Pulp Violence for Today: The Spider by David Liss

Though now significantly less famous than his pistol-wielding competitor from Street and Smith Publications, the Spider – the “Master of Men” – once shared the pulp newsstands with the ominous and deadly character known as the Shadow.

Dynamite Entertainment is soon bringing the Shadow to life in four-color glory with new scripts by Preacher scribe Garth Ennis, but I’m more interested in the lesser-known kind-of-Shadow-knockoff character who went by the name of the Spider all those years ago. The subject of over a hundred pulp novels and a couple of movie serials, the Spider brandished a pair of deadly .45 automatics and unleashed his terrifying sense of justice on the weirder corners of the criminal underworld.

Sure, the Spider may have begun his fictional life in reaction to the popularity of Street and Smith’s lethal vigilante with the chillingly resonant voice, but I’ve always been fascinated by this rattier, more visceral, gun-toting antihero. Or perhaps I was just enamored of the odd Tim Truman comic book incarnation from the early 1990s, where the old timey pulp Spider was recast as a renegade based in a 1930s sci-fi version of what the 1990s might have been like. Kind of a Mad Max meets Steel Dawn concoction, with the underbelly of the cheap old sordid men’s adventure magazines. Who could have resisted that?

Now, just as they’ve done with the Shadow, Dynamite is launching a new version of the Spider, this time written by novelist and Marvel Comics scribe David Liss. Even though the first issue of The Spider doesn’t debut until May, I had a chance to read the script early, and it looks to be the strongest comic book work from Liss to date, and a compelling update of the nearly-forgotten character.

The story begins in “the very worst of real New York” according to the panel description, and though the opening scene plays out a bit like an Allstate Insurance commercial gone wrong, the brutally direct captions provide a distinctive narrative voice for the Spider and establishes that this comic book may feature characters in costume, but it’s no superhero tale.

With his grim narration and his weapons a-blazing, it’s easy to compare this modern-day version of the Spider to Marvel’s Punisher character, and Liss seems to embrace that obvious connection while undermining any comfort that such a comparison may give. That’s not to say that it’s ever comforting to think of homicidal antiheroes gunning down lowlife criminals, but the traditional Punisher narrative structure is a familiar one, echoed in approximately 75% of all action movies produced since 1982: tough guy (or gal) wants revenge, and everyone who gets in his (or her) way pays the price.

Liss throws us into a story where the Spider is already well into his career, and it’s far less of a revenge tale than it is a bloodletting. It’s not personal, with the Spider, it’s a societal disease, and he’s deranged enough to think he’s the cure. Yet Liss taps back into the early pulp sensibilities to keep this violent murderer firmly in the center of the supposedly heroic action. The Spider may be updated for a modern audience in this series, but his unrestrained, unrepentant approach to cleaning up the city is a throwback to the days before the Hays Code of the cinema helped usher in a neutered age of genre storytelling, and long before the Comics Code Authority imposed its simplistic morality on what happened on and off panel.

No, this new Spider comic is amoral to the core. A narrative bullet right into the guts of the reader, with the creepy gaze of supernaturalism looking on.

Tim Callahan hasn’t seen much of the Colton Worley art for the interior of the comic, but he thinks that Francesco Francavilla variant cover for The Spider #1 looks just about perfect.


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