One of the things I just adore about the Edge of Spider-Verse series is the exploration of a virtually endless series of possible interpretations of the Spider-Man story. So far, we’ve come away from this series with three distinctly different looks at Spider-Man: another look at Noir, a first look at Spider-Gwen, and our first “Spider-Man from scratch”–Dr. Aaron Aikman, who is from a reality far enough removed from the familiar character of Peter Parker that none of them apparently play a part in his reality. With this fourth installment, we get another such character, Patton Parnel, whose barely recognizable parallels to Peter and his world are apparent only on the surface. Unlike the previous characters in the series though, Patton’s Spider-story takes a far more horrific turn than we’re normally accustomed to.
There’s no denying that this issue has a straight-up horror story spin, and Clay McCleod Chapman does a great job of weaving the various elements of Spider-Man’s web together in a way that draws an eerie parallel to the world we’re familiar with, but one that could also stand on its own as an effective tale of the macabre. Whether it’s portraying young Patton as a nebbish loner who’s distance and possible sociopathy leads him to experiment cruelly on small animals and pets, or taking Uncle Ben’s stand-in, Uncle Ted, and making him an abusive tyrant, Chapman imbues his tale with just enough recognizability for readers to start shifting uncomfortably as we realize this story may be going several shades darker than the traditional superhero yarn. Because of these changes, the normal exploration of power and responsibility is gone, which gets notably turned on its head in one unforgettable panel–several of which this issue has, but which (and I mean this as a compliment) you’ll probably wish you could forget. They’re just that creepy.
It’s through Patton’s interactions with the story’s only sympathetic character, Sara Jane, that he receives the transformative spider bite–and what a transformation it is! As he discovers his new found abilities, and what he must do to maintain them, Patton’s initial disdain with the world grows into a confident opportunism, magnified by his long-simmering antisocial tendencies and a world that has been less than kind to him. Neighborhood pets start disappearing, then fellow students and neighbors. Not even particularly caring whether or not he’s discovered, Patton continues his grim activities, until he’s confronted by Sara Jane, who bears terrified witness to his final transformation, a physical one that demonstrates visually just how monstrous Patton has become in such a short time.
One of the things that struck me the most about this story was how boldly it plays with the theme of power versus responsibility, one of the cornerstones of any Spider-Man tale. We’ve seen other characters that allegedly have “all the power, none of the responsibility” before–Kaine comes quickest to mind–but this usually turns out to be a fallacious or misleading premise. These characters necessarily have to display heroic qualities in order for readers to identify and sympathize with them. They might start off mean and un-heroic, but are eventually redeemed over the course of their stories. Patton Parnel, on the other hand, starts off unlikable and grows quickly more so as the events of this story transpire. That he has “help” in this, by being raised by a bully of an uncle, and having to suffer the constant insults of his classmates, gives him plenty of fuel to make the selfish, depraved choices he does when he is bitten by his spider.
My reaction to the penultimate scene of this issue was also very telling. Morlun appears when the action is reaching the apex of gut-wrenching horror, and even though we know him to be the villain of the forthcoming Spider-Verse saga, his sudden insertion into the story actually made me sigh in relief. That such an uncaring and presumably evil figure inspired such a reaction raises the question of how evil he really is, as well as how necessary his hunt for Spider-Totems actually is. If some of them are as bad as Patton Parnel, is it entirely bad that Morlun and his family are hunting them? In any case, by making Morlun even incidentally heroic by disrupting Patton’s carnage, Chapman shows that he’s crafted a chilling star indeed for this particular tale.
Given the genre of this particular story, I’m astonished at how well the art supports the writing. Elia Bonetti’s realistic, plain-style illustrations avoid overdone super-heroic posing or action sequences, and work to convey mood and terror very effectively. Veronica Gandini’s color palette likewise goes for a familiar realism, making the fantastic and horrific occurrences all the more unsettling. Together they set up visually Chapman’s premise that these presumably normal people are about to become involved in a dark drama that will leave an unforgettable mark on everyone–assuming they survive, of course. The final panel is one that will leave you feeling creeped out beyond belief. I won’t show it here, but I will say that anyone familiar with Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark” books may experience a flashback to one of its more memorable short stories.
While Edge of Spider-Verse as a whole may not be considered a must read series for any but the most dedicated Spidey devotees, this installment does a memorable job of taking the character and inverting the story elements so that they truly do convey a sense of horror and dread. The artwork is good, the writing is solid, and the issue works as a noteworthy difference in approach to the Spider-Man story. It could also appeal to readers who aren’t necessarily Spider-Man enthusiasts, but who enjoy a healthy dollop of horror in their comic books. Edge #4 works effectively on both levels, and makes for a strong entry into this mini-series that readers of many stripes are likely to enjoy.