, Spider-Man is not. While it contains a note of hard-boiled detection, like so many other series in the Noir continuity, its first three pages already show the titular protagonist in a mask and costume, shooting webbing from his wrists. Readers get to follow Urich as he meets up with a stubborn and passionate boy named Peter Parker and takes him under his wing. But as each issue progresses, Urich’s detective story takes a back-seat to Parker’s tale. Already by the middle of the second issue, the source of Spider-Man’s black webbing is revealed: it is a mystic curse, bestowed upon the boy by a monstrous talking spider. As narration passes from the journalist to the superhero, it drops much of its hard-boiled edge and replaces it with a mix of more straightforward detection and Peter’s musings about his new powers in the manner of (yet another) retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story. By the time issue #3 opens, Spider-Man is less Raymond Chandler than it is the Shadow, and it never really recovers its initial noirness.
Still, the series evokes Depression-era New York better than most series carrying the Noir label, capturing the abject poverty, the political corruption, and the radical socialist undercurrent that was still relatively strong in those days. And it does some interesting things with several characters culled from Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues, including the Enforcers (which is not too surprising, given the gangster focus of the story), as well as Kraven, the Vulture, and Norman Osborn, who are for the most part transposed in personality rather than in any classic superhero-genre trait or power their models possess. That, sadly, cannot be said about Peter Parker, who embodies the tension between low-key noir storytelling and superheroic high concept that runs like a red thread through much of Marvel’s Noir line. Most previous versions of Spider-Man have a personality that would make for an excellent noir character, most clearly in his obsessive sense of responsibility and in his penchant for cracking wise. The latter appears in this version too, but in a somewhat watered-down manner that is overshadowed by a deeper anger, and the latter is almost completely missing.
Nonetheless, Spider-Man Noir is, in my opinion, one of the strongest offerings in the Marvel Noir franchise for sheer reading pleasure.